Usher Hall to be lit up for festival show

IT HAS been one of Edinburgh’s most notorious public spaces for the best part of two decades and has never lived up to its much-maligned name.

A sneak preview of the Harmonium Project, which will light up the Usher Hall tonight in the curtain-raiser to the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford
A sneak preview of the Harmonium Project, which will light up the Usher Hall tonight in the curtain-raiser to the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

But tonight 10,000 people are expected to flock there for the biggest ever curtain-raiser to the Edinburgh International Festival.

Festival Square, and its neighbour Lothian Road, which will be closed off for three hours, will host what is billed as one of the most ambitious arts events in Britain this year.

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It will place the historic Usher Hall centre stage more than a century after it was built and celebrate 50 years of the chorus of amateur singers who perform there in the festival each year.

Spectacular digital animations, which have been developed over the past three months with the help of world-leading researchers at Edinburgh University. will be projected on to the facade and roof of the venue from 10:30pm.

The 35-minute long spectacle has been created to run in time with a broadcast of a performance of Harmonium, a choral work by American composer John Adams, by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

The Scotsman was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the network of production rooms inside and in front of the Sheraton Hotel, where the project team have been adding finishing touches.

Bedroom windows have been temporarily removed from two hotel rooms to allow the projections to be beamed on to the hall after tests were carried out on a tiny model.

Judging by a sneak preview of what the effects will look like, the crowds heading there tonight can expect scenes reminiscent of the sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Harmonium Project has been masterminded by 59 Productions, a production company which worked on the opening ceremony of the London Olymics and also joined forces with EIF director Fergus Linehan recently to stage a show to light up Sydney Opera House.

Creative director Richard Slaney said: “We’ve had animators working on the project for three or four months, although we’ve been discussing the project for more than a year.

“It just takes a long time to make the various animations – we’ve had different teams creating the various styles and looks – and working at night-time makes things a lot harder. We’ve been working shifts through the night this week.

“It’s been quite a tricky building to work on, as it has so many different curves, colours and shapes, but it’s also been a lot of fun. The music and the performers are fabulous and I really hope we’re going to wow people.

“I’ll be mightily relieved when it’s all up there, but it’s going to be really exciting. There’s going to be a real festival atmosphere and it’s also a one-time-only thing. It’s sad in a way that we can only do it once, because of the road closure, but it’s a unique opportunity. If you’re even half-intrigued you should come along.”

59 Productions worked with Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics to examine the behavioural patterns of singers in the chorus. The movement of their eyes, their pulse rates, their reading of a score and the way their faces change was analysed.

Cognitive scientist Robin Hill said: “I really didn’t know what to expect with the project, as we hadn’t worked on anything like this before. I just knew it was going to be something different.

“The animation I’ve seen has been looking great and I just want to see it up there now. It’s going to be totally unique, very exciting and something that will really set the festival off.”