Bliss in Edinburgh
The BBC Symphony Orchestra provided the pit band for the European premiere of Brett Dean's opera Bliss at the Edinburgh International Festival. Sub-principal viola Phil Hall was doing his bit for the music and the offal industry ...
Every so often the BBC Symphony Orchestra is allowed out of the Proms lest we forget that there are other summer festivals happening elsewhere on the planet. In the past we have visited Salzburg, Lucerne, Berlin and Edinburgh - the latter is where we find ourselves this week. Usually it is just a 'hit and run' repeat Prom concert, then back to the Albert Hall before anyone knows we've escaped, but this time we have taken up residence for almost a week in Auld Reekie in order to give two performances of Australian composer Brett Dean 's new Kafka-esque opera, Bliss.
We are billeted out by Arthur's Seat, the craggy 350 million-year-old volcano which, if climbed, affords some of the best views of the city and across the silvery Firth of Forth. My plans to jog up it before breakfast however are scuppered by the previous night's intake of curry and single malts... well, when in Rome...
A few of us take advantage of a free morning and go to the Tokyo String Quartet's coffee concert in the Queen's Hall. Their refined Debussy and Schubert is inspiring and in keeping with the Australian theme; composer Peter Sculthorpe is in attendance to witness a performance of his 18th quartet.
We rehearse in the Festival Theatre and the conductor Elgar Howarth quickly realises the acoustical differences between this theatre and the place he and Opera Australia performed the piece previously, the Sydney Opera House. This means tweaking a lot of dynamics downwards to let the voices be heard and a firm hand on the tiller of the Midi keyboard which, with the touch of a single button, threatens to drown everything. In the pit the orchestra is sitting in a different layout to the norm with first and second violins swapped over and all the wind and brass on the conductor's right. The presence of a grand piano, contrabass clarinet and more percussion than you can shake a maraca at necessitates such seating.
Before the first performance there are fears for one of the singers who is not feeling well and also for the revolving stage which was being temperamental during rehearsals. Fortunately the gods smile and the European premiere of Bliss is a triumph. We troop off to the City Chambers for a convivial reception courtesy of the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who lays on haggis, neeps and tatties...(well, not literally, you understand, that would be messy...)
The next day is free and after nipping round the beautiful Rosslyn Chapel (which is of consuming interest to Dan Brown readers ...) I pop into the Usher Hall to catch our BBC Scottish colleagues rehearsing Mahler 8 under Donald Runnicles. It's funny to be reminded of our own First Night so close to the end of the Proms season. It sounds great in the hall and I catch up with friends and sip Earl Grey on Earl Grey St. (why not?) before catching another Festival treat - the evergreen Paco Peña, in the evening.
The weather is uncharacteristically gorgeous and a few of us stroll up Arthur's Seat the next morning. I'm overtaken at considerable speed by a bionic woman, closely followed by a bionic man with 'South African Triathlon Team' printed on the back of his tracksuit. As if there wasn't enough already going on here, Edinburgh is also hosting the World Duathlon this weekend which explains the presence of impossibly fit Canadians sitting at the breakfast table next to me. They give me a look as I tuck into a condemned Scotsman's breakfast of black pudding, sausages and vegetarian haggis. I feel like telling them I have to get through three-and-a-half ours of difficult contemporary music this evening but fear they just won't understand.
Another successful performance ensues and we fly back to London and say goodbye to each other, but it's only au revoir as tomorrow we'll start rehearsals for our last two Proms. Then a week off....bliss!
- The BBC Symphony Orchestra perform music by Wagner, Tansy Davies and Bruckner at the BBC Proms on Wednesday 8 September. They return for the traditional Last Night of the Proms on Saturday 11 September.
- The BBC has recorded Brett Dean's Bliss for transmission at a later date