Arts review of 2017: Ken Walton on the year in classical music

2017 was always going to be a year in which the classical music focus would be on Edinburgh, thanks to the 70th anniversary edition of the Edinburgh International Festival. Fergus Linehan's celebratory programme didn't disappoint. From high-end opera to crazy stunts like a Shostakovich symphony played by the massed partnership of a Russian and Scottish orchestra (the Mariinsky Orchestra and the RSNO), it was a festival to remember.

Teatro Regio of Torino's Macbeth was one of the highlights of the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival PIC: Franco Lannino/Studio Camera

At its heart was an opera programme reflective of the genre’s significance in defining the early history of the festival. Most importantly, though, it brought to Scotland grand opera in its most expansive manifestation, something we can only dream about these days from our own cash-starved Scottish Opera.

Teatro Regio Torino’s two mega-productions - Verdi’s Macbeth and Puccini’s La bohème – were a rare and memorable treat: the former “hell-bent on hitting you from all angles”, as I wrote, in its successful bid to embrace every possible dark emotion; the latter a brilliant fusion of the personal and the universal, Alex Ollé’s contemporary-edged production filmic in its ability to zoom in and out of its characters’ private worlds.

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Then there were Gianandrea Noseda’s red-hot readings of both scores: a meaty, unfussy La bohème, and a bloodthirsty Macbeth that hit blistering temperatures in Piero Pretti’s heart-stopping final act aria as Macduff.

Other operatic hits of the festival included a gritty staged production by Opera Ventures and Scottish Opera of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek, and concert performances by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra of Britten’s Peter Grimes, and of John Eliot Gardiner’s critically-acclaimed trilogy of Monteverdi operas with his Monteverdi Choir.

But the performance everyone was talking about was Wagner’s Die Walküre, a terrific night at the Usher Hall featuring among its sensational cast the world class singers Karen Cargill and Bryn Terfel.

Linehan’s ambitious 70th anniversary programme not only symbolised the historical significance of the festival but also cemented its position as a truly international event that is in great artistic shape, contemporary in outlook, and deserving of a future that is well-supported both politically and financially.

Elsewhere in Edinburgh in 2017, two major infrastructure projects also had the potential to shape an exciting future for music in Scotland. The first of these involved plans by the charitable trust IMPACT Scotland and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to build a new concert hall behind the current RBS building in St Andrew Square. The planning of the project has powered on this year, with the globally-renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and an auspicious team of architects in place to make the city’s long-awaited 1,000-seater medium scale auditorium a reality. It looks set to happen.

On the other hand, St Mary’s Music School’s funded plans to purchase the listed Royal High School and remodel it as a custom-built replacement for its current cramped home in Edinburgh’s West End have been constantly frustrated this year by corporate obduracy and local government bureaucracy.

Although Duddingston and Urbanist Hotels have now failed twice in presenting a rival planning bid to the city council, they are persisting, and, according to sources, have hired the same law firm that represented Donald Trump in Aberdeen to mount yet another appeal. The school and the Royal High’s Preservation Trust have created the Perfect Harmony Campaign to try and resolve things in their favour. As for the all-important heritage issue, the old Royal High was built as a school. Why not simply keep it that way?

If 2017 was very much business as usual for the performing companies, there was one particular note of sorrow. In November, Conrad Wilson, music critic of The Scotsman from 1963-91, died at the age of 85. As a staff writer for this newspaper, he chronicled music in Scotland during one of its truly golden periods: the renaissance of the Scottish National Orchestra (now the RSNO) under the visionary baton of Alexander Gibson; the founding of Scottish Opera, also spearheaded by Gibson; and the burgeoning school of home-grown composers who flourished in such a fertile creative landscape, and without whom the likes of James MacMillan might easily have chosen to find inspiration and opportunity south of the border.

Wilson once told me he had been to every Edinburgh Festival since the very first in 1947. Ill health sadly diminished that record in recent years. The musical community in Scotland will miss his quiet authority and generous writing.