Wednesday 24 April 2013

The Edinburgh International Festival's new director

Just over six years ago, on Friday 30th March 2007 to be exact, we launched this blog. In large part, to talk about the first Edinburgh International Festival programmed by Jonathan Mills. I mention this because yesterday the festival announced his successor, Fergus Linehan. This came as a slight surprise. Although Mills is due to complete both the 2013 and 2014 festivals, last October the search for his successor was announced, with a view to them being in place as director designate from this summer, so I hadn't expected the news quite yet.

This is a positive development. Mills' appointment began less than a year before his first festival and given how long in advance classical and opera artists must be booked, the lack of an early start was an avoidable handicap. There are, however, some similarities between Linehan's appointment and that of Mills. Mills was previously director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, whereas Linehan ran the Sydney Festival from 2004 to 2009, where he achieved a significant growth in turnover through increased ticket sales and sponsorship (perhaps he will look at some of the festival's pricing issues). Certainly their Instagram feed is always full of fun things (though that particular image came several years after his tenure). A tweeter who responded to my request for information was very positive about his tenure. That said, this slideshow from 2009 calls to mind the Fringe far more than the International. Prior to Sydney he directed the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Indeed, he seems to have a very strong theatre background, which will come as excellent news to those who most value the theatre and dance pillars of the festival programme. And, it could be argued, that following two more musical directors we are due someone from that area again. Frank Dunlop (1984-1991) was the last festival director to come from a theatre background.

However, Joyce McMillan's claim in The Scotsman that he is “an outstanding programmer across all art forms” seems to us rather more questionable, or at least lacking in evidence. This lack of obvious experience gives cause for concern to those who value the opera and classical programmes as central pillars of the festival, alongside those of theatre and dance. True, between 2010 and 2012 he was either Head of Music or Head of Contemporary Music (depending on whether you go by the press release or his LinkedIn page) at the Sydney Opera House. Slight care needs to be applied here as it is not, as the name might suggest, a role involved in opera but rather in music performances that take place at the house. A look back at their website for 2011 and 2012 does not list a single classical ensemble. Perhaps these are located elsewhere, or unlisted, as the festival's biography suggests there were some. However @freudenvollere indicates that there is not a huge amount of space left after you take out resident companies.

True, if you think that Edinburgh should be desperately seeking to emulate Manchester, this may seem a fuss about nothing. Charlotte Higgins, writing in the Guardian notes:
Both his immediate predecessors, Mills and Sir Brian McMaster, were specialists in classical music and opera, and the kind of eclectic pop that has been a feature of, for example, the Manchester international festival (which this year has the xx in residence, as well as an encounter between Massive Attack and Adam Curtis), has been notably absent.
Each to their own, but none of that would be on my list of notable absences in recent years. Unlike, say, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic (not seen since McMaster's final year in 2006).

Now, one assumes that Linehan, either in interview or at some other stage of the process staked out a sufficiently impressive vision covering the festival's full range that put him ahead of some of the polymaths that might have seemed more obvious candidates (assuming they were interested). And one does like to keep an open mind. Even so, given how much of the festival's audience is classical and opera, and how little of that there is on his CV, one would have expected the press release to address this, perhaps with a reassuring quote or extra biographical information that google has not turned up. Or, that some of the other media might inquire into this gap. Alas....

Neither the festival nor Linehan have responded to these questions, albeit more briefly phrased, on twitter. However, in fairness we must note that since its original publication, Higgins' article has been updated with some reassuring quotes from Linehan:
"I think that each festival director brings their interests and passions to the role. I do love many different types of music – opera, symphonic and chamber music included. However, if we do present a season of contemporary music it will not be at the expense of the classical programme."
Responding to the issue of Manchester's arrival on the UK festival scene, he said: "It is a very different festival in a very different city. Certainly Edinburgh needs to continue to evolve and respond to the times but I don't see that in competitive terms. Of course, I do hope to bring new ideas and approaches to Edinburgh but it's too early to be specific."

So I think we can probably rest assured that classical music and opera are not about to be thrown under the bus. And perhaps with his theatre connections we can expect some decent directors in opera (rather than the worrying portents we hear of Opera de Lyon's Fidelio). Maybe he'll engage Runnicles to do what he does best (and hasn't been asked to do since 2003): conduct some opera. (We have plenty more suggestions if Mr Linehan is interested....)

All the same, there are still two questions we would like answered more fully:

  • Can we have more detail as to what classical and / or opera did he programme in his time at Sydney (or elsewhere)?
  • How does he define contemporary music? Does he mean contemporary classical or does he mean the likes of Brian Wilson, Bjork, Grace Jones and Elvis Costello (as mentioned in the Scotsman)?

It seems perhaps most appropriate to close with some words from that very first blog post back in 2007:
So is this just a bitter, twisted rant?
Not a bit. Our aim is to be positive, where possible, and open-minded about the new director and his programme. Hopefully we'll say the odd interesting or thought provoking thing along the way. We'll also cover far more than just the festival or Runnicles, but that can wait for future posts.
We sincerely hope that all the effusive praise that has appeared in the media since the announcement proves justified, but we won't know that for another two years.

Update - 2013-04-24 16.25

The Edinburgh International Festival has tweeted to clarify some of the questions raised. The first clarifies Linehan's role as an Artistic Associate of the festival. This involved researching shows and projects and making recommendations to Mills and was across the programme, rather than being limited to theatre. The second notes that his Sydney programmes included English National Opera, The Sixteen, Philip Glass, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Brodsky Quartet (so he does have some experience of programming / working with big international names in classical music).

1 comment:

Finn Pollard said...

Thanks to the EIF for advising on Twitter that a) Linehan mainly worked as Artistic Associate in 2012 advising on work across the programme and b) that his Sydney and Dublin Festivals included work from ENO, Sixteen, Vienna Phil, Philip Glass and Brodskys.

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