Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival, Opening Concert, Review

Edinburgh International

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

**** (4 stars)

The combined forces of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and NYCOS National Girls Choir, under the baton of Sir Donald Runnicles, opened this year’s Edinburgh International Festival with a massive outpouring of sound, exuberantly celebrating the resumption of ‘normal service’ after the somewhat pared-down Festival last year.

In Respighi’s The Pines of Rome the composer paints sound pictures of groups of ancient trees in the city.  The Pines of the Villa Borghese rustle and ripple as children play in their shade, singing a joyful folk tune, excitedly running about.  Suddenly sombre strings and horns drone, a deep gong sounds, and the flutes and bassoons intone a solemn melody – we are under the Pines Near a Catacomb.  A distant trumpet laments and fades into silence. 

The Pines of the Janiculum are surrounded by strange murmurings, potentially ominous stirrings, which swell and then fade until a nightingale’s song cascades through the silence.  The Pines of the Appian Way remember the armies that have marched along it through the centuries.  An insistent marching rhythm underpins swelling brass and woodwind sound which increases in volume and tempo.  More and more noise surrounds us, as brass players within the auditorium add their insistent calls to what is becoming surround-sound war: finally the organ thunders us into submission – what is meant, no doubt, to be a triumphant ending seems to me to be to be yet more arrogant power-play.

Of course it’s greeted with a storm of applause – very clever writing, no?  But it is an impressive ending!

I first came across Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana when my school choir was invited, along with others from the London borough of Merton, to take part in a performance of the work in Wimbledon town hall – not quite when dinosaurs still walked the earth, but long, long ago…  I loved it – though I had no idea what it was about: we, being good convent school girls, weren’t given a translation of what we were singing…  I loved it so much I sang it again whenever I could: so it was extremely interesting to be the other side of the proscenium arch in the Usher Hall, wondering what it would be like to hear the work, and hoping I’d be able to resist the urge to join in!

It’s a thrilling spectacle – a huge orchestra, with a massive battery of percussion, two grand pianos, a celesta and a harp; three soloists; and not just the massed ranks of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus but also two rows of scarlet-shirted young women, the National Youth Choir of Scotland National Girls Choir. 

The opening chorus O fortuna nearly blew the roof off – but the pianissimo rumblings that followed were equally impressive and menacing, as the chorus sang of the incessant and inescapable turning of the wheel of fortune.  Primo vere [in Spring] followed with its celebration of spring – the snow melts, the sun shines warmly, the breeze caresses, the plants and flowers grow, and Thomas Lehman’s seductive baritone promised faithfulness in return for faithful love.  

Uf dem Anger [On the meadow] the chorus rejoiced, the orchestra burst into a dance full of inviting cross-rhythms, flute and timpani spun out a slow languid melody which dissolved into a whirling frenzy of joy.  Everything is bursting into leaf and flower – but “where is my lover?”  the women asked.  “He’s ridden away” replied the men, and we heard his horse’s hooves disappear into the distance.  Nothing daunted, both men and women continued to invite and deny until the final explosion of sound, urgent brass fanfares supporting the ecstatic close to this section – “were the whole world mine, I’d happily give it up if the Queen of England would lie in my arms”.

In taberna [in the tavern] Thomas Lehman graphically portrayed an angry and bitter man buffeted by fate and surrendering enthusiastically to the pursuit of Venus and a life of vice.  Tenor Sunnyboy Dladla sang eerily as the swan, no longer gliding gracefully across the water but being roasted on a spit and, once on the serving platter, seeing the open mouths and sharp teeth of the diners waiting to devour him.  Thomas Lehman, as the Abbot of Cockaigne, described his drinking companions with great gusto and was joined by the male chorus in shouts of “Wafna!”  The men continued drinking, becoming increasingly cheerful and immoderate in their enthusiasm as the pace of the music quickened.

By contrast the Cour d’Amours [the court of love] was initially more restrained.  Love flies everywhere, and soprano Meechot Marrero reminded us that the girl without a lover misses out on pleasure.  Day and night Thomas Lehman suffered, and begged to be revived with a kiss; Meechot Marrero sang of a girl in a red dress which shivered when it was touched, and whose face radiated beauty and pleasure.  Things between them became increasingly erotically charged, the chorus joined in excitedly until the exquisite climax Dulcissime, when Meechot Marrero’s voice soared in joyful surrender “I give myself completely”.

A thrilling chorus of praise to Venus raised us to sublime heights – but nothing lasts.  The opening chorus O fortuna returns:  in its slow crescendo and accelerando we see all that joy wiped out in an instant by the inexorable turning of the wheel of fate.

It was a cracking performance of a very idiosyncratic work, full of strong rhythms and powerful orchestral writing, but with gentle, lyrical sections of simple beauty.  The choral singing was excellent – it’s a long and hard sing, and the Festival Chorus did a great job of keeping the excitement and intensity going to the final note.  The NYCOS National Girls Choir had to sit silently for a long time, but sang impeccably [and without music] when the time came. 

It’s a pity the tenor only gets to sing as the roasting swan – I’d love to hear Sunnyboy Dladla in something else.  The baritone and soprano get a lot more to do, and it was as much of a joy to watch Thomas Lehman and Meechot Marrero’s [restrained] interaction as it was to listen to them.  Again, I hope they return to Edinburgh very soon. 

Donald Runnicles obviously had a ball conducting this work – he was bouncing around the podium with electric energy, and he elicited superb playing from the huge orchestra.  Solo trumpet and flute stood out particularly, but each section played magnificently and was rightly given its own curtain call.  The audience showed their appreciation with prolonged, enthusiastic applause: this year’s International Festival has got off to a cracking start – and there’s so much more still to look forward to!

Edinburgh International Festival, Opening Concert – Event Ended

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