BBC Symphony Orchestra at the St Magnus Festival - #5
Producer, R3 Multiplatform
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
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
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
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