Edinburgh, Scotland.

Journey to Edinburgh, part one

Concert reviews from the Fringe and International Festivals

William Ford | 21 AUG 2019

EDINBURGH, Scotland— While traveling a few years ago in Croatia, I met a couple from Edinburgh who insisted that I must experience the Festival Fringe, hosted annually in the Scottish capital. Simultaneously, the International Festival is staged; it focuses on classical music and helped provide an impetus for the creation of the more free-wheeling Fringe, although the there are classical music performance within the Fringe. Many of the performances within the Fringe are not curated and the quality can vary tremendously- from street buskers to very sophisticated plays, theater, and dance performances.

Metro Edinburgh has a population of about 800,000; during the August festivals a million visitors are added to the city. Some Edinburghers complain that the city has become a tourist ghetto and that the sound of roller-board suitcase wheels clacking on the sidewalks can disrupt an otherwise pleasant summer’s evening. But the Festival seems destined to stay and to grow since so much of the infrastructure of the city has become oriented to support it.

August 8

On my arrival to Edinburgh, I attended a performance of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. The program included the UK premiere of Glorious Percussion (2008) composed by Sofia Gubaidulina. Featured performers were the Colin Currie Group, who performed in front of the stage; the Symphony’s own percussionists were seated on risers that looked to be about 10 feet from the floor. Some the brass was also seated on risers, about 5 feet off the floor.

The interior of Usher Hall, pre-concert. (photo: William Ford)

The interior of Usher Hall, pre-concert setup for Gubaidulina’s “Glorious Percussion.” (photo: William Ford)

The music is often a swirling interaction between the orchestra and the percussion, with the marimbas frequently stating a theme that is repeated, for example, in the violins. The effect is a nicely integrated work that is exciting to listen to and fun to watch. It’s a visual treat to see the percussion played, but also to experience the wide variety of sound produced. The music at time recalls Stravinsky, and at others Prokofiev, which exposes the composer’s Slavic roots.

The second half of the program featured the incidental music to Grieg’s Peer Gynt (1874). For those of us who grew up with Warner Brothers cartoons, this music is very familiar. Thirteen sections comprise the collection, with some very familiar music such as “In the hall of the mountain king” and “Morning mood.” Yet, as familiar as the music might be, it’s rarely heard in US concert halls. It’s a vivid reminder of Grieg’s’ skill with orchestration and melodic development.

Exterior of Usher Hall. (photo: William Ford)

Exterior of Usher Hall. (photo: William Ford)

Maestro Dausgaard, whose fine reputation is richly deserved, was razor-focused on the dynamics of the work, which turned the music into an exciting operatic soundtrack which, of course, is what it is. Malin Christensson was the solo soprano in the heart-breaking “Solveig’s song” and “Solveig’s cradle song.” Her smooth-as-silk voice was a perfect fit for the music. The hall was about 60 percent full.

This performance took place in the 1914 vintage Usher Hall, which was recently refurbished. It has a large 2200-seat auditorium. The building is round, and the interior of the concert hall has balconies that occupy about 60 percent of the curved wall space. It is decorated in the Beaux-Arts style and it has wonderful acoustics — richly reverberant with a slight echo that adds a great sense of depth. There have been some modern additions to the building’s exterior, including a circular staircase connecting the hall’s multiple levels. Within the staircase is a guestimated 100-foot long, 8-inch in diameter tube of light that is most impressive.

The column of light. Usher Hall. (photo: William Ford)

The column of light. Usher Hall. (photo: William Ford)

August 10

At the Usher Hall, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under Edward Gardner, presented a two-work program, starting with MacMIllan’s Quickening (1999) and closing with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. The Macmillan work was revised specifically for the six-voice King’s Singers, who were seated to the right of Maestro Gardner during this performance. Also performing were the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (Aidan Oliver, chorus director) and the RSNO Junior Chorus (Anne Murphy, chorus director).

Quickening is set to the text of poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Sung in Aramaic and English, it also includes the use of glossolalia (a kind of speaking in tongues). The piece has five sections that generally addressed childbirth and the risk that the universe (or god, or parents) are taking with the birth of each new child. MacMillan knows how to use the orchestra to create gorgeous, thrilling, and, when needed, tender sounds.

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The Festival Chorus had a superb sound and their glossolalic passages were appropriately creepy. The Junior Chorus was seated in the upper balcony, directly above where I was seated. Their voices floated ethereally over the auditorium, which was an effective drama-enhancing technique. What can be said about the King’s Singers? They simply sing with beautiful voices, perfect intonation, and no histrionics.

Quickening is a modern masterpiece and the RSNO and Maestro Gardner were nothing short of terrific. Ein Heldeleben is also a masterpiece and the RSNO performed with passion and skill. It was quite a compelling performance. The house was about 80 percent full.

I had roughly ten minutes between the RSNO concert and a performance by the St. Andrew Camerata of Faure’s Requiem. I quickly made my way to St. Patrick’s Church, about three-quarters of a mile from the Usher Auditorium.

The St. Andrew Camerata performs Faure's "Requiem" at St. Patrick's Church. (photo: William Ford)

The St. Andrew Camerata performs Faure’s “Requiem” at St. Patrick’s Church. (photo: William Ford)

The Church was built from 1771-1774, although the exterior looks much older, even though façade itself was added in 1929. The sanctuary was nearly full, with an estimated attendance of maybe 800, which was surprising given that this was 10:00 pm on a Saturday evening. The church had a warm rich acoustic that seemed so appropriate for the Requiem and the candlelight only added to the mystery.

Faure’s music is lyrical, lacking the theatricality of requiems by other composers; it seems composed to provide solace rather than to depict the majesty and power of the deity. The Camerata had a ten-piece orchestra, including organ; a chorus of 28; and baritone soloist Roderick Bryce and soprano Gillian Robertson. The conductor was founder Vincent Wallace. The Camerata was founded in 1994 and has had an illustrious performance history. The combination of a wonderful setting, a beloved piece of music, a great orchestra, and soloists made for a first-rate and richly warm performance.

[The story contunues in Part Two.]

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William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and www.atlantamusiccritic.com

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