Edinburgh Festival to kick off with free celebration

Organisers hope thousands of music fans and festival-goers will fill the Usher Hall and the streets outside the historic venue. Picture: TSPL
Organisers hope thousands of music fans and festival-goers will fill the Usher Hall and the streets outside the historic venue. Picture: TSPL
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THE Edinburgh International Festival is to stage a huge free celebration in and around its flagship concert hall to herald the start of a new era for the event.

Organisers hope thousands of music fans and festival-goers will fill the Usher Hall and the streets outside the historic venue for a curtain-raiser planned to be broadcast around the world.

Fergus Linehan, new Edinburgh International Festival Director at The Usher Hall. Picture: Julie Bell

Fergus Linehan, new Edinburgh International Festival Director at The Usher Hall. Picture: Julie Bell

It is hoped crowds will spill over onto nearby Festival Square, in the city’s culture quarter, with the added possibility of also stopping the traffic on Lothian Road for what is planned to be an annual event.

The event is part of a bid by the festival to “shine a light” on the concerts that are staged in the Usher Hall each year and create a new focal point for the Edinburgh Festival in the area, to compete with the likes of George Street, in new New Town and George Square in the south side.

The plans were revealed today by Irishman Fergus Linehan, who took charge of the EIF in September, as he unveiled his first programme of festival concerts.

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Violinist Nicola Benedetti. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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He told The Scotsman he wanted to generate more civic pride in the festival and its global reputation, while also underlining the fact that it was set up as “a public event” in the wake of the Second World War.

Highlights of the 2015 Usher Hall classical music season season - which Mr Linehan describes as being “as good as anything else in the world” - include appearances by the San Francisco Symphony, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

German violin sensation Anne-Sophie Mutter, flamboyant Chinese pianist Lang Lang and Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko will all make their EIF debuts at the venue this August.

Scottish arts will also take centre stage in Mr Linehan’s first programme, with violinist Nicola Benedetti, composer James MacMillan, percussionist Colin Currie, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Opera’s orchestra all in the Usher Hall line-up.

The free opening event, details of which have still to be finalised, will be staged as a celebration of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, which performs each year in the event and marks its 50th anniversary in 2015.

He told The Scotsman: “We are working through the opening event at the moment. But it’s not just an ambition for 2015, it’s an ongoing ambition that we should mark the beginning and end of the festival.

“It’s well-documented what we mark the end of the festival with, but if you’re marking the beginning of something such as this festival, it should be something everyone can enjoy and have access to in some way.

“A big part of the opening event is about trying to shine a light on the Usher Hall so that people begin to become very aware of what it is and what happens there during the festival.

“Hopefully this year it will provide a really abiding memory for people, it will draw them in and draw their curiosity to that part of our programming. We have to be very conscious of the fact we are a public event and the festival was conceived as a public event.

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“Even if people don’t want to participate in concerts in the Usher Hall, they should certainly be aware of them, certainly feel a pride in them and that the city can present a season of concerts which are as good as anything else in the world.”

There will be something happening inside the Usher Hall and something outside for the opening event. There will be no charge at all, although it will be ticketed inside the building.

“We’re still working through some technical issues in relation to what’s possible with the space outside.

“But Festival Square is a terrific facility, which is not in the sort of use that other parts of the city tend to be at that time of year.

“Having done many, many outdoor events, I think it’s a fantastic site. It is structured, it’s wired, it’s simple, there are no trees and we’re not trampling on anyone’s flower beds.”

The new EIF celebration will be held on the same day as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe opens after Mr Linehan’s decision to bring his event’s dates forward a week.

Mr Linehan has ambitions to raise public awareness of the EIF among the thousands of festival-goers who throng the streets of the capital each summer. He also wants to replicate the kind of atmosphere that has grown up around key Fringe venues.

He added: “This is a very important corner of the city for the Edinburgh Festival. You’ve got the Usher Hall, the Traverse and the Lyceum. That’s a powerful cluster of buildings.

“The thing I find amazing about the Edinburgh Festival is how its focus can shift really quickly. It was around 10 years ago that the shift up to George Square happened, but it happened so quickly.

“When I came to Edinburgh around 15 years ago the heat was much more on George Street and then it flipped into the Old Town. There’s that really interesting flexibility about where the focus of the Edinburgh Festival is.”

Mr Linehan has broken with tradition this year by releasing the EIF’s concerts and recitals programme early.

The 49 shows include the seasons at the Usher Hall and the Queen’s Hall, as well as the first concerts to be staged at Edinburgh University’s Playfair Library, where Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder will play all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas across nine concerts.

Mr Linehan was forced to scrap plans to put the concerts and recitals on sale early ahead of the festival’s main launch next month after an outcry from regular ticket-buyers, who wanted to see the whole EIF programme before making their choices.

However Mr Linehan said he planned to release details of the concerts programme as early as November in future to help the EIF compete with other major festivals and events worldwide.

“We’ve had feedback that is great to get this information earlier, including from tourism operators. I would like it to go out even earlier.

“There is the whole question of when people go out to speak about Edinburgh and the year ahead. It is just a case of being able to enter the mix.

“It’s a changing landscape out there, but it’s also about trying to get the focus onto this piece of programming. It is such a centrepiece of what we do.

“There is so much detail in it that I feel it needs its own piece of limelight. It needs a moment of oxygen to actually digest it.

“When the whole season kind of explodes in mid-March, it is quite easy for some of this to get lost.

“The Usher Hall, in particular, I see as the continuum for the festival if you go right back to 1947. This whole festival began because the city had a world-class concert hall and there was a piece of amazing programming, just two years after the Second World War.

“It was a statement about this being an international festival and a platform where the whole world could come.

“From that point of view it is important that the concerts and recitals part of the programme in no sense gets lost in the mix or that we only speak to a committed audience and no-one else.

“It’s also a part of the programme that really isn’t broken. When you’re new to a job one of the hardest parts is to acknowledge the bits that aren’t broken. You want to go in and tinker with everything.

“The Queen’s Hall series is a phenomenon. There’s nowhere else in the world where you could do 19 concerts at 11am and get an audience of almost 1000 people every day. People go to see things at there that I think they’d flee from if we put them on in the evening in the Usher Hall.”

Mr Linehan, a former director of the Sydney Festival and a former head of music programming at Sydney Opera House, said he will reveal a number of contemporary music shows when his full programme is announced in March, with the bulk of them planned to be staged in one venue.

He added: “I feel that, with this core in place, it is reasonable and interesting to look at other artists who are performing at a very high level of virtuosity or doing very interesting things.

“We have quite a structured approach to music with our programmes in the Queen’s Hall and the Usher Hall. It is about finding the right context and venue to create a further season.

“It’s not about dropping enormous pop or rock concerts into huge venues. That’s not the intention.

“We’ll approach this as something that will be developed. What it’ll do this year is indicate directions we’re hoping to travel. We also have to test things and see how they fit together.

“You can’t just plonk a show into the middle of the Queen’s Hall series, for example. You need to build a body of which makes a statement, you need a different environment and a different context for the audience as well. We won’be doing Bon Jovi on Edinburgh Castle esplanade or anything like that.”