Harmonium – Edinburgh International Festival

There’s a moment in the festivals when after tearing around for a while, sometimes weeks, you can stop and say: I’ve seen something special, truly memorable, to take away this year.    I can relax.

It happened last night, on opening night.    Harmonium was utterly mesmerising, perhaps the best thing I’d seen through a dozen years in Edinburgh, and the people around seemed to agree.

“Best” as in loudly reclaiming Edinburgh’s place as a festival that delivers, with something newly created that was intellectually satisfying, culturally uncompromising and still just awe-shucks overwhelming.    Mixing high art and high technology, in a precision timed spectacle, unexpected.   Taking John Adams to the street, and the street actually gob-smacked by it.

I’ve read almost nothing on the festival this year – I only learned this morning that this was the first day in 18 years when the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe kicked off together.    I only found my way to Harmonium because I’d seen something in the paper about an opening night outdoor show at the Usher Hall.

It was a rare and beautiful night, so after a gallery opening I wandered to North Bridge to catch the last rays of sun on the Old Town.   I turned up outside the Usher Hall more than an hour early and just in time to get a place by the railing on the pavement facing it directly across Lothian Road.   This, as it turned out, was the best seat in the house.

The beginning of every festival dangles the offer of a new season, a new life, refreshing old friendships, open to making new or passing ones.   I remembered Sir Arnold Wesker, who said once, coming here after a long absence,  that Edinburgh was just a great big party; and this morning I’m thinking of our eminently sensible Fringe chief executive Kath Mainland, and her main advice,  which was never forget to eat your breakfast.

I passed the next hour leaning on the lamp-post and chatting to an Edinburgh engineer and his wife, who’d bought their bottle of red wine and folding stools as if it was for the fireworks in the gardens, and planned to see Iain Banks read poetry; and a Polish-German marketing student who spoke four languages, and wanted to live in Japan.

Things might have been different if the weather had come in, but we watched the fireworks in clear air over the Usher Hall, and gave an Edinburgh audience groan when they announced they would  wait for the Tattoo to finish.   I asked the engineer what the performance was going to be, and he said John Adams, and I joked that maybe we’d get five and three-quarter minutes of silence, though neither of us were quite sure on reflection if this was by him.  (It isn’t, and it’s 4’33”.)

The Usher Hall concert finished, and the people who’d been in the posh seats came outside, but we celebrated the fact that we had the better view from the barrier, and we hadn’t paid for it, and I pointed out some of the Edinburgh celebrities, from a party I used to be part of.

And then this happened…with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, something like a full hour of it, which was the perfect time, ending by blasting Adam’s violent chords,  and a light show that reshaped the grey old lady of the Usher Hall with such extraordinary sights that she surely had the best night of her life.   Raining colour, and pulling living faces out of it; transporting the hall itself across a sweeping panorama of Edinburgh.   A thousand mobile phones were held up,  and serious reviews and pictures will be all over the net, but here are one or two shots of the evening from my struggling iPhone 4, though the camera ran out well before the grand finale, when jets of light through smoke made a funnel into the sky.

  • Edinburgh Festivals
    North Bridge