IT’S the unmissable finale to the International Festival and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. But who makes the fireworks concert go off with a bang? Brian Ferguson meets some of the key personnel
IT’S unlikely that Laurence Olivier ever imagined his stirring 1944 epic Henry V would inspire the dazzling climax of a fireworks display. Yet high up on Edinburgh Castle, where his Oscar-winning epic and its soundtrack is being carefully studied, it is helping to shape the grand finale of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Just yards away from the castle’s One O’clock Gun, pyrotechnics wizard Keith Webb is poring over the film’s scenes of the Battle of Agincourt, which he will be attempting to recreate above the capital’s skyline on Sunday night. In the labyrinthine production office he is in charge of, Webb is surrounded by everything from computer screens to intricate maps and huge cardboard wall-planners.
Around 12 tonnes of kit is at his disposal, having been delivered to the castle by six different lorries over the past few days. It is all a far cry from the first festival fireworks concert he worked on, two years after the then director John Drummond in 1982 matched pyrotechnics with the music of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as part of an attempt to broaden the appeal of the event.
One newspaper account said the inaugural event, in which the fireworks were synchronised with pieces by Handel “in turn sabotaged and thrilled the thousands thronging Princes Street and the gardens and prompted wild cheers and applause after each of the five movements”.
The display has been staged every year since then, and has survived the vagaries of the Edinburgh weather, political rows, funding problems and even the closure of Princes Street due to tramworks. Webb, head of fireworks experts Pyrovision, says: “I remember the first one I worked on involved just two van-loads of kit and around 100 kilos of fireworks. This year, we’ve got around four tonnes of fireworks. In those days, we would set them all off with a series of big buttons, but now so much of it is computerised and we have around 70 different out-stations around the castle controlling all the fireworks.
“I remember one year when one firework toppled over and when it was released we ended up fusing the whole system and we had to go round letting them off manually, but that kind of thing wouldn’t happen these days. In the early days of the fireworks concert it was all about the big noises and bangs, but fireworks themselves have moved on so much so that we can create very delicate and subtle effects that don’t make any noise.”
Not hearing some of the fireworks – never mind seeing them –is just one of the problems Garry Walker has to contend with as the regular conductor of the festival fireworks concert. Finding suitable music for the outdoor spectacular that both fits in with the festival’s themes for a particular year and condensing them into a 45-minute programme are other challenges.
“We’ve really got to have the music in place at the beginning of the year and it’s something that I work on with the SCO once we know some of the themes of the festival. Sometimes it is just one piece of music that is played in its entirety, but this year’s programme is tied in with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, so we’ve gone for William Walton’s film music from Henry V, Orb and Sceptre, which he wrote for the Coronation of the Queen, and the folk song Greensleeves – which Henry VIII was said to have originally conceived – as well as Prokofiev’s ballet score for Romeo and Juliet.”
A CD of provisional music usually arrives on Webb’s doormat in January or February and it is then that decisions are taken on whether a piece of music is suitable for the display. He says: “We can be a lot more flexible now because of the kind of effects that we can create and are suitable for quieter passages of music, for example, but sometimes I will say that I don’t think a particular piece is going to work.
“We work very closely with Garry on the score and we obviously have exact timings in the show plans that the display is designed for. He is great to work with as he understands the importance of not speeding up or slowing down. A lot of other conductors like to think they rule the roost and that it is up to them to dictate the time, but it’s more complicated than that.”
Walker says: “I really just let him get on with it as much as possible. The first year I worked on the event I had a lot of respect for what he and his team were doing. I can remember going to watch the display myself on Castle Street or Princes Street when I was a lot younger and it’s such a big party night for Edinburgh. Most of the orchestra live in the city, so they feel a big connection with the event.
“There haven’t really been any major headaches when I’ve worked on the event. I remember the first time I was conducting the orchestra and could literally not hear a thing, as the fireworks were completely silent and obviously I couldn’t see them. But the audience applauded at the end and everything seemed to be fine.”
Double bassist Adrian Bornet, 64, played in the very first fireworks concert and has missed only one since that 1982 spectacular, hailed by critics at the time as the capital’s most spectacular fireworks event since King George’s visit to the city 160 years earlier. He says: “The thing I remember about the early shows is there were a couple of people, one by the side of the bandstand and another up on the castle rock, who were waving their hands like the conductor so they knew when to set the fireworks off.
“It’s not really a stressful concert to play in. The thing that can cause most problems is a bit of a wind so you’ve got to use clothes pegs to prevent the score from getting blown off the stand. I remember the orchestra was playing at the Playhouse the same night as the fireworks concert and we had to get a police escort through the streets to Princes Street Gardens, which everyone seemed to enjoy.”
The highlight of that first 1982 concert came when a “two-tone waterfall” effect poured down the castle rock and set fire to the grassy slopes below. The waterfall has been rooted in the programme of the event ever since. It takes four days to make the various fireworks involved and a further half day to lay out all the cabling at the castle for the showpiece spectacular effect.
And the magic moment, which will last a full minute and will cover around 40 metres of the castle rock, involves 70 separate firing units laid out some 36 metres across. Jonathan Mills, the Festival’s director, says: “The magic of the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert continues to make it an unmissable part of the Festival and of life in Edinburgh. After three whirlwind weeks of music, opera, theatre and dance I am looking forward to sitting with colleagues and friends in Princes Street Gardens to share in the fabulous music and what I am sure will be a stunning fireworks display.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South