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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

How the festival floundered

By Norman Lebrecht / March 1, 2006

Just under a year ago, I was called upon for coffee at the office by an affable Australian who had been sent my way by one of his country’s top arts organisers. The man was a composer by trade, a pupil of the multiculturalist Peter Sculthorpe, with a list of opuses that got performed from time to time in modest venues.

To put bread on the table, he was artistic advisor to various bodies. His most notable post was two years as director of the Melbourne Festival, an event that styled itself international but made no waves beyond Tasmania. He was presently advisor to the city’s rising Recital Centre and Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, combining that consultancy with a little light professoring at the university on his specialist subjects, architectural and musical acoustics.

With the all-purpose charm of a chardonnay Aussie academic, he was in London sniffing for opportunity, his eye fixed on the Wigmore Hall where a compatriot, Paul Kildea, seldom clocked in for work and was about to be unseated. The good professor had the right credentials for the Wigmore: small hall, chamber music, no genius required. He missed out on that job, which went to an insider.

Jonathan Mills was my caller’s name. This week he was introduced as the next director of the Edinburgh International Festival, an appointment so fantastical in its disproportionality, the sheer disparity of peg and hole, that, when apprised of it by phone, I had to lie down for several minutes and practise the Alexander Technique (another Aussie imposition) to restore the harmonies of the universe.

Just how Edinburgh, the city of Hume and Mill, the home along one main street of three latterday Walter Scotts – Rowling, Rankin, McCall Smith – the Venice of the North, the greatest arts festival between Aix-en-Provence and Santa Fe, just how Edinburgh got itself into such a selection muddle that it had to hire a minnow from the other side of the world is almost beyond comprehension. Until, that is, one takes into account the deadly internecine feudalisms of the northern fortress and the fatal flaw that runs through the way we appoint arts chiefs in this enlightened age of supposedly equal opportunities.

Edinburgh should have been a plum job, with applications winging in from men and women already at the summits and simmering with unfulfilled vision. Most were instantly deterred by the discovery of a million-pound deficit and a blank planning schedule beyond Brian McMaster’s departure this summer after a 15-year term. The next boss will have to start from scratch in October with no cash in the till and few bookings on the bill.

Nevertheless, a clutch of credible contenders went up to face the clans. Graham Sheffield of London’s Barbican Centre ran up against McMaster’s implacable hostility and did not get a second call; Neil Wallace, a Scot who built a new concert hall and theatre in Holland, was rejected for being abrasively Glaswegian; Pierre Audi of Netherlands Opera had second thoughts; an effervescent fellow in his mid-50s was told he was 'too old'; and Lyon Opera’s Serge Dorny, who had successfully courted one of the festival's leading donors, flopped at interview. No women made it to the bar. As so often happens in the arts, the man who got the job was the one who told the panel all the things they wanted to hear.

Jonathan Mills had done his homework over coffees like mine – and, yes, I suddenly recall him quizzing me about Edinburgh. He had learned, from such conversations, that the city was alarmed at the way McMaster had isolated the main ‘international’ festival from all that flowered around it – the fringe, the book, film and media festivals, the comedy scene. What draws most people north in August these days is not a laborious staging from a disintegrating Scottish Opera, nor a ballet from Latvia, nor Racine in the original French but a flush of four-handers in cellar stages, a chance to see next year’s telly talent and supercool Chinese director, a sense of being in on a buzz that had fizzled out at the official parade. The city fathers wanted greater participation for local people. Jonathan Mills, 42, went in promising dialogue, integration and engagement 'with a broader range of communities’; he duly got the job.

His candidacy was furnished with testimonials from the Earl of Harewood, festival director in the elysian Sixties, and from Baroness Helena Kennedy, the formidable lawyer and Labour task-forcer who got to know him while she was chairing the British Council. Unusually, their support was made public when the panel, headed by the Lord Provost, Lesley Hinds, realised the risk they had taken in appointing a complete blindsider with little in his track record that qualified him for such elevation. I and other colleagues received timorous calls from Scotland suggesting that the appointment was going to be ‘controversial’.

Well, there is nothing controversial about Jonathan Mills. He is the only child of a wealthy Sydney surgeon, a son of privilege who could do no wrong. Well read, politically astute and silkily adept at parting rich people from large cheques, he is much admired back home for his ‘brilliant’ ideas, a commendation that comes with a codicil that he operates in fits and starts. The brilliance, too, does not stand up to close scrutiny. Little on his Melbourne card was of the quality that Edinburgh expects.

What Jonathan needs, said one mutual acquaintance, ‘is a supertight structure and an operational manager who will keep him from going over budget.’ Neither of those pre-requisites is in place. What Mills inherits is an institution in decline, in a country that has grown so indifferent to its arts that the Scottish Executive has demonstrably refused extra funding and much-needed reform.

In a job that depends on intense relationships with outstanding artists, a milieu where most bookings are made on the basis of intellectual symbiosis, Mills arrives naked at the high table, an innocent among panthers who have no need of his patronage. His calls to the likes of Barenboim and Abbado, Peter Stein and Sam Mendes, are likely to get put on hold. Edinburgh has made its decision on the strength of one interview and a well-rehearsed playback of its political wish-list. I wish Jonathan Mills all the luck in the world. Boy, is Edinburgh going to need it.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001