East Neuk Festival forges ahead in spite of "maze" of restrictions

Negotiating coronavirus restrictions this year has been “like walking through a maze,” the East Neuk Festival’s director Svend McEwan-Brown tells Ken Walton, but it’s been worth it

Svend McEwan-Brown, East Neuk Festival director, pictured at The Bowhouse PIC: Colin Hattersley Photography
Svend McEwan-Brown, East Neuk Festival director, pictured at The Bowhouse PIC: Colin Hattersley Photography

Svend McEwan-Brown is probably not the only festival director in Scotland to be pulling his hair out in exasperation. “We’ve now reached the 34th iteration of the East Neuk Festival programme, and things could yet change,“ he said last week. “The guidance still isn’t clear, so I still feel as if we’re walking through a maze.” He had been awaiting a further Scottish Government guidance update the previous day regarding audience restrictions, which never materialised.

He describes the past few months as “full-on firefighting – nothing whatsoever to do with artistic matters, but everything to do with toilets and social distancing.” It’s all been worth it, though, and all being well, the resultant festival, which runs from 1-4 July, will include live indoor performances with audiences of up to 100 in The Bowhouse, a large converted barn space near St Monans.

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Among the live artists are ENF debuts by pianists Samson Tsoy (protégé of the great Elisabeth Leonskaja) and Paul Lewis, who includes Mussorgsky’s gargantuan Pictures at an Exhibition in his two recitals. Pianist Fergus McCreadie and his Trio bring their luminous brand of Scots jazz.

East Neuk Festival ‘Arts Activist’ David Behrens, pictured at Lady’s Tower near Elie. He is asking members of the public to record and share the sights and sounds of the Fife coastline and create with him a map of the East Neuk, in vision and in sound, that will be presented at the festival PIC: East Neuk Festival

Return artists in these live concerts – which are being recorded by BBC Radio 3 – include duo partners Benjamin Baker (violin) and Sean Shibe (guitar), who are joined by pianist Daniel Lebhardt for the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Highland Scenes; and the young award-winning Castalian Quartet, who couple string quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn in the second of two live appearances.

With Covid restrictions still tight on indoor performance and audience capacity, McEwan-Brown reckons the arts are not being treated with the same level of respect as other areas of the events sector, and he bemoans the lack of consistency and logic. “The Bowhouse has two key areas: the enormous Bowhouse Room where events take place; and the bar, which is not so enormous. While the audience will have to keep quiet in the concert, wear masks and maintain two-metre distancing, they can all then immediately go into the bar and be one-metre distanced, not wearing masks, talking loudly and drinking. How the Scottish Government thinks that is a sane situation is beyond me.”

Like every other music festival this year, there will be online content to compensate. “We found last year that folk were tuning in from Japan and Australia. There’s no doubt that online material has thrown up positive opportunities. Nobody’s going to be able to turn their backs on this from now on. The challenge will be finding the money for it. It’s not cheap,” he adds.

Filmed performances will be released daily during the festival, including The Tallis Scholars in music to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Josquin, pianist Llyr Williams in Chopin’s 24 Preludes, and oud player Rihab Azar. Shibe plays lute music from the Balcarres Lutebook in the stately home in Colinsburgh where the manuscript was created. “We suddenly realised that nobody had ever taken this back to Balcarres House, and here it was on our doorstep,” says McEwan-Brown.

Shibe also appears on film working with young musicians in Steve Reich’s Electric Guitar Phase, one of his new guitar quartet sessions emanating from ENF Retreat, the festival’s ongoing artistic development programme. Also out in the community is the brand new Band on a Van initiative, an itinerant concert party of young classical, traditional, jazz and roots musicians. Outdoor novelties include Labyrinth, a maze etched out of a wildflower meadow in the grounds of Kellie Castle.

McEwan-Brown is viewing this year’s event as a stepping stone to the hopeful normality of next year. “In business terms we’re having to think of 2022 very carefully,” he says “But I want to get back to the position where the artists who come to Fife meet and work with each other in ways they wouldn’t necessarily do elsewhere. All being well, we’ll have Elisabeth Leonskaja back with us, and the Pavel Haas Quartet.” And plans are already afoot for ENF’s 20th anniversary in 2025.

The East Neuk Festival runs from 1-4 July, see www.eastneukfestival.com

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