United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2015 (1) – Adams, The Harmonium Project: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Festival Square (exterior of the Usher Hall), 08.08.2015 (SRT)
August again, but this time the Edinburgh International Festival has a new Director, and with this, Fergus Linehan’s very first event, he set out a powerful vision for how the Festival may develop under his leadership.
The idea behind The Harmonium Project was a very simple one: a free, outdoor sound-and-light-show to kick off the Festival with a bang. One of the things that made it special, however, was the sheer virtuosity of the visuals. 59 Productions, the team behind the design, outdid themselves with a set of animations that matched the contours of the Usher Hall absolutely perfectly; flowing and pulsating around the beloved hulk to breathtaking effect, creating illusions that, if the collective gasps were anything to go by, certainly gave the Wow effect. John Adam’s Harmonium proved a strangely powerful choice of music, too. For a start, the rhythmic pulsing and dramatic intensity of the piece lent itself perfectly to what 59 Productions were trying to do, with a set of eye-popping effects that climaxed in laser beams erupting from the hall’s roof during Wild Nights. The second movement was much slower, but very beautiful, as golden ticker tape dissolved into waving fields of wheat, and the outlines of the singers seemed to appear and merge like ghosts. The first movement was particularly stunning, though, with electrical faces emerging from the stonework in a way that you could swear was three-dimensional, even though you knew it really couldn’t be.
Spectacular and thrilling as it was, though, there were two things that turned this into something really rather special. First of all, the performance of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, whose 50th anniversary this Festival celebrates; thrilling in the way they adapted to Adams’ textures, and it was beautiful that Linehan chose to put them at the centre of the opening weekend. Even more special, however, was the choice of venue: the Usher Hall, with all its knobbly imperfections, but steeped in Festival history. When I spoke to him back in April, Linehan told me that, for him, the Usher Hall was the key building of the Edinburgh Festival: after all, that is where it had all begun, with Bruno Walter’s return to the Vienna Philharmonic in 1947. Placing it at the centre of the Festival’s launch, but opening the invitation to the entire city to attend free of charge, is not only an inspired piece of programming but a beautifully inclusive way of welcoming in even those who haven’t paid for a ticket. The end of the piece showed a flight into the centre of Edinburgh, over the Forth Bridge and past the Castle, and culminating on the Usher Hall itself, at the centre of the city and of the Festival, a beam of light shining from its roof. As a gesture, it was pretty powerful and, I suspect, a statement of intent.
The 2015 Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 31st August at venues across the city. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk