Tuesday 8 September 2009

A nice bit of spectacle

It's six years since I last attended the Edinburgh International Festival fireworks concert.

For those not counting, that was in 2003. We'd just seen the climax of the stunning Ring cycle that effectively finished off Scottish Opera. It was a tight timing to get from the Festival Theatre down to the Ross Bandstand. We forced our way through the crowd that was already swamping the mound, still clutching the remnants our Gotterdammerung interval picnic. Finally we secured our seats and waited. And waited. And waited.

The timings, it turned out, were a little more elastic than originally planned. You see, back then the fireworks concert used to take place on the Saturday, after the last concert, not on the Sunday as is now the case. Gotterdammerung, with its teatime start, finished just about in time. Over in the Usher Hall, where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were performing an obscure Rossini opera - Zelmira (one of many funded by Peter Moores), things were a little different and it ran much later than they thought it would when the programme was being compiled. Of course, festival goers will remember that the over-running final concert was something of a hallmark of the McMaster tenure. Anyway, it was quite a long way beyond 10.30 by the time orchestra and chorus had been got into place ready to play. It can be no co-incidence that 2004 occasioned the shift to 9pm on the Sunday, with no other events that day.

However, even though we had to sit and wait in the rain (and it rained a lot), even though one of the stage lights was faulty and shone perpetually in my eyes, it was a staggering spectacle, finishing with Handel's stunning Zadok the Priest. One felt particularly sorry for the chorus, who, unlike the orchestra, were not covered and got very wet. They were given flimsy plastic ponchos this year, and possibly then, I don't recall (they certainly got wet though).

I haven't ventured back since, often because the music hasn't leapt out at me. However, this year it was a celebration of Handel and a nearly identical programme to 2003.

Things kicked off fairly promptly after a number of test flares (not sure what they could be testing the that needed four goes). Perhaps it was simply the art of building up suspense. Matthew Halls, last week encountered in Greyfriars Kirk, took to the podium to conduct the SCO.

At the front was a young girl who had won a competition to press the button to kick things off. Or, as seems more likely, to send a signal to the control box to start things off. And what a start it was (if not perhaps the start the girl was expecting, leading to the PR disaster of tears). Over the tension building opening of Zadok the Priest smoke poured over the battlements of the castle and yellow lights illuminated it. Then with the chant of "Zadok the Prist" from the chorus came the first volley of fireworks. Then, as the work surged into its third stage with "God save the King" even more spectacular missiles exploded overhead. The co-ordination between music and pyrotechnics was exceptional. The more impressive given that to time it right they must have to press the button, or the computer must press the button, several seconds before to give the rocket time to get into place ready to explode on cue.

After that came the Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. Between each work, and sometimes between sections, Halls paused, apparently waiting for the cue that they were ready to proceed with the next fusillade. The grand finale came with the Halleluja Chorus. It was great visual spectacle of the highest order, from the fabulous waterfall of sparks cascading down the cliff that the castle sits on, to the vast volleys of fireworks exploding overhead one on top of another.

You may at this point, or long before this, be thinking that's all very well, but a picture is worth a thousand words. And it certainly would be. But while I did take my camera, I didn't take any. As ever, I feel that if you're trying to take pictures you miss seeing the actual event, and it was too fantastic for that. Fortunately, the Scotsman have taken some (sadly not of the waterfall).

As time progressed, the air became ever thicker with gunpowder, and we got hit with ever more shrapnel (which only added to the drama), there was the odd thought of what this must cost and what it does to the environment. But it's only once a year, and for a show like this it has to be worth it. (Incidentally, it occurs to me that some overzealous health and safety person with no proper understanding of risk management may read this paragraph and conclude that it must be stopped. On the off chance you are, contact me and I'll bring my engineering degree to bear in explaining why that would be stupid. And, indeed, sure enough.....)

Of course, this is primarily music website, so I suppose a word or two about the musical performance is called for. Unlike in 2003, I was to the right of the orchestra. That meant that if I looked at the fireworks I couldn't see them. So, for obvious reasons, I didn't watch them. The sound, through, in all honesty, a rather unimpressive PA system, was nothing to write home about. Still, they played the works crisply and with plenty of energy, as the occasion requires.

It was a fabulous night and had me wondering why I haven't been for six years. Then again, spare a thought for the orchestra. The chorus got a break and could see quite a bit. I'm told some members of the orchestra were able to sneak off stage and watch parts they weren't involved with. But still, it does seem harsh that year after year most of them have to sit there providing the accompaniment for an exceptional show they don't see. Next year let's have one of Scotland's other bands do the honours and give free tickets to the SCO. One also wondered if the absence from the stage of one or two noticeable principals was because they were watching.

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