Towards the end of this month, the classical music spotlight will fall very definitely on Perth. The reason is twofold: on the one hand, from 20-29 May, Perth Festival of the Arts is offering a comprehensive ten-day programme of online concerts, ranging from Nicola Benedetti and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to a solo recital by rising piano star Isata Kanneh-Mason. On the other hand, there’s the simultaneous rolling out of Perth Concert Hall’s latest lunchtime recital series (25-28 May), broadcast live each day on BBC Radio 3, and now likely to be among the first live audience events in Scotland since the latest easing of restrictions. Numbers able to attend are limited, but it’s a liberating sign.
Sharp-eyed strategists may be thinking: wait a minute, why aren’t these two initiatives pooling together to market as one? It was a question of timing, insists James Waters, creative director for classical music at the Concert Hall. “By that time [the time restrictions were lifted] the festival had already launched.” Festival administrator Helen Helen MacKinnon is equally resigned to pragmatism. “The Concert Hall series was originally scheduled only as BBC recordings,” she explains. The option to admit audiences came late in the day.
Either way, Perth has ended up with a double dose of fantastic music. In particular, MacKinnon’s concert package sends a clear signal that the festival is once again serious about mounting a classical music programme identifiable as its own, albeit online this year. The previous regime’s reliance on general purpose, off-the-shelf touring acts had taken the edge off an event once hailed for its audaciously creative and bespoke artistic policy.
MacKinnon, who is also a composer, has been in post three years, but given the cancellation of the 2020 Festival, her influence is only now becoming properly felt. “Some of this year’s artists had already been scheduled for 2020, but there are others, like the Scottish Ensemble, who hadn’t been to the festival for a while,” she says. “This has been a great opportunity to reconnect with old friends, and to explore new partnerships.”
The fully digital series opens on 20 May with the Scottish Ensemble performing in The Byre at Inchyra, with a musical travelogue which ranges from the Balkans to the Americas. Then, on 21 May, the versatile young Spanish saxophonist Manu Brazo teams up with violinist Claudia Uriarte and pianist Indrawati in a programme reflecting topically on “a world without music.” On 22 May, regular choral visitors The Sixteen perform a new work commissioned from baritone Roderick Williams for a programme recorded in London.
Following successful concerto appearances in Scotland before lockdown, Kanneh-Mason plays an afternoon recital of Mozart, Barber, Chopin and Gershwin on 23 May, while The Gesualdo Six’s exploration of the Renaissance madrigal is set in Perth Museum and Art Gallery (25 May). Rachmaninov fans can learn a little more about the dour Russian through a presentation featuring his words and music by soprano Ilona Domnich, pianist Sholto Kynoch and critic Michael White on 27 May; the Sitkovestky Piano Trio play Schumann and Tchaikovsky on 28 May, and the series ends with Benedetti and the SCO in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.
“We’ve also launched a new initiative, Scotland Trending, promoting up and coming artists in Scotland,” says MacKinnon. It’s a cross-genre music series , running from 24-29 May, that also embraces indie/rock, folk and jazz. “It’s all part of the rebuilding process coming out of Covid”, she adds. “We have so many ideas bubbling away, part of a 5-year plan to grow the festival.”
The bonus of Waters’ lunchtime concert hall series adds further kudos to the Perth blitz, with such eye-catching names as saxophonist Jess Gillam, percussionist Colin Currie, locally-born pianist Alasdair Beatson and mezzo soprano Jess Dandy accompanied by the heroic Malcolm Martineau.
In line with Level 2 Covid regulations, the hall is working to the maximum permitted audience capacity of 100, applying 2 metres social distancing. And where most venues, including Perth, would struggle to make such a series financially viable as a result of drastically limited box office returns, the BBC partnership minimises the risk.
“It is almost impossible to believe that we will be able to welcome a live audience back to Perth Concert Hall, but it seems that this is the case,” says Waters. “ We are thrilled to be co-producing this series with BBC Radio 3 who are bringing a fabulous set of artists to Perth. We just can’t wait.”
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