As the festival season comes to a close, Edinburgh seems to go into a state of cultural mourning and repose. The imposing wooden doors of Summerhall were closed for a few days as the staff recuperated. At Fruitmarket, the weary faces told the story of exhaustion following a 'very long month'.
One cultural event to have continued into September is the Pianodrome's residency at the Old Royal High School. This was, in part, a continuation of the Hidden Door Festival
in May/June which brought cultural life back to this long abandoned building.
Right through August (and until 11 September) they have been putting on a programme of music, theatre and visual art. Every day they have been running free lunchtime concerts. Sunday 4 September saw a solo piano recital by Philip Sharp. Sharp is now a piano tutor at St Mary's Music School in Edinburgh. As we know, the school hopes to take over the Old Royal High in the next few years, though nothing is yet certain and the building will require a massive amount of restoration. Evidently, it was not properly maintained during its mothballing.
With free entry and a jar for donations, it felt rather like a continuation of the Free Fringe. As did the improvised signage. But not for long. The amphitheatre, built out of unwanted and subsequently deconstructed and reconstituted pianos, provides a warmth and atmosphere very different from most Fringe venues. The watery sunlight seeping into the high ceiling differed from the dank basements of the Old Town. There was a lovely calm elegance about the venue. The small amphitheatre seemed almost alive during the performance, with the sound circulating through the antique timber and creaking sounds audible during the quiet moments.
Sharp announced that he was going to begin with a contemporary piece. This occasioned an 'oh' (or was it 'no'?) from one of the young children present; perhaps unconsciously articulating what some adults in the audience were thinking. Certainly, the stark and abstract opening piece created a sense of unease and uncertainty. This evolved into a deep quiet and a real sense of concentration that might not have been achieved with more familiar music. The mood lightened as the piece became livelier and jazzier.
This opening piece was followed by a selection from Debussy. Perhaps more palatable to many in the audience, though these pieces were also played with intensity and radically changing tempos. Again, the audience became increasingly absorbed; fidgeting and coughing virtually absent. The initial apprehension had transformed into a thorough enjoyment and engagement. Starting with the more contemporary and abstract material had paid off. The audience were up to the challenge.
A Liszt-inspired piece by John MacLeod (who died in March this year) brought the performance to a fine conclusion. As Sharp left the auditorium, the room was filled with the tinkling of young children on the pianos around. Inspiring the next generation of musicians is Sharp's job and will be central to the new mission of this august building. Rough and ready it remains in many places, it's clearly going to be sometime before the building returns to its former glory. However, the Hidden Door Festival and the Pionodrome's residence this year have given us more than an inkling of its cultural potential.
As you make your way through the building and to the back, you can't help but notice the blackened gorse on Calton Hill. It shows how the intense fire here in June came within a few feet of licking against the side of the building. Thankfully, though not in great condition, the building survives and now seems to have a future. It is a future that will ensure its long-term presence in Edinburgh's cultural life.
Stepping out of the Old Royal High School and turning left along Regent Terrace towards Abbeyhill takes you into a suddenly very quiet and elegant part of the city, with national consulates aplenty. It's as if there is some invisible force field which prevents visitors from stepping near here. They miss out on the truly wondrous view you get, over the rooftops of the Old Town and towards Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat. It's surely one of the most stupendous urban vistas in the UK.
Cockburn Association president, Cliff Hague
, has suggested, in his reflections on the 2022 Festival, that festivals be spaced out throughout the year to avoid overload. Some local festivals are already helping to extend the cultural calendar. They allow Fringe addicts to relive the experience of wandering into new and unexpected cultural venues with an annotated brochure in hand.
The Art Walk Porty (1-11 September) has already begun, with its 'hub' at 189 Portobello High Street). The proximity of the sea provides a connecting focus for the artists commissioned. While, just a short walk from the Old Royal High, another art festival is being readied. On 17/18 September, various cultural institutions and businesses will be involved in the Colony of Artists arts festival in Abbeyhill. This festival draws on the cooperative legacy of the colonies off London Road and has been going since 2005. This year, 73 artists will be exhibiting in over 40 venues.
One highlight is the Mural Trail that takes visitors around this interesting and rapidly changing area of the city. Kat Chisholm's photographic exhibition will demonstrate these changes. A good example of this shift is the number of new businesses on Montrose Terrace that have a cultural focus. It suggests that cultural activity is spreading in the city. It also means that the end of August is not the end for culture addicts.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh