Changing the tune

Festival Director Nicola Benedetti launches the 2023 Edinburgh International Festival. Image Mihaela Bodlovic
Festival Director Nicola Benedetti launches the 2023 Edinburgh International Festival. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Edinburgh International Festival

From: 3 Aug 2023

To: 27 Aug 2023

Edinburgh & the Lothians

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This August, visitors to the Edinburgh International Festival will notice a few changes. The first programme under new director, Nicola Benedetti, has no shortage of big hitters in opera, theatre, music and dance. But the top violinist has also brought an ethos which feels new, a radical determination to make the Festival more accessible.“My vision as director is to provide the deepest possible experience to the broadest possible audience,” she said, launching the programme to the assembled media in April. Pledging “unprecedented investment in audience experience and community participation”, she said her team would “harness our storytelling power to make our festival as relatable as possible to anyone and everyone.”

This includes innovative alterations to the seating at the Usher Hall (read on for more), and making frequent use of introduction and spoken interpretation within orchestral presentations. Benedetti went on: “We will be speaking more to audiences… not because the art is not enough. We want to develop, over the years, a deeper culture of listening and understanding for seasoned arts lovers and an environment that feels open, enticing and inviting to new, diverse and younger audiences.”

However, the idea of interrupting a Dvorák symphony for a bit of commentary is enough to make a music purist drop their opera glasses. Kenneth Walton, classical music critic for The Scotsman, says: “Tampering with the Edinburgh International Festival has always been a dangerous game, particularly among the diehard classical music set. Successive Festival directors have variously toyed with or studiously avoided it.

“It’s clear that Benedetti has a fresh vision for the Festival, and that to achieve her goals requires persuasion, not revolution, otherwise she would face rebellion from the time-honoured festival faithful, and have a job on her hands finding a replacement audience.”

Benedetti, however, is determined to shake up (at least in some concerts) the traditional sit-down-and-play format, drawing on her experience as a performer to argue that providing audiences with context and background enables a different kind of listening. In an interview with Classic FM, she said: “In a high percentage of people, it’s an exponential shift. It’s the difference between listening self-consciously because you don’t understand what’s going on and just being open. When you’re more relaxed your emotions are free and there is potential for depth of experience.”

Iván Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Edinburgh International Festival, © Courtesy of the artist
Iván Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra, EIF. Photo: PA Media Group

On August 8, the front stalls at the Usher Hall will be replaced with bean bags for two concerts by the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The first will be framed by a conversation between Benedetti and conductor Iván Fischer about future presentations of orchestral music. That evening Fischer will conduct Dvorák’s Eighth Symphony in “a casual conversational presentation in the round”, stopping the music at times to demonstrate the inner workings of the orchestra.

Roy Luxford, the Festival’s creative director, who has worked closely with Benedetti on the programme, says: “We’re thinking about the way people listen, and also what it means to deepen that experience. A lot of music is very formally presented and that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s about contextualising the performances in a way that is informative and useful. What is controversial to some is hopefully informative to others.

“In a festival as broad and as extended as ours there’s room for playing with lots of different ways for presenting artists and concerts and staging works. If you find the right balance of presenting that content to those audiences we might find a sweet spot.”

South African cellist Abel Selaocoe who is performing in the Hub programme, Edinburgh International Festival © Mlungisi Mlungwan (1)
South African cellist Abel Selaocoe at the Hub programme, EIF. Photo: Mlungisi Mlungwan.

This year also places the Festival Hub, at the top of the Royal Mile, at the heart of the programme, hosting discussions, conversations and film-screenings as well as a programme of informal concerts across musical genres, from South African cello sensation Abel Selaocoe to a conversational presentation by percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and a concert by Scottish folk virtuousos Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham. Luxford describes it as “the heart and soul of the Festival”.

London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle. Image Mark Allan
London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle

Benedetti’s obvious passion, sincerity and evident knowledge will go some way towards convincing the sceptics. Traditional formats are retained in much of the classical programme and interpretation is carefully targeted, for example The Road to Turangalila – a preparatory concert which Benedetti will perform with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Simon Rattle, before their performance of Messiaen’s innovative symphony.

And, when all’s said and done, there are still crowd-pleasers, including the hugely acclaimed Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performing Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s First Symphonies.

Tan Dun, Edinburgh International Festival, © courtesy of the artist
Tan Dun conducts the RSNO opening concert

However, innovation in the programme is also evident, right from the opening weekend. The Opening Concert in the Usher Hall on August 5 breaks new ground, inviting Chinese-American composer Tan Dun (whose work includes the Oscar-winning score for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to direct the RSNO’s Scottish premiere of his Buddha Passion, which fuses eastern and western musical styles.

Cécile McLorin Salvant, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, © Courtesy of the artist
Cécile McLorin Salvant, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, EIF

At Edinburgh Festival Theatre, American vocalist and composer Cécile McLorin Salvant presents Ogresse, a genre-defying song cycle which fuses folk, rock, jazz and country styles with visual spectable. The following day, at the Usher Hall, Benedetti and Radio 3’s Tom Service co-present a programme of work by contemporary composers. And in place of an “opening spectacle”, such as a sound-and-light installation or last year’s mixed genre concert at Murrayfield, there is the Opening Fanfare, two days of free, family-friendly events featuring young musicians in Princes Street Gardens.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon BolivarSymphony Orchestra of Venezuela, EIF
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, EIF. Photo: Danny Clinch

Roy Luxford says that Benedetti’s first programme offers “lots of signposts on where we might go with her” in the years to come, including the decision to start with a central “provocation” – Where Do We Go From Here? (from a book by Martin Luther King), innovation in how music is presented, and a commitment to diverse musical programming and younger audiences.

Kenneth Walton says: “If change is needed, then Benedetti has arrived at precisely the right moment. Covid changed the world, providing a reset opportunity for anyone prepared to challenge the status quo. This programme is but a teaser. My guess is, next year’s programme will see further, more radical initiatives.”

If Benedetti’s approach is persuasion rather than revolution, the changes will be gradual. We will learn more in the coming years about how far she is prepared to go to push forward her radical vision for the festival.

Edinburgh International Festival runs 3rd – 27th August.

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