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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Who can save Edinburgh?

By Norman Lebrecht / November 23, 2005

The appointment is nothing less than critical. Applications close this weekend for those wishing to become director of the Edinburgh Festival, the last of Scotlandâs cultural glories. If the right person wins, it could mean renaissance. The wrong one, and itâs curtains for Caledonia.

Edinburgh in August is all that survives since, after devolution in 1997, Scotland set about toppling cultural monuments with the philistine abandon of provincial Saturday-nighters on a downtown binge. Scottish Opera was dismantled, Scottish Ballet downgraded, Scottish orchestras severely constrained. James MacMillan, Scotlandâs leading composer, warned this weekend of Îa doomsday scenarioâ for music in the North. ÎNever before,â wrote the nationalist MacMillan, Îhas Scotland's classical music scene seemed in such terminal decline.â

Creative systems are shutting down one by one. A bristling cluster of small companies that produced some of the most challenging British drama of recent years is facing the imposition of a National Theatre that was neither sought nor supported by the profession. Contemporary art, which flourished around Glasgowâs year as City of Culture in 1990, has ebbed away, its prime creators gone abroad. A long-heralded official report into artistic decline was peremptorily binned by Culture Secretary Patricia Ferguson. The £600,000 it cost could have paid for ten operas and ballets.

The parabola of post-War growth in Scotland was reversed without parliamentary rebellion or, truth be told, public outcry. Edinburgh stands out as the last bastion, the one place and time when Scotland can bask in the worldâs attention and imagine itself briefly to be Athens. The festival is not what it was, the last couple of years under Brian McMaster featuring fewer world-class orchestras and opera companies and less incisive theatre; but these shortcomings have been masked by the vitality of peripheral festivals for books, film and television ö and, of course, the anarchic fringe.

McMaster, after 15 years Edinburghâs longest serving director, may have stayed one term too long but the city was in no hurry to replace him. Although next summer is his last, the vacancy was advertised only two months ago and Heather Newill, the London headhunter who pre-selects top arts jobs, was still ringing around this week in attempts to cajole more big beasts into the line-up.

As of this moment, I understand, four names are going forward. Graham Sheffield, artistic director of Londonâs Barbican Centre for the past ten years, was once a music student at Edinburgh University and has dreamed ever since of festival glory. His chief triumph was turning the Royal Shakespeare Companyâs sudden defection into a blazing opportunity by making the Barbican a hotbed of world theatre. Sheffield has both the credentials and the connections to make Edinburgh bloom, and his frigid relationship with McMaster would herald a clean break with recent compromises and a more inclusivist approach towards other art forms.

Sheffield, however, lacks much by way of local cheerleaders and has failed to show appropriate avidness for the job, knowing perhaps that he is first in line to succeed Sir John Tusa as top dog at the Barbican in 2007. If he wants Edinburgh, he will have to start hustling in all the right quarters, sinking single malts with clan chiefs and making small talk to the Lord Provost, Lesley Hinds, a former primary school teacher and something of a ballet fan who will chair the selection committee.

When it comes to schmoozing, Sheffield could take a masterclass from Serge Dorny, director-general of the Lyon National Opera for the past two years. Dorny, previously head of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was seen hovering around Hinds last summer like a honeybee in springtime, oozing continental charm. Ambitious he may be but Dornyâs experience and outlook are limited to classical music and opera and he is unlikely to get called for a second interview.

Pierre Audi could walk into any arts job he wanted. Lebanese by birth, he founded Londonâs Almeida Theatre in 1979 and has been artistic director of Netherlands Opera for the past 17 years, staging a Hollandâs first home-made Ring cycle and running a programme that is the envy of aspirational small countries all over Europe. A loner who keeps his own counsel, Audi has confirmed that he has been approached by the headhunters but refuses to say whether he is interested. Cushioned by eighty percent subsidy in Amsterdam, he may shrink from facing chillier Scottish finances and the perpetual demand for self-justification that preys upon all who labour in British arts.

The fourth candidate is the only Scot in the pack. Neil Wallace, sometime director of Glasgowâs Tramway, was number two in the City of Culture team and credited for much of its success. Then he met a Dutch girl and moved to Holland where, for the past decade, he has run the concert hall in sleepy Haarlem. Last month he reopened the hall after a £22 million ultra-modern revamp into an irresistible venue of both family and highbrow attractions, child-friendly lobbies and acoustic excellence. That accomplished, he talked the town into revamping its theatre ö all this, just 20 minutes drive from the heart of Amsterdamâs cosmopolitan compulsions. Wallace is clearly a man who gets things done.

He has been out of the Scottish loop for a while but there are plenty who will fight his cause, not least because he would be the first Scot to run the Festival, and his priority would be to drive it to the cutting edge that was manifested by Glasgow in its seminal year. Whatever the merit of the rest of the pack, Wallace could well be the one to beat.

There are still a few days left and applications may yet be expected from Nicholas Kenyon, underemployed director of the BBC Proms, and Ruth Mackenzie, whose brave attempt to rescue Scottish Opera and Ballet in the mid-90s burned most of her bridges north of the border. Other well-qualified individuals took the headhunterâs call but declined to lunch, seeing more political complications in the position than potential kudos. Scotlandâs orgy of devastation has not gone unnoticed and many in the arts are giving the country a wide berth; they had to search as far as New Zealand to find a boss for Scottish Opera.

That said, Edinburgh remains a summit of aspiration, a parnassus among summer festivals. Whoever wins has all to play for. Success is politically infectious. The decline is not irreversible.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001