The theme for this year's Edinburgh International Festival is a 'journey of discovery', affording Scottish audiences a rich variety of encounters with the diverse cultures of Asia. It promises to be a vintage year, featuring, among other musical highlights, a performance by the legendary Ravi Shankar, a live performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble of the Qatsi trilogy, Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with the RSNO, and the Mariinsky Opera under Valery Gergiev in Jonathan Kent's production of Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten.
From Festival director Jonathan Mills' perspective, of course (being Australian), traditional and conventional simplicities such as 'east meets west' are provocative puzzles. The result is not only an appetizing presentation of theatrical spectacle and performing talent, but an equally compelling intellectual exploration of the many conflicting meanings of 'orient' and, concomitantly, of oriental relationships with 'the west'.
I note, in passing, that it seems a bit sad, poignant, and needy that several of the headline theatrical visits are bringing reworkings of Shakespeare (Seoul's Mokwha Repertory Company presents The Tempest, Taipei's Contemporary Legend Theatre King Lear, and Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe Hamlet). No one is bringing a Sophocles, or a Molière, or a Strindberg.
On the other hand, the Festival's opening concert presents a real rarity, or oddity, in Schumann's cantata Das Paradies und die Peri (12 August). Sir Roger Norrington, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus are joined by soloists Susan Gritton, Lydia Teuscher, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Maximilian Schmitt, Benjamin Hulett and Florian Boesch. In an intriguing local touch, Schumann's librettist, Thomas Moore, once met Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, in a duel. His text, the verse-tale Lallla-Rookh, is from Persian mythology, and concerns a low-caste angel in search of redemption; one senses that Jeffrey might have had a point.
First among the pageants (these are events that transcend the usual labels of dance, theatre, opera and so on) is The Peony Pavilion, performed by the National Ballet of China (13-15 August) to a score by Guo Wenjing. This is a fusion of classical orchestral ballet with traditional Chinese instruments and a quintessentially Chinese love story, drawn from the work of Shakespeare's contemporary Tang Xianzu.
In maybe the most intriguing crosscultural collaboration on display this year, the Festival presents the world premiere of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, based on the novel by Haruki Murakami and seven years in the making. Stephen Earnhart and Greg Pierce's production combines performance, music, puppetry, dance and film to relate the adventures of Toru Okada, the unassumingly hapless hero, as he encounters a bizarre mashup of American and Japanese modernism, by turns Kafkaesque, Joycean, magic realist, and whatever else besides as he searches for his cat and his departed wife (20-24 August; matinee 21 August).
Meanwhile, an epic re-telling of Alf Layla wa-Layla, the one thousand and one nights, receives its European premiere. A new text, adapted by the Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh, re-examines Shahrazad's brutal, erotic and enthralling stories, and forms the basis for a production that might conjure memories of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata a generation ago as director Tim Supple leads a team of actors, musicians and technicians from Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, France and Britain. The show lasts for six hours, but can be seen in two parts (21 August – 3 September; see brochure for the complicated details).
More conventionally, Scottish Ballet's collaboration with the RSNO brings us Song of the Earth (26-28 August), Kenneth MacMillan's aforementioned treatment of Mahler, in a show that also features an as-yet-untitled work commissioned from Jorma Elo, to a potentially intriguing coupling of music by Mozart and Reich. It is as well that there are to be three performances (with mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus and tenor Peter Wedd under Sian Edwards' baton), else fighting might have broken out between the balletomanes and the Mahlerians over tickets.
Although it is a bit of a stretch to fit Strauss's seldom-mounted opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten under the Festival's theme, apparently the Arabian Nights was among the sources Hoffmansthal drew on for his symbol-laden libretto. No one will care about that: this full-scale production from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Opera promises to be stunning (1–3 September). Also among the opera is The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe's lavish reintepretation of Hamlet (19–21 August), and Vlaamse Opera's production of Rossini's Semiramide, which Nigel Lowery has presciently set in in the final days of an Arabic dictator's regime (25 & 27 August). There are also concert performances of Massenet's Thäis (RSNO/Sir Andrew Davis, 18 August) and Haydn's Orlando Paladino (Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/René Jacobs, 25 August).
There are some exciting visitors among the orchestral lineup too – excitement that is due not only to the prestigious names, led by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, but also to the repertoire, led by Takemitsu, Tan Dun, and Messiaen. Right away, on August 12, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra presents a programme of music by the pioneering electroacoustic composer and practicing Buddhist Jonathan Harvey. Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal perform two concerts, the first featuring Tan Dun's Water Concerto alongside Debussy's La Mer and Beethoven's 6th (16 August), the second featuring Takemitsu's A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden beside Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Stravinsky's Firebird (17 August).
After their lacklustre appearance two years ago, we'll be hoping for a livelier time when Esa-Pekka Salonen returns with the Philharmonia and mezzo soprano Kelley O'Connor in a programme that couples Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, Ravel's Shéhérazade, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (23 August). The Seoul Philharmonic also play just the one concert, attractively coupling Messiaen's Offrandes Oubliées with Unsuk Chin’s concerto for sheng and orchestra titled Šu, which is apparently an ancient Egyptian symbol for air. (The sheng is a traditional Chinese 17-pipe mouth organ.) They also perform Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony (24 August).
The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Charles Dutoit, give two rather less exotic concerts (August 30 & 31), the first including Ravel's Ma mere l'oye suite and La Valse, the second featuring Tchaikovsky's violin concerto and Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. Then the Bamberg Symphony give two-and-a-half concerts: the first, late on 1 September, is a performance of Mahler's 4th symphony, reduced for twelve instruments, with soprano Yaree Suh. On 2 September they give Messiaen's delicious Chronochromie, together with Sept Haiki and the complete Miraculous Mandarin of Bartok. Then on 3 September they follow with an all-Ravel programme: Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Piano Concerto for the left hand, and the complete Daphnis et Chloé. For both, conductor Jonathan Nott is joined by pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
Other notables on the orchestral front: Robin Ticciati and the SCO are joined by Magdalena Kožená, Simon Keenlyside and the National Youth Choir of Scotland in a concert that includes Duruflé's Requiem (21 August). The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Vladimir Jurowski perform Liszt's rarely heard Faust Symphony (26 August), while the Mahler fix this year is his second symphony, with Donald Runnicles, the BBC SSO, the Festival Chorus, and soloists Meagan Miller and Karen Cargill (28 August).
As last year, there is no marquee evening piano recital. There are, though, some notable lieder and song recitals: Simon Keenleyside and Malcom Martineau present a programme that includes Mahler, Strauss, Schubert, Duparc and Debussy (19 August); Magdalena Kožená and Yefim Bronfman offer Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Ravel, Rachmaninov and Bartók (20 August). Also, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen return for an all-Handel programme (Nisi Dominus, Silete venti and Dixit Dominus) on August 15.
And then there is Ravi Shankar. The legendary sitar virtuoso gives a recital of evening ragas (22 August) in the company of Tanmoy Bose (Tabla), Ravichandra Kulur (Flute), and Parimal Sadaphal (Sitar) as part of a programming strand that also brings The Legendary Music of Rajasthan to the National Museum of Scotland (27 August 9.30; 28 & 29 August 7.30 & 9.30), and Yogyakarta Court Gamelan Kridha Mardhawa to the Festival HQ, the Hub (19–21 August, 7.30 & 9.30).
In the morning Queen's Hall series, Amjad Ali Khan performs Morning Ragas on the sarod (24 August). Among other notable morning performances, Alexandre Tharaud gives an all-French piano recital including Couperin, Satie, Ravel, Pesson, and Debussy's first book of Preludes (30 August). Chanticleer (31 August) perform works from the Spanish Renaissance, Strauss's Drei Männerchöre, songs by American composers, and Spring Dreams by Chinese composer Chen Yi. The Arditti Quartet include Toshio Hosokawa's Blossoming, Dai Fujikura's Flare, Takemitsu's A Way a Lone, and the Ravel String Quartet (1 September). The unusual combination of Diana Damrau, soprano, and Xavier de Maistre, harp, present a recital that includes Debussy, Fauré, Chausson, Duparc and Richard Strauss (2 September). The last morning concert (3 September) finds Yundi giving an attractive Chopin recital including selected Nocturnes, the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, Sonata No 2 and Polonaise Op 53.
And finally, the iconic Qatsi trilogy brings the Philip Glass Ensemble to Edinburgh for Glass's Festival debut, not before time. Godfrey Reggio's visionary films will be projected to live performances conducted by Michael Reisman, with Glass at the keyboard. Koyaanisqatsi (Life out of balance) opens the series on August 13; Powaqqatsi (Life in transformation) follows on August 14, and Naqoyqatsi (Life as war, with Matt Haimovitz, cello) draws things to a close.
Public booking opens on Saturday 2 April.
In what I presume is a Festival Fringe event, young Welsh pianist Llyr Williams is giving a cycle of Beethoven sonatas at Greyfriar's Kirk (5.45 pm, 12, 13, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26 August, tickets from the Queen's Hall).
Photo: Ravi Shankar and Kent Nagano