Music preview: Orkney’s St Magnus Festival to take place “morning, noon and night – and also in between”

Zoe Martlew - just one of the artists at this year's packed St Magnus Festival
Zoe Martlew - just one of the artists at this year's packed St Magnus Festival
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“We don’t have an orchestra this year.” Festival Director Alasdair Nicolson is talking about the absence of a big ensemble at Orkney’s St Magnus International Festival – which, he explains, is entirely down to late funding agreements making it impossible to confirm a booking far enough in advance. “In Orkney, there were questions about whether that would be forever,” he admits. “But it will be back – we have an orchestra on the slate for 2019.”

So that’s what’s missing. But in terms of what’s there, 2018’s rich programme shows a festival very much in rude health. Recently formed choral ensemble Sonoro will give two concerts, alongside recitals from emerging soloists including pianist Fiachra Garvey, guitarist Michael Butten and accordionist Paul Chamberlain. Scotland’s esteemed Red Note Ensemble offer a new staging of Maxwell Davies’s iconic Vesalii icones with dancer Matthew Hawkins, and there’s cabaret from cellist Zoë Martlew and spirituals from Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman.

In fact, the shows feel even more densely packed than in recent years. “It’s been the tradition to have events morning, noon and night – and also in between,” confirms Nicolson. “I have had to pack it all in – which is also down to finding accommodation for performers and audience, so you don’t want to sprawl too much.”

And as in previous years, Nicolson’s programme has a strong Scandinavian flavour, reflecting the islands’ own Nordic heritage. “To be honest, I’ve played that card quite deliberately,” he says, “in the sense of celebrating those connections, which are very much alive. Don’t forget that until 1427, Orkney belonged to Norway.”

His ensemble in residence is the Danish Sinfonietta, which alongside two concerts is also the band for the festival’s opera offering, Aarhus Summer Opera’s staging of Telemann’s little-known comedy Pimpinone. “It’s great fun, and quite daft,” Nicolson explains, “about a put-upon serving girl and her master Pimpinone. They present it in quite a modern way, rather cartoonishly.”

And from Orkney’s former rulers across the sea come crack period ensemble Barokksolistene, making big waves internationally with their startling mix of serious musicological scholarship and high-spirited entertainment. “It’s high-energy, high-virtuosity, mixing authentic period performance and all the rigour that goes with that, with the passion of a pub session we’d know in Scotland,” Nicolson explains. “I’ve had my eye on getting them several times in the past, and they were so intrigued about Orkney that they’ve come together specially for St Magnus.” The Norwegian group perform their internationally admired Alehouse Sessions – raucous music and more from the 17th-century tavern – and also a more sober portrait of Purcell.

Barokksolistene’s third event, however, takes place in a striking venue – the tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl (the very vessel that graced the opening credits of The Onedin Line back in the 1970s), over from Bergen for the festival, and taking up residence in Kirkwall harbour.

“Bergen and its county are twinned with Orkney, so there’s a strong connection there,” explains Nicolson. “The concert will either be below deck, depending on the weather, or we can go up on deck under awnings if the weather’s good.”

And as ever, Nicolson is keen to stress the participation of Orkney’s islands and islanders in his events. “We have the Festival Chorus performing Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle alongside Sonoro, and we also have Orkney Rocks! and the Mayfield Singers, both choral groups, singing with Measha Brueggergosman. There’s a lot of Orkney that appears at the festival, but also a lot of Orkney that makes it as well, whether that’s driving artists to and from the airport, front of house, technical crew...”

Big orchestra or no big orchestra, St Magnus is in strong form, and there’s plenty this year to attract visiting listeners to these northerly islands.

The St Magnus International Festival takes place in venues across Orkney from 22-28 June 2018