A Festival Update - Autumn/Winter newsletter 2016

Posted on by Leslie Burgher

Dear supporters of St Magnus International Festival,

Welcome to St Magnus International Festivals first ever e-newsletter.

We are frequently requested for news and thought it was about time we sent our first quarterly newsletter. We do hope you enjoy and if you have any suggestions for improvement then please let us know.

The Festival Chorus with BBCSO and soloists - as heard on Radio 3
Festival Chorus, BBCSO and soloists - as heard on BBC Radio 3!

As ever in the annual cycle, the previous Festival disappears into the Orkney mists surprisingly quickly and what has been all-consuming now seems a distant memory: the BBC Symphony Orchestra truck is long gone, a pile of volunteer lanyards sits in the corner of the office, posters and designs are instantly out of date and our specially commissioned infinity scarves dangle above the now dark box office. It may seem that nothing is happening, that we’ll just pop up miraculously next year all organised in an instant, but of course the planning is well ahead for next year and beyond. It can take years to bring new projects to the stage and to be able to find a slot in the busy schedules of orchestras and artists.

There’s the famous story of two ladies standing outside the festival office, as it was originally being converted for our use, and one of them confidently observing: “I don’t know why they need an office, it only runs for a couple of weeks a year. “

Simply getting all the performers on and off the islands and finding them a bed for the night is just one of the huge back-room exercises that challenges “festival mission control” from now to next Festival – and it never gets easier.

The Last Post at Ness BatteryCelebrating the arrival of our 40th Festival was a significant event and one that led us to extend the duration of this year’s offering to pack in even more activity than usual. It proved to be a great success and our attendances were high with early sell-outs for events at the Ness Battery and Woodwick House alongside the wonderful Dido and Aeneas in St Magnus Cathedral.

Dido was an example of what the festival is all about. We brought together two ensembles that hadn’t worked together before, we transformed the Cathedral not only to a performance space but also a “theatre in the round” and filled the venue with a capacity audience.

Other highlights, of course, were the 40 poems, 40 pieces of new music and 40 works of art, which were threaded through the Festival, and the long-awaited arrival of the new Steinway Concert Grand piano that was the culmination of a 5-year fundraising campaign. The piano is of course a great resource for the Festival but also for Orkney and it was a proud moment taking delivery of the new instrument and hearing it’s first outings in concerts.

Of course, there was one very sad event in the run-up to the 40th Festival as we lost our President and founder, Peter Maxwell Davies (Max). Max had not played a hands-on role for many years and was content to be “presidential”. In some ways I think he had deliberately moved himself out of the center of things so as to ensure that the Festival was not reliant on him and could survive whatever. As well as various works in the Festival programme, we collaborated in the creation and presentation of the Remembering Max concert on the 18th of September which beautifully represented all of Max’s input to Orkney over the years. It was a happy, celebratory and moving event.


So what’s happening in the next year….

Well, next year is Year of History, Archaeology and Heritage in Scotland and more locally it’s designated Magnus 900 (commemorating the 900th anniversary of the death of Saint Magnus) and we’ll be using both “year themes” as triggers for some programming.

Orkney’s connections with Scandinavia (particularly Norway) go without saying and we’ll have a lot of Norwegian visitors including some return visits. The Trondheim Soloists connect our own St Magnus Cathedral with its medieval mother church Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim and with performances shared with the St Olav Festival; the BBC Singers return after their highly successful visit two years ago and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra join us for the first time with their chief conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Having spent a day with me choosing the new piano at the Steinway Hamburg factory, I’m delighted that Steven Osborne is coming to put the instrument through its paces playing a concerto with the orchestra and also a recital. We’ll have visits from the Edinburgh Quartet and the Gildas Quartet and as usual many new works.

One is a particularly appropriate work being written for community forces on the St Magnus life story by local collaborators Gemma MacGregor (composer) and Ron Ferguson (writer) which will be followed by a Parade through the streets. Another new work looks at the idea of Pilgrimage ranging from its medieval roots to the current migration of people fleeing from war zones or looking for a better life at the end of their pilgrimage.

We’re also continuing our work with young people with special needs and disabled musicians in collaboration with Hear my Music – an ongoing collaboration and strand of work for which the Festival is rightly proud and, as has often been the case in its history, a leader and pioneer.

Away from Orkney, Alasdair’s been asked to curate a venue on behalf of the Festival in the SCOT:Lands part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and this will see a concert/installation in St Giles Cathedral on the 1st of January. It’s a great opportunity to showcase what we do in the midst of an event which attracts the world’s press and media and to bring a little bit of Orkney south at the turn of the year.

We’re moving office too. The idea of packing, sorting and unpacking fills us with some horror but there are interesting plans afoot. For the eagle-eyed who watch the property market in Orkney you may see 60 Victoria Street for sale and we’re looking forward to exciting new collaborations in the development of Kirkwall Town Centre.

In 2016 we had to review at the last minute our Courses, which normally surround the festival, because we didn’t raise the large amounts of funding that make these work. These are a part of the current St Magnus offering that we are very committed to and very proud of, but they are also very expensive as they give such wonderfully unique opportunities within the Festival itself. The reputation of the Courses, like the Festival’s reputation, is exceedingly high internationally and we have legion applications each year; a testament to the quality. We aim to bring these back on to the scene this year and to continue the gold standard work that has produced so many alumni whose careers are now burgeoning.

So, though the lights may be out in the box office at the moment and the nights are fair drawing in, we are busily working behind the scenes to bring the 41st Festival to audiences old and new in June 2017.

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