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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Edinburgh International Festival: Five to See

The announcement of the Edinburgh International Festival programme seems to get earlier every year, I’m sure it used to be around Easter, although I’m aware that isn’t a fixed date in the calendar, Gregorian or Julian. The programme for the 76th iteration of the festival to be held this August was announced last week on 7th March. As always, when the city hasn’t quite emerged from the clutches of winter, and just as that very first festival in 1947 aimed to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit", its appearance is timely and there is much to look forward to.

Here are my five to see.

I do like a big orchestra, a symphony orchestra if you want to be technical and they don’t come any bigger than the Bamberger Symphoniker. The roots of this orchestra stretch back to the 18th century and today it acts as a cultural ambassador for Germany, Bavaria in particular. The programme they present over three nights at the Usher Hall in August includes some heavy hitters, Mahler, Dvořák, Brahms but also lesser known pieces by Hans Rott and Josef Suk. Only the EIF’s cock-eyed dynamic pricing model could prevent these concerts from selling out.

The EIF used to have a strong dance programme but last year, and again for 2024, there’s not much - no ballet at all, the Playhouse Theatre with its massive stage being used for only three nights. Still, what little there is looks good, in particular Assembly Hall by Canadian contemporary dance theatre company, Kidd Pivot “Set in a crumbling community hall, a group of medieval re-enactors gather for their Annual General Meeting. However, things are not looking good. But as the meeting progresses, the lines blur between past and present, reality and myth.” There’s a whiff of 1980s TV sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles about it that appeals, but looking at the preview video (here) there’s no way Martin Bryce (played by Richard Briers) could have ever have organised a breathtaking performance like this.

I’ve never been able to make my mind up about opera ie whether or not I like it. For: the music (although Britten can be a strain), the G&T during the interval. Against: the plot, the surtitles, the (usually long) running time. Like those electronic pitch side advertising boards at football grounds, I find surtitles incredibly distracting, and in any case, they don’t assist in following the plot. So, when I see that The Marriage of Figaro is being performed by Komische Oper Berlin, in Italian with English surtitles and it clocks in at three hours, my heart sinks. But, on the next page, a promenade performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex by Scottish Opera. Presented at the National Museum of Scotland with a 100-strong community chorus, it should be spectacular. And although it’s sung in Latin, there are no surtitles to mess up the effect (surely everyone knows it ends badly anyway?) and - best of all - it’s all tied up within an hour.

The Queen’s Hall series of morning concerts have always been a guarantee of quality and - if you’re quick off the mark - good value too. Tickets this year listed as “from £13.50” which, I suspect, are for standing in the gallery. But I’ve done that many a time, you can get a decent view from there and the acoustics of the auditorium are excellent. Hard to single out only one of the 18 concerts listed in the programme, but I’m intrigued by the Irish Baroque Orchestra. “Travel back in time to Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre. It’s May 1742 and the eccentric musician Mr Charles is hosting a vibrant showcase of the latest musical fashions from across Europe.” And perhaps a bottle of stout at half time.

From its inception the Festival has always looked outwards, with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra invited to the first in 1947. But it’s also a chance to showcase Scottish talent including multi-award seven piece band Mànran and Ceilidh Trail, a traditional music project for youngsters run by Fèis Rois in Dingwall. The EIF has always had a strong theatre element and it’s great to see the stage version of Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun being premiered. “Flashing back and forth between Orkney and London, we get a glimpse into her former urban existence and its intoxicating temptations that pushed her to the point of destruction. She must find a way to navigate the alluring wildlife and wildness of both environments.” A Royal Lyceum Theatre production (although it runs for three weeks at the Church Hill Theatre), directed by Vicky Featherstone, written and adapted by Stef Smith, this looks like being one of the highlights of this year’s Festival.

Image: The Outrun © Laurence Winram

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