Edinburgh Festival Chorus marks its 50th birthday with an audiovisual spectacular
The Harmonium Project

The 50th birthday of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus will be celebrated in a very public, very modern way at the start of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

They and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will provide the musical soundtrack for The Harmonium Project, a multimedia outdoor extravaganza that will see a sequence of digital animations projected onto the famous facade of the Usher Hall, engineered to match up with a pre-recorded performance of John Adams’ choral symphony, Harmonium.

It is bound to be an audiovisual spectacular. Adams’ 1981 music comes from the height of his minimalist phase: ritualist, hypnotic, driven by a primitive, obsessive energy punctuated by euphoric climaxes. 59 Productions – the digital technology company responsible for the video design at the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games, and for lighting up the Sydney Opera House for the Vivid Live festival – has been working with Edinburgh University’s school of informatics and Edinburgh College of Art to create the visuals and projection mapping for the project.

The Festival Chorus has been intimately involved from the outset, some of its members attending sessions with 59 Productions to undergo digital mapping of their voices and brain activity in a laboratory at the informatics building. EEG machines were used to take ultrasounds of their vocal chords and larynx while singing, the results of which formed the basis of the production company’s final visual creation.

The end result will be broadcast and screened on 7 August at 10.30pm, when up to 10,000 people are expected to gather in Festival Square to watch and listen to an opening event the likes of which the Festival has rarely experienced.

It’s certainly a far cry from the traditional style of opener that the Festival Chorus is used to. That will happen the following night, when it sings live with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles in a programme that includes Brahms songs.

Runnicles’ presence is symbolic for this significant birthday year. How many of today’s conductors can say they sang in the Festival Chorus’ very first concert in 1965? He was 10 years-old at the time, and a pupil at George Watson’s College, boys from which had been drafted in for the inaugural concert of the newly-formed chorus, known then as the Scottish Festival Chorus.
It was a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 8, and the orchestra was the then Scottish National Orchestra under Sir Alexander Gibson. What sticks in Runnicles’ mind, though, was the rigorous training meted out by the Chorus’ founding director, Arthur Oldham.

“I remember, in the best sense, his fierce discipline, his uncompromising approach to find a unanimity of tone,” Runnicles recalls. “He was a force of nature, inimitable, unique, and just glowed with this ardent advocacy. Very few people could have got away with his promiscuous swearing. He settled for nothing less than complete homogeneity of sound and rhythm, and he couldn’t stand it when people sang flat.”

Fifty years on, that same chorus, now under the uncompromising directorship of Christopher Bell, can look back on a half-century of landmark Festival performances under some of the world’s most celebrated conductors. Great names such as Carlo Maria Guilini, for example, whose 1968 performance of Britten’s War Requiem, in the presence of the composer, was the first to feature the originally intended soloists, Galishna Vishnevskaya, Peter Pears and Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau.

Or Leonard Bernstein’s legendary 1973 performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, which was later televised at Ely Cathedral, Bernstein insisting that the Festival Chorus feature in that also.

Ask long-standing current members who they most recall, and occasions such as Claudio Abbado’s 1980 performance with the London Symphony Orchestra of Berlioz’s Te Deum, and the same team’s subsequent 1982 performance of Verdi’s Requiem, figure prominently.

Tenor Ken Ballantine, a veteran of 33 Festivals as a chorus member, has fond memories of working under Sir Simon Rattle and the late Sir Colin Davies. But he remembers, too, the way they helped Sir George Solti, who was conducting the Chorus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, both in Edinburgh and a few days later at the London Proms, beat the cold.

“He had the flu in Edinburgh, and we gave him some malt whisky,” Ballantine recalls. “Two days later in London, he announced he was much better, but that the whisky bottle was much worse.”
In more recent times, the name of Sir Charles Mackerras is fondly remembered. “He was like a favourite uncle,” says soprano Rosamund Davidson. But it was his combination of uncompromising musicality and warm gentility that struck a chord, as witnessed in his 2007 Festival performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “He was a real singer’s conductor who knew what made us tick,” Ballantine adds.

For this year’s celebratory Festival, the Chorus is as busy as ever, covering repertoire that stretches from Mozart to John Adams. As usual they’ve been rehearsing, as usual, all year for their three weeks in the spotlight. After the opening Brahms songs (a programme that also features the BBC SSO in Strauss’s epic tone poem Ein Heldenleben), the next challenge is Siblelius’ setting of the famous Finnish folk tale Kullervo with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Edward Gardner on 14 August.

Then it’s back to Mozart, and his unfinished Requiem with the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer (18 August). Only four days later, the big guns are out for Berlioz’s monumental Grande messe des morts, and finally (29 August) the chorus teams up with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Robin Ticciati in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

The most exciting prospect for anyone following the Festival Chorus’s recent form under Christopher Bell, is that it has reached a new pinnacle in its long and illustrious life. Recent years have witnessed a tangible change in the sound and attitude of the choir. Bell’s unflinching insistence on perfection, professionalism and the resulting glowing confidence have paid off. And the world’s top conductors are prepared to say so.

“I think it’s a very fine chorus,” says Donald Runnicles. “The man who started it, Arthur Oldham, is owed a great debt of gratitude, and his successors have a great tradition. But I’ll be frank. I think the past few years under Christopher Bell have been really important in the chorus’ development. I think he’s brought them into a new league where they can fearlessly tackle repertoire that, a few years ago, might have been more challenging. They are now, without doubt, one of the greatest choruses in the world.”

Birthday greetings don’t come much better than that.

The Harmonium Project, Festival Square, Edinburgh, 7 Aug / listings