After eight years at the helm of Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills is stepping down to return to his first love, composing, writes Susan Mansfield
It was a chilly February day, one of those grey Edinburgh days where the air is cold and clear. Jonathan Mills remembers taking a walk round the New Town, after he was interviewed for the job of director of the Edinburgh International Festival.
He nearly didn’t come for the 2006 interview, he says, reluctant to make the marathon trip from Sydney when he felt he “didn’t have a remote chance” of getting the job. His agent persuaded him to make the journey, on the basis that the fare would be paid and he could tie it in with meetings in London. He smiles quietly. “The rest you know.”
Mills was hardly the bookies’ choice to replace Brian McMaster, who had been in the post for 15 years. Music critic Norman Lebrecht criticised the festival for appointing “a minnow from the other side of the world”. But eight years on, he has few detractors. Not only has he balanced the books (the festival was £1 million in debt when he took over) he has built a strong record in programming, particularly internationally. He has also, in his own flamboyant way, fought the festival’s corner, and still does, firing parting shots about the need to increase funding, which has remained virtually static during his tenure.
Now Mills is midway through his last festival. After the fireworks, he will hand over the reins to the new director, Fergus Linehan, and return to his work as a composer, finishing a commission for an opera based on Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus. But at the moment, he says he’s barely thinking about leaving, he’s too busy with the usual whirlwind of meeting and greeting, rehearsal visits, venue get-ins, and media interviews (he does between 50 and 60 interviews with international press every festival). The boardroom table in his office at the top of the Hub has just been cleared after a lunch for a dozen guests. “A festival is like surfing,” he says. “Each week is like a wave breaking to shore. I daresay, some of that [feelings about leaving] will hit later, but while there are events going on, it’s business as usual.” And, as if to prove it, he stifles a yawn.
For his last festival, he has broken a personal rule and decided to include one of his own compositions, Sandakan Threnody, a prize-winning oratorio commemorating atrocities committed against Allied prisoners of war in Borneo during the Second World War. “I have to admit, I was reluctant, because I don’t want to confuse my role as a festival director with that of a composer. But I felt it could make a very substantial contribution to the narrative of the festival for this year [on culture and conflict]. And a lot of people, really a lot of people, have come up to me privately and said: ‘When are we going to hear something of yours?’”
He describes the piece, written in 2002, which will be performed by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, as a “lament” for the Allied troops – mainly British and Australians – captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore, who died in the prison camps of Sandakan. In 1945, the remaining 2,434 prisoners in the camps were taken on a series of “ordered and deliberate death marches” through the jungle to Ranau, 160 miles away. Of these, the only survivors were six men who escaped from one of the marches. The events have been described as the worst wartime atrocities committed against Australians, but went virtually uncommemorated in either Australia or the UK until the 1990s.
“It was a bit of an indecent wait,” says Mills, whose surgeon father spent time at Sandakan as the medical officer, before being moved to another camp at Kuching. “The motivation was not to be angry or critical of the Japanese. If anything I’m more angry at the Australian and British governments for the amount of time it took for a serving prime minister to meet with a delegation of former prisoners of war of the Japanese. I thought somebody should write a ceremony of grieving for these troops, who gave their lives for us. We owed it to them.”
He grew up, he says, with the knowledge of his father’s wartime experience. “He would never initiate a conversation, but if you asked him about it, he would always answer the question, and quite expansively. My father was one in a million, he was the most optimistic person I’ve ever met. I could not have gone through what he went through and gone to Japan for my honeymoon. My father did. He said: ‘I’m not being brave or altruistic, I’m just being very practical, I don’t want to seethe with loathing for a whole population I don’t know anything about’.” Mills senior died in 2008 aged 98. “He described all the people who survived that camp as ‘Darwinian’, if they survived that, they were the toughest, the most resilient. They all lived into their late 80s at least.”
It was Frank Mills who first noticed his son’s remarkable talent for music. Mills junior studied piano and composition in Sydney, London and in Italy, but also has a degree in architecture. He has a polymath intelligence and his descriptions of his programming ideas often refer widely to writers and thinkers. Fresh out of university in Sydney, he and his friends started the Blue Mountains Festival. Later, he was artistic adviser to the Brisbane Biennial, and director of the Melbourne Festival, but – he points out – with a respectable gap between each. “I’m not a serial offender,” he says of his festival directing career. “I have friends who have been, I don’t have the stamina for that, I have to stop and take a breather, to work out whether I have anything more to say.”
The real surprise in his career was getting the Edinburgh job. “I didn’t say ‘Are you sure?’ I didn’t go that far, but I think I did say: ‘Really?’” he says, describing the phonecall when he was offered the post. Taking up his appointment in October 2006, with less than a year to mount a festival, he had to hit the ground running. “The thing that hits you is: ‘OK, now I’ve got to do this’. The good thing was I didn’t have time for it to sink in in any kind of self-conscious way. It wasn’t: ‘Oh my god, I’ve just been appointed to this great job’, it was: ‘Get on with it, because if you don’t there won’t be one next year.’”
He made his mark straight away, with work such as Monterverdi’s Orfeo conducted by Jordi Savall, Alan Cumming in the NTS’s production of The Bacchae, Barrie Kosky’s Poppea, and by making decisions such as the one to programme visual art within the International Festival for the first time in many years.
His tenure has not been without controversy. Some have criticised him for not commissioning enough work from Scotland’s own national companies, or addressing issues crucial to Scotland, such as the referendum. “Being an Australian by birth gives me a perspective that is remote from here and a detachment, so I was able to encourage people to think more about other parts of the world in the way we programme,” he says. “It’s an international festival after all.”
But when I ask what he is particularly proud of, he singles out The James Plays, by Rona Munro, alongside the body of work created at special venues at Ingliston in 2012, which included TR Warszawa’s 2008: Macbeth and Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir by Theatre du Soleil. And then there are “dozens” of other moments which make him proud. “There’s not a single festival where I can’t point to at least half a dozen. I think the standards are all high, but occasionally something kicks in and the artists surprise themselves, and of course thrill us.”
Sandakan Threnody will be performed in a programme with Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, at the Usher Hall, 30 August, more info
Originally published in The Scotsman
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