Young people go on about the Fringe, but lurking behind is the less talked about private school relative, the Edinburgh International Festival, or as some people see it, the “posh” Fringe. A wonderful collection of professional artists from around the globe, this Festival is fantastic in its own right, offering a cultured nosy into the big names of the dance, music and theatre industries.
It started off well, with me managing to enter the stalls from the wrong side and cause an entire row of people to grudgingly suck in their stomachs as I apologetically eased past to my seat. This was one of the first performances of the Festival, in the grand Usher Hall, and the atmosphere was very jolly. Musicians were walking up and down the aisles, tuning their instruments and wearing little random bowler hats.
Though classical audiences are always dominated by older fluffy-haired people this time it wasn’t just Chopin or Tchaikovsky enthusiasts who had reason to attend; star Barry Humphries, better known to some as Dame Edna, was performing alongside cabaret singer Meow Meow in a performance informatively entitled Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret.
“Tonight I am heavily disguised as myself.” Humphries provoked instantaneous audience laughter from the moment he took to the stage, adding a warning that should he find us taking selfies or uploading to Instagram mid-performance, “We shall spit on you.” Everyone laughed and a few people cheered.
Meow Meow provided an additional playful personality for the audience, with enough electric black hair to make wigs for all the balding men in the audience, and wearing the kind of shape-altering corset which made me worry her boobs were about to fall out. An incredibly expressive voice and face accompanied this appearance, and her infallible confidence, as exemplified in an excerpt in which she had to imitate the female orgasm, made for a thrilling exhibition of professional cabaret performance.
The performance itself was conducted by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, directed by Richard Tognetti on violin, bringing to life a suitcase of sheet music Humphries had found long ago in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne. This suitcase contained the works of several Jewish composers, music which had been published by a reputable music house but then banned by Hitler during the time of the Holocaust. The Weimar Period boasted a cultural revolution in which scores of new music were produced, many of a fragmented classical/jazz nature, and each piece from the collection harked back to aspects of this time.
Humphries explained the story behind the music onstage. According to the review posted on the Craig Francis Music site, this had the effect of rendering the performance far more fascinating than a simple unexplained collection of works. I find it frustrating how at many musical concerts there is an assumed air of knowledge about the performance; that everyone who attends should already know the life story of the composer and the background of their concertos and allegros and scherzettos and five hundred other o’s beside. Setting the pieces in a historical context for the audience allows the less avid classical fan a far greater understanding of what they are actually listening to. This increases the accessibility of the performance immeasurably.
A similar assumption is often made with regard to the ballet, and Natalia Osipova’s performance at the Festival Theatre was able to slightly dissuade the straight-backed tutu-clad stereotype of the ballet. A fresh young Russian dancer of the London-based Royal Ballet and accompanied by the likes of Sergei Polunin, James Kittelberger and James O’Hara, all famed names in the dancing community, her contemporary choreography was brilliantly executed.
It was structured in three parts, the first piece of choreography consisting of a troubled love story infested with drugs between Osipova and Polunin, and this was the most comprehensible of the three. The second piece switched Polunin for Kittelberger and O’Hara, and whilst the programme mentioned themes of fragility and spiritualism, this was not easily communicated by the writhing bodies of the dancers onstage. Finally there was another coupling of Osipova and Polunin, and this was the most technically challenging dance of the three, with an abundance of travelling pirouettes and lifts which left the audience in awe.
At the end the man on my left rather harshly muttered, “A waste of talent!” Although I can see his reasoning behind this, in that the performance did not make for the most memorable watching owing to the frequent repetitions in the choreography, it is nevertheless a gross understatement of the energy and thought put into the performance. Going solo, like Osipova, is a daunting task for anyone, regardless of talent.
Back to the Usher Hall for a Scottish Chamber Orchestra performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, a choral symphonic adaptation of the famous Shakespeare play. It was a collaboration between a ridiculous number of gifted musicians; Robin Ticciati conducting, Christopher Bell leading the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the Tenebrae Consort providing top-quality singing alongside soprano Magdalena Kožená, tenor Kenneth Tarver and bass John Relyea.
Needless to say, an absolutely beautiful performance. I met my exceedingly musical cousin during the interval, and she assured me that both the wind section and the lower strings were just “amazing” when they had the melody. I was more attracted by the raw operatic solo performances of the various artists, and as a languages student I nerdily enjoyed following the French lyrics in the programme. In foreign-language performances such as this it doesn’t necessarily matter if the lyrics are incomprehensible to us; the tone and mood alone can set the scene. Subtitles, or supertitles technically, were also helpfully provided on a screen dangling from the ceiling.
The performance culminated in an overwhelming goosebump-giving finale courtesy of the powerful Festival chorus, and the intensity of their singing combined with the strength of the orchestra resulted in an overall very impressive evening.
With the huge range of performances from skilled international artists on offer, the Edinburgh International Festival makes for a glorious celebration of intercultural art. Sadly tickets are expensive, but there are discounts available, including £8 on the day tickets as well as the Young Musician’s Passport scheme for those currently in music education.
The Festival is truly a gift to the city, try not to miss out.
Image credit: Dimitry B. flickr.com
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