28 Jun 2006 in Dance & Drama, Music, Orkney, Visual Arts & Crafts

Orkney, 16-21 June 2006

The Whistlebinkies and the Limbe Choir with Glenys Hughes conducting.

THIS WAS the 30th St Magnus Festival, though not the 30th anniversary. That will take place next year, with amongst other highlights recently announced, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, a new community play by Alan Plater, Scottish soprano Lisa Milne, and for the first time here a symphony by Mahler – the 4th. Plan your visit now – the best working assumption with this festival is that the big shows, and most of the smaller ones, will sell out.

In June 1977, over four days, there were ten events. In June 2006, in the now customary six days of the festival, 30-plus events were listed on the programme, and many others took place besides. And this year outwith the Festival period itself, another two concerts will be held under the auspices of Magfest, supported principally by EventScotland, featuring big names in the world of popular music, as well as local groups.

Prominent in the Festival itself this year, as well as the BBC Philharmonic, in terrific form, were featured composer James MacMillan (the Festival began with his fantasy Britannia, and besides smaller scale works, it included performances of his Seven Last Words from the Cross, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and Tuireadh, dedicated to the victims of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and their families – a piece that was premiered here in 1991), the Nash Ensemble, the Scottish Ensemble, Cappella Nova, violinist James Ehnes and the joyous and colourful Limbe Youth Choir, this last being one of the main contributors to the programme’s Malawian theme.

“We’re blazing a trail here,” was the way Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Festival President, summed it all up on the final night

By common consent, one of the highlights overall was the Choir’s performance with the Whistlebinkies of James MacMillan’s Sanctus, which took place in the packed parish church in St Margaret’s Hope – conducted, as was a Scottish-Malawian Auld Lang Syne, by festival director Glenys Hughes.

Indeed the 20-strong Choir’s many performances in a variety of venues including schools, outdoors and, with the remarkable Jack Mapanje, Festival poet, brought a vivid, thrilling new dimension to the experience of many different audiences during the the festival.

Another thrilling new opportunity for many different musicians was created by the closing performance on Wednesday night. Ring of Strings by Edward McGuire, conducted by James MacMillan, featured 120 string players, ranging from the Scottish Ensemble to Sanday Fiddle Club, the Royal Scottish Academy Strings to Hadhirgaan and Shoramere, and Jennifer Wrigley, who played with captivating authority and feeling.

One could say much the same about the performance for two pianos of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, another powerful and dramatic highlight, given by Lynda Cochrane and Judith Keaney in the Cathedral on Wednesday lunchtime.

In fact though the weather throughout was pretty unkind, the Festival was a huge success from start to finish in all its many manifestations. The Mozart ‘Requiem’ with the Festival Chorus we mentioned elsewhere, and also James Ehnes’ recital with Eduard Laurel, which featured memorably Bartok’s 1921 ‘Sonata no 1 op 2’.

The final movement of this sonata provided an unforgettably powerful example of music as emotional blender, and it left the audience shaking – though not those two musicians. It was a perfect couple of hours, poised and passionate, and, on a lighter note, even the ferry’s distant contribution arrived spot-on.

The Nash Ensemble have been regular visitors in recent years, and once again they played extensively from less frequently heard parts of their repertoire, though their account of Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor was outstanding. They are a pleasure to watch as well as to listen to, keenly alert and expressive as they are in communicating with one another facially and by gesture – and their performances are always exhilerating.

Mostly taking place in the Cathedral, the recitals included an afternoon performance at St Magnus Church in Birsay – “built on the site of the church that St Magnus knew as a boy, and therefore more important than St Magnus Cathedral,” as the Secretary of the Birsay Heritage Trust reminded us at the start. Indeed one of the charming aspects of this very agreeable event was the way in which the members of the Ensemble introduced each piece briefly in turn.

For example, flautist Philippa Davies explained that Simon Holt’s ‘the other side of silence’ for flute, viola and harp had been extended from a version played in Orkney two years ago. This piece featured some stunning contrasts in the qualities of the various instruments, and though it is impossible to single any one out for particular mention, the presence in this intimate venue of the harp (played by Lucy Wakeford) was a real treat for the ears and the imagination.

The original version of that piece by Simon Holt was first played in the same birthday tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as the original of one of the other items performed this year in the Cathedral by the Nash Ensemble, and one of the Festival’s handful of World Premieres – Alasdair Nicolson’s ‘The Stamping Ground’. Inspired by sketches made on trips to Orkney, this work spoke of clarity and far horizons – an uplifting perspective on a landscape washed clean perhaps by the sort of rain that fell hard all that afternoon. Like many other pieces aired by the Nash this was memorable not least for the clarinet playing of Richard Hosford.

So many more players and performances deserve to be mentioned, but there isn’t space for all. Events held in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of George Mackay Brown are dealt with elsewhere by Sue Tordoff, and the continuing success of the Orkney Conducting Course has been written up by regular visitors Robert Clark and Susan Costello. Charlotte Ray, Foundation Manager for the PRS Foundation and another Festival visitor, has written about the Foundation’s support for new music and how that is reflected in what we hear at this Festival in particular.

But the inspired programming that gave the Cathedral audience late on Monday night, via the Scottish Ensemble (with leader violinist Jonathan Morton playing with effortless expression – as I heard someone say, “like stroking silk”), a Bach fugue followed by a violin concerto by the same composer, followed by, joined by Cappella Nova, MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, built something in sound and virtuosity every bit as complete, humane and compelling as – it has to be said – that wonderful stone church itself, the light fading in the tall eastern window and the packed house transported.

To return to the point made at the outset – that the Festival has grown is self-evident; that it means to continue to grow is similarly quite clear. Not simply in terms of its sheer size, as reflected in the number of events taking place, but in the way those events are geared to the audience and local (and national) circumstances generally. In an effort to guage opinion on its work, this year an audience survey was carried out. This follows the appointment of a marketing officer, whose (temporary) post brings to a total of three the number of paid Festival staff.

Patricia Ferguson, MSP, Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport was in Orkney for the weekend of the Festival, and she recognised and acknowledged the qualities that make it special. “It’s my first time here and I’ve been enormously impressed by what I have seen and heard. I am really impressed by the organisation, given that there are so few paid staff, although perhaps that’s its strength, that it really is part of people’s lives.

“It is a great festival which truly has a national and an international reputation, and we will be considering ways in which the organisers can work with the Scottish Executive to ensure that it can continue to thrive. For example, funding for the National Companies will depend on their being truly national, and there may be opportunities for Orkney to benefit from input by companies such as Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet.”

With the Festival’s long-standing commitment to music education in mind, the Minister commented enthusiastically on the performance she had heard in Orkney (in Orphir Kirk) by the two quartets from the Royal Scottish Academy Strings, and remarked on the way in which the RSAMD’s reputation, “is growing all the time – and they don’t rest on their laurels. I recently attended a beautiful performance in Edinburgh of Massenet’s ‘Cendrillon’, in which the Academy collaborated with Scottish Ballet and the St Petersburg Conservatoire – a very high quality of singing and music – and I am very pleased that a relationship has also developed between the Academy and the Festival here.

“The Scottish Executive has ambitions for tourism in Scotland to grow by 50% by 2015, and Orkney generally and the Festival in particular, where so much of the growth has been what I would call ‘organic’, shows a very good example in this field, as well as in the artistic activity that lies at the core.”

“We’re blazing a trail here,” was the way Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Festival President, summed it all up on the final night. And speaking of the many festivals he attends throughout the world: “This is the most joyous of them all.”

Even allowing for a little local bias, those words from someone who knows his own mind and speaks it emphatically, are strongly indicative of the Festival’s ambition – in engaging new audiences, new forms of music and other arts, and traditions from different parts of the world, all at the highest standards, while still staying true to its roots and its people here in Orkney.

Amongst the highlights Max mentioned that haven’t been noted above in detail – the Festival’s encouragement of new developments in traditional music, the workshop given by Sicilian puppet-maker Vincenzo Mancuso, and the “knowing innocence” of the schoolchildren’s animation film ‘Around the World in a Swan Vespa’, made with the assistance of David Swift, Jonathan Charles, Simone Bloomfield, Brian Cope. and not least the teachers at the three schools – Evie, Rousay and Kirkwall Grammar.

“Blazing a trail” after all these years. Considering all the remarkable people here making this journey together, it’s no wonder the Festival’s staying so far out in front.

© Alistair Peebles, 2006