The London 2012 Festival: The greatest show of a great year

It is about to happen all over the UK. It brings existing celebrations like the Proms together with one-off spectaculars on the Thames and in Edinburgh, and street dance everywhere, in a programme of 12,000 events. Jessica Duchen selects the best

You have to hand it to the London 2012 Festival team. When they call it "a once in a lifetime experience", I rather think they mean it. In an "age of austerity", this almighty splurge is not to be sniffed at. More than 25,000 performers and 12,000 events are involved, with every corner of the country, more or less, becoming part of it. Heaps of it is free at the point of use. And if the full programme is... well, a little confusing, perhaps it could scarcely be otherwise, given the sheer scale of the bonanza.

The effort, really, is to please all the people for as much of the time as humanly possible. Imagine all the box-ticking. Cheap or free tickets. Youth. Britishness. Internationalism. Multiculturalism. Inclusiveness. Diversity. Kiddies. Education. Olympics. Paralympics. Contemporary arts. Heritage. Traditional arts. Pop culture. Classical music. Contemporary music. Dance. Comedy. Theatre. Installations. Fashion. Shakespeare. More youth. Still more youth. The amazing thing is that they seem to be pulling it off.

It's not without its problems, though – not least in defining its own identity. What's the difference between the London 2012 Festival and the Cultural Olympiad? Well, the latter began four years ago and the London 2012 Festival "officially" starts on 21 June, with four huge events in different places. But many of the events included in the London 2012 Festival, like the Globe to Globe productions of Shakespeare in many languages, have already been going on for months. Of the opening night's events, The Big Concert, in Raploch, is being televised on BBC4 – but it's odd that, inspiring as Gustavo Dudamel and his Venezuelan orchestra undoubtedly are, and the transformative musical education they symbolise, this event actually has nothing to do with London, or the Olympics, or the year.

It gets more muddling still. The biggest classical music component of the festival is The Proms, in its entirety – which of course is already a festival in its own right. The World Shakespeare Festival, too, has an identity and a length all its own. I tried to make a Venn diagram to demonstrate which festival is part of which other one and to what degree, and which big series is entirely contained within which bigger shebang which was pre-planned, but it started to resemble a psychedelic drawing of Mickey Mouse.

Isn't it a cop-out simply to trumpet pre-existing events as if they're a special one-off? In certain ways this risks looking like a missed opportunity on a massive scale. And if there is indeed a serious missed opportunity, it's the lack of presentational clarity that maybe results from trying to be all things to all people. Still, there's realpolitik at work. Why set up a classical series to compete with the Proms, which are such a popular fixture and already emblematic of London in summer? If you can't beat 'em, incorporate 'em. They're a subset, then, of an embarrassment of riches.

What's truly distinctive about the festival, and the thing that unifies it – well, almost – is the way it celebrates its settings. Try the marvellous concentration of multimedia installations and genre-bending events. Walk up Arthur's Seat from Edinburgh carrying a light and you can be part of one; listen out for what the wind can do to a cello on the Portland coastal path in Devon; explore ancient myths in the forests of Wales or watch acrobatics and pyrotechnics over Lake Windermere as the Olympic torch trundles into Cumbria.

It's not only these relatively wacky happenings that are rooted in their spaces: so, too, are many of the more traditional performances. The Big Concert sees Dudamel – himself perhaps classical music's equivalent of an Olympic torch – performing alongside the children of Raploch, whose progress in Sistema Scotland more than deserves this celebration. In Suffolk, the Aldeburgh World Orchestra is not only a brand-new international youth ensemble under the baton of Sir Mark Elder; it's also a very public symbol of what the coastal town, inextricably associated with the great composer Benjamin Britten and his legacy, does so well towards the musical education of gifted youngsters.

And because of the location-rich aspects of the festival, you ignore it at your peril: if you don't find it, the chances are that at some point it will find you. "Pop-up" events are very much the flavour of the summer. An American dance company promises hair-raising virtuoso feats around London's prime sites. A train full of African musicians is coming to a station near you; a barge full of comedians is travelling the country's canals.

The best news is that, behind the fuzzy subsets and that clumpy Olympic logo, Britain has been thinking big about its arts scene. This is a giant effort. Let's hope that the outcome is good enough to justify its cost; and that it does all it should to draw people together and lift the spirits.

The top 20 events in the London 2012 Festival

The Big Concert
Old School Field, Raploch, Stirling
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra join 450 children from Big Noise Raploch (Sistema Scotland) in an outdoor event celebrating the transformation of lives through music.
21 June

Yoko Ono: To the Light
Serpentine Gallery, London
A major retrospective of the conceptual artist, including her new large-scale project, Smile.
19 June-9 September

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
A new grand-scale choral work by the composer Jonathan Harvey. Edward Gardner conducts the CBSO and choirs.
21 June

BBC Radio 1's Hackney Weekend
Hackney Marshes, London
The biggest outdoor event ever staged by BBC Radio 1 brings to Hackney some of pop's biggest names: Jay-Z, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, Plan B and more. Free, but ticketed.
23-24 June

Secret location, Wales
National Theatre Wales has reimagined Shakespeare's Coriolanus for the era of multimedia, celebrity culture and 24-hour news.
9-18 August

Aldeburgh World Orchestra
Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
A new international orchestra of 124 top-level young musicians conducted by Sir Mark Elder performs music by Mahler and Shostakovich.
20 & 22 July

BT River of Music
Music on the Thames, with six stages carrying the music of a different continent. Stars include Wynton Marsalis, Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjo.
21-22 July

Peace Camp
Various coastal locations
Love-poetry installations at beauty spots around the British coast, masterminded by Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner.
19-22 July

Tracey Emin: She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Skin
Turner Contemporary, Margate
This free exhibition is the first of the artist's to be held in her home town. Work by Rodin and Turner also features.
To 23 September

Land of the Giants
Titanic Slipways, Belfast
Northern Ireland's largest outdoor arts event promises "a unique tale on an epic scale", with a cast and crew of 500. Expect myth, history, fireworks, acrobatics, music, and more.
30 June

Africa Express
Various locations
A train carrying top African and European musicians led by Damon Albarn travels the UK, stopping to give impromptu performances in unexpected places.

Stockhausen: Mittwoch aus Licht
Argyle Works, Birmingham
World premiere by Birmingham Opera of the late Karlheinz Stockhausen's opera, in a former warehouse, with 160 performers, including music streamed from helicopters.
22-25 August

Mike Leigh: A Running Jump
Hackney Picturehouse, London
Taxis and dodgy second-hand cars feature in Leigh's newly created film reflecting on sport in everyday life.
25 June

Circa & I Fagiolini: How Like an Angel
Norwich, Ely, Gloucester & Ripon cathedrals
Aerial circus skills from the Australian troupe Circa together with live sacred music from the choir I Fagiolini, touring to four great cathedrals in succession.
26 June-19 July

Anish Kapoor: Orbit
Olympic Park, London
The Turner Prize-winning artist's twisting red tower next to the Olympic Stadium is, at 376ft, the tallest sculpture in the UK.

Big Street Dance Day
Invitation to the dance for all in the country's streets, squares and parks. Trafalgar Square hosts choreographer Wayne McGregor with 2,000 dancers.
14 July

Harmonic Fields
South West Coast Path, Portland, Dorset
Composer Pierre Sauvageot is assembling 500 musical instruments to be played by the wind. It forms "a symphonic soundscape, unique to each visitor".
31 August – 9 September

Tall Tales from the Riverbank – Comedy Barge
Various canal locations
A bargeload of comedians travels the UK, stopping off for gigs and finishing at the Edinburgh Festival.
1 July – 27 August

Barbican Music
Barbican, London
Gilberto Gil is joined by the London Symphony Orchestra, while Sir Simon Rattle conducts the UK premiere of Wynton Marsalis' Swing Symphony.
4 July & 25-26 July

NVA – Speed of Light
Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh
A choreographed walk/run with audience members carrying lights, illuminating Edinburgh's famous natural landmark. Each performance will be entirely different, depending on the weather and who turns up.
9 August-1 September

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin