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Perth Festival is 50 and it’s back with a bang

Perth Festival of the Arts is back, and celebrating 50 years.
Perth Festival of the Arts is back, and celebrating 50 years.

The enforced cancellation of Perth Festival of the Arts due to the pandemic in 2020 means this year’s series of events is both the 50th anniversary and the 50th edition of the festival.

First started in the city in 1972 as a celebration of classical music and opera, it’s now grown to encompass every artform.

For 12 days in May, Perth Festival becomes like a mini Edinburgh Fringe, filling venues across the city with music, comedy, theatre, art and more.

In celebration of the big anniversary, this year’s programme promises more of everything to an audience which might be hoping to enjoy some live arts following the enforced break.

Staying connected

Not that Perth Festival has entirely been away during that time. “We completely adapted last year,” says Festival Administrator Helen MacKinnon.

“In 2021 we did a hybrid version, because we were really determined to do something to keep the arts alive. We had a drive-in cinema at Scone Palace, which was a safe outdoors event.

“We also took all of the concerts that we normally do, and we filmed them and did them virtually, broadcasting them right around the world. It was a very different year, but we were able to adapt and keep artists and audiences connected.”

Nigel Short of the Tenebrae choir, who will perform at the festival.

This year some of the elements incorporated last year – particularly the focus on live contemporary music – have been returned to again, but otherwise the intention appears to be to return to business as usual once more.

“This is certainly one of our biggest festivals in recent years, if not the biggest,” says MacKinnon.

40 events over 12 stages

“We’ve got 40 events over 12 stages in the city. I think we decided really early on, as soon as we could see signs of events restarting, that we wanted to keep the ambition really high for the 50th year.

“We’ve got a really large and broad programme that covers a wide variety of arts – we’re returning to the live festival with a bang, I think.”

There are a bunch of big names appearing throughout the festival, including bands and musicians like Twin Atlantic, Jools Holland and Eddi Reader, comedian Simon Amstell and food writer Jay Rayner.

Opera Bohemia will perform Madama Butterfly.

There are also a bunch of companies like Scottish Opera, the BBC Big Band and Opera Bohemia, and plenty of local artists.

“One of our straplines is ‘something for everyone’,” says MacKinnon, explaining the thinking behind her selection of shows.

“We try to programme things that will appeal to a range of different tastes, but also to all ages. That attracts quite a broad demographic. In a year we can have a children’s concert, which introduces kids to classical music, to this year, a bunch of up-and-coming rock bands for a younger adult audience, plus a range of classical music, speakers and comedy.

Twin Atlantic rock band

“It’s a real mix, and we have really broad engagement, depending on what we programme.

“In terms of geography, usually about 60% of our audience is local – our primary audience is from Perth and Kinross – but we attract about 40% from other areas of Scotland, and beyond Scotland as well.

“We have people come over from the States every year, and some from England.”

Good use of geography

Within the city itself, meanwhile, the Festival makes good use of the geography. Even people who live in Perth might be hard-pressed to name 12 stages, beyond those at Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall.

“That’s a bit of a mix as well,” says MacKinnon. “St John’s Kirk is one of our regular venues, we host our schools lunchtime concerts and choral concerts there every year.

“This year we’re also hopping over to St Matthew’s Church for two concerts there, and we’ve got the saxophone player Tommy Smith in St Ninian’s cathedral.” The change to enjoy performances in so many environments and atmospheres seems like part of the fun.

Saxophonist Tommy Smith.

“We like the churches in Perth because they’re all different. They’ve all got different acoustics and we can use them for different types of events. T

“his year we’re also in St. Paul’s Church, which has just been reconverted into an open-air plaza (in 2021), so we’ve got an outdoor concert there.

“Then we have a big marquee in the plaza of the Concert Hall, where we’ve got an art exhibition, then after that we’ve got two days of live music gigs happening.”

Jools Holland will also be there.

This latter element is the strongest connection to last year’s online festival, with the Scotland Trending festival of contemporary music which was streamed in ’21 now converted into a live music festival over the closing weekend.

Held throughout the afternoon and early evening on the final Saturday and Sunday, the big draws here are Perth’s own Parliamo and West Lothian singer-songwriter Luke La Volpe, with other artists appearing including Tom McGuire and the Brassholes, Spyres and Amy Papiransky.

Celebrated food critic Jay Rayner will discuss his ideal last supper.

Elsewhere, the Perth Concert Hall stage will host Glasgow rockers Twin Atlantic, who earlier this year released their sixth album Transparency.

Other big names include Amstell with his “spiritual exploration of love, sex, shame, mushrooms and more” Spirit Hole, and Rayner’s My Last Supper, in which he ponders what might be the perfect final meal.

Rising Scottish Opera star, soprano Catriona Hewitson, will be performing.

Other intriguing events include the unique music and theatre show Thunderstruck, David Colvin’s biography of Pitlochry binman and champion piper Gordon Duncan, the Tenebrae choir, folk from Siobhan Miller and RURA, and a talk from BBC wildlife producer and presenter Gordon Buchanan.

A special event created for this year alone is the 50th Anniversary Festival Exhibition at Perth Museum and Art Gallery.

‘An ideal festival city’

This details the history of the festival way back to the late 1960s, when arts writer Conrad Wilson called Perth “an ideal festival city, without a festival.”

It will tell the story of an event which over the years has brought Bryn Terfel, Nigel Kennedy, Van Morrison, Nicola Benedetti, Calvin Harris, Sharleen Spiteri, Edwyn Collins, Dara O Briain, Russell Howard, Julian Clary, Paul Merton and many others to Perth.

A talk from BBC wildlife producer and presenter Gordon Buchanan will take place at the Perth Festival 2022.

“This has been a huge piece of work to pull together,” says MacKinnon.

“It’ll be two ways, you’ll be able to see it digitally online, or you can go into the museum in Perth.

“We’ll have a video display running, exhibition boards with a bit about the history, the venues and how it’s developed artistically and culturally, and then elements about the top artists that have appeared at the festival over 50 years.”

Big names who’ve come before

Off the top of her head, her own personal selection of big names to have appeared in Perth over the years include Julian Lloyd Webber, Lesley Garrett, the flautist James Galway, and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who was the last person to perform in Perth City Hall before it closed.

More recently, she cites the Proclaimers, KT Tunstall and Lewis Capaldi’s sell-out 2019 concert as big draws.

“Of course, it’s also worth mentioning Jools Holland,” she says. “He’s come to the festival most years since 1997, and he’s coming again this year.”

Performing as usual with his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, Holland’s special guest vocalist in Perth will be Eddi Reader, which is a unique combination that even those familiar with his well-travelled show might want to catch.

What to expect?

After the upheaval of the last couple of years, then, how in-demand does MacKinnon anticipate shows being for the festival’s return?

“I’ll be totally honest, we don’t know,” she says. “I think until we’re there… in a normal year, we get roughly 12,000 people coming to the festival, but this year it’s really hard to judge.

“I think people are buying tickets a lot later, that’s definitely what I’ve discovered from speaking to other venues and festivals.

“People’s buying habits have changed a lot over Covid – I don’t know why that is, I’m not sure if people are just a wee bit more hesitant about making plans too early, in case some new development restricts that.

Already some full houses

“People are definitely coming back to events, though, just in a different way. Certainly, Jools Holland is sold out and Scotland Trending is really popular, so some tickets are selling as quickly as ever. So yeah, we’re hopeful that the festival continues to attract a really good crowd.”

It must be really good to be back live again, more than anything?

“Yeah, it’s brilliant,” says MacKinnon. “It feels amazing to be planning for a live festival again. Doing things virtually online was a great way of connecting at a time when we just couldn’t connect in any other way, but there’s nothing that beats the atmosphere of a live concert and the connection between the artist on the stage and their audience. It’ll be amazing to be back to that.”

Perth Festival of the Arts takes place in various venues across Perth between Wednesday May 18 and Saturday May 29.