Last year, with the main Edinburgh International Festival events taking place in large open-sided pavilions, the sight of a completely sold out Usher Hall, with a large orchestra on the platform and choir stalls packed with singers, was but a thing of dreams. Twelve months on, the 75th Edinburgh International Festival Opening Concert boldly turned dream into reality with an epic performance from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with their conductor emeritus Sir Donald Runnicles, the audience bristling with excitement and anticipation.

Meechot Marrero, Thomas Lehman and Sir Donald Runnicles
© Ryan Buchanan

Respighi’s The Pines of Rome was a tremendous opener. Runnicles painted pictures as he took us on a journey from children’s games near the Villa Borghese to a triumphant ancient army marching on the Appian Way, the work moving from day to night, then dawn. A silvery opening with horns calling set a joyful mood, before a blare from the brass took us to the hushed pines of the catacombs. Runnicles slowly built tension from the mahogany-rich lower strings, with the mysterious off-stage trumpet and soft deep pedal notes from the Usher Hall organ adding a chilly atmosphere. Moving to the Janiculum Pines under a full moon, Yann Ghiro’s beautifully dreamy clarinet drifted across the timeless landscape. Runnicles brought out mellow orchestral colours and relished the soft lush harmonies, suddenly magical with a nightingale’s song appearing. The final march down the Appian Way began quietly with bass clarinet and cor anglais solos set against an advancing tread of feet from the timpani. The work built to a thrilling triumphant blaze, with extra brass in the auditorium and sock-shaking organ adding to a splendid climax.

Everyone knows the famous bits of Carl Orff’s earthy Carmina Burana, yet Runnicles drew out the intriguing musical contrasts of this hour-long epic, a joyful showcase for the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and NYCOS National Girls Choir. Based on 24 bawdy medieval poems in Latin, Middle High German and Old French about drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust, all of life is governed by the fate of the spinning Wheel of Fortune. Orff mixes and matches musical styles with imaginative orchestrations and earworm time signatures, moving without development from plainchant, rustic dance, to romantic Italianate, often using repeated verse for effect. It is a difficult and adventurous piece to pull off, but Runnicles’ massed forces were well up for the challenge.

Members of the NYCOS and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus
© Ryan Buchanan

The Edinburgh Festival Chorus, like most choirs, has been away from live performance for two years, so this was its first opportunity to come roaring back in a busy Festival under its new director Aidan Oliver. Carmina Burana is a rude blast at the church that requires an irreverent edge in places and bold open vowels. If things started a little too politely, the chorus grew in confidence and stature, bringing a blended balance in the Springtime, a mischievously joyful approach as the drinking songs came around and a knowing cheekiness in the Court of Love. Entries were generally meticulously timed; as a previous Festival Chorus member himself, Runnicles provided precise direction. You could not miss the NYCOS National Girls Choir in their scarlet shirts, supporting soprano Meechot Marrero in her molten Amor volat undique and deftly handling the "totus floreo" accelerandos.

Sir Donald Runnicles
© Ryan Buchanan

Baritone Thomas Lehman, so warm and tender in the Spring, gave an entertaining performance as the wayward Abbot, heading into the falsetto in Dies, nox et omnia. This led into more comic antics with Marrero, her Dulcissime floating erotically into the charged ether. Sunnyboy Dladla was the roasted swan, so tortured you could almost smell the singed feathers.

Runnicles and the players brought contrast to the work throughout, rounds and dances taken at an impressive lick. The final roof-lifting Blanziflor et Helena was enormous before the Wheel of Fortune spun around, given final extra impetus from the NYCOS girls, bringing this hugely enjoyable opening event of the festival to a thrilling close.