On Now : Sunday Morning
Playing: Koskenlaskian morsiammet (The Rapid-rider’s brides), Op 33 by Jean Sibelius
BBC Radio 3
BBC Radio 3

One of the delights of festival-going is the chance encounter with people from far-flung parts: today I found myself talking to John Harper from Australia, 80 years old and on a three-month tour of the UK, collecting cathedrals, and visiting Orkney to take in St Magnus Cathedral and visit the neolithic settlement at Skara Brae. But John turned out to be a former member of the London Symphony Orchestra who emigrated in the 1960s and had gone on to manage the Australian Chamber Orchestra; he still served as its archivist. John had been unaware of the existence of the St Magnus Festival and soon found himself booking up for three of the BBC SO concerts. Before introducing himself to some members of the orchestra, where he soon found a player whose father knew him from LSO days, John, who was full of stories, reminded me a) that the LSO had been the first British orchestra to visit Japan after WW2, and that one of the accompanying BBC journalists was a young David Attenborough; and b) that he had played all of the Stravinsky ballets under Pierre Monteux (who premiered Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 1913), including the 50th anniversary performance under Monteux at the Royal Albert Hall, with Stravinsky himself acknowledging the applause from a box by the stage. I wished John well with his epic journey, which he assured me he was making entirely by Shanks's pony and public transport ...

The Stravinsky concert, with the Festival Chorus

The Side-By-Side concert with the Orkney Schools Orchestra continues to reverberate around Orkney – BBC Symphony Orchestra general manager Paul Hughes had been buttonholed all over the place: 'The surprise here perhaps was to find the range and quality of young musicians in such a small community,' he told me. It's been quite outstanding, from the young trumpet player who played the Haydn Concerto and walked off the stage carrying his music stand (which I will never forget as long as I live) to the youngster playing on a blue plastic trombone – it was fantastic to see them. We've met some of them around town – I sat next to a young violinist at a concert today, and I was served lunch by a chap who'd been playing principal viola: it really is the community, so by doing a Side-By-Side event here, we are absolutely plugging into that community. People have asked me, were you at the concert or playing in it, and when I tell them I'm the director of the Orchestra, they say, "Oh we had such a great time!" - and it all comes pouring out. It's a reminder of why we do these things and it's brilliant.'

I asked Paul if, as a seasoned orchestra director and tour planner, he could point to anything special about the Orkney visit? 'It's not like many other places: there are few hotels, it's difficult to accommodate a big group like ours plus soloists and visitors; people would be staying with hosts, or in self-catering places, but when I asked the orchestra, the enthusiasm with which they bit my hand off to take this opportunity has carried right through. Our musicians have enjoyed meeting their hosts – they've been shown round the island and even given the loan of cars – it's been everything I hoped it could be!'

Applause for Vedernikov

Sunday saw the second of the BBC SO's main concerts in the Pickaquoy Centre: a demanding programme geared to the special talents and experience of guest conductor Alexander Vedernikov, including Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen Suite, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, the world premiere of festival director Alasdair Nicolson's Shadows on the Wall – Five Hauntings for Voice and orchestra, and Stravinsky's 1919 Firebird Suite.

The Festival Chorus – on hand for the Symphony of Psalms – was arrayed behind the orchestra: ladies in black flanking the gents in white shirts. But wait a minute – who were all those ladies in white shirts – was this a style director's idea to make the men's chorus look bigger? No, it turns out that those intrepid ladies – nine of them – comprise nearly half of the tenor section because of an island-wide shortage of the 'higher' species of male ...

Once again, the Pickaquoy Centre (they call it 'The Picky' here) pulsated with the expectant babble of a capacity audience. Outside, all agreed that the wind was 'blowing a hooley', and there had been a smattering of horizontal rain, reminding me of the cartoon image of highland cows standing into hurricane-force winds and remarking, 'Aye, this is the life!' But inside, the stage lights raised the temperature and Alexander Vedernikov was intent on raising the artistic temperature even further. The bucolic-rustic cycle of life and death in nature which powers the Janáček seemed appropriate for a community so greatly influenced by landscape, seascape, and the creatures which inhabit both; the jagged rhythms of the Symphony of Psalms, to my ears, also found resonances with raw Orkney sounds. Stravinsky's Firebird Suite concluded the concert with a tingle-quotient which was simply off the scale. Orchestra blogger Phil Hall remarked, ‘Every time we play the Stravinsky ballets, and we play them lots, especially on tour, I find something new in them: I never tire of playing them.’  

Rowan Hellier, mezzo soprano soloist in the Alasdair Nicolson premiere

But before that, Alasdair Nicolson's brand-new orchestral song-cycle drew on poems by Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Mew, Chaucer and Amy Lowell, to form 'character studies of ghostly apparitions' Mezzo-soprano Rowan Hellier gave the cycle the best possible launch – the clarity of her projection made every word tell, and I felt a real sense of continuity with the artistic spirit of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who founded the St Magnus Festival in 1977 with the writer and poet George Mackay Brown and others.

Judging by the reception, Alexander Vedernikov has become a local hero: this time he was rewarded with the gift of another locally-manufactured substance called 'Scapa'; Orkney audiences evidently like to support their local heroes, judging by the chorus of approval which greeted Alasdair Nicolson, and Festival Chorus director Glenys Hughes, his predecessor as artistic director of the Festival.

I'm grateful to the Festival for some of the additional photography on this page: you can find details and view photo galleries of Festival events at the St Magnus Festival Facebook page.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performances in Orkney will be broadcast on Radio 3 at a later date – watch the online schedule  for details. And here's a short video extract from Sunday afternoon's Symphony of Psalms rehearsal:

Alexander Vedernikov rehearses Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms with the Festival Chorus

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