Audiences might have been posted missing for over a year, but the first concerts to be held in Perth in that time are about to go public.
After its programme was cancelled last year amid the escalating pandemic, Perth Festival of the Arts will return next week in a virtual format designed to showcase the Fair City’s many cultural attractions and venues.
It’s a timely and welcome comeback as the event prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2022, and the festival’s administrator Helen MacKinnon believes the move online was inevitable.
“We felt very early on in the autumn that it was still going to be very difficult to foresee live audiences at events by May,” she says.
“Once we’d made the decision to go online we could start planning — and learning, because it’s a first for us. We’re a live festival and we’re all about bringing people together, so it’s been a big change.”
This year’s line-up leans heavily on a traditionally strong classical offering, with established performers such as Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Ayrshire violinist Nicola Benedetti, pioneering string exponents Scottish Ensemble, vocal consort The Gesualdo Six and choralists The Sixteen being joined by newer talents Isata Kanneh-Mason — the 24-year-old whose debut album Romance topped the classical charts in 2019 — Spanish saxophonist Manu Brazo, soprano Lauren McQuistin, pianist Junyan Chen and cellist Hugh Mackay.
Helen declares: “Isata is from such a talented musical family. I’ve seen her perform before in their ensemble and she stood out to me as such a beautiful pianist.
“Booking her and Gesualdo Six feeds really well into the festival’s growing diversity — we’re programming a lot more of those rising stars who’re perhaps younger but are going places.
“Nicola’s obviously internationally known and it’s wonderful that’s she’s performing at the festival with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Nicola was due to play with us in 2020 for our opening concert, so there’s something poignant about having her back.
“The other quite special concert we’ve got is Scottish Ensemble. We’re going out to the Byre at Inchyra — a beautifully restored barn — for a lovely programme that’s full of international flavour, taking in a tour of Scotland and on to Scandinavia and the Balkans and back.
“We’ve some nice add-on events as well, like a Zoom Q and A with The Sixteen’s conductor Harry Christophers.
“Even in a live year audiences don’t usually get the chance to speak to a conductor after a performance in a detailed way, but they’ll have an hour of his time.”
One novel festival strand audiences can attend is its eight family-friendly movie screenings. Supported by Perth’s Rotarians, the drive-in initiative is expected to see up to 100 vehicles per film roll up to Scone Palace’s grounds.
“With every week that goes by ticket sales have improved,” adds Helen.
“We’ve got everything from Back To The Future to Bohemian Rhapsody, Grease — which is proving extremely popular — and kids’ movies. It should be a nice day out and anyone who’s not comfortable about mixing can stay in their vehicle, so it’s safe.
“And we’re looking forward to working with the palace, that’s new for us too.
“One ticket could cover five people but I think it’ll mostly be couples. So I’d imagine between two and three hundred there in all.”
As well as theatre, photography and kids’ events — including a talk from fantasy author Abi Elphinstone and a Lewis Carroll-themed Children’s Classic Concert — PFA also has jazzers Fergus McCreadie Trio and Kirkcaldy bassist Ewan Hastie.
Folk’s represented by harpist Esther Swift and Perthshire’s Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton plus all-star backing.
Meanwhile, West Lothian indie kids The Snuts and Glasgow alternative outfit Cloth are highlights of the fest’s Scotland Trending selection, which struck gold in 2019 by snapping up hit crooner Lewis Capaldi.
Also on the bill — back on his teenage home patch, where he still has relatives — is songsmith Angus Munro, who can boast a four-octave vocal range and an armoury of deftly expressed Wainwright III-esque lyrics.
“There was very little for musicians actually in Crieff at the time I was growing up,” he remembers.
“I’d sneak off to play the piano in school at any opportunity, and I had a friend who I’d go and play guitar with at people’s parties. There was also a drama club that was set up by one of the teachers, and Perth Youth Theatre, which I enjoyed.”
I really liked Frank Sinatra, who my dad wasn’t a fan of. He was really into King Crimson and Led Zeppelin, which I got into eventually. I also later got into Sting, Randy Newman … and The Divine Comedy.
Angus, 33, says support from older mentors was crucial in paving a music career after being diagnosed with dyspraxia at an early age. “My primary teacher Veronica Keene really encouraged me to do things I was interested in and enjoyed at a time when I was told I couldn’t really do a lot of things,” he explains.
“She was a really big help in helping me find my voice and just going out and playing. My parents were important too. My dad would always push new music on me or stuff I hadn’t heard.
“To start with I really liked Frank Sinatra, who my dad wasn’t a fan of. He was really into King Crimson and Led Zeppelin, which I got into eventually. I also later got into Sting, Randy Newman — who’s a big influence for me — and The Divine Comedy.
“When I went to university it was people like Rufus Wainwright, Elton John and Ben Folds Five, who were a big deal for me because it was like piano rock – playing piano but with cool riffs.
“They made playing piano in a band less nerdy and more musically exciting. You didn’t have to be a classical savant in order to play to a really decent and enjoyable degree.”
They’re called Fat-Suit because they’re big
Spectators at Munro’s festival show could be in for some decidedly energetic Folds-style antics. Beside tracks from his 2019 debut album Mirror Man, there’ll be a first chance to hear a new composition — You Haven’t Seen The Last Of Me — with Angus being backed by his trusted collaborators Fat-Suit, the versatile Scottish ensemble.
“They’re called Fat-Suit because they’re a big outfit — that’s the joke. I’ve written some new tunes that I haven’t had a chance to work with them on yet, and I wanted to have something new and sparkly to show.
“I’m looking forward to playing one of the songs they’ve arranged for me for the first time because I’ve not heard what they’ve done with it yet, and I’ll hear on the day. I have a tendency to write complicated stuff, but I’ve tried to keep this one as simple as possible and I’m looking forward to Fat-Suit making it far too complicated,” he laughs.
Landmarks on a musical journey
The Edinburgh-based talent says 2022 might finally see him follow up his acclaimed LP. “There’s definitely space for me to do more stuff,” Angus declares.
“Lockdown put most music work on hiatus for a while, so I’ve just been waiting to get things started again. I hope to have something next year, for sure, but at the moment I’m just trying to get stuff written.”
His festival turn will be his biggest Perth show since appearing with his schoolboy band on Perth Concert Hall’s big stage shortly after the Horsecross venue opened in 2005. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve had a big break, but I’d certainly say I’ve had progression,” Munro insists.
“I just see the stuff I do as a musical journey. Rather than focusing on what’s happening at the end, I prefer to enjoy the little landmarks as they happen, so being able to play Perth, next to Crieff, is really funny.
“I used to just play in a little corner in school now I’m getting to play in a theatre on the internet, so I see that as a big bonus for me. I lap that up when I get the chance to do it.”
Lucky break in booking The Snuts
Helen confirms Angus’s set is one PFA’s volunteer committee are all looking forward to. Ditto The Snuts, having captured another “Capaldi moment” by booking the band days before they topped the UK album charts.
Talks with artists about next year’s celebrations have already started, but for now the focus is on taking a little piece of Perthshire magic to living rooms across the land.
“Everyone just wants to get back to performing, and even though there’s no live audience you can still create a good connection online,” says Helen.
“We’ve got a few shows recorded elsewhere but the bulk of the festival’s in Perth. That was really important to us. We wanted to open the doors and welcome audiences in a different way.”
For more see the Perth Arts Festival website.