It is an event that takes place in the loveliest of settings and yet, by far the greater part of the East Neuk Festival’s audience does not physically visit this gem on Fife’s coastal path.
This is because the festival organisers have developed such a reputation for quality of both performer and performance that BBC Radio 3 regularly records and broadcasts East Neuk Festival concerts to more than two million music lovers across the UK and beyond.
In past years festival attendees might have strolled – as your reporter has done – around the picturesque Crail harbour before witnessing the marvellous French double bass virtuoso Renaud Garcia-Fons in a local church.
Or they might have enjoyed a fish supper from the award-winning Anstruther Fish Bar before hearing the superb Scottish pianist Euan Stevenson illustrate the influence of French composer Erik Satie on jazz, pop, rock music, and more, in Anstruther Town Hall.
This year, following the cancellation of the festival’s 2020 edition due to Covid restrictions, it looked as if the intimate high quality live concerts for which the festival has earned an international reputation would have to be put on hold again.
Alternative plans were put – and remain – in place.
Having moved online over the winter, as so many other promoters and musicians have been forced to do, the festival has continued to reach international audiences with virtual concerts recorded in Fife last November and featuring its artists in residence, guitarist Sean Shibe and violinist Benjamin Baker.
Live at East Neuk Festival 2021
This digital element has been expanded, with films featuring Syrian oud player Rihab Azar, the Castalian String Quartet, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, pianist Llŷr Williams, the Tallis Scholars and Shibe and Baker due to be released daily from July 1-4 at eastneukfestival.com.
Shibe’s performance of lute music from the Balcarres Lutebook in the stately home in Colinsburgh will be the first time anyone has ever taken this hallowed manuscript back to where it was created.
Outdoor and community events have been added, including the Band in a Van project, which will travel around the East Neuk giving pop-up concerts.
A large-scale labyrinth inspired by the contours of the Fife Coastal Path that is also being created in the grounds of Kellie Castle near Pittenweem.
Then, with the announcement that, from mid-May, indoor events could go ahead with socially distanced audiences, festival director Svend McEwan-Brown began leafing through his contacts book.
The Bowhouse, a large, converted barn near St Monans which has staged East Neuk Festival concerts before, was pressed into service and a programme of seven concerts over three days booked.
With a flair typical of the festival, these concerts include festival debuts by the pianists Samson Tsoy, Fergus McCreadie and Paul Lewis and a first performance as a duo by Sean Shibe and Benjamin Baker.
As a Steinway concert grand piano is being installed in the Bowhouse for the weekend, Tsoy, Lewis, who will be giving two recitals, and McCreadie, who will be appearing with his trio, will be given the best of platforms on which to show their talents.
Fergus McCreadie, whose debut album with his trio, Turas, won the Album of the Year title at both the leading UK jazz prizes, the Parliamentary Jazz Awards and the Scottish Jazz Awards.
He released his second album, Cairn, to rave reviews in January, is especially delighted to be invited to appear at the East Neuk Festival.
“I’ve been to the area often, just as a visitor, since I was quite young and I love the atmosphere in the towns and villages along the Fife Coastal Path,” says McCreadie, whose trio appears at the Bowhouse on Friday July 2.
“The Old Harbour, which we recorded on the first album, was inspired by a kind of composite of all these harbour towns and my first promotional photographs were actually taken around Pittenweem and St Monans.
“I’m not sure I ever expected to get a chance to play a gig in any of these places, so to be bringing the trio to St Monans is quite special.”
For Svend McEwan-Brown, who founded the festival with chamber music enthusiasts Donald and Louise MacDonald in 2004, the East Neuk itself is integral to the success of the festival.
“The locality really plays a vital role in our work,” he says. “So we have put the sounds and the sights of the area at the heart of our Big Project for 2021.
“We wanted as many people as possible to join us in creating a ‘Big Picture’ of this beautiful corner of the world, using their phones to capture the sounds and sights they love here.”
The East Neuk from dawn to dusk
The Big Picture will be shown on a big screen in the Dreel Halls in Anstruther on Saturday July 3 and represents a day in the East Neuk from dawn to nightfall.
“Everyone sees something different, and we thought it would be fun and interesting to bring all those different views together,” says McEwan-Brown.
“Anyone of any age was welcome to take part, from professional photographers and filmmakers to someone who simply wanted to learn a bit more about what their phone’s camera is capable of, and to share their images.”
Participants were invited to submit four short videos, preferably at different times of day, and the festival’s arts activist trainee, David Behrens is collating and editing them into a film to celebrate the area.
“This has been such a tough and challenging year for everyone,” says McEwan-Brown.
“And in the face of unprecedented uncertainty we have seized the opportunity to try out new things this year instead, hoping to turn challenges into opportunities such as the Big Project, Band in a Van and the labyrinth at Kellie Castle.
“At the same time, though, we’re delighted to be able to return to live music even on a reduced scale.”
The Bowhouse programme
The Bowhouse programme will complement the online concerts and another concert which was recorded in May for broadcast later this year.
It features Sean Shibe, pianist-composer-director Thomas Adès and members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a programme of pieces by Adès himself, De Falla, Poulenc, Janáček and a UK premiere of Spanish composer Francisco Coll’s guitar concerto, Turia.
Rising star of the piano, Samson Tsoy plays the opening concert at the Bowhouse at 5pm on Friday 1st July.
With mentors who include the East Neuk Festival favourite Elisabeth Leonskaja and the Portuguese wunderkind-turned-international-star, Maria João Pires, Tsoy has already developed a reputation for a breadth of expression that ranges from witty touches to profound reflection.
Guitarist Sean Shibe and violinist Benjamin Baker, who both began their East Neuk Festival residences in November, play their first duo performance in a concert that begins at the Bowhouse at 11:30am on Saturday July 3.
The concert, which includes pieces by De Falla, Bartok and Arvo Pärt and the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Highland Scenes by Baker and his regular duo partner, pianist Daniel Lebhardt, is also being recorded by BBC Radio 3.
Paul Lewis, whose cycles of core piano works by Beethoven and Schubert have received unanimous critical and public acclaim worldwide, plays Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon concerts at the Bowhouse.
An East Neuk Festival like no other
The former includes Mussorgsky’s mighty Pictures at an Exhibition and the latter a sequence of pieces by three master-composers who all died before their fortieth birthdays – Mozart, Schubert and Felix Mendelssohn.
Recognised for combining strong physicality with an ability to articulate his deep thoughts about the music he plays, Lewis is likely to display his full musical vocabulary across these pieces.
Completing the Bowhouse programme, the Castalian Quartet return to the East Neuk Festival for two concerts.
The first, on Saturday July 3, featuring works by Beethoven and Dvorak and the second, the following morning, giving a rare chance to hear pieces by brother and sister Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn side by side.
Having pulled the Bowhouse programme together in double-quick time, Svend McEwan-Brown is both content for the present and optimistic about the future.
“This will be an East Neuk Festival unlike any other,” he says.
“It is very much about the art of the possible, but I fervently hope that it offers everyone the classic East Neuk Festival experience of distinctive programming featuring wonderful musicians in this beautiful place.
“I look forward to the wonderful events this year, and to being able to tell everyone about a full and “normal” East Neuk Festival 2022 very soon.”