A son et lumière special using a striking castle as a backdrop is just one of many attractions that helps the Lammermuir Festival stand out.
James Waters, co-director of the Lammermuir Festival, lives by a simple credo: “We are a ten-day festival of classical music where the venue is as important as the programme itself.”
If any single festival event lives up to that belief, it is Monday’s multimedia spectacle Tantallon! These Lands This Wall centred on Tantallon Castle, the fortified stronghold perched atop a promontory east of North Berwick. The castle was immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in his poem Marmion, and is described by its current owners, Historic Scotland, as “absolutely the best 14th century castle architecture anywhere in Scotland”.
For Waters and his fellow artistic director Hugh Macdonald, this is the blockbuster equivalent to last year’s walkabout production of Philip Glass’s 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, which took place in the Concorde Hangar at East Fortune’s Museum of Flight. It is as ambitious as it is a tad crazy, given the ruined state Cromwell’s army left Tantallon in in 1651.
Yet who could deny the magnificent theatrical potential of the giant stone wall that still stands mightily like a defensive landward curtain, one that held fast against successive sieges during the fortress’s three centuries of active use? It was the sight of that natural backdrop that led to Waters receiving a garbled phone call from Macdonald – one of those eureka moments that happen more often by chance than design.
“Hugh was driving home after a planning meeting some time ago and on a whim stopped off at Tantallon Castle, which he hadn’t seen since his schooldays in the 1970s. He was talking excitedly about lighting possibilities, musical ideas, getting Creative Scotland interested, and would I get in my car and come and tell him if I thought this was a silly place to mount such an event?” Waters recalls.
Once Waters saw it for himself, both decided it was “absolutely perfect” for a son et lumière project that would use the wall as a screen on which to project collaged images, in tandem with words and music that would tell the story of a castle whose history was as dramatic as its Firth of Forth setting.
Creative Scotland gave the green light, and Waters and Macdonald commissioned Cultural Creative, originators of the spectacular light show at Belfast’s recent Titanic celebrations, to create the visual aspect, while looking to John Harris’ Red Note Ensemble (veterans of last year’s Glass opera) to instigate the music and words.
“John suggested Bill Sweeney as a composer who would get a proper handle on things,” says Waters. “In turn Bill came up with poet and songwriter Aonghas MacNeacail as someone who could encapsulate the personality of the castle in words.”
In terms of Monday’s actual performance, however, it will be presented as a prepared installation, with not a live musician in sight. “Where Tantallon is concerned, our biggest problem is the wind, and we felt that trying to make the musicians work in the open air might be an unnecessary risk,” says Waters. “It seemed much simpler to prerecord the 47-minute score.”
“The audience will sit on the landward side, like Tantallon’s besieging forces before them,” he warns. “Come prepared, for there is no covered seating. This is music in the raw.”
It’s also symbolic of the visionary ambition that has led Waters and Macdonald to establish, over the past three years, a festival that fits the time and place like a glove. From tomorrow until Sunday week, East Lothian’s growing portfolio of exquisite venues plays host to an amazing 23 top class events, opening tomorrow night in St Mary’s Haddington with the Dunedin Consort in Bach’s St John Passion, and ending there a week on Sunday with Fauré’s Requiem, performed by the National Youth Choir of Scotland and – making their debut at Lammermuir – the Newcastle-based Northern Sinfonia.
The overall theme is Beautiful Music in Beautiful Places, and this coming weekend alone sees performances on Saturday by the young Scottish-based Maxwell String Quartet in St Ann’s Episcopal Church in Dunbar, followed by a Guitar Night Out with Simon Thacker and Camerata Ritmata in the nearby Bellhaven Fruit Farm; while on Sunday, period instrument music from Ensemble Marsyas at Winton House in Pencaitland, before actor Robert Hardy stars in Master and Commander, an evening of readings from Patrick O’Brian’s tales of Napoleonic seafarers Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, coupled with music by the Raeburn String Quartet.
“We sat down with Robert Hardy and agreed the readings, then thought of how they might be framed at various points with suitable music,” says Waters. The bulk is by Beethoven, dating from the first few years of the 1800s, when Master and Commander is set. Tying in nicely is a venue – St Michael’s Church, Inveresk – that also dates from the same decade, and in whose graveyard lies the remains of former admirals.
Lammermuir also provides one of the rare occasions when Yester House, former Gifford home of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, opens its doors to the public. On Monday, the Hebrides Ensemble give a lunchtime performance there of music by Ravel and Debussy.
Other venues range from Holy Trinity Church in Haddington (a series of four song recitals, each themed on a different season), to Glenkinchie Distillery in Pencaitland (early Scottish music), Lennoxlove House (a concert by outstanding guitarist Sean Shibe), and St Mary’s Church, Whitekirk (more Ravel and Debussy from Shibe and the Navarra String Quartet).
Another meaty mini-theme happens a week on Saturday, designated Handel Day by the Festival. Each of its three concerts offers a different perspective on the composer. Handel and the Italians – a late-morning programme by specialist Baroque ensemble La Serenissima in East Linton – explores his early career in Rome; the same ensemble teams up with organist John Butt in Stenton Church for an afternoon focus on the organ concertos; and the day ends in North Berwick with a programme called Getting a Handel on the Jacobite Rising, led by harpsichordist Robert Howarth and the Lammermuir Baroque Soloists.
That last musical celebration juxtaposes Jacobite songs with Hanoverian arias by Handel, and rather neatly takes place only a few miles from Prestonpans, where the first conflict of the 1745 uprising took place. Once again, the right place, the right music.
• Lammermuir Festival runs from tomorrow until 23 September. lammermuirfestival.co.uk
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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