At the Edinburgh Festival

Hell on Earth and Hell Beyond: the Kronos Quartet in Usher Hall

The greatest surprise in the Kronos Quartet’s concert at Usher Hall was that this was their very first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. I’d have thought that they’d be regulars going back many years, given their well-known mixture of daring repertory and popular appeal. For almost forty years now, they have achieved almost cult status by playing a certain kind of contemporary music: challenging works which demand concentration but which are sufficiently colorful and aggressive that they commandeer the audience’s attention from start to finish.

Mozart’s Idomeneo with Sir Roger Norrington and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival

Certainly one of the happiest events in the expansion of the classical repertoire in the later twentieth century has been the discovery of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece, Idomeneo, rè di Creta. Often I think it may be my favorite…until I really start thinking seriously about Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, but I can say that I feel a special passion for Idomeneo. When one reads about the conductors who have brought it into its still admittedly somewhat intermittent place in the repertory of major opera houses — first among whom is Sir Colin Davis, their passion for the work is always in the foreground. The opera itself is passionate. Mozart clearly responded strongly to the libretto, and this passion is infectious.

The View from Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Our first Edinburgh Festival and our first visit to Usher Hall opened with a delightful surprise. We didn’t have to get very far into Mozart’s Idomeneo for me to realize that the acoustics of the hall are surpassingly beautiful. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, playing period instruments, and the singers floated in a warm acoustic atmosphere, but the sound was also direct and present, so that the attacks of strings and brass and the fleeting nuances of the human voice were as clear as you could want them to be. Our seats were also several rows in the Grand Circle and well covered by the level above. In most halls the sound becomes rather muffled in that kind of situation, but, when I noticed that I was surrounded by fellow critics, I assumed that the Festival media representatives knew what they were doing. More importantly I loved what I heard.

Montezuma at the Edinburgh International Festival

Before the drawing of the curtains, five Mexicans squat on the stage, toiling timelessly, while a sixth peddles knicknacks in the stalls as though it were a plaza full of tourists with bulging pockets, which it is in a way. “Don’t encourage him,” one utters sheepishly as another plays patron of the quaint local arts and crafts, exported from Mexico to the Edinburgh International Festival.

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