Festival Director Ends Tenure with Powerful New Work

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (20) – Mills, Janáček: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Thomas Trotter (organ), Ilan Volkov (conductor) Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 30.8.2014 (SRT)

Hibla Gerzmava (soprano)
Claudia Huckle (mezzo)
Simon O’Neill (tenor)
Jan Martiník (bass)
Andrew Staples (tenor in Sandakan Threnody)


Mills:                     Sandakan Threnody
Janáček:                Glagolitic Mass


The Edinburgh International Festival went out with a bang-and-a-half with a performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass that more than lived up to the work’s gloriously energetic pulse.  Conducted by a galvanising Ilan Volkov, the notes seemed to jump out of the instruments of the BBCSSO, while the Edinburgh Festival Chorus responded with not only brilliantly full singing but a convincingly Slavonic crunch to their diction.  The performance was topped off by a tour-de-force organ solo from Thomas Trotter and a barn-storming final Intrada from the orchestra, pumped up on Janáček’s stubbornly iconoclastic rhythms.

But the most interesting thing on the programme, and probably the most talked-about piece of music on the whole of the 2014 Festival’s programme, was Jonathan Mills’ Sandakan Threnody: most talked-about because tonight saw not only the end of the 2014 Festival, but the end of Mills’ eight-year long tenure as Festival Director, and this is the only piece of his own music that he has programmed in that whole period.

It has a deeply personal link for Mills, a native Australian, whose father was imprisoned in the Sandakan prisoner-of-war camp by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, and the three-movement work for orchestra, chorus and tenor soloist pays tribute to the treatment by the Japanese of Australian and British prisoners during the war.  The statistics Mills quotes in his programme note are stunning: of the 2434 Australian and British troops who were in the camp in 1945, only 6 survived: the rest met their deaths either in the camp or on the death marches on the jungle tracks between Sandakan and Ranau in north-eastern Borneo.

The work is a meditation on their experience, and I found it a deeply powerful one, partly because of the way Mills successfully assimilates a whole range of influences and traditions.  The austere but dignified opening, for example, contains allusions to Japanese gagaku (a poignant choice, given the context), and the wandering string line floats beautifully over eastern-inflected percussion sounds.  One of the work’s strengths, in fact, is its special colour, be it the bowed cymbals or the brush strokes on the piano’s strings. The second movement begins with a powerfully hypnotic rhythm on the marimba which echoes the death marches from Sandakan, and which then resolves into strangely uneasy stasis, while the third part, setting Randolph Stow’s poem Sleep, is partly a restful benediction and partly a dark psychodrama as the tenor (sung manfully by Andrew Staples) battles against some difficult tessitura.  On the whole, though, I found it very compelling.  It has some very powerful individual moments, but it was the work’s carefully constructed atmosphere that stuck with me the most, its weighty sadness an appropriate response to the subject matter.

And so Jonathan Mills bows out, and he leaves the Edinburgh International Festival’s classical music programme in fairly good shape.  The main Usher Hall and Queen’s Hall series have shown some highly imaginative programming and some great artists, both familiar and unfamiliar.  It’s hard, after all, to complain about a programme that includes soloists like Paul Lewis and Andras Schiff, conductors like Mariss Jansons and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, or orchestras like the Royal Concertgebouw and the Czech Philharmonic, not to mention singers like Anna Prohaska or Erin Wall, and Mills hands on to his successor, Fergus Linehan, a strong heritage to carry on.

The one area of the musical programme that has undeniably regressed during his tenure, however, is that of opera.  The EIF’s showing has been very poor in recent years, not just in their choice of shows, which sometimes smacks of desperation (see this year’s dusted-down-from-the-warehouse Troyens from the Mariinsky or, most egregiously of all, the appalling Lyon Fidelio from last year), but also in the quantity of what is available: this year there were only two staged operas (given on five nights in total) and one concert performance.  I suspect that’s a financial repercussion (specifically, the lack of finance) more than an artistic one, but it doesn’t change the fact that something has gone wrong here and it needs to be addressed if the Festival’s reputation in this area is to be improved.  Let’s see what Fergus Linehan does with it.  I shall be watching him like a hawk!

Simon Thompson


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