Wednesday 23 March 2011

The 2011 Edinburgh International Festival looks to the East

Next week this website has its fourth birthday. I mention that because when we started it, a primary objective was to comment on the 2007 Edinburgh Festival, the first from director Jonathan Mills. Today he launched his fifth and, at first glance, the strong thematic linking of events, coupled with plenty of interesting individual items, suggest that it is well placed to follow last year's strong showing. (Download the brochure here.)

My brother has already discussed the theatre and operatic offerings, so I shall look at the music. Music sometimes seems to be the component of the programme that integrates least strongly with Mills' themes, but this year it looks very well done.

Start, for example, with the opening concert. It features the Scottish Chamber Orchestra back on duty with Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, an oratorio which sets selections from Thomas Moore's oriental romance Lalla-Rookh. It's not a work I know, and Schumann can be a little turgid in the wrong hands, though under the baton of Roger Norrington that seems unlikely to be the case. Add to that a cast including Susan Gritton and Florian Boesch and it should be a good opening.

The theme runs on through the various new compositions dotted through the orchestral programme, so the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal bring Tan Dun's Water Concerto and Takemitsu's A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden. These are coupled with the reliably crowd drawing likes of Beethoven's Pastoral symphony and Stravinsky's The Firebird.

The SCO's second appearance is in a similar vein, featuring Toshio Hosokawa's Blossoming, a work commissioned by the festival. This is an exciting prospect, if his similarly named Moment of Blossoming, a horn concerto which the Berlin Philharmonic brought to London on their recent visit, is anything to go by. It is joined by Ravel's beautiful Le tombeau de Couperin and Durufle's Requiem. Ticciati conducts.

Elsewhere are more European works inspired by the orient, so in the visit by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Nott, whose two concerts close the festival, we get Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin along with Messiaen's Sept Haikai. And, in a bold programme that I fear is sadly likely to play to an Usher Hall well below capacity, Volkov directs the BBC SSO and the legendary IRCAM in three pieces by Jonathan Harvey: Body Mandala, Speakings and ...towards a Pure Land. Speakings was compelling when I heard them perform it a few years ago.

Recitals in the evening Usher Hall programme seem up on last year, perhaps a reflection of cost cutting times. Yet no apology need be made for them: we get the likes of fabulous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila; there is Magdalena Kozena whose programme includes Shostakovich's Satires (which I heard her do superbly in a Queen's Hall recital a few years ago), Simon Keenlyside, and the pairing of Martha Argerich and Nelson Goerner for a series of duets. Perhaps most interesting is sitar player Ravi Shankar who brings a quartet for an evening of Indian music.

Of course, that is not to suggest there is a lack of traditional big orchestral blockbusters on the programme too. Salonen brings the Philharmonia for The Rite of Spring, Myung-Whun Chung brings the Seoul Philharmonic for Tchaikovsky's magnificent Pathetique, Jurowski the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment for Liszt's Faust Symphony and Dutoit the Philadelphia Orchestra for two programmes, the most mouthwatering of which features Sibelius's Finlandia, Tchaikovsky's violin concerto (with Janine Jansen) and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. I wasn't impressed with Zinman and the Tonhalle on their last visit, but this time they are joined by Maria João Pires for Mozart's K595 concerto, so that is probably a must see.

Venturing out of the Usher Hall there is other very interesting stuff too, such as a trio of films at the Playhouse with the scores played live by the Philip Glass ensemble and the programmes of traditional Asian music featuring at The Hub and the National Museum of Scotland.

And we haven't even mentioned the Queen's Hall morning programme (attendance of which my day job renders problematic). Again, the festival's theme is strongly woven throughout. Thus alongside Schubert's Quartettsatz and Barber's String Quartet the T'ang Quartet also present Chinese composer Bright Sheng's 3rd string quartet, a work inspired by Tibetan folk song.

Guitarist Xuefei Yang mixes eastern and western music in her recital while Melvyn Tan pairs a selection Scarlatti sonatas with the music of John Cage. Toshio Hosokawa gets another look in when the Arditti Quartet perform Blossoming (it's not clear if this is the same piece the SCO are doing, or perhaps a different version of the same work) along with A Way a Lone, inspired by Finnegans Wake.

The Belcea Quartet's programme including Haydn, Beethoven's op.130 and some Turnage probably rates as a must see (and is fortunately on a Saturday). Indeed, this year I find myself rather disappointed I'll have to miss so much of it. The only day I'll be glad to be at work will be when Olli Mustonen visits.

I'm somewhat out of my expertise when it comes to ballet, yet here too various things catch my eye. Scottish Ballet, for example, stage a new work which mixes the music of Mozart and Steve Reich. There is also Sriyah, a selection of pieces created by The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble.

But wait, I hear you cry, where's the eponymous maestro? You need not fear: he is there. And, following last year's epic Mahler 8, we can expect something similarly fine as he, the BBC SSO and the Festival Chorus turn their attention to the 2nd (as I predicted they would). Top mezzo and frequent Runnicles collaborator Karen Cargill joins them, which should make for a stunning urlicht.

The festival is rounded off with the fireworks concert, the SCO as ever on duty. Hopefully this year's selection of Chinese, Russian and Arabian dances will be a little more dramatic that last year's choices, which were generally something of a damp squib (musically speaking, if not pyrotechnically).

All in all, it looks an interesting, bold and promising year. It's also good, in these straightened times, to see some new sponsors. And, especially in the dance, theatre and opera programmes, Mills has made good use of a technique much in evidence last year - namely funding from the embassies and cultural ministries of the countries he's showcasing. I wonder where his focus will be in 2012....

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