FEATURE by Mavis Manus

This year Edinburgh celebrated the 56th anniversary of its International Music Festival and like Little Topsy, it certainly has growed. I attended the very first Festival and then, as now, the day from morning to night was filled with the best in music, dance and theatre: this year, though, I had to squeeze in something from the Jazz Festival, the Book Festival, the Theatre Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Film Festival, and the ever popular Tattoo. All this in the stunningly beautiful city where bagpipers greet you at the train station on Princes Street and there displayed before you are the famous gardens and Castle. For the three weeks at the end of August and beginning of September, Edinburgh rocks.

The idea for an international festival of music and drama emerged late in WW11 after it was realized that with continental Europe in ruins, the great international festivals of Bayreuth or Salzburg would take time to re-establish themselves. From the very first the festival was an artistic success, attracting high quality international performers including Kathleen Ferrier, Alec Guinness and Margot Fonteyn. Gradually the Edinburgh Festival became a force for artistic change in the U.K.

A special joy is the seamless ease with which everything is run; tickets were always there, and the efficient public bus service made going from venue to venue panic-free. Even better, there was often plenty of time to walk - through the Castle Gardens or along the Royal Mile where a melange of the smaller theatres gave a taste of their works and where street jugglers, dancers, musicians performed and passed round the hat.

In 1954, at the very beginning, eight small theatre groups showed up to take advantage of the Festival but as soon as they were able to procure a phone of their own, applications to take part in the Festival began pouring in. Last year 600 groups from 49 different countries performed 1,462 shows all round the city. This year sales passed the million-ticket milestone.

How to choose from such a gigantic buffet takes some happy research and some luck. An excellent website lists everything with brief synopses, and allows you to book online. One of the more important ensembles to emerge is the Traverse Theatre and I was fortunate to see an excellent play, "Shimmer" by Linda McLean, in a first class production. Three generations of women are escaping a flooded railway line and take shelter in the nearest house where three men are living. The six people express their thoughts in monologues, to the audience, to each other, in speeches filled with literary and biblical references, wordplay, meditations on life and death and the close blending of humanity with nature. There are three different versions of the encounters, each one deepening the relationships and language, and all leavened with beautiful witty writing and humor.

It is in music though, that Edinburgh shines above all. Festival Director Sir Brian McMaster and his team comb the music world of Europe for the very best that is available.

The 11am concert series at Queens Hall was particularly satisfying with, for instance, peerless performances of the Zehetmair playing(without scores!) Bartok's No. 5 and Schubert's D887 and the Auryn Quartet playing Schumann's Op 41 No.3, and Beethoven's Op 131. Steven Osborne offered an unusual marriage of Beethoven and Tippett, brilliantly played. Not surprisingly the most enthusiastic applause was for the firework playing of the young brothers Renaud amd Gautier Capucon, violin and cello, and Michel Dalberto, piano. They gave us a morning devoted to the music of Ravel in a program which showed his vast range of instrumental color and style.

The Festival covered an amplitude of operas to suit every taste: Pelleas et Melisande, Il Trovatore, Der Freischutz, Capriccio. Perhaps the most controversial was Emio Greco/PC's production of Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice, a thoughtful, evocative and thought-provoking version of the story where a musician, with love in his heart, sets out on a journey to overcome death. Directors Greco and Scholten, plus choreogrpaher and stage designer have pulled the opera out of the usual 'period piece' time frame to an abstract emotional experience where dance, body-language, music and song are intertwined in a dialogue of art and love, sacred and profane, order and freedom. It was a fascinating experience though not to everyone's taste. There were a few boos mixed in with enthusiastic applause and while waiting outside the theatre at the bus stop, one woman grabbed my arm, fulminating against the interpretation. This started off some vociferous arguments in the queue, which lasted until the bus arrived. Passions run high on both sides of the stage in opera.

The Book Festival was particularly successful, with 300 sold out events. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and super successful writer J.K. Rowling were the stars but many other fine writers came to talk about their work, answer questions and instigate discussions. And keeping in mind future readers, the organizers set up programs for children - the attendance for these clocked in at 11,000.

The U.S. was represented in part by Salt Lake City's Ballet West in a program by Anthony Tudor, Los Angeles' CalArts and Fountain Theatre's "Going to St.Ives," New York's Wide Awake Theatre Company "Square One" and Tony Speciale's play "Delirium" a one-man play that pulls the audience into the chaotic life and subconscious mind of the 19-year old poet Arthur Rimbaud.

What better way to complete the day than attending the 'Royal Bank Lates,' the series of concerts at 10.30 pm at the Usher Hall and other venues. An especially magical night was Ian Bostridge's superb performance of Schubert's song cycle, "Winterreise." Bostridge will repeat this concert in San Francisco next month.

You can't talk to Edinburgh folk for more than twenty minutes without someone mentioning the new Parliament, Holyrood House. This building has engenderd more passion, fury, joy and enthusiasm than any four operas at the Festival. Designed by Spanish architect and visionary Enric Miralles, it was budgeted for 40 million pounds sterling to be completed in three years. It has now just been completed five years later at a cost of 431 million. This of course is not unusual with projects as large as this; The Opera House in Sydney, for instance, was budgeted for 30 million Australian pounds and ended up costing the city 1 billion. Drawing inspiration from the surrounding landscape and the flower paintings by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Miralles developed a design that he said grows out of the site like a huge flower with the petals forming different structures. The Queen officially opened the building on October 9th with a grand day of celebration, concerts, ceremonials and street events, all without a hitch, much to the relief of the security staff. Miralles, alas, was not present to see the building complete. He died during the construction in 2000 at aged 45.

"But what about the weather?" I'm asked. It's true that I set off in the morning with a serious raincoat that zipped up to my nose and a hood that came down over my forehead -- and sunglasses. The sun comes out for 10 minutes and then it rains for 20 and that's the pattern. But who cares. With a city full of friendly smiles and with unbelievably fine things to see and hear, the weather just adds texture!

How to get there: British Airways is the best bet. Fly from Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Diego to London and hop a shuttle up to Edinburgh. A few days in London doesn't hurt either!

The Festival websites are up and running: eif.co.uk for preliminary programs from August 14 - September 4, 2005. The full program will be on line by March 2005. For any kind of accommodation - from B&B to De Luxe hotels click on City Information and then on Accommodation.

The website for the Fringe Festival is edfringe.com.

For the Book Festival: edbookfest.co.uk (August 13 - 29, 2005)