As regular readers will know, Edinburgh festival programme launch day is eagerly awaited in the Pollard household (or rather households). This year it didn't get off to the surest start as I found myself contending with water coming through my ceiling, not, as SCO violinist Rosenna East noted on twitter, quite the deluge I was expecting. Still, such crises were not sufficient to upstage the artistic announcement and by lunchtime I was in full planning mode, aided by highlighter pens, colour printers and my trusty Lamy 2000.
The first thing to note is that unlike the last two years, which had strong overarching themes, there is nothing similar to tie everything together this time round, which is a little bit of a shame. However, this isn't a vast problem given there appear to be a lot of good things.
One big question I had prior to the announcement concerned the start date, which last autumn was announced as being a Thursday. This gave pause for concern that they might actually put the opening concert on a Thursday, though I suspected it was more likely simply that UVA's Speed of Light performance art piece which runs, literally, around Arthur's Seat, would start a day earlier, and so it proves.
This year the RSNO are on opening concert duty with Delius's A Mass of Life. I'm not familiar with the piece, but Andrew Davis is conducting and they perform well for him. They will be joined by the festival chorus. Indeed, these same forces, albeit with David Robertson on the podium, also share the closing concert duties in a programme that features Belshazzar's Feast. This last isn't a massively exciting prospect, even though it's some years since I heard it last. That said, it is paired with Ives' The Unanswered Question and Feldman's Coptic Light, both of which I would rather like to hear.
Between these two is an interesting Usher Hall programme. There is a lack of big name international orchestras, though British bands are very well represented, and given the quality available here it by no means feels like we are being short changed. Biggest among these is a mammoth four concert residence by the London Symphony Orchestra which pairs Brahms' symphonies with Szymanowski's under the baton of Valery Gergiev (after his appointment as the festival's honorary president last year, it seems clear the festival is going to get their money's worth). Szymanowski's rather fine violin concertos also feature, and Nicola Benedetti is the soloist for the first, which will please the local audience. For me, the major unknown is how well Gergiev will fare with Brahms.
The LSO is joined by its main London rivals, as Jurowski brings the LPO for an eclectic programme and Salonen the Philharmonia for Bruckner 4. Both conductors impressed mightily last year (Jurowski with the OAE and Liszt's Faust Symphony and Salonen and the Philharmonia with The Rite of Spring) so both are high on the must see list this time round.
Rounding off the English orchestras is a visit by the CBSO under Andris Nelsons. After recent impressive Proms performances, I'm very grateful for the chance to hear them live, especially as they'll be playing Sibelius 2 (and since I'm having to miss their April performance of Gerontius in London that I had planned to attend).
And what of the man himself? He brings but one concert this year, but it promises to be quite something. The Alpensinfonie is one of my favourite works by Strauss and as his recent exerts from Rosenkavalier show, Runnicles is a dab hand with the composer. This coupled with his flare for the placement of offstage brass means it should be a treat. In the first half is Beethoven's pastoral symphony.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has an interesting programme under Robin Ticciati which includes Britten's arrangement of Mahler's What the Wild Flowers Tell Me and Shostakovich's 14th symphony. Their earlier concert, featuring Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream under Roger Norrington is a less attractive prospect.
Probably the biggest international orchestral name is that of the Cleveland Orchestra. We have fond memories of their residence in 2004. Sadly when they retuned in 2010 they seemed a shadow of their former selves. This coupled with a somewhat bizarre decision to split Smetana's Ma Vlast between two concerts leaves me a little ambivalent.
When we set up this blog, it was in part to bemoan the absence of a certain conductor from the Edinburgh festival. That was thankfully soon rectified, however another absence we lamented at the same time has taken rather longer to address. So, after six years, it is wonderful to see the impressive Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester making a return under Daniele Gatti with Mahler 7 and exerts from Parsifal. In line with a strong youth strand this year, the EU Youth Orchestra are also coming with a programme including Busoni's piano concerto and the UK premiere of Richard Causton's Twenty-Seven Heavens.
This year's opera programme is pretty impressive. First things first, we get the premiere of a new production of Janacek's Makropulos Case. I'm a big Janacek fan and it is one of my favourite operas, add to which it is coming from Opera North and conductor Richard Farnes who have impressed before.
The other thing that jumps out at me is Scottish Opera's contribution which is comprised of new or newish works by Craig Armstrong, James MacMillan, Huw Watkins and Stuart MacRae. This is a bold piece of programming: I can't remember a festival before that had three opera world premieres. They are to be commended for it.
In terms of concert opera, Welsh National Opera bring Tristan und Isolde, but based on reports I've heard from people who have heard Ben Heppner sing recently, this is not a tempting prospect, the more so as Runnicles and the BBC SSO are doing it in concert next season with the likes of Nina Stemme.
Meanwhile, in the theatre there is Shakespeare in Polish and Russian and a rather intriguing adaptation of Gulliver's Travels in Romanian from the team behind 2009's epic Faust. Gate Theatre Dublin bring Beckett's Watt.
Three of the theatre productions, including 2008: Macbeth, updated against a backdrop of the war against terror and middle eastern conflict, take place at the Royal Highland Centre (sadly the tram line that may one day take people there quickly is far from complete, though bus access is pretty decent).
Vanishing Point's Wonderland, described in the programme as "a darkly subversive take on the themes of Alice in Wonderland" looks rather interesting, though the programme also notes that it isn't suitable for children.
My brother will write up the opera and theatre more fully in due course.
I mentioned the festival are working Gergiev hard. In addition to his four LSO concerts, he is also bringing the Mariinsky Ballet with Prokofiev's Cinderella.
Meanwhile, Juilliard Dance (from the eponymous New York school) bring an interesting triptych that includes a ballet based on Beethoven's Waldstein sonata.
Also of note is Ballet Preljocaj's programme, which includes a piece based on Karlheinz Stockhausen's Helikopter Quartet and Leigh + Dancers who bring Impulse, based on Michael Nyman's second string quartet (of note, since Nyman scored one of the most impressive ballets I've seen).
Returning to music, there is also the Queen's Hall series, highlights of which include the return of Maria Joao Pires after her visit last year, a recital by the impressive Leif Ove Andsnes and a recital by Dietrich Henschel, accompanied by Steven Osborne. Also intriguing is Les Vents Francais, a quintet of oboe, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon whose programme includes, among other items, an arrangement of Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin.
After not using the venue last year, the festival returns to Greyfriars Kirk. At £20 for an hour, in unreserved seats, prices are frankly too steep (especially if you're coming from work, and thus won't be early enough to get a good seat). The festival should either examine the pricing or do as Aldeburgh does for its church concerts and reserve seats. All the same, a few items here jump out, especially the impressive Hebrides Ensemble, who play MacMillan's new Since it was the day of preparation.... The Alim Qasimov Ensemble, who joined Kronos in Glasgow last year, close the series.
As ever, the SCO wrap things up with the fireworks concert, this time including music by Walton, Prokofiev and Vaughan Williams.
All in all, there is plenty to get excited about and too much I want to go to - always a sign of a strong programme. It would be a dark year indeed if highlighter pens and printed programme pages were not required.
Full details are available via the festival's website (pdf download of the brochure can be found here). Public booking opens a week on Saturday.