Spirit of Max an enduring part of St Magnus Festival programme

I'm a little confused by this year's St Magnus Festival, which runs from 16-26 June in Orkney.


It’s a numerical thing. Festival director Alasdair Nicolson is calling it the 40th St Magnus Festival. He’s right on that count. But it’s not the “significant birthday” the brochure also claims it is. The first Festival took place in 1977, then aged nought. So while this is the 40th Festival, it is only its 39th birthday.

Should we celebrate nonetheless? If anything, it’s a year to recognise the absence of a familiar festival face, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who sadly died in March. What will it mean not to have his probing intellect, that sharp mind with occasionally matching sharp tongue, mixing amiably with the roving audiences and artists of a festival he co-founded with aspirations similar to Benjamin Britten’s in Aldeburgh?

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Max, as he was internationally known, took a back seat some years ago, leaving the running of St Magnus up to a succession of directors. But his music has continued to feature at the core. How could it not? If anything made St Magnus the phenomenon it very quickly became, it was the magnetic and catalytic draw of the man and his music.

Why else would the likes of John Lill, Steven Isserlis, even the legendary Isaac Stern with the RPO and André Previn, guitarist Julian Bream and poet Ted Hughes, among so many others, have considered performing in such a remote outpost, as they did in the early days? Even the London critics of the 1970s – usually only drawn north of Carlisle for the Edinburgh Festival – reckoned it was worth heading up to see what all the fuss was about.

What they found was remarkable and unexpected. Max, already infamous for such anarchic works as Eight Songs for a Mad King and shocking the establishment, was now doing it from a far-flung island community that was embracing his music, and where he in return was galvanising the islands’ school kids, through a succession of music theatre pieces, children’s songs and full operas.

Illness and other personal troubles prevented him from attending every recent festival, but his music – whether endearingly simple, grippingly parodic or intellectually austere – has remained an enduring presence. This year, its inclusion is especially poignant.

The local Orkney Camerata conclude their late night programme of 20th and 21st Century chamber music with four of Max’s Six Sanday Tunes. The organ work Reliqui Domum Meum, dedicated to the late St Magnus Cathedral organist Richard Hughes, features in a programme of music for organ choir and bagpipes. Stockholm Chamber Brass will give what Nicolson believes is the Scottish premiere of the Brass Quintet. More of Max’s music features in programmes by the Hebrides Ensemble and choral group Voces8.

But his most poignant presence will be felt on the Orkney Island he latterly lived on, Sanday, where former festival director Glenys Hughes will conduct Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) students and local school pupils in the world premiere of Wendy’s Wedding Music, written to celebrate the marriage of the local community school’s head teacher.

But this year’s extended festival, now embracing two weekends, is not all about one composer, and the widespread events encompass theatre, poetry, visual art, film and the more populist sideshow that is MagFest.

The Hebrides bring Nicolson’s own opera, The Iris Murder – premiered earlier this month in Glasgow – to Orkney Theatre; Sally Beamish’s A Cage of Doves, inspired by George Mackay Brown’s novel Magnus, features in the the resident BBC Symphony Orchestra’s final concert along with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; and this year’s Johnsmas Foy, Hampshire, is a theatrical presentation written by local scribe Pam Beasant to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the HMS Hampshire at the Battle of Jutland.

There’s more opera, too: Hansel and Gretel, as part of the RCS’s Festival residency, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, performed in St Magnus Cathedral by Florilegium and Voces8.

But what of the traditional Orkney composers and conductors courses, a central feature of past festivals, which have disappeared this year? “That was a funding thing,” says Nicolson, who promises they will return in future years. Did extending the festival have anything to do with it? Apparently not. “It’s all about specific funding. They’d have been a casualty whatever,” he insists.

Nicolson, though, is delighted that successful fundraising has allowed the festival to buy its own Steinway concert grand, an instrument specially chosen by pianist Steven Osborne. Let’s call it an early 40th birthday present.

• The St Magnus Festival runs on Orkney from 16-26 June, www.stmagnusfestival.com