Festival  Review

St. Magnus Festival Orkney Islands: June16 to 21, 2000.

Most people have heard of the Orkneys, but many would be hard put to pinpoint their precise location off the north-east tip of Scotland. The population is roughly 20,000, of which more than half live on Orkney itself, with the remainder scattered among the large group of smaller islands. Yet despite its complicated geography, Orkney is a distinctive and stable community, and it is this aspect which has ensured the success of the St. Magnus Festival over the past 24 years. The festival was founded by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1977, as a series of weekend events surrounding the first performance of his chamber opera, The Martyrdom of St. Magnus in Kirkwall Cathedral, dedicated to the islands' patron saint. Max directed proceedings for ten years, since when he has overseen the growth of its international reputation as festival President. However, he has continued to contribute, as composer and conductor, and this year, made a major impact with three world premieres.

At present, Max is in the process of clearing his large-scale commissions in order that he can concentrate on writing string quartets during the next few years. Accordingly, he has described his latest music-theatre work, Mr Emmet Takes a Walk, with libretto by David Pountney, as his last. It is a substantial piece, lasting an hour, and is scored for three singers, plus a ten-piece ensemble.

A work in which the main protagonist commits suicide does not sound an enticing proposition, but Max and Pountney succeed in creating a judicious balance between form and content, comedy and tragedy, narrative and ritual. The piece is framed by the sound of the train that runs over Mr Emmet, and within this, we learn that Mr Emmet is not as obviously mad as some of Max's earlier protagonists, but his life has lost any sense of direction or purpose. The text refers to various composers, and this has encouraged Max to introduce some appropriate allusions, but it is less experimental than his earlier music-theatre creations. of George III, in Eight Songs for a Mad King, with which it was coupled on this occasion. Still, the overall poise that has been achieved is impressive, so that if this really is his last contribution to the genre, it is also one of his best.

The same applies to the Seventh Symphony. It upholds Max's tradition of approaching symphonic form from a new perspective, but in order to conclude the work with a reference back to the First Symphony, Max has largely adopted the style of the earlier score. The Symphony returns to the four-movement format but, on another level, it follows Max's procedure of continuously transforming the basic material, as is signified by the fact that the outer movements are designated 'exposition' and 'development'. The central movements explore some aspects of Haydn's legacy. There is a distorted minuet and trio which, apparently, is indebted to Haydn's Op. 20 String Quartets, while the slow movement starts out from 2-part Haydnesque counterpoint, and ultimately extends into the realm of Mahlerian expressionism. The final movement is the most varied, and ultimately the most successful of the four. It sums up the entire Symphony, and then draws together the threads of the complete cycle, which has engaged Max's creative imagination for the past 25 years. The third world premiere was much shorter, yet as it belongs to a projected cycle of 14 pieces, originally entitled Sails in St. Magnus, but now called Orkney Saga, its true significance will only be revealed when all 14 items have been completed.

The first half of Orkney Saga V is purely orchestral, and the writing is almost as complex as in the new Symphony. However, as the choral writing has been devised for the St. Magnus Festival chorus, it is simpler in style, yet Max succeeds in integrating it into a single entity. Still, the piece was not as convincing as the first three items in the Orkney Saga series.

The Manchester-based group, Psappha, gave two recitals of new, or recent music. The first comprised a performance of Hymn to St. Magnus, preceded by the Hymn to the Saint which provided the composer with his basic material. Tamsin Dives was the soprano soloist. Their second programme was framed by Maxwell Davies transcriptions: Two Bach Preludes and Fugues at the beginning; Dances from The Two Fiddlers at the end. In between came pieces by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jonathan Powles, but the really rewarding item was Marc Yeats' A Waiting Ghost in the Blue Sky, for small ensemble.

Yeats is largely self-taught, though he has received support and encouragement from Maxwell Davies after attending his composition summer school on Hoy some years ago. He is also a painter, and the possibility that the audio and visual aspects of his creative imagination are linked in some way should not be ruled out. Yeats is an experimental composer in his own highly individual manner, and this is reflected in almost all his recent scores. A Waiting Ghost in the Blue Sky was the most 'advanced' music on offer at this year's Festival, yet the confidence with which Yeats deployed his material ensured a warm reception.

Max's three premieres meant that new music was given greater priority than usual this year, so Orcadians are clearly being educated in the ways of contemporary composers. However, the principal aims of the Festival have always been to bring international soloists to Orkney, and to encourage music-making within the community, especially in schools. This year's soloists were the violinist, Priya Mitchell, and the pianist, John Lill. Each gave a recital and performed a concerto.

Priya Mitchell's recital, accompanied by Robert Kulek, consisted of sonatas by Mendelssohn and St. Saens, but the real revelation was Schnittke's first Violin Sonata: a hybrid creation, successfully combining serial and tonal elements. She also gave an outstanding interpretation Mendelssohn's E Minor Concerto in the second of the BBC Philharmonic's three concerts, prior to Max's new Symphony.

John Lill's recital was the only event this year in Stromness Town Hall - a former chapel, and a wooden structure with an excellent acoustic. His programme contained Haydn's E flat Sonata, HOB 16 - 52, Beethoven's f minor, op. 57, Brahms' Handel Variations, and three Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich - which were played with rather less conviction than the other items. The concerto he chose was Rachmaninov's second, which he played in the last of the BBC Philharmonic's concerts. It was an authoritative interpretation, but the orchestra was even more convincing in the second half, with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.

The St. Magnus Festival Chorus always has an important role in the Festival, and this year, they were featured in the first of the BBC Philharmonic's programmes. Besides Orkney Saga V, they were in good form for Poulenc's Gloria, in which the soprano soloist was Janice Watson. Earlier in the concert, she had given an outstanding performance of Britten's Les Illuminations, which, in turn, had been preceded by Frank Bridge's Suite The Sea. Apart from the Maxwell Davies items, Martyn Brabbins conducted all three programmes.

The main concerts were held in the new Pickaquoy Sports and Leisure Centre, which opened last year, and can be regarded as a symbol of the Festival's continuing success. It was also designed to function as a concert hall, to replace the battered old Phoenix Cinema, and, in fact, has a surprisingly good acoustic. Meanwhile, St. Magnus Cathedral is the obvious venue for many events, such as the programme of Bach cantatas, which was given by the Monteverdi choir and English Baroque Soloists, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, as part of their Bach 2000 pilgrimage. Four Cantatas for Trinity Sunday were presented, or, more exactly, three and a half, because we heard BWV 194 - potentially the most interesting of the four - in truncated form. Unofficially, it was suggested the piece had not been fully rehearsed, at least partly due to their late arrival in Orkney; officially, it was stated that as the second half of BWV 194 had little to do with Trinity Sunday, it had been omitted! Two impressions need to be dispelled. The St. Magnus Festival has never been exclusively concerned with music; nor is it restricted to the main centres on Orkney itself: Kirkwall and Stromness. There were art exhibitions, the usual Johnsmas Foy, celebrating Orcadian folklore, as well as several theatrical events, plus events involving local schools. There has always been a visiting poet, whose throughree readings in Stromness and Kirkwall have invariably proved immensely popular. This year, it was the Scottish-born Caribbean poet, Jackie Kay.

Finally, a number of events are taken to some of the smaller islands, or to remote parts of the main island. Thus, Psappha subdivided into two smaller ensembles, one giving a recital in the local kirk on Hoy, the other visiting St. Magnus Church, Birsay; but it was particularly true of the largescale community project: a major production, directed by Penny Aberdein, of George Mackay Brown's novel, Greenvoe, in a stage adaptation by Alan Plater, with incidental music by local composer, John Gray. Greenvoe captures the independent spirit of Orcadians, and identifies closely with local speech patterns. It was written over a decade before the community campaigned successfully to prevent uranium mining in the area. The book combines elements of narrative and ritual, describing how a fictional Orcadian island is taken over by a secret military project. The small community is dispersed, and consequently Mackay Brown demonstrates the universal significance of local activities. This is reinforced when the scheme is unexpectedly abandoned, and some of the younger islanders return to enact a ritual of resurrection and renewal. The final section, particularly, benefited from the simplicity of the production, which dispensed with elaborate scenery in order to make touring easier. The impact was immensely powerful, and a more appropriate conclusion to the festival would be difficult to imagine.

John Warnaby  

Seen&Heard is part of Music on the Web(UK) Webmaster: Len Mullenger Len@musicweb-international.com

Return to: Seen&Heard Index  

Return to: Music on the Web