Alasdair Nicolson

1 Jun 2011 in Festival, Orkney, Showcase

THE St Magnus International Festival in Orkney has a new artistic director. ALASDAIR NICOLSON talks to Catherine Turnbull about islands, funding cuts and creativity.


ALASDAIR Nicolson chooses Orkney’s almost new Italian restaurant for our interview and ushers me to a table by the window. Last time I was in this place, in February, the composer and founder in 1977 of the St Magnus Festival, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was sitting at this very table. It strikes me that both men have a fierce intensity in their gaze and I wonder if it’s the creative process of composing which puts the dazzle in their eyes.

Nicolson is relaxed, sunnily friendly and brings with him a frisson of London sophistication into a dreich Kirkwall day with his designer jeans and fancy shoes. He has promised to bring no great shake-up to the foundations of the festival but plenty of quirky twists, such as concerts on ferry crossings, a burlesque show, a showing of The Wicker Man cult film on midsummer’s night, The Tempest with film, acrobatics and live music and the more expected world premieres and choral and orchestral works.

Alasdair Nicolson

Alasdair Nicolson (photo Paul Foster-Williams)

The festival theme is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Be not afraid; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet air that gives delight and hurt not.” This year is the Year of Scottish Islands, a funding opportunity, and Nicolson himself was brought up on the Isle of Skye and the Black Isle, though both are joined to the mainland, Skye through the bridge since Nicolson’s youth.

We are investigating island culture and with this in mind, The Tempest will be seen with with Mendelssohn’s repertoire when he visited the West coast islands of Scotland. The theme focuses the mind. “The isle is full of noises is what happens here at the festival, it’s a bit magical,” he says.

He was first involved in St Magnus festival in 1994 when he was musical director of a community production of The Beggar’s Opera and has returned many times for community and educational projects, has composed new pieces for concert, dance and theatre and directs the festival’s Composers’ Course. “And of course I know Max (Sir Peter Maxwell Davies) quite well over the years as a colleague. Now I’ve taken over; it’s mine, it’s happening and we are selling tickets. It’s extraordinary.”

What are his feelings about the St Magnus Festival and why is it so special it has kept him coming back to such a far-flung location?

“It’s in an interesting place, as many festivals are. Orkney is special because it has much more than a nice geographical location or cathedral town,” he says. “It has the St Magnus Cathedral, the Neolithic sites, geology and geography, a tourist heaven. That’s very useful when you are running something artistic as it makes an audience very interested in coming for the arts, music and to visit places and provides useful resources.

One of Orkney's alternative attractions, the Ring of Brodgar

One of Orkney's alternative attractions, the Ring of Brodgar

“Orkney is known for its community and professional collaborations, it’s not unique at arts festivals, but unique in its consistency here. There are some festivals where the programme consists of what’s on the circuit; a guaranteed sell-out. Whereas here it has to be much more uniquely organised around the background of the place, the history of the cathedral.

“You also have to think that it is a very expensive place to get to. Other festivals might say ‘bring the orchestra in for the day’ which you can’t do here, which means you have to do quite interesting things in terms of programming and collaborative work. You want somebody to be earning their keep. You end up with the community in Orkney and the audience seeing the artists around, as they are not just here doing the gig and out again.

“In a lovely way, all artists who come here say they love people coming up to them about the concert the night before. This something very special to the professional artist, getting feedback and having the chance to stay with local people they can chat to.”

I am impressed when he reveals the staff comprises one full time manager, and two part timers, he and an administrator. Everything else is run by volunteers, apart from a stage manager brought in for a few days..

“That’s unique now,” he says. “A lot of festivals may have started that way, but now have big teams. The technical crew here are all volunteers, front of house, those running the festival on tour, hosts for accommodation. They are people like quantity surveyors who take their holiday to do this. We bring in one professional to stage manage the technical crew.

“It is ever evolving in terms of skills. One young lass who started here volunteering is now at the Central School for Speech and Drama doing stage management. The artists are impressed by the St Magnus Festival crew, who get hired to do work on other events in Orkney. Also, here nowhere is a fully kitted up venue as you might find at a festival like Cheltenham. The festival also goes on tour around Orkney which involves more logistics.”

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are regulars at St Magnus

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are regulars at St Magnus

Collaborations are not just between visiting artists. There is a tradition of community involvement with local people singing in the chorus, working with national theatre companies on new productions or composing music. And school pupils get to play side by side with professional orchestras.

“Part of the Orkney phenomena is a very open-minded willingness to approach most forms of art which is quite unusual these days. People have more confidence here after being involved in the festival and other festivals here, which is great,” Nicolson says.

With funding in the arts ever decreasing and a double whammy when Orkney Islands Council cut its festival grant, there were fears that ticket prices would shoot up. But Nicolson says he has resisted the temptation of putting tickets up on a par with festivals of a similar calibre.

“Next year being the Year of Creative Scotland might shunt a bit more funding our way but it’s getting harder. It was very disappointing that OIC cut our grant because the St Magnus Festival may only be a few short days but there is work all year round which benefits Orkney. I’m working on a schools project, The Tempest has been going since January. I imagine that the economic impact of the festival in terms of accommodation, restaurants, travel and people buying things from local businesses is huge.

“When the city crashed, funding bodies lost their investments. We have sponsors of course. It will be tough and the temptation is to put the ticket prices for the festival up. I could probably buy a ticket for every event at this festival and probably still not get a seat at the Royal Opera House. We know people won’t travel here and pay big prices and we do want local people to come. If you were hard nosed in business you’d say, we’ve been cut, we need more money. But having a budget gives boundaries and can lead to more creativity and focus. It can be an interesting conundrum.”

Could this mean the festival might not continue to attract the sort of people who make it the calibre of festival it is? “No,” he says. “It is useful to have Max around and I have many contacts and friends. I can say to them come up, get paid something and have the experience. I tried this and a big name has agreed to come in two years time. It was her telling her agent ‘make it happen’ because she so wants to come here. My inbox is chocker with unsolicited emails, not only from the UK, from orchestras and theatre companies. The festival has got a huge reputation across the world. To make it work I’ll not be charging the Albert Hall rate to audiences.”

How has he approached the festival as a new artistic director? “I didn’t want to make people anxious or create something no one would recognise so have kept to the model of the last number of years. The basic idea is there is an orchestra here, chamber music, the Magfest fringe round and about. It is intact. Within the islands theme I tried to add some interesting things, for example a writers course with poet Don Paterson, a poem a pint and a tune in The Reel, a relaxing hour with a drink or a cup of tea.

“Those events sold out. Other than that there are the big commercial events. It’s a shame Mozart’s Requiem with the St Magnus Chorus and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra can’t be in the cathedral. The cathedral is a nightmare for a big concert, a very narrow nave, quite tricky. There are 160 people in the chorus. That’s extraordinary for an island of this size.

The Tempest is a big show with a film being projected, live music, lovely concerts, lovely ensembles like Fretworks the viol concert, a fascinating world of old music being played on old instruments, and then we commission new stuff as well. I am really looking forward to the Windpower event in a windiest place on the planet.

Pure Brass will add their puff to the Windpower extravganza

Pure Brass will add their puff to the Windpower extravganza

“There will be a huge amount of windpower from Kirkwall Town Band, Orkney schools wind and brass, members of the SCO, Flutes en Route, Pipers Three and Pure Brass. Music is being composed by children here for short films made by the Orkney Movie Group, being played live by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The kids are willing to work till half past eight at night after school. Music is part of life here.

“I wasn’t sure how a lecture by Professor Bryan Sykes from Oxford, Blood of the Isles, about the genetic makeup of islanders would go. But it has sold.

“Magfest has a really interesting set of shows across the board. There’s a wonderful Cinderella puppet show, The Terrible Infants which is like Roald Dahl meets Tim Burton, mesmerising and quite gothic and the Berlin Cabaret promises to be a window on the decadent times of 1930s Germany presented in a club atmosphere. It’s a burlesque show with some cross-dressing to music possibly thrown in

“I couldn’t resist a late night showing of the 1973 cult island horror film The Wicker Man on the longest day in Orkney on midsummer’s night, which comes with a pre-talk from Gary Carpenter the film’s composer about what really went on behind the scenes and how the score was put together.”

Nicolson is widely regarded as one of Scotland’s foremost composers. Surely now his creative output has had to be put on hold? “I’ve always been a freelancer and a composer and you are always at the mercy of other people. Now I am in the position that if I think someone deserves more exposure, I am in a position to make it happen. It’s interesting to be proactive and have an exchange of roles. This year has been quite tough to manage my other life composing. The St Magnus Festival is very demanding and inevitably however much something in name is part time, it never can be. But next week I will sit at my desk and write for a brass quintet and then work on an education project.

“I hope there is something for everyone in this programme. It’s fun working from the other side.”

Alasdair Nicolson was picked to succeed Glenys Hughes from an international field of 65 applicants. He has wide experience of working with musicians from a variety of musical genres, has worked extensively in the theatre and collaborates regularly with writers, dancers, filmmakers, playwrights and poets. For five years he was Composer in Association with the City of London Sinfonia, for whom he created programmes and projects, and he has a close association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He has also worked as Artistic Consultant/Director with many organisations, both in their programming and their education and outreach work.

The St Magnus Festival runs from June 17-23 2011.

© Catherine Turnbull, 2011