Thoughts on EIF 2015 classical music launch

First published in the Guardian on 3 February 2015

Fergus Linehan held his first programme launch as new director of the Edinburgh International Festival this morning. Dressed in a dapper tweed suit, hair smartly side-parted, the Irishman looked fresh and sounded fresher. “There have been bets on whether my presentation style will be as short as Brian McMaster or as long as Jonathan Mills,” he said, referencing his two immediate predecessors. The opening gambit earned a cheerful laugh from the gathered great and good of Scotland’s arts world. Linehan is easy to like; he starts the job with plenty of good will behind him.

But this was a weird inaugural launch, because it only unveiled one part of Linehan’s first festival programme. In a move intended to make Edinburgh’s core classical music series more competitive with the likes of Salzburg, Aix-en-Provence, Verbier or Lucerne — all of which announce their summer festivals before Christmas — EIF concerts and recitals will henceforth be announced ahead of EIF theatre, dance, contemporary music and, bizarrely, opera. Linehan’s thinking is that foreign visitors will be able to plan ahead better and that “we’ll hopefully keep a buzz going between the end of one festival and the beginning of the next”. He is matter-of-fact about the drip-feed approach. It serves the short attention span of an information-hungry internet age, he shrugged.

I suspect there’s a more personal factor at play here, too. When Linehan was appointed director, there were grumblings among some classical music circles that the festival’s concerts — those bulky Usher Hall and Queen’s Hall series — might be sidelined under a man whose background is in theatre and pop music. (The departure of Matthew Studdert-Kennedy, formerly EIF’s excellent Artistic Administrator who coordinated much of the concerts programme under Jonathan Mills, was unfortunate timing; Linehan could use a strong right-hand person advising him on classical music.) By placing his initial concerts brochure so staunchly in the limelight, perhaps Linehan intended to nip those grumbles in the bud. The message this morning was certainly clear: classical music won’t be sidelined. “The festival started in the Usher Hall,” he told me before the launch, “and while various directors have thrown out some bits and reinvented others, that axis between morning recitals and evening orchestral concerts has been the foundation of the whole thing.”

When the plan for the split launch was announced last year, public reaction was strong enough to cause a change of tack almost immediately. Many concert-goers were unwilling to book tickets without seeing the rest of the programme; how, then, to plan for diary clashes? Because the problem with separating classical music from theatre, dance, opera and various fuzzily-labeled forms of music is that it assumes the audiences are also separate. For a festival whose fundamental ethos is a holistic approach to the arts, any move that puts up barriers between genres is regressive. To Linehan’s credit, he seems an open, amiable operator who is willing to listen to feedback and adjust accordingly. In December he issued a statement informing us that, while the concerts line-up would still be revealed early, tickets would go on sale at the end of March along with the rest of the programme. It’s a slightly awkward half-way measure, but it shows an admirable willingness to hold up his hands and admit that an idea didn’t work.

And the programme itself? There are some big names, some nice-if-not-entirely-groundbreaking repertoire choices and some dubious inclusions. I’ll be happy to go to much of it but I’m not sure I would travel far for most of it. It’s hard to tell what makes it distinctive from other festivals or concert series. Perhaps that’s an unfair question to pose in the very first year of a director’s tenure. Certainly it feels pre-emptive to come to any conclusions without seeing how these concerts fit with the rest of the programme.

Those first categories (big names, nice-but-safe repertoire) feature the likes of Mitsuko Uchida playing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Christine Brewer singing Strauss, Leonidas Kavakos playing Brahms, the Oslo Philharmonic playing Grieg, Valery Gergiev conducting The Rite of Spring. Visiting orchestras include the San Francisco Symphony with Michael Tilson Thomas, Oslo with Vasily Petrenko and the Budapest Festival Orchestra with Ivan Fischer. In the other category (dubious inclusions) are not one but two nights of Lang Lang and a Classic FM-sponsored concert of Anne-Sophie Mutter with ‘The Mutti Virtuosi’ playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and a new work by Andre Previn. Which sounds like it costs a lot more than it’s worth in musical terms. “Neither Lang Lang nor Anne-Sophie have played here before,” Linehan explained, “and it’ll be fascinating to see how they fit into the programme mix. There’s got to be room over the course of 40-odd concerts for those kind of artists.”

In his first official press briefing last year, Linehan talked about his intention to introduce new types of music to the Edinburgh programme. This new content, he specified, will add to rather than replace the long-standing Usher Hall and Queen’s Hall series — which frankly needed a blast of fresh air anyway. He said he wanted to add new genres with ‘provenance and seriousness’ but that EIF should still ‘advocate and evangelise classical music’. Genres with provenance and seriousness is presumably another way of saying ‘good and interesting pop music’. In his former job as director of contemporary music at the Sydney Opera House, he programmed Bjork and Kraftwerk. It’ll be intriguing to see whether the brilliant components of EIF 2015 come in opera, theatre, dance and ‘other’ music.

Incidentally, when Linehan was appointed director, I wasn’t among the grumblers who worried he would downgrade the concerts series. I was excited that he might bring an energising, cross-arts bravado to the whole programme. Classical music has to be an integral part of that process, of course, and today’s launch made it clear Linehan knows it would be a mistake to leave classical music behind or to treat it like a necessary appendage. The intention is right; let’s see how the bigger picture looks on March 18.