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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Edinburgh needs a new dawn

By Norman Lebrecht / August 27, 2008

There is no direct flight from Edinburgh to Salzburg, which is just as well since the world’s two premier arts festivals are heading in diametrically opposite directions.

Salzburg this summer suffered a slow run of opera flops while quietly restoring its concert and theatre programme to peak form. Edinburgh had any number of blips, not least an electronic box office failure that caused financial crisis at the fringe and a cavalcade of signing politicians that put the book festival on security alert.

But against these minor diversions, there was no ignoring the large black cloud that hung over the international festival which, year by year, is losing its lustre. Whatever the ups and downs of one show or another, the underlying narrative of Salzburg and Edinburgh this summer was a tale of two festivals, one of which is urgently renewing itself while the other determinedly ignores the overhanging storm warning.

Salzburg has just undergone its third makeover in as many decades. Herbert von Karajan’s death in 1989 gave way to a glorious era of modernist mischief under Gerard Mortier, only for the dour composer Peter Ruzicka to turn the clock back in 2001 with a raft of blingy stars and blatant commercialism that was meant to lure the rich Germans back from Bayreuth and Lucerne.

His 2006 Mozart year featured all 22 operas by the little periwig and broke all box-office records, mostly with Asian on-line bookings. But Ruzicka shot his bolt with Amadeus overkill and was replaced last year by the thoughtful theatre director Jürgen Flimm, who set about rekindling a sense of adventure. Despite suffering bling failure in the big operas - Anna Netrebko pulled out pregnant and Rolando Villazon is struggling with his devils – elsewhere the festival was in a ferment of transformation.

Our own National Theatre made its first Salzburg appearance with Vanessa Redgrave in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Another National play, Simon Stephens’s bleak Harper Regan, was staged in German. Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel prize winner for literature, was in residence for a week and English was very much the lingua franca – so much so that, at the end of a riveting Brahms recital, the baritone Thomas Quasthoff addressed his rapt audience in what he called ‘the international tongue’. This, in Karajan times, would have led to summary dismissal.

Despite exorbitant ticket prices, typically £150-300 at the opera, there has been a marked relaxation of dress code, with open collars speckling the phalanx of black ties; and while radical productions still get loudly booed – as Jossi Weiler and Sergio Morabito found when they set Dvorak’s Rusalka in a submarine brothel – the old guard has lost its grip on the festival and Karajan’s centenary was tolled in low key.

Masterclasses have been set up for young singers and directors and Salzburg is looking more than ever to the next generation. But the most significant culture change is to be found in the concert programme, where the pianist Markus Hinterhäuser, has come in from the Salzburg fringe, which he invented in 1991, to oblige maestro egos to attempt something different.

His principal triumph was a week of music by Salvatore Sciarrino, a 60-ish Sicilian who works isolated sound fragments into hypnotic mazes, the last of which, a cycle of vocal aphorisms, was magnificently conducted by Simone Young. Sciarrino never gets heard in regular concert halls. Hinterhäuser’s pitch is that to hear music as different as this you have to go to Salzburg. Next year he’s getting the likes of Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti to revive the lost music of the French-American Edgard Varese. You won’t hear it anywhere else.

Edinburgh, by contrast, has few unique selling points. The centre of its international music programme, Valery Gergiev’s survey of the Prokofiev symphonies, can be heard again next month in London. Gergiev’s opera highlight, a Russian production of the Polish masterpiece King Roger, also had the stamp of a second hand rose. Matthew Bourne’s new Dorian Gray ballet is heading next to Sadlers Wells.

The festival’s theme was Europe without borders but, even without the Russians inconveniently redrawing the Caucasus map in mid-August, the menu seemed no more than a bag of Baltic and Balkan mixed allsorts and the programme introductions by director Jonathan Mills added little by way of coherence. A headline Polish production of the Jewish classic play, The Dybbuk, struck me as borderline anti-Semitic in its faint sneers at Chassidic tradition.

The fringe, too, was having a hard time, not just from computer crashes so much as paucity of experiment. The top acts consisted of superannuated TV celebrities making one last pitch for the jaded eye of assembled industry moguls. The art galleries had little to compel my attention apart from an ill-hung show of inter-war European photography and there would gave been gaps in my day were it not for the consistent scintillation of the book festival – a true world leader – and the intense dramaturgy that prevails at the Traverse Theatre, which is neither official festival nor fringe but a determinedly independent powerhouse. A verse play from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Terminus by Mark O’Rowe, intoxicated me with the exuberance of its language.

Against the satellite attractions of so many other festivals, Edinburgh International (EIF) is now at risk of slipping into insignificance. When Jonathan Mills was appointed director in March 2006 I warned that the inexperienced Australian would arrive 'naked at the high table' and with few cards to play. Mills has, in difficult circumstances, made a decent fig-leaf of his first two years but the EIF has drifted in that time from budgetary difficulties to full-blown existential crisis.

Nobody, least of all Mills himself, can define what the festival is there for or why we should go there when so much its work is available closer to home. What Edinburgh needs is a strategic overhaul and a statement of future purpose that will require greater intellectual capacities than Mills is capable of providing. While Salzburg has renewed itself in each of the past three decades, Edinburgh lives off its past. Where Salzburg is genuinely international in scope and standard of performance, Edinburgh is becoming steadily provincialised, smug in its transparent limitations.

There was once a time when Salzburg was so scared of the Edinburgh threat that, according to newly released documents, it sought to trademark the word ‘festival’ under international law. These days, lamentably, EIF is no threat to anyone any more. Edinburgh is barely in the league of premier festivals, and falling fast.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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