And we’re back! After last year’s cancellation, it couldn’t be more exciting to welcome the Edinburgh International Festival back into town, and it began with a joyful burst of musical optimism in a venue that seemed to defy the pandemic by its very existence. The EIF’s big plan for this summer is to hold almost everything outdoors in three bespoke venues, effectively all-weather tents, in locations across the city, and the venue for the orchestral concerts is situated on the fields of the Edinburgh Academy Junior School, just north of the New Town village of Stockbridge.

Dalia Stasevska conducts the BBC SO
© EIF | Ryan Buchanan

It’s quite a sight when you turn the corner from the road. To accommodate social distancing, the tent is a huge open-ended tunnel the size of a battleship. However, it’s an impressive structure to be inside and, with no walls and a transparent roof, it provides a sense of the outdoors while giving protection from the elements. Or at least, I hope it does. I’m told that Sir Adrian Boult “joked” that Edinburgh is the only place in Britain where the rain falls sideways, so we’ll see how things hold up come the next thunderstorm. 

What of the sound, though? It’s a triumph. The tent uses a degree of amplification, though from my seat near the front I couldn’t tell how that feels towards the back. All I can report is that the sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra came across as entirely natural, clearly focused on the stage at the front while being given a gentle helping hand to support those further away. It never felt forced, stagey or electronically enhanced.

Certainly, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella sounded just like you’d hope in a concert hall. The strings in the overture sounded bouncy and full, with no artificiality at all, and throughout the orchestra played the score with energy and good humour. The solos were terrific too, with bright trumpet, arch winds and a delightfully flatulent trombone. Dalia Stasevska conducted with just the right balance of focus and playfulness, bringing to life these Italian pastiches while never losing sight of the warmth inherent in what is the most instantly appealing of all Stravinsky’s neoclassical scores. The young trio of singers shared that insight, too. Bass Michael Mofidian took himself rather seriously when a bit of humour would have served him well, but tenor Filipe Manu sang his numbers with unaffected sweetness, and Rosie Aldridge sang the love songs with the knowing sense of the irony that Stravinsky built into them.

Dalia Stasevska conducts the BBC SO
© EIF | Ryan Buchanan

Top marks for the sound and experience, then, and the rest of the concert won by exuding a terrific sense of musical optimism. Anna Clyne studied at Edinburgh and attended many an EIF herself, so her new piece, PIVOT, taps into that sense of good times relived. Much of the music resembles Scottish folk tunes, sometimes quoting them directly, with cheerful melodies splurging into one another like a drunken evening in the Royal Oak pub, an Edinburgh folk institution that was previously called The Pivot, as it happens.

Meanwhile, Respighi’s Trittico botticelliano exuded such Mediterranean warmth that the brightness of the music seemed to leap from the instruments. The glorious glimmer of his sound as played here made me think not so much of film music as the Technicolor of a cartoon. Those trills and fanfares that launched La primavera didn’t so much shimmer as burst with light, and Venus journeying towards the shore can seldom have sounded so buoyant. The central Adoration of the Magi, with its tangy wind solos and oriental colourings, moved forwards with purpose and focus, and Stasevska eked playing of rich beauty from the orchestra while maintaining a chamber music aesthetic that made the whole thing sound completely transparent.

The whole concert was a triumph as much for the fact that it existed as for the beauty of the sound and playing. I only hope I’m still saying that when the rain begins to fall!

*****