St Magnus Festival aims to introduce new audiences to the Land, Sea and Sky of Orkney

This year’s St Magnus Festival will be a hybrid affair, with a combination of physical and online performances. Director Alasdair Nicolson tells David Kettle what’s in store

Gaia Duo in St Magnus Cathedral
Gaia Duo in St Magnus Cathedral

“It’s going to be Performance Channel meets National Geographic Channel meets Poetry Channel – if there is such a thing…” says Alasdair Nicolson. The director of Orkney’s St Magnus International Festival is describing “Land, Sea and Sky”, one of the most intriguing strands in his new, blended reimagining of the festival for 2021. “It’s a bit stream-of-consciousness – kick your shoes off, sit back and watch it unfold, and every two or three minutes you’ll see something new.”

Nicolson was forced to cancel the 2020 festival, and has inevitably had to deal with the ongoing uncertainties since then. “What’s emerged for 2021 is a bit of many ideas I’ve been planning,” he says. In some ways it’s a busier festival than normal, as we’re having to work across several different masterplans at once.”

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That all-encompassing festival brings together a handful of live outdoor performances across Orkney itself, plus a more extensive collection of online films, in which the islands naturally play a central role. Accordingly, alongside a new, remotely produced production of The Storm Watchers by Orcadian poet and dramatist George Mackay Brown – who would have turned 100 this year – the more straightforward end of Nicolson’s online offerings includes new tunes from six Orkney fiddlers, and six wide-ranging concerts recorded in St Magnus Cathedral.

More unconventional, however, are the four films in Nicolson’s Land, Sea and Sky series. “I wanted to try and make something where the medium we’re using – in other words, film – is treated in an artistic way itself,” he explains. “So it’s a question of telling a story through film using music, poetry, and images of the Orkney landscape and history.” To that end, the four films bring together verse from Mackay Brown and others, alongside performances recorded live that collide together a deliberately eclectic range of repertoire.

“As Orkney is such a strong part of the festival, I felt we had to bring the musicians here. We’ve been to various venues around Orkney with several different musicians, and we’re bringing together Maxwell Davies, Schoenberg and Feldman, as well as a new piece by Sally Beamish, with much earlier music by Hildegard of Bingen and Dowland, for example. It really runs the gamut, plus traditional music from Scotland, Finland and Denmark.”

One of the musicians involved is soprano Lotte Betts-Dean, who made her first trip to the islands to be part of the Land, Sea and Sky films. “I’d been booked to give a recital at last year’s festival,” she explains, “so I was delighted to be asked back. This is a really inventive way of presenting things – it’s unlike anything else I’ve done over the past year.”

She spent a weekend recording in Orkney, she explains, and, apart from seeing photos online, knew little about her recording venues beforehand. “It was mind-blowing to sing in those spaces – especially St Magnus Cathedral, which has such a beautiful acoustic for voice. And the Italian Chapel as well, which worked well for the intimacy of voice and guitar – it allowed us to play and sing really softly, to capture every nuance of the music. Having the opportunity to sing in remarkable spaces like those makes a big difference after just being in your own flat for months.”

Though the longer festival films are pay-per-view, Nicolson was keen not to put too much behind a paywall. “Our website is the festival hub, and it’s almost been like creating a virtual arts centre. You can dip in and watch a short poem, for example, or stay around and pay to watch something longer.”

He has hopes that the online offerings will introduce a broader international audience to the event, but he’s aware that he’s also providing for people far closer to home. “Particularly in rural Scotland, we have to remember that we have a local audience who live on the outer islands, for example, and may not even be able to get to us for the live events. Even for local audiences, these digital events can make the festival easier to access.”

The St Magnus International Festival runs from 18-23 June,

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