The St Magnus International Festival has been a firm fixture on Scotland’s cultural calendar for a generation.
Globally renowned, in a normal year it would bring audiences and performers to Orkney from around the world to take part in a midsummer celebration of the arts.
But, like most other live events last year, the 2020 festival was cancelled due to COVID-19. It left a significant gap in many people’s summer, not just here in the islands, but among the festival’s many fans across the globe. Organisers were determined that this year there would be a festival – albeit in a very different format from usual. But, change brings opportunity, and it’s one that the festival was keen to grasp.
“It was quite a journey,” says the Festival's Artistic Director, Alasdair Nicolson. “Many plans were ripped-up and thrown away. We made plan after plan, then threw them in the bin and started again.”
In a small room off the north transept of Kirkwall’s iconic St Magnus Cathedral he’s busy overseeing the filming of festival favourites, the percussion group O Duo, just one of a number of artists being recorded as part of Midsummer Nights – a flagship series of concerts.
“The approach was very much that we probably wouldn’t be able to do live events – as it happens we are now – but mainly that it was going to be on film. With that in mind I wanted something that was not only a film of a concert, but things that in themselves used the artform.”
And use it they have. This year’s programme has seen some really innovative performances. It includes a striking production of George Mackay Brown’s The Storm Watchers. Directed remotely online with the cast filming many of the scenes themselves, the result has already been described by The Scotsman as ‘...astonishingly powerful…’. Meanwhile, the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth is being marked with a short film on his life and a series of his poems, recorded at locations around Orkney, as well as musical interpretations of his poem Fiddlers at the Harvest Home.
The Midsummer Nights series offers sumptuously recorded performances within the unmistakable surroundings of St Magnus Cathedral, while Land Sea and Sky combines intimate recitals with poetry from the likes of George Mackay Brown, Robert Rendall, Edwin Muir and this year’s Festival Poet, Jim Carruth. Shot in venues such as the Italian Chapel and Ness Battery, they weave in and out of footage and sound recordings of the Orkney landscape, giving the online audience a real sense of the islands.
There are live events taking place too - eight in total - including outdoor performances at Skaill House and the Linklater Voice Centre and a drive-in cinema, with live music score performed by David Allison. These in themselves feel like a real welcome return, albeit tentatively, to some sort of ‘normality’. But Alasdair believes that the lessons learnt in pulling together 2021's innovative programme will stand the event in good stead for the years ahead.
“It’s been really exciting to work with, and it’s opened my eyes to new possibilities for the future," he says. "This may mean that we incorporate some form of ‘blended’ offering in the future. We may do more of the type of thing we’ve produced this year, even if we go back to being based more around live performance, which I’m sure we’re all hugely looking forward to.”