Music review: St Magnus Festival

Scottish Chamber Orchestra, led for the first time by 31-year-old Majorcan-born conductor Antonio M�ndez. Picture: TSPL
Scottish Chamber Orchestra, led for the first time by 31-year-old Majorcan-born conductor Antonio M�ndez. Picture: TSPL
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THE St Magnus Festival is a belt and braces job. No change there, then, for the 39-year-old Orkney culture bash. At least not over the opening weekend of this year’s 8-day event.

St Magnus Festival

Opening Concert

Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall

Star rating: ****

Ring of Strings

Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall

Star rating: ****

In Flanders Fields

Stromness Town Hall

Star rating: ***

Fenella Humphreys

Kirkwall Cathedral

Star rating: *****

The frequent dashing back and forth between Kirkwall and Stromness for back-to-back concerts - occasionally, as on Saturday, with only twenty minutes to spare for the half-hour journey - can turn the experience into a rollercoaster experience. And that’s just the central classical music programme - there’s plenty drama, comedy, poetry and traditional music, too - which again held firm to the winning St Magnus formula, a combination of mainstream and contemporary repertoire.

This year’s resident band was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, working for the very first time with the 31-year-old Majorcan-born conductor Antonio Méndez. Their opening programme on Friday showed the young Méndez as a name worth watching.

The three singers - mezzo soprano Catherine Backhouse, tenor Thomas Walker and baritone Andrew Foster - each adding their distinctive fresh colourings to the SCO’s sleek interpretation.

The only minor disappointment was the programme opener, Edward Harper’s Intrada after Monteverdi, which was robbed of its true resplendence by the brittle Pickaquoy Centre acoustics. Nonetheless, it’s an exciting thought that Méndez will be back with the SCO as part of its main season next January. Worth looking out for.

The orchestra were back on stage on Saturday afternoon, but this time augmented by Orkney’s own Camerata, Schools’ Strings and the Orkney Traditional Music Project, and in a programme called Ring of Strings, all under the efficient baton of Gordon Bragg. There was a tangible sense of eagerness and enjoyment in performances that ranged from Sally Beamish’s The Day Dawn - it’s beautifully meditative string writing offset by practical leanings to a kind of Gebrauchsmusik - and Eddie McGuire’s idiosyncratic suite of airs and dances Ring of Strings, to the haunting simplicity of An Air for Dr John Rae by local fiddler and personality Jennifer Wrigley of the Wrigley Sisters.

A mad dash to Stromness Town Hall took us to the First World War tribute In Flanders Fields by Scots soprano Isobel Buchanan, her actor husband Jonathan Hyde and accompanist Joseph Middleton.

This presentation, a sequence of readings by Hyde from sources as diverse as Wilfred Owen, Vera Brittain and Hans Fallada, interspersed with songs by Poulenc, Schoenberg, Weill, Butterworth, Debussy and more, may have seemed a little long, but The actor’s delivery was captivating and thoughtful. It wasn’t really until the second half that we truly began to hear some of the old Buchanan magic.

Then back to Kirkwall Cathedral for a late night solo violin performance by the amazing Fenella Humphreys. Around one of the great stalwarts of the repertoire, Bach’s epic Chaconne, her programme was an eye-opener to the versatility of the instrument. She gave airy, sensitive response to Sally Beamish’s Norwegian-inspired Intrada e Fuga, imbued Adrian Sutton’s mercurial Arpeggiare Variations with an amazing lightness of touch, and in Peter Maxwell Davies’ Sonatina for Violin Alone, found a lyrical expressiveness that echoed its compelling narrative quality, rather like a song without words. All three pieces were world premieres.

And that’s just the first two days!