Stepping out with St Magnus

Fitness is essential if you want to make the most of Orkney’s St Magnus Festival. Within hours of arriving on Saturday, I had taken in a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, a dazzling family concert by whiz-bang percussionist Colin Currie, an uproarious performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and St Magnus Festival Chorus, and still hadn’t quite got round to booking into my hotel.

This year’s 26th annual Orkney culture bash is no different from previous ones. As the clamour of applause dies down in one small venue, the curtain is set to rise in the next, even if that involves the travelling troupe of artists and eager festival-goers making the mad rush back and forth between the main hot spots of Kirkwall and Stromness.

It was in the spartan Stromness Town Hall that the contemporary music group Sinfonia 21 and Thespian family trio of Prunella Scales, Timothy West and son Sam West presented Stravinsky’s acerbic theatre piece, The Soldier’s Tale. Sam West’s portrayal of the deserting soldier who inadvertently sells his soul to the devil reached deep into most folk’s hearts. With such an engaging presence, it’s not hard to imagine why his recent Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company went down so well.

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Despite the high-octane musical performance under Martyn Brabbins, not everything went swimmingly. Timothy West’s Devil lost its way momentarily when his script literally took flight. The professional in him carried it off - only his glowering red face gave the truth away. But festivals like this thrive on such frailties. We laughed with, not at, him.

At Kirkwall’s New Phoenix Cinema, it was percussionist Colin Currie who took a gamble and won. Family concerts are a risky business. So are programmes of completely contemporary music. Currie put them both together and played a blinder. Rather than bore everyone by attempting to explain the tortuous philosophical complexities of Per Norgrd’s Fire Over Water (from his monumental I Ching) Currie simply demonstrated the cacophonous opening, issued an open invitation for anyone to try it, and soon had three teams of children thrashing out their own convincing interpretations. No wonder they sat contented for the remainder of a sizzling programme that also included the percussive fireworks of composers Matthias Schmidt, Ney Rosauro and Dave Maric. Currie was the star attraction in Sunday’s electrifying performance with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) of James MacMillan’s concerto, Veni, Veni Emmanuel. Conductor Douglas Boyd’s rather lumpen readings of Peter Maxwell Davies’s A Spell of Green Corn and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, disappointingly, lacked passion. Whether the Glasgow-born oboist can make an impact in his newly emerging role as a conductor remains to be seen.

There was never any risk attached to the performance of HMS Pinafore. Not when you have the charismatic singing duo of Donald Maxwell and Linda Ormiston centre stage. Just as he did with the SCO last Christmas in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, Maxwell applied his devilish wit to a narration of the seafaring tale that was topical enough to include the line: "Seaman, it’s in the net behind you!"

It was a team effort far more inspired than anything England could muster in Japan. Ben Parry had the St Magnus Festival Chorus singing with astonishing zeal and definition - probably their best performance ever. Once again, professionals and amateurs unite in perfect harmony. Another breathless St Magnus Festival is well under way.

Read more from Kenneth Walton at the St Magnus Festival in S2 tomorrow.