Scottish Ballet dancers Thomas Edwards, Sophie Martin and Barnaby Rook Bishop
Scottish Ballet dancers Thomas Edwards, Sophie Martin and Barnaby Rook Bishop © Ryan Buchanan

It’s August, which means Edinburgh should be playing host to hordes of culture-devouring tourists, jostling each other in the Royal Mile on their way from concert-hall to fringe venue, art gallery to theatre.

A few brave, or lucky, summer festivals — notably Salzburg and some in Italy, like Ravenna and Pesaro — have managed to salvage at least a portion of their summer programmes. Like many others, Edinburgh's various festivals, including the fringe, cancelled in their entirety back in April.

In recompense, we have a festival presence online. The Edinburgh International Festival's online offering is nothing like the size of its usual festival — only Tanglewood in the US has managed to emulate its normal scale — but the range of arts it covers does try to live up to Edinburgh's famed cultural breadth. A collection of 11 webcasts under the banner title “My Light Shines On” went live last weekend, on the festival's planned opening night, and they are free to view on the Edinburgh International Festival's YouTube channel. 

Scottish artists and institutions play a large part. Highlights include a triple bill from Scottish Ballet, indie rock musician Honeyblood recorded at Leith Theatre, a virtual live performance by the all-female collective Les Amazones d'Afrique, and an imaginative compendium of the work of the National Theatre of Scotland devised by Hope Dickson Leach. 

The lion's share, though, goes to classical music. Faced with restrictions on social distancing, the music choices strive to make a virtue out of necessity. A performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.2 by Paul Lewis and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra benefits from its reduced numbers of players. Lewis plays with his usual warmth, but this early Beethoven also elicits a nice lightness of touch.

From Scottish Opera we get Menotti's brief, comic two-hander The Telephone. It is a very slight piece and amazing to think the opera played on Broadway. Its premise of a young woman so hung up on the telephone that she does not have time to speak to her lover is neatly updated for the mobile phone era. Soraya Mafi and Jonathan McGovern make an appealing duo. 

Thomas Søndergård conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Thomas Søndergård conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra © Mihaela Bodlovic

Most interesting is the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's Mahler concert, conducted by Thomas Søndergård. This starts with three of Mahler's Rückert-Lieder (why not all of them?) with Karen Cargill finding some radiant sounds that give her singing a lovely sheen. 

Mahler's Symphony No.7 follows, but not as we know it. This is an arrangement by Klaus Simon, which reduces the gargantuan Mahler orchestra to a chamber ensemble of less than 20 (though Simon includes a piano and harmonium, which bulk out the sound). It is, in its own way, revelatory, reminding us that there is chamber music struggling to get out of each of Mahler's giant symphonies. So long as social distancing prevails, we could be hearing a lot more of this kind of musical downsizing.


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