Interview: Fergus Linehan

fergus linehan

First published in The Herald on 3 February, 2015

Upstairs at The Hub — Edinburgh International Festival’s HQ at the top of the Royal Mile — the large festival director’s office overlooking the Forth and the Fife hills beyond has recently been redecorated. Gone are the posters, the portraits, the lofty tomes and the rather intense purple walls of the Jonathan Mills era. Now the room is painted a clean white and Fergus Linehan, the new director, is dressed to match: slick suit, sharp hair, crisp white shirt. He’s personable, charming and speaks in succinct, unfussy terms. There’s no mistaking the regime change here.

This morning Linehan made his first programme announcement as EIF director — or rather, he announced the first part of his first programme. In a move controversial enough to have already caused a logistics U-turn, the concerts of EIF 2015 have been unveiled before opera, dance and theatre. Those other art forms will be announced on March 18, along with a new strand of musical events intended to complement the straight-up classical music series at the Usher Hall and Queen’s Hall.

So far, so genre-specific. For some, a move that segregates classical music audiences from other festival-goers sits against the fundamental ethos of EIF. Yet Linehan says he is committed to the new way of doing things, suggesting that the concerts programme could come even earlier in future years. “Realistically we should be launching alongside Verbier, Lucerne and Salzburg,” he says, referencing some of Europe’s most prestigious classical music festivals. “Mid-March is a compromise that is irritatingly early for some art forms, frustratingly late for others. In classical music it means we’re a good four months out of sync with the international market place.”

A less technical factor has to do to what Linehan calls the festival’s responsibility to ‘evangelise’ classical music. He hopes the split launch will refocus media attention — “because,” he says, “in press coverage of previous launches, references to classical music were often quite incidental. Sophie Grabol got the headlines and somewhere in the eighth paragraph there would be a desultory mention of an orchestra. We have those high-profile announcements to make on March 18th, but the truth is that this”— he lays his hand on an understated grey-and-white concerts brochure — “this is the centre. This is the continuum of the entire festival. And I guarantee that on Wednesday morning, details of this part of the programme will be in the news pages in a way that they never would have been on the 19th of March.”

In some respects, yesterday’s launch comes very early indeed, because it reveals the thrust of what’s in store not just this summer but over the five years of Linehan’s initial tenure. “I tried to put the artist at the centre of the conversation,” he says, and hints that some of the prominent names in this year’s line-up are likely to reappear in future seasons. “I went to a range of people and said, ‘we’ve got five years: what can we do?’ In the past, the festival developed long relationships with artist like Mackerras, Abbado, Brendel. So we’ve begun conversations with people like Ivan Fischer, Andrew Davis, Esa-Pekka Salonen, John Eliot Gardiner.”

These are artists who “understand and love the festival,” he says, describing his intention to “provide a platform for these people to show their best game. We want them to present material that runs through their veins. Performances like Valery [Gergiev] conducting The Rite of Spring or Oslo [Philharmonic] performing Peer Gynt.”

Whether and how the concerts programme works with the festival as a whole remains to be seen. As a stand-alone series, its fairly unimaginative approach to repertoire is propped up by some big names. Mitsuko Uchida plays Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Christine Brewer sings Strauss. Diana Damrau sings Verdi. Donald Runnicles marks the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus with Brahms in the opening concert. Andrew Davis conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a concert performance of Stravinksy’s The Rake’s Progress. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia in Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts. Visiting orchestras include the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Fischer, the San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique with Gardiner and the Oslo Philharmonic with Vasily Petrenko.

Other inclusions will raise eyebrows. The ultra-flash and very expensive pianist Lang Lang appears twice, and violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with an ensemble called Mutter’s Virtuosi in a concert sponsored by Classic FM. Scottish Opera makes a return to the festival with a concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HSM Pinafore conducted by the baroque specialist Richard Egarr. Linehan concedes that “some people might read into that choice” given the reputed break-down of relations between Jonathan Mills and Scottish Opera in latter years, but insists that he was unaware of that politics. “When we thought about the light and shade of the programme, we simply thought that Pinafore would make a wonderful Sunday afternoon concert.”

On the issue of Gergiev, the festival’s honorary president and a prominent supporter of the Russian president Vladimir Putin, Linehan is quietly unequivocal. “He will remain our honorary president. Valery is in that role because of his music making. That’s the capacity in which he’s visiting us this year and every year. That’s what we focus on.”

And although he couldn’t yet discuss details of the rest of the programme, Linehan did reveal something of his approach to the opera and contemporary music strands. “How do you begin to kick our opera programme into the public imagination? It’s not easy, and we’re not the only ones wrestling with this issue. It’s something we’re beginning discussions over and it’ll take every one of my five years to address.”

In terms of non-classical music, “there are areas in which formally trained musicians are wandering into other areas of music. You can’t ignore what’s happening at King’s Place, at Le Poisson Rouge. For a festival like EIF to completely ignore that would be a mistake. We won’t do anything incredibly radical in 2015, and as I say, we’re not up-ending the structure of the festival, but you’ll see a range of things and you’ll see how they fit together.”

And, he stressed, they do have to fit together. “There’s no point in putting on completely different events that play to completely different crowds. Yes, everyone gets very excited by a concert hall full of under-40s, but if it doesn’t fit with the festival as a whole we can’t justify it. That’ll be a fascinating challenge, and hopefully we will approach it intelligently.”

EIF 2015 runs August 8-31. Details of the Concerts and Recitals programme can be found at