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A festival of premieres

The 2009 festival was perhaps our most exciting yet. It began on 18 August with Mendelssohn’s Elijah, a work that I had performed while still a member of the Stirling University chorus, so I found it particularly engaging. And it ended on Saturday night with Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, a sublime and dramatic performance conducted by Mark Elder with the Hallé Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus and splendid soloists. 24 hours later, after the pressure of packing and preparing for Nepal, I’m sitting here at Heathrow typing this with Alice Coote’s sublime interpretation of the Angel still going around in my head singing her “Softly and gently”. These two choral works stand like colossuses, marking the beginning and end of our 2009 Festival experience.

In between, two days stand out a mile. The first was a week ago, when we journeyed to the Queen’s Hall for an important reason: the premiere of a work by Nigel Osborne on 31 August. Looking with mounting desperation at the piles of unfinished work and production issues around the Rucksack Readers office, I came close to resenting giving up most of a working day to this concert. But it was wholly extraordinary, truly a revelation. The Arditti Quartet played a late Beethoven quartet (op 85) and a Berg which was challenging but not offputting. After the interval followed the world premiere of Nigel’s Tiree, commissioned by EIF specially for these players, augmented by the shimmering live sounds of the metal plate loudspeaker installation (controlled by a Mac, naturally). This recreated the sounds made by Tiree’s famous stones, and added a wholly fresh, new dimension to the tones and timbre of the string quartet.

Nigel, who is a friend and colleague of Keir’s, joined us after the concert for a beer. I wasn‘t surprised to learn that he had deputised for Ligeti (whose String Quartet no 2 followed Tiree) but when the conversation drifted to fractal geometry (talking to Nigel is full of such hazards) it turned out that he knew and had worked with Mandelbrot at a conference about art, music and maths. Having studied sums long ago at Cambridge, Mandelbrot was a famous name to me, but Nigel is innocent of all pretension when he drops such names. Fractal geometry of the Scottish coastline is grist to his mill as a composer, as is Tiree’s best-known folksong. Nigel is a very rare example of a 21st century polymath: he also speaks about 19 languages. It's just as well he is so modest, or he might be very daunting, or even quite annoying. Anyway, I was fired up enough to ask him to sign my programme, which he did without a murmur. I wonder what he thought of the review I just read on the plane (in Scotland on Sunday, 6.9.09) which described the work as “an ethereal miasma of folk tunes and harmonic expansiveness”. Hmmm.

The other outstanding day was last Friday, which also began with String Quartets: the Emerson were playing Beethoven and two Mendelssohn quartets, one early and the other written in the year he died. We went straight on to Oloroso, to take son Sandy for a birthday lunch. Afterwards, we just had time for the National Gallery of Scotland exhibition on Spain and Scotland (Spain had all the world-class artists) before Brian Friel’s extraordinary “Yalta Game” at the King’s – an unbroken hour of pyrotechnic theatre with shades of Bennett and Stoppard full of teasing ambiguity and tensions between reality, imagination and yearning.

Finally, after several cups of coffee we were off to another world premiere from Scottish Ballet with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Playhouse. The first Stravinsky (Scènes de ballet) was choreographed by Frederick Ashton, followed by Workwithinwork set to Berio. But beyond question, what set the evening apart was the stunningly fresh, modern and fluid Petrushka choreographed by Ian Spink. By setting the story in Russia of the 1990s (instead of Tsarist St Petersburg) it gained a whole new lease of life. Scottish Ballet created a spectacle of energy, drama, full of innovation, and it was good to see the programme give credits for specialist coaching in breakdancing and pole-dancing. The staging was brilliant, showing the love triangle portrayed in the “show” performed in a lorry trailer and "for real" in the chaotic, and finally violent, street scene. It was breathtaking.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 6, 2009 7:48 PM.

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