The composer Peter Maxwell Davies launched the festival in 1977, at the time of the summer solstice, when the islands are perpetually bathed in light. Though he is now the president, rather than the director, of the festival, he's a constant presencein the front row of the red sandstone cathedral, where his Martyrdom of St Magnus was premiered 28 years ago.
This year's director, Ian Ritchie, is sensitive to Max's founding principles – to keep the mix of local and international performance. There are high-profile names, but the focus is not on world premieres. In fact the only world premiere, Cross Kirk, written for a local fiddle group, took place on the island of Sanday in front of 60 locals.
The most exciting discovery of the festival came about almost by accident. Billed as the Mystery Quartet, their identity was unknown until two days before their appearance. The winners of the Maxwell Davies prize at Italy's foremost quartet competition were flown to Kirkwall for a recital including Max's A Sad Paven for these Distracted Tymes, the competition test piece.
The Pavel Haas Quartet from the Czech Republic were sensational. Together for only 10 months, their account of Beethoven's 3rd Rasumovsky quartet, from the minuscule pianissimo at the start to the thrilling, almost orgiastic Russian dance at the end, was breathtaking. Don't be surprised to see them at next year's City of London Festival, when Ritchie takes over as director.
Nearly half the final concert was devoted to a piece for a newly invented instrument, Head=Space. It was the first professional appearance for the trumpeter Clarence Adoo since he was paralysed from the neck down. Joining John Kenny on trombone, and Torbjörn Hultmark on trumpet, Adoo controlled a virtual orchestra with a sensor on his forehead, and triggered sounds by blowing into a mouthpiece. The result was an entertaining mix of jazzy riffs and ambient music.
The festival went out with a bang – a Handelian frolic from Kirkwall Town Band and the Royal Scottish Academy Brass ensemble, with fireworks from Clarence Adoo's magic machine. And everyone streamed out to witness one last, glorious, blood-red sunset.
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