The East Neuk Festival is one of Scotland’s musical gems. For just over a week, in the lovely settings of Fife’s magical wee coastal riviera, Artistic Director Svend McEwan-Brown (with the help of many local volunteers) puts on an international quality chamber music festival. Today is the last day of the festival: a lovely sunny day that provides a perfect setting for the Festival’s conclusion.
The day begins with a concert in Kilrenny Parish Church, a very simple and bare Church of Scotland Kirk. However, we are made very welcome by the people of the parish, who make us a preconcert tea with delicious home made cakes. The concert is given by the Elias String Quartet, one of the best young string quartets in the country and previous BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists.
The concert opens with Shostakovich’s Seventh Quartet, which McEwan-Brown’s programme notes suggest was written as a memorial to his wife Nina, with whom he had a stormy marriage. This may account for the music’s big changes in mood, from the grand opening movement, through the thoughtful slow movement, to the playful pizzicato of the scherzo, to the big finale. The Elias play it beautifully, expertly led by French violinist Sara Bitlloch, with her sister Marie on cello, Scots violinist Donald Grant on second violin and, sitting in with the Elias, Robin Ireland on viola. Ireland was a very distinguished member of the Lindsay Quartet, and now teaches viola at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
The second and final work in the concert is Beethoven’s familiar and beautiful string quartet No. 12, and the Elias, who have made Beethoven’s Quartets one of their specialities, play it with great feeling: it is a perfect contrast to the Shostakovich.
The second concert today is the Farewell Symphony given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, its title referring to both Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 “The Farewell”, and the fact that this is the final concert in the Festival. It is performed in the very different setting of the Bowhouse in St Monans, which is usually a food market but has been transformed into a very good performance space holding several hundred people: it is very full for this final event.
The SCO are always a joy to listen to whatever the setting, and on this occasion are led by an old friend of the orchestra the great pianist and conductor, Christian Zacharias. The opening work, from Rameau’s opera Les Indes galantes, was arranged by Zacharias to highlight the opera’s dances, and provides a delightful bouncy opening to the concert, and indeed a great encore at the end of the concert to send us into the evening sunshine with! The Rameau is followed by a wonderful performance of Mozart’s majestic clarinet concerto, superbly played by the SCO’s principal clarinetist, Maximiliano Martin, who brings out the great range and colour of the concerto, and it is well accompanied by the SCO under the very active conducting of Zacharias.
The concert concludes with the Haydn “Farewell” Symphony No. 45. Written by Haydn to say goodbye to his musicians after a long summer camp, it begins very conventionally, but ends in a coup de théâtre (or coup de orchestre!) as the musicians fall silent one by one, their music stands lights going out, the lights in the hall dimming, until in the end there is silence and darkness, broken only by the applause of the audience at the end of a fine concert.
The East Neuk Festival is already working on next year’s programme (June 26th – 30th 2019) and is promising big stars and and big surprises. 25,000 people attended and enjoyed this year’s festival, and judging from today’s two concerts, many of them are sure to return.