War, peace and artists’ responses to them are the weighty themes behind the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills has announced in his final year as the event’s director. Marking the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, the 2014 programme, Mills said, explores the ways in which the arts have been influenced by the turmoil of war, and also how music, theatre, dance and other arts have been used to celebrate and console in times of peace. ‘That is surely what the Edinburgh Festival itself did when it was established in 1947,’ he commented.
The classical music programme is characteristically strong and broad-ranging, with a focus on music specifically connected with the first world war. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Andrew Davies performs Britten’s War Requiem, and the Kronos Quartet collaborates with composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and filmmaker Bill Morrison on Beyond Zero: 1914-1918, a multimedia performance contrasting music from before, during and after the Great War with archive images.
Elsewhere, Mills has widened his theme. ‘Our perspective is far broader than just the first world war,’ he said. ‘It goes back to ancient epic Hindu battles right through to contemporary conflicts.’ The RSNO under John Axelrod performs Bernstein’s Holocaust-themed Kaddish symphony, and there’s a concert performance of Rossini’s revolutionary opera William Tell from Turin Opera under Gianandrea Noseda, as well as ‘L’homme armé’ masses by Dufay, Palestrina and Josquin performed by The Sixteen, the Hilliard Ensemble and the Tallis Scholars. Jordi Savall brings his three performing groups ‒ Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya ‒ for an ambitious event tracing war and peace in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and both of the festival’s staged operas ‒ Berlioz’s The Trojans from Mariinsky Opera, and Britten’s Owen Wingrave from Aldeburgh Music ‒ have war themes.
Mills has also waited until his final festival as director (and indeed that festival’s final concert) to programme a work of his own ‒ the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov performs his Sandakan Threnody, which deals with the second world war death marches in northern Borneo and the personal connections that Mills’ father had with them. ‘I was asked on many occasions when I was going to include something of my own. I said okay, for my last festival we’ll think about it ‒ but I hope that people will recognise that I’ve put myself through the same prism of negotiation that I would with any other artist.
‘I think all of these things coalesce into a broader view of war and conflict, and its relationship to culture,’ Mills continued. ‘Also inherent in many of them are ideas and messages about who we are, what our values are and the kinds of debates we’re having at the moment.’