There may be less money
but there have been no
cutbacks on creativity at
the St Magnus Festival
Running a festival is no easy job these days, and certainly not since Creative Scotland moved the goalposts a few weeks ago by revealing, to national treasures such as Orkney’s St Magnus Festival, that their guaranteed funding would be reduced from two years to one.
So spare a thought for Alasdair Nicolson who, having added his newly acquired directorship of the long-running Bath Festival to his two-year old directorship of St Magnus, now has responsibility for keeping two such events (albeit one in England) on even keels.
“These are very different festivals,” he says. “Bath is all but exclusively a music festival; up here [in Orkney] there’s theatre, jazz and traditional music as well as the main music programme. But they do share the same budgetary challenges. For although Bath is a city, there are – as in Orkney – no real performance venues. Everywhere you use has effectively to be created.
“Up in Orkney you get a mixture of things in odd places,” he says, referring specifically to such newly created spaces as the old Ness Battery, which the printed programme advertises as “not being built to modern standards”, and which will stage a tribute to ENSA concert party entertainments of the Second World War, devised and directed by former Scottish Opera star Linda Ormiston.
Today marks the opening of Nicolson’s second St Magnus programme, and despite the pragmatic concerns he has about funding support – Orkney’s local authority festival input was slashed a couple of years ago, putting more onus on the national funding issue – there’s little in the wide spread of theatre, music, literature and art to suggest that harder times make for less creative solutions.
For instance, a production of Bizet’s Carmen, presented by students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music in a rip-roaring translation by Rory Bremner, opens tonight in Orkney’s cattle market. “I liked the idea that a place where bulls are sold during the day would be transformed into the opera’s bullring at night,” says Nicolson, referring to the opera’s steamy Seville setting and its toreador hero Escamillo.
Equally ambitious are a choral performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time featuring the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the joint forces of the St Magnus Festival Chorus and the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union; the Bolivian choir Arakaendar, with a quirky cocktail of obscure sacred Baroque music from South America and late night Festival Club performances of their own indigenous folk music; traditional Scots music from the award-winning Orkney Traditional Music Project; cabaret, jazz, poetry readings and visual art; and a commissioned network of “listening posts” around the island created by composer Pippa Murphy with recorded soundbites she collected as part of a community project.
This is only the RSNO’s second visit as resident festival orchestra, but its full presence will be felt in a series of concerts, directed by both Sian Edwards and recently appointed principal guest conductor Thomas Søndergård, that include music by Sibelius, Mahler, Elgar, Maxwell Davies and a specially-commissioned new work by Arne Gieshoff, a recent participant in the Orkney Composers Course that runs concurrently (as does the Conductors Course) with the main festival.
Already you may be wondering if there’s room on Orkney for this enormous influx of musicians, plus all the other groups involved, including music theatre specialists Gemini, the Trondheim Soloists (Norway’s string-playing answer to the Scottish Ensemble), the Aronowitz Ensemble, vocal ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick, and the young British-based Jubilee String Quartet.
“This is a tough year for us in terms of travel bills,” says Nicolson, alluding to the other budgetary item that is inevitably significant for such a remote island festival. “Sure, every festival will have been hit this year, with transport costs climbing and climbing. But it never has been cheap getting bodies of folk up to Orkney, and there’s really no way round that one, other than the support we already get from the airline and ferry companies.”
But that hasn’t stopped Nicolson inviting the likes of the substantial Edinburgh Royal Choral Union to head north for Sunday’s showcase performance of Tippett’s hard-hitting oratorio, which features vocal soloists Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Jamis MacDougall and Nicholas Isherwood.
That particular work, with its harrowing use of negro spirituals as a symbol of oppression and reconciliation, was also the inspiration for this year’s Festival theme of exile, dispossessed peoples and refugees. “It was an early decision to include the Tippett, and it started me thinking about how to expand its potent message into a broader Festival theme”, Nicolson explains.
It’s there in Carmen whose gypsy heroine, at the time Bizet composed the opera, would, says Nicolson, “have had quite a different impact”; it’s there, too, in the piano quintets of German exile Erich Korngold and Shostakovich which form part of the Aronowitz Ensemble’s Stromness concert on Sunday.
It’s even present in one of the few Peter Maxwell Davies pieces being performed this year, Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, a feisty music theatre piece centring on a female character who rants and raves – with typical Maxwell Davies irreverence – among the remnants of her wedding cake after being jilted at the altar, after which she became a mad recluse.
Partnering it in Gemini’s music theatre double bill tomorrow is Marc Neikrug’s (better known as Pinchas Zuckermann’s regular accompanist) intriguing Through Roses, the retelling of the experiences of a Jewish fiddle player who was imprisoned at Auschwitz, and who survived by playing the violin for all sorts of purposes in the camp, finally escaping the horrors.
Gemini’s second programme – a “ghost promenade concert” in the historic Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall, starring mezzo-soprano Alison Wells – features the world premieres of Judith Bingham’s Mary Anning and (in its revised version) Colin Riley’s Science Fictions, both of which, alongside Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, are being recorded on DVD by the new Artists Recording Company (ARC) for commercial release this Autumn.
St Magnus, it seems, is no less inviting, even when the purse strings are tightened.
• The St Magnus Festival begins today until 28 June, www.stmagnusfestival.com
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east