Ready for the Festival curtain raiser Ready for the Festival curtain raiser

Ready for the Festival curtain raiser

It is now just over a week until the 2015 St Magnus International Festival gets underway. The annual event attracts visitors and performers from around the world, all supported by a large scale local logistical effort. We've been speaking to the Festival's Artistic Director, Alasdair Nicholson, about the build up to this year's arts extravaganza...

Midsummer in Orkney is a very special time of the year. The days never really die and, when the sun eventually does slowly fall below the horizon, it continues to spill light across the islands.

It means that the days are long, full of life and activity. Perfect, you might say, for a week-long celebration of arts and culture. Now in its thirty ninth year, the St Magnus International Festival has become the centrepiece of the Orcadian summer - a showcase for some of the very best musical, theatre and dance performances from around the globe.

“The Festival has an enormous reputation internationally,” said the Festival’s Artistic Director, Alasdair Nicholson. “After years of amazing new work, international performers and extraordinary events, the world has got to know about this midsummer festival. I have so many big star artists who are delighted to be invited and will go out of their way to be part of things.”

This year, some of those big names include the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra with Eddi Reader, whilst comedian Fred MacAuley will perform as part of the Festival’s ‘Fringe’ events in Kirkwall’s Fusion nightclub.

“I'm excited to share things with the audience that I have enjoyed or find entertaining and moving. It's nice to have the Scottish Chamber Orchestra around and I think they're playing some fantastically interesting repertoire with a great young start conductor and some wonderful soloists.” said Alasdair.

The Festival also attracts smaller names that quite often produce some of the most inspiring performances of the week. Alasdair has some particular favourites.

“’Svang’ are a quartet of Finnish harmonic players whose music is a cross between gypsy, tango, folk and jazz. They are highly virtuosic and very funny. ‘A Filetta’ come from Corsica and are a sextet of singers who sing in the traditional Corsican style. They're playing late night in the Cathedral and I urge folk to go along. Last, but not least, home-grown Scots jazz group ‘Brass Jaw’ play saxes and trombone and their sets are really engaging and for all ages.”

The theme this year is ‘The World Re-Imagined’. There’s a play looking at Kirkwall in Victorian times, readings of new translations of Earl Rognvald’s poetry and a theatrical re-take “I suppose some of the repertoire in the music emerged first and I realised that ‘Re-imagining’ was what many pieces of music were about - there were lots of pieces based on music by another composer for example. Then the idea spiralled into the whole programme.”

Of course, planning an event of this size in a relatively small place throws up some interesting obstacles for the organisers. The Festival has just two full time staff members, and Alasdair himself is part time. As with many events in Orkney, the success of the week depends on the commitment and support of many volunteers.

“We rely on them to work as technical crew, hosts for artists, front of house stewards and drivers, that kind of thing,” said Alasdair.

“There’s also the issue of accommodation and travel, which can be a challenge when you’ve got groups the size of an orchestra arriving. We often have to use venues that aren’t necessarily built for performances too. But, so far, everything is going well and final preparations are underway. Although it’s these last few days that are the most nerve wracking!” he added.

There are still tickets available although a number of events are heading for sell out. It recent years the Festival has attracted thousands of visitors who come to enjoy the arts, the scenery – and the late night Festival clubs where they can sample some local hospitality.

According to Alasdair, it’s that additional aspect that makes the St Magnus International Festival so special. “It’s an arts festival, and the programme will encourage people to visit. But there’s no doubt that the landscape, seascape, ancient and modern history and the warm welcome are significant factors in making it impossible to imagine the same mix of events happening anywhere else but Orkney.”

The St Magnus International Festival runs at venues across Orkney between the 18th and 25th of June. For more information, visit the Festival’s website. To book your trip to Orkney, have a look at the Visit Orkney website, and explore Orkney.com for more information on life in the islands.