05 September, 2009

Festival Blogger review - Experimentum Mundi

Image: Experimentum Mundi. Photo: Peter Sandground.

The prospect of watching a group of artisans performing industrial every-day tasks was some thing I, and likely many other audience members, were somewhat apprehensive about. The experimental nature of the performance was something no-one could ignore, but it was to be certainly worth witnessing.

Sharp, stark noises punch through the intimate Traverse Theatre, as tools clatter against raw materials, tradesman information is sternly announced. It is a brash performance, and although there is a initial hint of awkwardness I soon found myself intrigued in particular artisans - the coopers, the cobblers, the blacksmith. All the elements merge together as the tempo starts to rise and the (somewhat unusual) rhythm picks up. Suddenly something clicked and I found myself captivated by their primary, repetitive actions and the audible results intertwining. The real-time construction of products on stage was an excellent touch and reminded us that these are genuine craftsmen.

This would not have been possible without the excellent performance of percussionist Nicola Raffone, who strode around his collection striking and strumming all manner of instruments - an art to watch in itself. He compounded together the artisans organic sounds and played what was an essential role in the night’s performance.

The craftsmens’ transformation into collective musicians, individually mundane tasks into somewhat of an ensemble, is difficult to describe; but one that was executed incredibly well by director Giorgio Battistelli and is almost as difficult to forget.

Reviewer: Tom Welsh

04 September, 2009

Festival staff profile - Zuleika Brett

As Festival 09 draws to a close, we spoke to the lovely Zuleika Brett, our Senior Development Officer of Individual Giving.

How did you come to work for the Edinburgh International Festival?
My background is in visual arts having studied Art History at Glasgow University. After graduating I worked in galleries, and also an artist’s studio working in administration including managing their membership scheme before jumping at the chance to join the Festival team when the opportunity arose!

What does your position involve?
Working in the Sponsorship Department my main role is managing the membership scheme. Not only the day to day running, but planning, organizing and attending events all year round for the Friends scheme.

What is the best part of your job?
Getting out an about, especially during the Festival period, talking to supporters and meeting lots of lovely people is definitely the best part of the job. For many people coming to the Festival period is the highlight of the year, and their enthusiasm for the performances is infectious!

What is the most challenging part of your job?
I guess it gets a little frantic running from venue to venue trying to catch up with as many people as possible, however of course its so nice to see people (often its just once a year we get to meet up), and the performances themselves also give you that extra bit of energy required!

What has been your most memorable Festival experience so far?
Do I have to pick just one; there’s so many?! From the unease that Malthouse Melbourne managed to instill in the audience with their production of The Tell-Tale Heart in 2008, to the extraordinary performance by Mabou Mines in 2007; they certainly kept the audience on their toes with their performance of Dollhouse. Equally memorable was seeing the staged performance of Die Zauberflöte conducted by Claudio Abbado in 2006…and seeing Daniel Barenboim conduct his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2005….sorry, can’t choose between them!

Which events are you most looking forward to at Festival 09 and why?
Peter and Wendy – after Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse, I’m really excited to see what they’ve done with this classic tale. In addition, I’m really looking forward to hearing the Hallé perform The Dream of Gerontius.

What are your words of advice to those at the Festival this August?
As well as picking old favourites, also go out on a limb and pick something unfamiliar – it may end up being the highlight of your Festival. Plus wear sensible shoes for all that running between venues!

Describe the Edinburgh International Festival in 3 words?
Unique. Daring. Fun

Festival Blogger review - Retrospect Ensemble

Image: Matthew Halls, Director of Retrospect Ensemble.

In this concert we heard two of Bach's less well-known secular cantata’s, 'O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit' and 'Non sa che sia dolore', written when he was director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.

Perhaps due to its length, 'O holder tag' being Bach’s longest solo cantata, the first piece included more contrast than the second and to my ear was a more satisfying whole. Yet both cantatas proved to be a delight. From the moment soprano Carolyn Sampson opened her mouth I knew we were in for a treat. Her voice sparkled and glistened throughout. This was not easy music and yet she seemed in complete control for the full hour of quite extensive singing. She handled the coloratura masterly and made it seem effortless.

After having heard Sampson I now understand why Gramophone magazine described her as, ‘the best British early music soprano by quite some distance.’ My only criticism would be that Sampson’s voice at times lacked contrast and certain passages would have benefitted from a slightly darker tone. However this is a minor criticism in what was a generally magnificent performance.

Sampson was accompanied by the able Retrospect Ensemble, a group who formed only this year and which has already secured an annual Wigmore Hall season. They played with sensitivity and attention to detail, and were led by the charming Matthew Halls on the harpsichord. The concert finished with a heartbreakingly beautiful encore of 'Bist du bei mir' sung by Sampson and accompanied by basso continuo. Unintentionally, this was perhaps the highlight of the concert and ensured that the audience all left in high spirits.

Reviewer: Fiona Stewart

03 September, 2009

Artist Interview - Philippe Herreweghe, conductor for 'Elias'

Image: Philippe Herreweghe. Photo: Michel Garnier

Philippe Herreweghe was the conductor for Elias which was performed on 18 August at the Usher Hall as part of Festival 09.

Can you tell us a little about your background and some of your first performances?
I was born in Ghent, and combined university studies in medicine and psychiatry with a musical training at the conservatory, where I studied piano with Marcel Gazelle. In the same period I also started conducting and in 1970 I founded the ensemble Collegium Vocale Ghent. Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt invited me to work on their project recording the complete Bach cantatas. At that time, I decided to devote myself to music. Since then I have founded other ensembles, among them the Orchestre des Champs Elysées, founded in 1991 with the aim of re-creating the brilliance of the Romantic and pre-Romantic repertoire on original instruments.

Do you find that there are many differences between audiences in different parts of the world, if so, what are they?
For musicians, it is a huge satisfaction to play before a well-prepared audience. For instance it is very thrilling to play Schumann in Leipzig, where the audience has a very high musical culture and where Schumann played himself. However, we played a few months ago in Sao Paulo before students who had no contact with this kind of music, so-called serious music. And it was very inspiring!

Is there a piece of music that you most enjoy performing in Elias?
As far as I am concerned, the whole work is of the highest quality, one can hear the grandeur of Mendelssohn’s inspiration and the excellence of his writing. His ingenuousness in writing culminates in the interventions of the child, der Knabe, and that may be my favorite sequences.

What do you see as the main differences between performing in a festival and performances in other seasons?
The audience gets into music during almost a month and is therefore much more receptive.
On the other hand, the whole city takes part to the festival, there is a kind of exaltation, a wonderful effervescence, which we can feel from the stage.

Have you attended the Edinburgh International Festival before, if so what are your observations of the Festival?
Yes, I did. The current Director is a friend of mine, whose imagination serves a fascinating programming. And I have never been disappointed by the lively atmosphere ans audience’s enthusiasm.

Why do you think people most enjot about Elias?
Elias is Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, brilliantly written, it aims at everybody, which is the sign of an outstanding achievement.

Festival Blogger review - Peter and Wendy

Image: Peter and Wendy. Photo: Scott Suchman.

New York Company Mabou Mines’ Peter and Wendy charmingly retells the story of Peter Pan in a thoroughly original, and often eerie, way. Led by the brilliant narrator Karen Kandel, Mabou Mines uses a skillful mix of puppetry, song, dance and slapstick to bring J.M. Barrie’s classic to life.

Set to music arranged by the late Johnny Cunningham, the play reminds us of the darker and more tragic undertones of the story- the fear of growing up and the nastier side to Peter’s playful mischief. Dressed in white, with long veils obscuring their faces (and giving the impression of enchanted beekeepers) the puppeteers delighted the audience with a giggling Peter, a very sinister Hook, a ghost- like Neverbird and a Tango dancing crocodile. Johnny Cunningham (born in Edinburgh) has woven this Peter Pan with a beautiful mixture of fast paced Scottish folk music, and haunting laments which help bring a very Celtic feel to the play written by one of Scotland’s most famous writers.

While this production is not necessarily a feast for the eyes in the same way that many adaptations are, it still manages to charm and delight with its pop- up book scenery, twinkling backdrop and Pirate ship of fluttering sails. The flight to Neverland is a joy to behold.

However, it is Karen Kandel who undoubtedly steals the show. The lone speaker, she adapts voices for every character, and her playfulness (and hilarious impression of the Queen) helps add to the charm and lively nature of the piece. Although her Scottish accent was somewhat dubious, she is nonetheless to be applauded for her fine voice skills, comic timing and ability to wrench emotion from every possible moment. Like Peter himself, this play is a mischievous, entertaining and enthralling piece of work, to be enjoyed by adults and children alike.

Reviewer: Eleanor Morton

02 September, 2009

Festival Staff profile - Kirsten Stewart

We spoke to our HR and Payroll Manager, Kirsten Stewart, about her job and her Festival highlights.

How did you come to work for the Edinburgh International Festival? I studied Geography at St Andrews University and then took a year off travelling in the southern hemisphere before studying Human Resource Management at Napier University. I worked in a busy HR department in a NHS Health Board for 5 years before looking for a change and I certainly found that at the Festival.

What does your position involve? I process all wages and salaries for employees of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Centre. I also provide HR advice to managers and staff, revise and write policies and manage recruitment and selection of staff.

What is the best part of your job? The best part of my job is the variety of my role. I can never expect what each new day will bring!

What is the most challenging part of your job? Ensuring that all the temporary staff for the festival period are recruited, inducted and paid! This can mean dealing with an extra 100 people starting pretty much at the same time.

What has been your most memorable Festival experience so far? There have been a few but I really loved Matthew Bourne's Picture of Dorian Gray. I had read the original play and was not a big fan of modern dance but this totally converted me.

Which event have you most enjoyed at Festival 09 and why? I loved Faust. It was spectacular and I had never seen anything like it.

What are your words of advice to those still at Festival 09? Have fun, keep calm and smile.

Describe the Edinburgh International Festival in three words? Inspiring, spectacular and engaging.

Artist Interview - Thierry Poquet, Director of St Kilda

Image: St Kilda. Photo: Christian Mathieu.

We spoke to Thierry Poquet, Director of St Kilda, a staged opera telling the story of the 'Birdmen' of St Kilda. St Kilda played at the Festival Theatre this August as part of Festival 09.

What is your background and what types of projects did you work on before St Kilda?
As a music composer and actor, I started to direct in 1985 with big outdoors theatre shows with Collectif Organum (cf. Locos in Glasgow 1990). After a time directing contemporary texts (including Fassbinder, Genet, Motton, Berkoff, Pasolini and Tremblay), I now work with contemporary composers and orchestras (including Ars Nova, Musiques Nouvelles and Sphota) for operas and other shows combining poetry, musical theatre, dance and film.

How did you start working on this production?
I was called by Artistic Creator, Lew Bogdan, to go to a lost Island. They asked me to co-write the show, to coordinate the artistic European project and to co-direct the film. I took three planes and an 8-hour ride boat to discover St Kilda and these amazing stories. This place is such a special spot you can’t help but dream: it sacred, and you can feel it from the ground to the sky.

The production has many sensory aspects, including film footage woven into the live performance. Do you find your role as director to St Kilda different to other shows you have been involved in and if so, in what ways?
The size: it was a European project connecting 5 countries. But as I’ve said above, I like to use a poetic language involving music, acrobatics, dance, theatre, film and the new sounds.

What do you think audiences most enjoy about the opera St Kilda?
This story is an echo of each personal history: exodus by the war, exodus to find a job, exodus to survive, exodus for political reasons. We all have roots we need to take care of.

01 September, 2009

Artist interview - Emerson String Quartet

Image: Emerson String Quartet. Photo: Mitch Jenkins

We spoke to the Emerson String Quartet ahead of their performance at the Queen's Hall this Friday at 11am. Limited tickets are still available from eif.co.uk/emerson.

Can you tell us about your background and how the Emerson String Quartet formed?
We met as students of Oscar Shumsky at the Juilliard School. We formed a student quartet in the early 1970s, which evolved gradually into a professional ensemble. Our current membership dates from autumn 1979.

Do you find that there are many differences between audiences you’ve played to in different parts of the world?
I would say that the main differences are not so much between different countries as they are, even within one country, between audiences that are sophisticated about chamber music and those that are somewhat less so. When we first toured Germany in 1983, we noticed how quiet the audiences were while we played. That gave the impression that they were listening more attentively than audiences in the U.S., where we were used to a fair amount of coughing during the performances. The applause and vocal reactions after each piece seem to be more enthusiastic or impassioned in Germany, Austria and Switzerland than, say, in Italy, where the response to chamber music is more tempered than at opera performances. This leads one to the conclusion that since most of the repertoire we play was written in Central Europe, it elicits the most intense reaction in the countries where it originated. However, it is important not to overgeneralise and to remember that music will speak directly to any listeners who are open to it, no matter what their background or nationality may be. Over the years we have developed a very warm rapport with our audiences in London. Even within the U.S., we notice a large range of reactions.

What do you see as the main differences between performing in a festival programme and performances in other seasons?
In festivals there is the stimulus of other musicians whom we might hear, and who might listen to our performances. Often there is thematic programming, and this year at many festivals we have programmed either Haydn or Mendelssohn, or both, because of Haydn's death and Mendelssohn's birth in 1809.

Is there a piece of music that you are particularly looking forward to performing at the Festival?
All three pieces on our programme are great. It is interesting to juxtapose Mendelssohn's early Op. 12 with Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, because of their similarities. The influence of Beethoven can be clearly felt, especially in the slow introduction to the first movement. Then we play Mendelssohn's last completed quartet, Op. 80, written in great anguish after the death of his sister, and shortly before his own demise. This driven, obsessive work brings Mendelssohn closer to the stormy spirit of Beethoven, even though there may not be a specific model as was the case with both Opp. 12 and 13, and points to a radical new direction that Mendelssohn's music would have taken had he lived longer.

Have you attended the Edinburgh International Festival before, if so what are your observations of the Festival?
Though we've played once at the Queen's Hall, it was not during the Festival, which we are looking forward to.

Why do you think people should come to the Emerson String Quartet at the Edinburgh International Festival?
Perhaps the fact that it is our festival debut, and only our second appearance in Scotland, will be of some interest. Through our recordings, and broadcasts of our London concerts on the BBC, we hope that we have a following among classical music lovers throughout the British Isles.

Festival Blogger review - The Yalta Game

Image: The Yalta Game. Photo: Trent O'Donnell

Patrick Mason’s production of Brian Friel’s The Yalta Game really is a little gem – little being the opportune word to describe this fifty minute stage adaptation of Chekhov’s classic tale, The Lady and the Lapdog. The theme of transparency lies at the heart of this play which recounts the extra-marital affair of a Russian accountant, Dmitry (Risteárd Cooper), and a young high-society woman, Anna (Rebecca O’Mara). The two begin their affair and are bonded by their mutual passion for “The Yalta Game”, in which the residents and visitors of a small Russian town scrutinise each other “investing the lives of others with imagined lives,” however, Dmitry soon becomes one of his own fantasies - albeit of his own devising - and this theme becomes all too apparent when he claims he has two distinct lives, one public and one private – the public one being, “fully conventional, altogether transparent, and an utter deception.”

In addition to the bravura performances of the cast in this two-hander play, Liz Ashcroft once again manages to capture the full flavour of the play in her set design (as she did with Faith Healer) which is very minimalistic and altogether static throughout, if almost non-existent. The production contains no additional props other than about 10 chairs randomly placed across the stage; however, this set design remains very effective as it means there is no detraction from the intensity of the couple’s relationship on stage, which at times has the charm of that of Laura and Alec in Brief Encounter.

The full poignancy of this play lies in the fact that both characters know that their relationship cannot last and are able to admit this to themselves, yet their love transcends this fact and they are unable to admit it to each other. In essence, they remain somewhat trapped in a freefalling inertia which in Dmitry’s words is both “deceptive and authentic.” This truly was a play with a strong flavour in which the audience was left desperate for more, which is exactly what makes this production a success.

Reviewer: Scott Clair