Edinburgh’s mix of culture and politics works for Scotland

Geraint Talfan Davies draws lessons for Wales from the Edinburgh Festival

Edinburgh. The Festival. A welcome affirmation of the importance of culture after weeks in which sporting achievement and a parade of lachrymose winners and losers have, understandably, eclipsed even Danny Boyle’s artistic tour de force of an opening ceremony. The festival is an extraordinary event, although the use of the singular hides the fact that it is a festival of festivals, a chain of events that runs right through the summer months – Scotland and its capital consciously and confidently projecting itself to the outside world.

Last week Welsh National Opera was there to give a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Usher Hall, one of Edinburgh’s grander venues. A thrilling performance by a quality cast and one in which WNO’s orchestra and music director, Lothar Koenigs, burnished their growing reputations. Behind the scenes there was some nervousness. The previous night’s concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra had had to be cancelled because of a mysterious power cut at the hall. WNO performed with a standby generator at hand. Despite a momentary flicker of the lights early in the third act, it was not needed. The audience rose to applaud a well-lit triumph.

The origins of the Edinburgh International Festival, in which WNO was performing, are not unlike those of the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. Both were established in 1947 in the aftermath of war, in Edinburgh’s case to ‘provide a platform for a flowering of the human spirit’. In both cases local officers of the British Council were heavily involved. In Wales a British Council officer, Harold Tudor, had arranged an international presence at two wartime eisteddfodau at Bangor and Llandybie before deciding on a separate event. He eventually became Llangollen’s first publicity officer. In Edinburgh the head of the British council, Henry Harvey Wood, was a key ally for the first director, Rudolf Bing, an Austrian impresario who had fled the Nazis in 1934 and had helped found Glyndebourne opera. The Halle orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli performed at the opening events in both Wales and Scotland.

Although the Edinburgh International Festival was the founding event, it has never been a singular event. There was a ‘fringe’ even at the first festival in 1947. By now between May and October discrete festivals focus on books, film, television, art, jazz and blues, storytelling, and children and young people, not to mention a Mela festival and the military tattoo. The Fringe alone, which lasts for 25 days, sells nearly two million tickets for more than 40,000 shows at 279 venues. All this sustains nearly 4,000 jobs in the city. Importantly, nearly two-thirds of all attendances are by people from the rest of the UK and from overseas. The city council’s ‘festivals champion’ reckons all this is worth £250 million year to the city. It is a massive act of cultural projection by and for the city and Scotland.

There is no way in which our own capital, Cardiff, can seek to emulate Edinburgh at this scale. What happens at Edinburgh through the summer is the result of 65 years of investment and organic growth, as well as its fair share of controversy and crisis. But we should take a hard look at our own considerable cultural assets and start to plan how these might be used to better effect.

There is no shortage of things on which to build, not least a range of fine venues, including at least five spaces within the WMC complex – opera house, orchestral hall, dance studio  and the small Weston Studio – the St. David’s Hall and two exquisite and intimate new spaces at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. In theatre there are newly refurbished spaces at Chapter and the Sherman Theatre. We have internationally recognized ensembles in WNO and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the National Dance Company and National Theatre Wales, and national youth ensembles in almost every musical sphere and theatre. The National Museum’s presence in the centre of the city and at St. Fagan’s would be envied by many cities.

There are also a number of events of varying purpose and quality. The two that are best recognized in the artistic world are the biennial BBC Cardiff Singer of the World (June) launched in 1983 and the Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival (May), that celebrates living composers. The latter was founded in 1969 and is still run by the composer John Metcalf.  The Welsh Proms (July), now in its 26th year, is run by the conductor, Owain Arwel Hughes, an indefatigable music missionary. It is a popular event but has not won the same wider artistic acclaim, perhaps suffering from comparison with the BBC Proms despite some quality programming. In 2008 Llandaff Cathedral revived its music festival (June). This was once the key music event in the city in the days before the building of the St. David’s concert hall. Last year a new Cardiff Music Festival (October) was launched, but focusing mainly on the necessary task of encouraging young Welsh musicians and singers.

On the popular music side the Swn Festival (October) is now in its sixth year, while a Cardiff Comedy Festival is in its fourth year. There is a local authority backed Cardiff Festival (May-June),  but it is a low key mix of community, sport, leisure and commercial events that seems to be aimed at local audiences rather than at drawing new audiences to the capital from the rest of the UK and overseas. It does not spring from a big vision of making the city the cultural magnet which it could be, and to which any European capital would aspire.

At one level what all this lacks is simply more collaborative programming and some greater level of integrated branding and marketing across all the cultural players in the city – perhaps even linking up with Swansea and Newport and some Valley venues. It might not even need more money, although I would bet a pound to penny that it would deliver a more long-lasting return in money and publicity than the seven-figure sum currently spent on the three days of the Wales GB Rally.

But at a deeper level it requires a more instinctive understanding in Welsh Government and local government of the role of culture in projecting Wales and its capital, and a recognition that this is not a competition between one and the other. What is most evident in Edinburgh – and harder to spot in Wales – is collaboration between the Scottish Government and the capital’s local authority.

Here we can draw another lesson from Scotland. While the festival was in full swing last week delegates from 40 countries from across the globe, including 37 culture ministers, arrived for the first Edinburgh International Culture Summit, held at the Scottish Parliament. This was a joint event by the Scottish Government, UK Government, British Council and the Edinburgh International Festival and centred on the theme of culture as an international dialogue. They will be seeking to repeat the event  in 2014.

Significantly, the full title of the Scottish Government’s culture minister is Minister for Culture and External Affairs. Culture and the flag go hand in hand. It is no accident, either, that politics wants to join the party. The next Edinburgh festival gets under way this week – an eight day Festival of Politics.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of Welsh National Opera and of the IWA.

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