Running from 8 to 31 August, the Edinburgh International Festival launched in 1947, becoming one of the most celebrated and highly-regarded arts festivals in the world. This year, the festival is going back to its roots, taking on ambitious themes which allow the organisers to explore the festival's history, its cultural diversity, and its origins in post-war Britain with a programme of innovative theatre, classic opera, ground-breaking ballet and world-class music; with gala premieres, exclusive performances, and a programme of events like no other. EIF is the event which put Edinburgh on the map as a festival city, and this year's colossal programme seeks to once again stake the city's claim to be the original and best on the cultural festival circuit.
The programme was announced today at a launch in the city, with a thrilling selection of shows announced for summer 2014, curated by Festival Director Jonathan Mills, who has run the EIF since 2006. This is his final year in the director's chair – he will be stepping down in 2015 after eight years of festivals. The shows feature a total of 2,400 performers from over 43 countries. "There was an irresistible urge to think about our own history as a festival," said Mills at the programme launch today, speaking about the choices he and the Festival's organisers have made about the themes, performances and other forms of cultural engagement being presented at this year's event.
One of the themes of this year's festival is the relationship between culture and confilct, with many shows created by artists from countries which have experienced war or its legacy, and used this experience as inspiration for works of art which emphaises beuaty, optimism and hope. A co-production commissioned by EIF in association with the Chekhov International Theatre Festival and I AM, The War, looks at the lives of young artists in Paris during the First World War. Director Vladimir Pankov, with choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and MAU, helms the production.
The world-famous Kronos Quartet will play live, showcasing a new cinematic collaboration with composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and filmmaker Bill Morrison, also looking at the First World War. Beyond Zero: 1914 – 1918 will be shown at the Festival Theatre, and there will be a concert in the Usher Hall featuring music by Clint Mansell, from his score work for director Darren Aronofsky.
Staying on the theme of the First World War, Flemish director Luk Perceval brings his Thalia Theater back to the festival for the first time in a decade, with a play called FRONT, inspired by texts from both sides of the conflict, including Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
The Festival will present a series of talks on the topic of 'Culture and Conflict,' featuring Sir Adam Roberts, Professor Margaret MacMillan and Sir Hew Strachan, among others. There will also be film screenings touching on the theme of war, including The Burmese Harp, The Tin Drum and Darfur. The Young People’s Lecture, launched last year to great acclaim, also returns, with a talk from Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal, talking about his journey from child soldier to political activist.
At today's programme launch, a question was put to Festival Director Jonathan Mills, asking him why the decision had been made to engage with the theme of the centenary of the First World War. "This festival started in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War," said Mills. "It started at the worst of possible times for the best of possible reasons. When the festival started there was food and petrol rationing, so it wasn't an easy enterprise to undertake. I felt it was very important to acknowledge our own origins, by looking not just at the First World War, but at the relationship that artists have had with conflict – often counter-intuitive relationships. This is not a festival which is negative, or in any way of sombre note. There are uplifting voices, there is joyousness, there is defiance. What comes through, and what I hope came through in 1947, is this idea that the future is better. That from darkness, a spirit of optimism can emerge."
Elaborating on the Festival's origins, Mills continued: "There's a very good reason this Festival is European –in the aftermath of the First World War, we had to contend with the self-slaughter that Europe had undergone, and with the existential questions of what Europe meant. In 2014, Europe is a very different place. It is differently positioned in the global order than it was in 1947. What's great about this Festival, and what gives me high hopes, is that it is the evolving nature of the influence of the artists and directors, and a whole range of collaborators bring to this festival, that gives it its richness and distinctiveness."
This year's festival will also tie in with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, with artists and companies from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all in attendance. One very special gala show will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the beginning of democracy in South Africa with the world premiere of a new ballet, Inala. Composer Ella Spira and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have written the music for the show, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo in attendance to perform live alongside the ballet, featuring dancers from Rambert and The Royal Ballet, choreographed by Mark Baldwin.
Handspring Puppet Company, the celebrated company behind War Horse and other shows, will be reviving their adaptation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu and the Truth Commission, based on Jarry's Pere Ubu and transcriptions of the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
Four plays sure to be a highlight of this year's Festival in the year of Scotland's referendum on independence are The James Plays by Rona Munro, based on the lives of Scotland's three kings, James I, II and II. Director Laurie Sansom, the recently-appointed director of the National Theatre of Scotland, helms the plays, with a cast including James McArdle, Blythe Duff, Andrew Rothney, Jamie Sives and Sofie Gråbøl. Audiences will be able to decide whether to attend the plays all together over the course of one day, or attend them separately.
The Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra and conductor Valery Gergiev will collaborate with Greek director Yannis Kokkos for a new staging of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (The Trojans), widely acknowledged as an influence on Wagner's epic Ring Cycle, and not seen in Scotland for over 4 decades. Another key opera production sees Benjamin Britten’s written-for-television opera Owen Wingrave, produced in association with Aldeburgh Music. Touching on themes of war and military history, the opera will be directed by Neil Bartlett and conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, and is an Edinburgh International first.
A multimedia performance worth checking out comes from Canadian Stage, offering a collaboration between visual artist Stan Douglas and screenwriter Chris Haddock. Their Helen Lawrence, inspired by 1940s film noir, uses cutting-edge technology to create a richly-textured, atmospheric performance. Meanwhile, Paco Peña Flamenco Company's Patria explores the life and work of poet, artist, playwright and musician Federico García Lorca.
As usual, BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting live from The Queen’s Hall, featuring concerts featuring Ian Bostridge, Simon Keenlyside, Anna Prohaska, Trio Verlaine and Artemis Quartet. A very special Opening Concert will present three works written in the years preceding the First World War by Schoenberg, Scriabin and Debussy, conducted by conductor and composer Oliver Knussen and performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Kirill Gerstein and Claire Booth.
Over at The Usher Hall, a total of 23 concerts will take place, including performances of Holst’s The Planets, Britten’s War Requiem, the first performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony at the Festival, the Festival debut of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Ute Lemper, and a performance of William Tell from Teatro Regio Torino, appearing in the UK for the first time with conductor Gianandrea Noseda. Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony, written in memory of President John F Kennedy, will be performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with narration from holocaust survivor and UN Special Envoy Samuel Pisar.
The 130-strong Edinburgh Festival Choir will play a significant role in the Opening Concert and many of the other performances. The Usher Hall's Festival programme finale will see the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and Sandakan Threnody, written by outgoing Festival Director and composer Jonathan Mills.
Asked if he had any regrets after programming the EIF for 8 years, Mills commented: "The list of regrets is in direct proportion to the ambition of any festival director. The regrets are the grit of the job. If you're not regretting not doing something, you're not doing your job properly. It's the pleasure of what you are able to achieve, with artists, and the conversations that you have with them, that is the greatest joy of the job. It's a collaboration. It's the conversations that we've had, as a team, with our collaborators over the years, which I find the most inspiring."
No Edinburgh International Festival would be complete without a closing fireworks gala, and 2014's festival is no exception – The Virgin Money Fireworks Concert will this year feature Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture performed live by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, timed to perfection to a fireworks display featuring more than 400,000 fireworks being fired into the sky above Edinburgh Castle. Check our Listings in the coming weeks for dates, times and prices of all events.