East Neuk Festival: Draw up a great Fife plan

The ninth East Neuk Festival promises more big names in intimate surroundings, so even though it’s months away, be sure to beat the rush and get booking soon

East Neuk Festival is quick off the mark this year with the launch of its 2013 programme. So why bother about it in January? Quite simply, it’s one of these perennial summer arts fixtures that benefit from a bit of pre-planning in order to make the most of them. So here’s a taster of what to expect at his year’s ENF, which runs 3-7 July.

Firstly, it’s hard to believe that this year’s is the ninth East Neuk Festival. Back when it all began, nearly a decade ago, artistic director Svend Brown promised “an intimate affair”, in which international performers and audiences would interact by force of nature – where venues so small, so unusual and so unlikely, where the locational charm of Fife’s dinky East Neuk bound everyone by necessity into a vibrant, bustling, self-contained community over the space of a few days.

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Other festivals carry the same magnetic attraction – some predating the ENF (St Magnus in Orkney, for instance), and some that have followed by example, such as the markedly successful Lammermuir Festival in East Lothian, now in its fourth year.

In each case, they have grown quickly and successfully, but only to a realistic and manageable level; more importantly, they continue to include events you simply wouldn’t experience elsewhere. In the few days that constitute this year’s ENF, there will be no fewer than 25 events, some of which are absolute corkers.

For instance, anyone wishing to hear the legendary Tokyo String Quartet’s last performance ever in Europe, will have to be in Crail Church on Wednesday 3 July for the Festival’s opening concert. Not only will they play a delicious pairing of Mozart and Webern, but they will be joined by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s charismatic principal cellist David Watkin in Schubert’s gloriously tuneful Quintet in C.

“It’s a fantastic honour to have this illustrious quartet choosing Fife as the venue for its European swansong, the very week before they end their 44-year career with a final farewell concert in the United States,” says Brown. But then, it’s only a few years since the august Alban Berg Quartet paid East Neuk the same valedictory honour.

String quartets remain a prominent theme with the ENF, with the return of the Elias Quartet, performing two recitals of Webern, Beethoven and Janacek, as well as featuring alongside another Festival regular, pianist and conductor Christian Zacharias.

Special artist relationships have always been a welcoming feature of the Festival. Zacharias has been “in residence” at previous events, and in this latest collaboration presents An afternoon with Christian Zacharias, playing and talking about his favourite composers. Mozart, Haydn and Schubert feature among them. He also conducts the SCO for the closing concert on Sunday 7 July.

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That final concert also highlights two other distinguishing aspects of the ENF – those of thematic threads and unlikely venues. Embedded in the programme – Messiaen’s Appel Interstellaire, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony – are vivid references to the running themes this year of Birds and Birdsong, Nature and Wildlife. “That theme emerged from my wish to let Zacharias loose on the Beethoven symphony,” Brown says. “We started with the Pastorale and worked back.”

As for venues, following the highly successful experiment last year of using the vast potato barn in the seaside grounds of Cambo House, the venue has become a more major feature of this year’s programme, not least for that closing programme.

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But Cambo Estate as a whole, from the beautiful walled gardens and stables, to the Erskine family’s elegant manor house, will come under extended spotlight when it hosts Saturday at Cambo on 6 July.

The day’s programme – running from mid-morning till teatime – is reflective of the expanding cultural scope of the Festival, not least in the areas of writing and storytelling and a series of events that have effectively become a sub-Festival, known as Littoral.

Naturalist writers Esther Woolfson, Conor Mark Jameson, Sir John Lister-Kaye, and children’s storyteller David Campbell are all part of the day’s site-specific mix, as is the opportunity to go foraging for wild foods in the estate grounds under the guidance of experts from Mara Artisan Seafoods.

But music is never far away, and Saturday at Cambo features two of the Festival’s most intriguing projects, both dependent in performance of the type of environmental ambience Cambo’s expansive grounds offer, and both composed by American “environmental” composer John Luther Adams (not to be confused with John Adams).

Firstly, there’s the European premiere of Inuksuit, performed in the walled gardens, and requiring 30 percussion players, as well as the audience, to roam freely. “By securing this important performance, East Neuk Festival is once again ahead of the game,” says Brown. “Adams’ music is inspired by landscape, nature and birdsong, which he uses to create utterly gorgeous sound-worlds. He was inspired particularly by John Cage.”

As for the logistics, Brown has had to draft in just about every percussionist in Scotland, who will be coached for the performance by the brilliant American percussionist, Steve Schik. Later that afternoon, with the help of atmospheric lighting, the excellent Red Note Ensemble performs another of Adams’ naturalist works, Songbirdsongs, in Cambo Barn.

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Elsewhere in this year’s Festival, there’s a visit by the Tallis Scholars, currently celebrating their 40th anniversary year, and performing music by English Renaissance giants, John Taverner and Thomas Tallis. And there’s more birdsong in the form of Messiaen’s Abîme des oiseaux, performed by SCO principal clarinettist Maximiliano Martin, and part of a broader concert programme featuring the highly acclaimed London Conchord Ensemble.

As for visual arts, the focus in on Galloway-based Lisa Hooper, and an exhibition lasting throughout the Festival that showcases her fondness for bird and wildlife images.

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With January having just run its course, it may seem like early days to be planning a summer jaunt to Fife. But for Brown, his thoughts are already on the 2014 Festival, and the tenth anniversary of an event that has proved to be much more than a flash in the pan.

• The 9th East Neuk Festival runs 3-7 July. Priority booking opens this week. General booking opens on 7 February from the Hub, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000). www.eastneukfestival.com

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