John McLellan: The arts of the matter

International Festival director Fergus Linehan. Picture: Julie Bull

International Festival director Fergus Linehan. Picture: Julie Bull

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It’s a year of big changes at the International Festival; new director, new timings, new launches, a new day for the Fireworks and a new plea for cash.

Almost a caricature of a cool and cultured Irishman, incoming director Fergus Linehan appears calm and confident, but with his contract likely to end in 2019 he is evidently a man in a hurry.

This week saw the launch of his debut music programme, the first time the announcement has been split from the main events to give the concerts a profile higher than previously possible when set alongside the visual spectaculars of theatre, opera and dance.

For the general public, the most noticeable change will be the switch of the Fireworks to a Monday night, August 31, from its traditional Sunday.

Monday feels like a strange day to have a big farewell party, even if it is a Bank Holiday, but perhaps it will work; fewer empties for the environmental chaps to clear away from the Gardens for one thing. Maybe it’s yet another nail in the coffin of Scotland’s drink culture?

Of the other changes, bringing the International forward to match up with the Fringe makes perfect sense and has done ever since the split in the late 1990s. The unavoidable truth is that major events like this in a city the size of Edinburgh need to be staged when the audience can be maximised – the holiday season – the reason the Fringe moved in the first place.

The somewhat thin reason given for sticking resolutely to the old timetable was that international performers were locked into a rigid schedule in which Edinburgh had an immovable slot.

But speaking this week after the launch of the music programme, Linehan refuted the suggestion it was just an excuse for intransigence and insisted international calendars, in 
particular those of European companies, had only recently become more flexible. Luck of the Irish, as they say?

Maximising audiences was very much to the fore at this week’s event; giving music its own launch platform is recognition the music programme needs to generate the bigger audiences its concerts deserve. And as a former director of the Sydney Opera House, it’s home territory.

So for his opener, Scottish performers are to the fore. Donald Runnicles has the baton in his home town for the opening concert of Brahms and Strauss with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Violinist Nicola Benedetti returns, this time with the Oslo Philharmonic , to perform Sibelius’s beautiful First Symphony, amongst other treats.

What should be eagerly-anticipated is the premiere of James MacMillan’s Second Percussion Concerto with percussionist Colin Currie and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. And with even more Sibelius, which is no bad thing at all.

This year sees the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and they have their work cut out to top last year’s stunning performances of high vocal drama and intense emotion.

But they might just do it with Mozart’s Requiem and I challenge anyone to go this concert with Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra and not be utterly blown away.

As always, the problem will be the inevitable clashes with other Festival 
shows, but we won’t know until the main programme is revealed next month.

Although he doesn’t quite put it this way, and he’s much too smart and polite to spell it out, but I suspect Linehan reckons Edinburgh takes too much of the Festival for granted. This is particularly so of the Usher Hall and as a regular Festival attendee for the past 15 years he’ll know that brilliant concerts are often played to a half-full house.

So there are plans to use the space outside the hall across to Festival Square for a free event on the opening night to showcase the venue.

“People may choose not to go in but they should be aware of what’s going on inside,” he said.

“That is the idea of bringing the music programme to the forefront. The strategy begins today to start the conversation and we need to counter the way the Usher Hall is perceived.”

Countering perceptions is easy to say but hard to do against a background of factors he can’t alter, certainly not within the average lifespan of a Festival director, and not for someone who might be moving on in five years.

A different approach is needed to reach beyond the traditional audiences who make up the vast bulk of International Festival-goers. The plan to use Festival Square is one sign of that, and maybe another is dropping Greyfriars Church as a venue, where often most of audience were not far off joining the occupants of the yard outside.

But in a relaxed but determined mood, Linehan already looks at home in the Festival HQ at The Hub, although the challenge of following the unpredictable and artistically confrontational Jonathan Mills is not to be underestimated.

Mills’ themes and the selections behind them often provoked strong reaction but this year the Festival has no specific thread other than that of artistic excellence. It’s clear, however, he has much respect for Mills, in particular that any frustrations his predecessor might have had about resources and funding were rarely played out in public.

“Jonathan had a really successful tenure. He just got on with it and steered the Festival though a time when the city faced the financial crisis,” he said.

But taking the financial bull by the horns, this week he spoke publicly about the Festival facing “death by a thousand cuts” unless long-term finding problems are not addressed. But in laying down a challenge to the city and the Scottish Government again he’s not naïve enough to think the chances of receiving more than sympathy at this time are remote.

Creative Scotland gives more cash to the Festival than any other organisation, but with £1.7m cut from the grant for Linehan’s first three years his concern is understandable.

At least he does have a track record of wresting more cash from sponsors and of putting bums on seats. With government cash at all levels in very short supply, and a similar story in Scotland’s shrunken corporate world, he’ll need all those skills.

Mills did take up the cudgels early on when he uncovered a £1.5m debt problem, but that was before the bank crash and in recognising the wider economic benefits the city leadership was able to put the organisation on a firm financial footing. Now, as former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne famously told his successor, there is no money. When education and health budgets are being protected, the burden of savings falls elsewhere and in lean times the high arts don’t cut it.

NEVER FERG-ET

1970: Born in Dublin to actress mother Rosaleen and writer father Fergus. His grandfather represented Donegal in the Irish Dail for over 30 years.

1994: Appointed general manager of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

1999: Takes over as chief executive and artistic director.

2004: Becomes chief executive and artistic director of the Sydney Festival.

2010: Head of music at the Sydney Opera House.

2013: Appointed director designate of the Edinburgh International Festival.

2014: Succeeds Jonathan Mills as director in October.

BATTLE LINES DRAWN FOR ANOTHER DEVELOPMENT SPAT

The claymores are being whetted for another fight in south Edinburgh over development, this time in leafiest Morningside-Blackford.

The latest battleground is the Paddock at Midmar Drive near Blackford Hill, where cows grazed until very recently and a council-maintained car park allows easy access for dog walkers to the hill and the Hermitage nature reserve.

Down the hill lies the Midmar allotments and in the middle of the field is a copse of sycamore and beech trees upon which there is a preservation order.

There is no plan to build on the field as yet, but the land has been marketed by estate agent Strutt & Parker as having “development potential” so it should be no surprise there has been a fair bit of interest.

A number of offers have been received, which would suggest that someone is going to pay top dollar. Two protest launches are set to take place at the car park, a Labour one tomorrow with MP Ian Murray and Councillor Paul Godzik and a Green one next week with MSP Alison Johnstone and Councillor Melanie Main.

Few locals know who owns the land, but thanks to website Land Matters, run by Green land reform campaigner Andy Wightman, the complexities of many ownership transfers lodged with the Land Registry have been laid bare to reveal the land has effectively been in the same family since 1923.

The family is the Laings, descendants of Sir Alexander Grant, the managing director of McVitie’s Biscuits who died in 1937. One of his descendants is Jamie Laing, the millionaire clothing entrepreneur and star of Made in Chelsea.

Unlike the Craighouse site nearby, there is no question this land is in the green belt and if there was any hint of building going ahead the same forces which opposed Craighouse and Raeburn Place would be marshalled against it.

But the protesters are laying down an early marker. Strutt & Parker’s brochure gives no taste of the scrap which awaits any developer. Consultation is likely to be short and to the point. I doubt any of those lining up against the so far invisible enemy will be persuaded by the promise of “enhanced access to the countryside” when all you have to do just now is walk through the gateway. Nor are enhanced recreation facilities going to sit well with those who just like walking their dogs.

The chink of light for housebuilders here is that some have been built directly across the road relatively recently. Current estimates on Zoopla value them at £1.2 million.

Blocking a housing plan on one side of Midmar, it could be argued, isn’t consistent with what’s on the other, but the

key in the sale prospectus lies here: “this site could be . . .

an opportunity for higher value, bespoke properties with potential self-build opportunities to be delivered within a highly prestigious area of the city.”

The cue has been taken from one of the most modern, statement houses built in Edinburgh in recent years right across the road. Designed by Gareth Hoskins, the extraordinary house at the end of Hermitage Drive is home to Geoff Ball, who ran Cala Homes from 1974 until 2009.

The difference is that the house was built on an existing house plot, not on green belt land and so was within planning guidelines. Even so, extensive consultation took place with locals. It exemplifies a “higher value, bespoke property”.

So rather than proposing a mini estate, an alternative here could be to create a masterplan and sell off individual plots for high-quality designs.

I doubt the furore would be much reduced, and if the other protests are anything to go by, the handful of wealthy individuals planning their dream homes on green land will face a torrid time. And this time the protesters might have a point.