Edinburgh international festival draws on MLK with themes of hope and community

<span>Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

This year’s Edinburgh international festival will focus on themes of hope, community and new perspectives as it attempts to draw audiences back into theatres after the Covid pandemic.

In its first year led by the Scottish concert violinist Nicola Benedetti, the festival will host Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theater, the Budapest Festival Orchestra playing to an audience on beanbags, and the youthful Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

Benedetti, the first woman and the first Scot to direct the event in its 76-year history, said her foundational text for the season was Martin Luther King Jr’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?.

From that she has drawn three overarching themes, one for each of the festival’s three weeks of performances in August: community over chaos, hope in the face of adversity, and a perspective that is not your own.

Benedetti said the themes demonstrated the universality of King’s thinking and its connection with the festival’s founding principles in the aftermath of the second world war – of non-violence, “fierce compassion” and “uncompromising internationalism in the face of brutality”.

Benedetti is wrestling with the immediate challenges of drawing people back to see live events after the pandemic, which led Edinburgh’s festivals to shut down in 2020, for the first time, and then put on limited events in 2021.

Audiences were still well below their record pre-Covid levels in 2022. The Edinburgh international book festival is significantly cutting its programming this year.

In 2021 and 2022, the festivals invested heavily in online streaming in an effort to expand and keep audiences, but Benedetti said the international festival had abandoned that approach in favour of promoting the live experience. It was reassessing whether and how to produce digital events.

“The notion that that was the future is, as happens all the time when we make predictions based on now – is it’s not the future,” she said. “All the data we’re looking at is that people actually want to reconnect to the sacred value of the live collective experience.”

Loosely addressing Benedetti’s first credo of community over chaos, the festival favourites Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra return to Scotland for four performances. For their first concert, the Usher Hall will have its stalls seats removed and replaced with beanbags so that concertgoers can sit among the musicians – who will perform in the round – to experience Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony from inside out.

In the second week, the London Symphony Orchestra will explore the hope theme with three concerts led by Sir Simon Rattle in his final month as the orchestra’s music director.

Underpinning the third week’s new perspectives theme, the Simón Bolívar orchestra’s players, all aged 18 to 25, will be joined by their compatriots Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare for performances that include Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Also within that theme will be two concerts by the Oslo Philharmonic and their hotly tipped 27-year-old Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, and Theatre of Sound’s award-winning take on Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Grammy award winner Cécile McLorin Salvant will perform the UK premiere of Ogresse, her song cycle about a lovesick monster that blends folk, jazz, baroque and country. Also part of the contemporary music strand will be performances by Alison Goldfrapp, Jake Bugg, John Cale and the Detroit-born composer Endea Owens, known to millions as the house bassist for Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show.

A new production of Pina Bausch’s choreography of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring will be performed by a cast of 34 dancers from 14 African countries. The specially assembled cast will also perform Common Ground[s] by Germaine Acogny and Malou Airaudo, the latter of whom was part of Bausch’s Wuppertal company for more than a decade and helped create many of her early works.

• Tickets for this year’s Edinburgh international festival go on general sale on Wednesday 3 May at www.eif.co.uk.