Edinburgh International Festival’s ‘fanfare’ weekend should herald new era for culture in Princes Street Gardens
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One of the best innovations from Fergus Linehan's tenure as director of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) was the introduction of free outdoor spectaculars to herald the opening of each season.
From the earliest effort, which stopped the Friday night traffic on Lothian Road and finally gave Festival Square an event fitting for its name to his farewell curtain raiser at Murrayfield, these were memorable and occasionally mind-blowing occasions.
Linehan felt the launch of Edinburgh’s festivals season needed something big, impactful, meaningful and, perhaps most importantly, accessible to ordinary folk in Edinburgh.
They often felt like something of a ‘thank you’ offering for hosting the month-long cultural marathon. And the demand for tickets was also a demonstration of how much enthusiasm and affection for the festivals exists in the city.
It was also going to be intriguing to see what new innovations Nicola Benedetti would bring to the event in her first year as director.
The most notable change when she unveiled the main EIF programme in March was the reimagining of The Hub, the festival’s prominent and historic Royal Mile headquarters as an “open to all” green room, with free talks and performances in the afternoon offering the chance to hear from some of the key performers in the festival.
But the most exciting new addition is an Opening Fanfare Weekend, which will see more than 300 young musicians get the chance to perform across three stages in Princes Street Gardens.
It is also exactly the kind of event that I had hoped to see when Benedetti was appointed – and exactly the kind of event that should be staged in the arena.
They have been playing host to musical events since the gardens opened to the public and the first bandstand was built in the 1870s.
But the declining condition of the existing bandstand, which dates back to 1935, has meant temporary stages have long had to be brought in for major events, making it all but impossible to put on free shows and events.
Heritage groups have also been increasingly hostile to the use of the gardens for ticketed events, despite the long-standing cultural heritage of the Ross Bandstand and the closure of the viewing area for concerts for most of the year, a sorry state of affairs for one of Edinburgh’s most important cultural assets.
I’ve argued for some time the gardens themselves need to be reimagined as a space for all forms of culture, as long as events are sensitively handled, that actually open up access to the gardens and do not have a significant environmental impact. Performing in the gardens should also be an aspiration of young people growing up in the city.
So the Opening Fanfare Weekend is undoubtedly a thrilling prospect, with the two free afternoons of music expected to feature at least ten different musical groups at the latest count.
Benedetti hopes the garden events will provide a hugely symbolic moment to celebrate the “joy of music making” and mark a new era for the festival’s relationship with grassroots arts organisations in Scotland.
I hope the EIF’s opening weekend will become a turning point in the history of the gardens and restore them to their rightful place at the heart of the cultural life of the city.