Monday, June 26, 2006

FESTIVALS://St Magnus twinned with...Cheltenham

By Kenneth Walton
From - Mon 12 Jun 2006

Take a look at the programmes of two nominally disparate UK festivals, and some of the similarities this year might astonish you. The surprise lies not so much with the annual St Magnus Festival, which opens in Orkney this Friday with a programme formula so well-established you could set your clock by it. It's the Cheltenham Music Festival that has a somewhat eccentric quality this year - ceilidhs, pipe bands, premieres by many Scottish composers also featuring in Orkney, and appearances by Scottish artists, both classical and folk. Not the kind of rude Celtic intrusion one would normally associate with the Gloucestershire town. More on that later.
But there's a common factor to both events: Martyn Brabbins, the astute and affable English conductor who has been a significant cog in Scotland's musical machinery in recent years. To say he has a deep affection for Scotland would not be an exaggeration. He was, after all, the man who brought the undiscovered music of Edinburgh-born Cecil Coles - and the tale of intrigue that led to the disappearance of Coles' music after he was killed in the First World War - to public notice.
Brabbins' most notable presence here has been as associate principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO), a post he stepped down from last year after 15 years. He also during that period struck up strong working relationships with Scottish Opera, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Chamber Group of Scotland, instigated a postgraduate conducting course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD), and remains president of the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union.
This week, he is once again part of the mainstream line-up of artists at the St Magnus Festival, appearing with the BBC Philharmonic, the St Magnus Festival Chorus (in Mozart's Requiem) and the Nash Ensemble. Apart from conducting some of the major concerts, however, he will also be officiating over the Orkney Conducting Course he personally instigated three years ago.
"That's been a great success from the start," says Brabbins. A selected group of apprentice conductors benefit from two-piano sessions, and hands-on orchestral and choral experience rehearsing with the main resident orchestra and festival chorus. "Eight is the perfect number for the course, and that's how many we have this year out of over 50 applicants. Among them are an American, a Finn, a Dutchman and a girl from Taiwan."
It's all part of an extended outreach programme which has enabled St Magnus to develop and sustain its presence as one of the most wide-reaching and sustainable festivals in the UK, especially given its isolated geography. This year sees the return of Glenys Hughes as the festival's director. She spent a well-earned sabbatical in Malawi last summer, and the fruits of that trip are evident in the presence in Stromness next week of the poet Jack Mapanje and the Malawian Limbe Choir.
What is truly extraordinary about this year's midsummer event, though, is the sheer number of artists appearing - something in the region of 200 if you tally up the combined forces of the Manchester-based BBC Phil, the Royal Academy Strings (students from the RSAMD), the legendary Nash Ensemble, the Scottish Ensemble, Cappella Nova, and several other groups and individuals.
On an island limited in size and general amenities, part of the magic of St Magnus is the inevitable way festivalgoers mix easily with the artists, not least in the rush for a drink at the crowded bars. As ever, the repertoire is highly adventurous. James MacMillan relives his glory days of the late 1980s - the appearance of his music at the festival then effectively established his reputation - with performances of some of his earlier works, including the mind-blowing Seven Last Words from the Cross played by the original combined forces of Cappella Nova and the Scottish Ensemble.
There are works, too, by younger Scottish composers - Inverness-born Alasdair Nicolson, David Horne and Glasgow-based John Gormley (his first String Quartet). Of the older generation, Edward McGuire has written a new piece, Ring of Strings, which combines traditional and classical musicians. And no St Magnus festival would be complete without the presence, in body and music, of the co-founder, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
Among the other delights will be a specially conceived community theatre presentation, A Hamnavoe Man, celebrating the lasting influence on the islands of the late George Mackay Brown. Music for the play has been written by a local composer, Kenneth Dempster.
As for Brabbins, while his involvement in Orkney is purely as a prominent guest artist, down in Cheltenham he plays a much more pivotal role as artistic director of that entire Festival. The influence of his perennial Orkney experiences is not lost, however, as this year's programme has an unmistakably Scottish flavour.
There are even noticeable repeats from Orkney, such as David Horne's Splintered Instruments, which will be premiered at St Magnus. "It's always good for a new piece to get two goes," says Brabbins.
This year's featured composer in Cheltenham will be Sally Beamish, whose Lost and Found in the Forest of Dean will be premiered by the King's Singers. MacMillan is there in significant doses, too, as are Nicolson, McGuire and the BBC SSO's young composer-in-association, Anna Meredith.
At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Blazing Fiddles will set Cheltenham Town Hall alight with their inimitable high-energy fiddling. There's even a Highland Sing for schoolchildren.
The most intriguing commission, Scottish Miniatures, is an imaginative collaborative project featuring four of the Scots composers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and an idea borrowed from the Russian composer, Mussorgsky. Horne, McGuire, Nicolson and Meredith were all asked to select a painting from the London-based art collection of the Fleming family, which includes works by Scottish artists from the last 200 years - by names such as Macintosh, Cadell and Eardley. Each composer then wrote a short orchestral miniature based on their choice, which would then be knitted together in the same manner as Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. "We asked David Horne to write the linking music," Brabbins adds. The paintings themselves will be on show in Cheltenham Art Gallery.
There is another logical reason for mentioning the Orkney and Cheltenham Festivals in the same breath: travel time to either is much the same if you live in central Scotland. Cheltenham might even be cheaper to get to, given the notoriously expensive cost of flying to Kirkwall. The point is, both are considerations well worth the effort.

The St Magnus Festival runs 16-21 June, The Cheltenham Music Festival runs 30 June to 15 July,

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