Thursday 4 October 2007

Director's Notes (and coming attractions)

The king is dead, long live the king? Well, not quite. I liked a lot about this year's festival, in many ways more than I thought I would. But at the same time, the body of work I sampled was much reduced on previous years, in part due to ambivalence when the programme was released and in part to other commitments. I passed by the director's foray into early music and the near disaster that seems to have been the drama this year. I also didn't make a single one of the Queen's Hall concerts.

However, there was some very interesting programming: the Poulenc and a much more adventurous attitude to new music (Ades and Zimmermann being particular highlights). And while I didn't really engage with them this time, I do like the idea of stronger and more thematic programming. Brendel was magical, so too were the Bavarians.

But, this was no perfect year either, there some really turkeys: Tilson Thomas, the San Franciscans and Voigt being chief among them, but from what Finn says this was a poor year for staged opera and drama. But, awarding the benefit of the doubt, it is true that these are arguably the trickiest and most expensive areas. Mills had severe budget constraints, the festival having been over a million pounds in debt when he took it on, and if the rumours I have heard are accurate, next to nothing had been left on the slate. It is clearly the case both that McMaster behaved badly, in going out with such a glitzy and expensive programme and leaving the finances in such a state and, more crucially, that the Festival Council badly shirked their duty in the process of selecting an appointment. They should have done one of two things: appointed a director elect several years in advance or ensured the outgoing director had engaged much of the programming for a couple of years after his tenure. They chose not to choose and Mr Mills was left to pick up the mess.

Mr Mills has briefly given his own thoughts, and in particular highlighted the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. When the programme came out I deliberately elected to steer clear of this, apparently in the minority as it quickly sold out. I stayed away because I've heard two of his CDs, or at least exerts therefrom, on Radio 3's CD Review. Their disc of Beethoven's 7th symphony proved that I was wrong in thinking that the finale couldn't be taken too fast, though determining whether it was actually the absolute tempo or orchestra's inability to hold up to Dudamel's choice would require more comparative listening. The more recent attempt at Mahler's 5th symphony seemed fairly uninspired. Perhaps much of it is simply experiencing the passion live. The rave reviews would seem to bear this theory out. Then again, Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra manage to translate wonderfully to silver disc. If they return next year, I may have to sample them, if only to sate my curiosity on this matter.

There was a puzzling absence of top flight names: where was Mackerras, who achieved such acclaim with his Beethoven last year and has over the past few years built up an excellent relationship with both the festival and the SCO; brilliant though the Bavarians were, they were in a league of their own amongst the orchestras; and, of course, where was the eponymous Runnicles of whose recent performances with the BBC Scottish have shown wonderful chemistry and been a consistent highlight [in fairness to the director, it appears this will be rectified in future].

I'm therefore going to go for a fudge in so far as making any kind of overall assessment is concerned. Some promising signs, others less so, but judgement reserved for the 2008 and 2009 programmes. With time to prepare and without the debt burden bequeathed him, Mills will have a freer hand and the standards against which he shall be judged will be higher. We await next April with interest (and hope that unlike last year, we may get some preliminary information in November).

Until then, and more particularly, until the madness restarts next August (amidst hopes that the Usher Hall restoration plan doesn't fall apart, relying as it does on the hall being closed until August, reopening for the festival and then closing again, what could possibly go wrong!) what will we be doing? In truth, where's Runnicles may not be any quieter. For a start, I already have no fewer than three trips to London planned between now and Christmas, which will fold in the Salonen and the LA Philharmonic in Sibelius, Jansons and the Bavarians again, Haitink conducting Wagner's Parsifal and, a little off the beaten track so far as this blog's standard faire goes, the electronic stylings of Thomas Dolby.

The core of it all, though, is that in a moment of semi-madness I picked up a season ticket for the SCO this year. I found that last year I went to virtually none of their programme and decided the best solution was just to go to everything: chamber music, six o'clock concerts, the lot (including one or two in Glasgow, either because the Queen's Hall is too small or because I've managed to double book one against Donald Runnicles' return, and there was no way the SCO was going to win that one).

And when I can find a moment in amongst all that, I'll be trying to keep up with the odd CD review. My Sibelius project remains ongoing (I recently finished Ashkenazy's Philharmonia cycle, now all I have to is type it up) as does the Runnicles discography. Not to mention the one or two reviews from last season that I still haven't quite got round to. Suffice to say you needn't worry about my keeping busy. And that's just me, I'm sure Finn will have a thing or two to say.

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