Brian Ferguson: £70 million investment will put Edinburgh music scene on centrestage

It has become one of the traditional mad dashes of my year - from The Scotsman office to the launch of the Edinburgh International Festival's programme.

Edinburgh's Usher Hall. Picture: Submitted
Edinburgh's Usher Hall. Picture: Submitted

Every year so far under director Fergus Linehan, the mass gathering of the EIF’s supporters, partners, donors and media contacts has grown bigger and buzzier.

Linehan is fast running out of venues, having pressed the The Hub, the Festival Theatre, the Usher Hall, the Assembly Hall on The Mound and, most recently, the McEwan Hall into action. The soirees have become a far cry from the somewhat stuffy affairs overseen by his predecessor Sir Jonathan Mills. This has been partly down to Linehan’s willingness to embrace pop, rock, folk and indie acts, as well cabaret artists normally associated with the Fringe. There was even more buzz than usual this year, with the shifting of the EIF programme embargo delayed until early evening ensuring few present knew what Linehan was going to speak about in advance.

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Although there seemed plenty to satisfy the audiences who traditionally flock to theatre, classical music, opera and dance shows, it was the return of the EIF to Leith Theatre after 30 years and the line-up of Scottish music acts at the reborn venue which seemed to capture the imagination most. With Mogwai, Django Django, King Creosote, Anna Meredith, Lau, Julie Fowlis, Karine Polwart, The Pastels and The Vaselines in the line-up so far - the full “Light on the Shore” line-up will not be released until May, it is little wonder the rest of the EIF programme was somewhat overshadowed. By coincidence, the Leith Theatre announcement also overshadowed two other pieces of significant news which will directly affect the EIF in future, but will have even greater ramifications for the city’s troubled year-round music scene.

There was the first look at £45 million plans for the city’s first purpose-built concert hall for a century. Curiously, given the New Town project’s high-profile, a public exhibition of the plans lasted around half a day, although they can still be viewed online, ahead of a summer planning application.

Even less fanfare accompanied the release of a crucial report into the future of West Princes Street Gardens and the £25 million arena expected to replace the Ross Bandstand by 2021. Although the language used was fairly impenetrable, even by the council’s standards, it was clear its officials are proposing to hand control of that part of the gardens to a new “self-financing” arms-length operator when the new Ross Pavilion and its hospitality facilities are complete.

Collectively, they could prove transformational over the next three years, but each throws up pressing questions. These include whether Leith Theatre, a long-neglected public asset, is worthy of the same support the Scottish and UK governments have given to the new St Andrew Square concert hall. What discussions are ongoing between the two charitable trusts behind the projects to ensure they do not end up locked in competition with each other? Where is the Ross Development Trust is going to find £25 million for its own project, what kind of events does it envisage holding on a daily basis and how practical is the winning bandstand design for concert operators.

However perhaps the most pressing question is whether the prospect of a new company “managing” the gardens will make it more difficult to secure planning permission for such a sensitive site.