A high time in Auld Reekie

Edinburgh 2009 (2)
Apologies are owed to Edinburgh International Festival director, Jonathan Mills, as this is his third, not second, EIF, which I jolly well ought to know, as I was here for his inaugural festival, and very fine it was, too. My Edinburgh host and I were both convinced it was number two; my host and I are the same age, verb sap.
Very often in the past I have found the musical events of the Edinburgh Festival the most  memorable, such as the occasion in the 1960s when at a Richter/Rostropovich complete Beethoven piano-cello sonatas cycle, I sat opposite a young Daniel and Jacqueline du Pres, mesmerised, sadly, not by the Beethoven but by du Pres nibbling the ends of her golden tresses. And they left at the interval.

The Zurich Tonhalle-Orchester concert on Thursday, 27 August was, thank goodness, mostly notable for its music. Conductor David Zinman presided over an unremarkable performance of Brahms Variations on a theme by Haydn, which did nothing to make that old chestnut crackle. But then Dawn Upshaw sang Luciano Berio's "Folk Songs" with their mad orchestral accompaniments, followed by Mahler 4. It was difficult to say which was more exciting, as Upshaw's voice seems to have gone from bell-like silver to platinum.
The themes of Mr Mills's third festival is the Enlightenment, with a sub-theme of Homecoming, and there have been several events turning on the most famous of all homecomings, the return of Ulysses to his Penelope. The Royal Ballet of Flanders presented a deliciously provocative view of events from Penelope's perspective, with Monteverdi music; while Handspring Puppet Company and the period instrument Ricercar Consort, with direction, animation and designs by S. African artist William Kentridge performed a stupendously complicated, beautifully sung version of the Monteverdi opera, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. Larger than life-size puppets were operated with no attempt to disguise the puppeteers, some of whom were the singers themselves. Pure magic, and enhanced by Kentridge's clever visual counterpoint animations. The entire cast was good; Romina Basso as Penelope was outstanding.
The dance event we most looked forward to was the new work by the Michael Clark Company. (See my review of this in the 4 Sept. Weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal Europe or online.) As we entered the theatre signs warned that there would be music that could damage your hearing (ear-plugs supplied on request) and "partial nudity."  I loved it; but to my taste there was too much noise and not enough nudity.
I'm not staying on long enough, I regret, to see "Peter and Wendy," so the big original theatre piece of my stay was Rona Munro's The Last Witch, played by the Traverse Theatre Company, directed by Dominic Hill. This was tied to the Enlightenment theme, as it started from the (scant) historical record of the burning of the last woman to be convicted of witchcraft in Scotland, in 1727, a short few decades before the Scottish Enlightenment reinforced the repeal of the witchcraft laws in 1736. If you could understand the thick Scots accents in which the piece was played Kathryn Howden was superb as Janet Horne, a middle-aged woman who half-believed she could curse her neighbour's cattle, but whose cures were mostly based on folk medicine, and worked in perfectly rational ways.
Almost more interesting was the plight of her daughter Helen, played fetchingly by Hannah Donaldson, who has a strong sexual attraction to a young traveller whom she thinks might just be the devil. The only weak aspect of Naomi Wilkinson's design (though maybe it was the fault of lighting designer Chris Davey) was the strip lights that flashed naffly whenever the devil was mentioned. My chum the authority on Scottish culture says that the characters in the play reflect tribal hatreds, as the sex-obsessed lawman is a Ross, the farmers members of an opposing clan, Janet the descendent of the pagan Vikings, and the travellers Romanies. Oh yes, and it's suggested that "Jenny Horne" was a generic name for a witch in northern Scotland. All this is just a tiny bit more exciting than the play itself -- though it has moments of splendour, and needs only a little tinkering (and, sadly, translating) to make it -- not a successor to Blackwatch -- but a piece that could tour.
I caught two of the Gate Theatre's three productions of plays by the great Irish playwright, Brian Friel, The Yalta Game and Afterplay. Both are two-handers, the first of these was difficult for us to hear, even in row J of the stalls of the too-large for these intimate pieces King's Theatre. Risteard Cooper, but especially Rebecca O'Mara needed to project much better to be heard here. But Patrick Mason's elegant direction of this lovely  piece based on the Chekhov story of adultery and seduction, "Lady with Dog," combined with Liz Ascroft' sympathetically minimal designs, made it worth struggling to hear.
Though I thought "Afterplay" better when I last saw it (and I can't remember whether it was in Dublin or, more likely, London), director Garry Hynes and designer Francis O'Connor have done  beautiful job with this hugely imaginative play in which Sonia Serebriakova of Uncle Vanya meets Andrey Prozorov, the brother of the Three Sisters in a Moscow cafĂ©. This isn't just writerly cleverness: Friel has given them a genuinely interesting relationship; and the play was performed supremely well by Frances Barber and Niall Buggy. The pity is that the house wasn't full either time.
Just this, at the Queen's Hall, I heard the Arditti Quartet play the Beethoven "Grosse Fuge," (Op 133), and very weird it was. The attacks were ferocious, the pizzicato passages almost violent, the sound of Irvin Arditti's first violin often metallic, almost harsh. I can see that his idea is to bring out the similarities between Beethoven and contemporary, even 21st century composers. Fair enough. But the sweet passages lacked sweetness in the most disconcerting way. All was forgiven, though, for the quartet's playing of Webern's "Six Bagatelles Op 9" and the totally thrilling Schoenberg "String Quartet No 2 in F sharp major," with Barbara Hannigan mellifluously belting out the soprano part, so beautifully and lustily that you just had to cheer.
How can anyone hear this piece and then claim to dislike "modern music"?
Tonight we go to the Usher Hall to hear my acquaintance Simone Young conduct the Hamburg State Opera in The Flying Dutchman, and tomorrow I go home, happily surfeited with high culture - with the single, ecstatic exception of the annual concert of the RTO, as initiates refer to the Really Terrible Orchestra. Google it.

September 1, 2009 4:43 PM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on September 1, 2009 4:43 PM.

The curse of the Counter-Enlightenment was the previous entry in this blog.

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