Edinburgh: The circus is in town

Brian McMaster, in his last year as director of the Edinburgh International Festival, explains why the Scottish capital in August is a place like no other
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The Independent Culture

I have always believed that the directorship of the Edinburgh International Festival is the best job in the world. However, I didn't expect, when I began a five-year contract here in 1991, to remain for 15 years. A great many things have changed in that time, but the core aims of the festival remain very much as they were when I started - and indeed as they were when the festival was founded 60 years ago.

The festival is rooted in a real need. It was felt very acutely in 1947, when it all began, but I believe it is just as strong now. The arts can speak to people in a profound way, change how we see the world. People are incredibly responsive to a real experience, so long as they are not led to believe that it's not for them.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, for instance, will speak to everybody - and in a surprisingly objective way. Particular key changes convey the same sort of thing to every person who hears this piece. Everyone working here at the festival is driven by one thing, which is to widen the audience for the arts.

But there is an assumption that certain forms of culture are too difficult for most people; a belief that people need to have artistic experiences diluted they can enter into them. This is appallingly patronising and I think people see it as such. A festival is potentially the best and most exciting way to present the arts, and the excitement generated by the Edinburgh Festival allows us that opportunity to reach new people. We need to take advantage of it.

An independent report, Thundering Hooves, confirmed earlier this year that Edinburgh is still leading the field among the world's festivals. However, the report also noted that competition is growing, and cited quality and distinctiveness as vital to our continued success. This is why it is essential to keep finding, presenting and creating new work, to sustain the Festival's distinctiveness.

Many people have asked me what I intend to do to make my final festival programme outstanding. There are two driving forces behind all the 170 or so performances we're putting on this year. The first is that I believe each is capable in some way of changing somebody's life: the works that really matter can touch people very deeply.

The other thing is that in every one of those performances there's an element of risk: from bringing together artists who've never previously worked together, commissioning new work, experimenting with different formats for concerts and other events, to working to impossible schedules in order to programme with the intensity that the festival requires. Risk is at the heart of the festival, and when things go wrong, it's the greatest spectator sport going.

I've always believed that part of the key to putting together the programme is building relationships with artists, creating an atmosphere and a situation here where they can do things that they would not be able to do anywhere else. In 2006, a show that is a result of a long-lasting relationship is Troilus and Cressida, directed by the German director Peter Stein. I've always wanted to see him work on a Shakespearean text in the original English with English actors - and Troilus is a play he's always wanted to direct. As the rehearsals have progressed, he says that the English text and sensibility of the British actors have brought him closer to Shakespeare.

One of my main ambitions is to recreate for somebody else the experience that I had when I first came to Edinburgh as a teenager in 1962. At that time I saw a lot of fantastic performances in two and a half weeks. They were the kind of works that you had to engage with intellectually, and the reward was amazing. It was a seminal experience, and I would love to imagine that someone would get the same sort of kick out of what we're putting on in 2006.

The festival offers tremendous opportunities - and with that comes the responsibility to attract new audiences. People are carried along by the general sense of excitement and they're willing to take a risk on trying something new. For example, there's a perception that the audience for classical music has declined. But we know, from various experiments over the past few years, that there's a huge audience out there - regular attenders of a whole range of cultural experiences. They don't go to conventional classical music concerts very often (if at all) but they don't hate the idea. There is a phenomenal heritage that is ready for rediscovery.

So one strand we've introduced this year is the Lloyds TSB Scotland Concerts: three concerts a day over nine days, with every seat at £10. We're presenting the nine Beethoven symphonies, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, at 5.30pm; the nine Bruckner symphonies at 9.30pm; and in between, at 7.30pm, a different major piece of music.

My hope is that these concerts will work in different ways for different audiences. For example, in the afternoon you could bring a child to their first experience of classical music. Then again, these concerts will mesh with the ethos of the Fringe, where most shows last an hour or so, and that allows someone with a curiosity about music to come along and sample it. And the tickets are comparatively cheap.

Equally, if you attend the three concerts in a single day it will be an experience that you won't find anywhere ever again. For example, on 1 September you could hear Sir Charles Mackerras conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Llyr Williams play Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, and Jiri Belohlavek conduct Bruckner's Ninth. That's exactly the kind of thing we should be delivering, even if you may need a massage afterwards.

The important thing is that we're combining accessibility with quality. There is the chance to hear one of the greatest conductors in the world interpret the nine Beethoven symphonies. And in the case of Bruckner, because his symphonies represent most of his output, you have a chance to follow his creative process through his life. The series works like a prism: you can approach it from different angles.

Another event that I hope will offer an extraordinary experience to a wide audience, from opera, dance and film fans to lovers of musical theatre, is The Lindbergh Flight and The Seven Deadly Sins, a double-bill of short operas by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. This project was originally proposed by the Canadian director François Girard. He is a major film-maker, and his sense of scale and spectacle is allied to a truly theatrical intensity.

New work and new names are also a keynote of this year's programme. We present the UK debut of the Brazilian hip-hop inspired choreographer Bruno Beltrao. Long Life, a wordless drama piece, and an astonishing piece of virtuoso acting, comes from the New Riga Theatre of Latvia. The last concert of my last festival will be Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, conducted by David Robertson. Die Meistersinger is all about the breaking down of the old order, and the new coming through.

Edinburgh is the best place in the world to be in August, and for the past 15 years I've been lucky enough to be paid to be here. Now I go back to being a punter. But I know I'll want to be here.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 13 August to 3 September (0131-473 2000; www.eif.co.uk)

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