BBC Music Magazine
Kate Molleson on Edinburgh’s hidden gems
City rivalries can produce some sublime slanging matches, especially where Glasgow is involved. ‘Aw fur coat and nae knickers’ is just one of the poetic slurs levelled at Edinburgh by its garrulous neighbour – the assertion being that, underneath the grand architecture and the auld wealth, under the proud contours and the stately institutions attached to capital status, Edinburgh is no more sophisticated than anywhere else. Not where it counts.
Glasgow has a point and doesn’t. Edinburgh is a city of layers, literally. Streets built upon staircases built upon streets. Postcard elegance and pee-stained medieval closes. Home of Jekyll and of yde,h home of the biggest arts festival in the world and the dreichest February nights. It’s a UNESCO World heritage Centre with a current city council that gives the go-ahead to spectacularly soulless commercial developments.
There’s a common phenomenon in Edinburgh. Visitors flock to the city in August and decide to stay. They fall in love – with each other, with themselves, with the ghost stories and the heady month of round-the-clock theatre, comedy, concerts and drams. Even the drizzle looks artsy in August. Who wouldn’t want to stay? Things get interesting when these lingering visitors discover what’s left once the circus has quit town. Because Edinburgh in the other eleven months is a very different place to be – and it would be wrong to call one more ‘real’ than the other. Edinburgh is both. It’s the intersection, it’s the incongruence. It’s fur coat and nae knickers.
First myth to dispel is that Edinburgh outwith August is a cultural doldrums.
It’s become such a running joke that one promoter launched a series under the name ‘Nothing ever happens here’ – the calibre of the gigs and the enthusiasm of the audience disproving the stereotype. That series happens at Summerhall, a former vet college in the Southside that now distills its own gin. It’s also an arts multiplex, and the last show I saw there was an opera called Navigate the Blood that fused murder mystery with a history of gin distilling, set to music by Scottish indie darlings Admiral Fallow and Edinburghbased composer Gareth Williams. There’s your incongruence in one.
The outfit behind Navigate the Blood was NOISE (New Opera in Scotland Events), established in the past decade to fill the gap left by Scottish Opera, once hugely ambitious, now more hit and miss. Let’s face it, if opera is your thing, Edinburgh is probably not the place to be. On the flip side, Edinburgh is excellently served in terms of orchestral music. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra both belong to Glasgow but perform regularly at Edinburgh’s Usher hall, and both are currently in fine fettle: the RSNO at the start of an exciting new chapter with Thomas Søndergård as music director, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra the most daring orchestra in the UK as far as contemporary music is concerned.
Edinburgh’s home band is the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO): lithe, refined, an ensemble of wonderful heritage and a robust sense of its own class. Its current base is the dear old Queen’s hall, with its unforgiving pews and delicate acoustics. But the SCO has long had ambitions for a hall of its own and it’s finally set to get one. A swanky structure designed by David Chipperfield Architects is to be built among the banks and designer shops of the New Town. It’s to be called The IMPACT Centre, with public funding granted on the promise that it’ll serve not just the SCO but
First myth to dispel is that Edinburgh outwith August is a cultural doldrums
many kinds of music and audiences. If it’s to live up to its self-conscious name, it’ll need to open its doors wide.
As anywhere, some of the most interesting music-making happens outside the formal concert halls. Scotland’s foremost contemporary music ensemble Red Note hosts experimental ‘noisy nights’ in the bar of the legendary Traverse Theatre. The Dunedin Consort – a worldclass period instrument ensemble – brings illuminating performances to the historic Greyfriars Kirk or the graceful St Cecilia’s Hall. The Scottish Ensemble forges imaginative collaborations with dancers and instrumentalists at venues around the city. St Mary’s Cathedral hosts one of the UK’S top cathedral choirs. Down in the port of Leith, a proud Victorian civic theatre has reopened its doors after decades of dereliction and is shifting Edinburgh’s cultural gravity to the north.
Speaking of which, if you want to catch musicians off-duty, they’re probably at the beach. Portobello is Edinburgh-on-sea; in summer the esplanade is a jamboree of brass bands and buskers. When it gets cold? Try the pubs. Tourists frequent the famous folk sessions at Sandy Bell’s or the Royal Oak. For gentler traditional tunes, try Sunday afternoons at the Waverley Bar, where you might find one of Scotland’s finest pipers silencing the room with a Gaelic slow air. An unforgettable musical moment – and not even in August. Further information: BBC SSO www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso RSNO www.rsno.org.uk