The Hot 100 2015: 1 Fergus Linehan and Edinburgh International Festival

Festival director Fergus Linehan tops The List's 2015 Hot 100 for a remarkable EIF programme

Fergus Linehan is a little bewildered by his number one spot. Ever the gentleman, he’s quick to admit that this year’s Edinburgh International Festival programme – his first in the post as festival director – isn’t his baby alone. ‘It’s funny,’ he tells us. ‘I’ve got people who do this stuff. Roy Luxford does a lot of our programming, so does Andrew Moore and Bryn Ormrod. So you feel slightly disingenuous when people say its "your programme" because it is a group of people.'

Linehan’s captaincy has been short; he took up the mantle in 2014 from previous EIF director Jonathan Mills after stints helming the Sydney Festival and, before that, the Dublin Theatre Festival. But, thanks to his vision, it’s been a transformative 12 months for the International Festival. The early announcement that Juliette Binoche would star in Antigone gave the EIF a much-needed boost of glamour. But while this might have been one of the most anticipated pieces of Linehan’s inaugural programme, it almost faded into the background in August when the programme’s true highlights revealed themselves.

First there was the Harmonium Project: a huge outdoor spectacle projected on to the Usher Hall that celebrated both the EIF shifting its dates in line with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the 50th anniversary of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Speaking to me a week ahead of the event, Linehan expected 10,000 to turn up on Lothian Road to see the event. On the night, there were nearly 20,000.

Among the dance programme, Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan’s Life in Progress was, our reviewer said, ‘a magnificent showcase’. We were also particularly impressed by the opera strand – especially Enda ‘Once’ Walsh and Donnacha Dennehy’s The Last Hotel, as well as Komische Oper Berlin and 1927’s visionary The Magic Flute. And among the orchestral works at the Usher Hall, one List-er describes the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev’s triumphant EIF performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as ‘what heavy metal likes to think it’s like’.

Among my own favourites were The Encounter, Simon McBurney’s sensational one-man journey into the Amazon using binaural sound technology and Sufjan Stevens’ breathtaking set at the Playhouse on the festival’s final Sunday. ‘They were both very risky, in a sense,’ Linehan explains. ‘The Encounter was a commission out of the blue, though Simon stacks the odds in your favour because he’s so clever. Sufjan: not that risky because all of his live shows are amazing. But Carrie & Lowell [his lauded 2015 album] wasn’t out at that point. I only got a glimpse of the Sufjan show and what I loved about it is thinking “at last, this is what the Playhouse is for”. We’ve got some really nice stuff in the Playhouse next year.’

Among the other landmark gigs in the EIF’s new music programme this year were a barnstorming set from FFS and a mesmerising Hub Sessions set from Anna Calvi and Heritage Orchestra. Branching out the EIF’s music programme to include more popular artists is Linehan’s defining mark on the festival’s programme to date. But, he insists, this wasn’t about attracting younger audiences.

‘The amount of people I knew who were going to a range of things across the festival and were also going to Sufjan or going to Franz and Sparks was really important,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t like we did these shows for a different group of people; there are people who are generally just intellectually curious across theatre, music and everything else. So those different genres of music weren’t just about “we’ll get the young people in” and all that, it was about filling out a festival across people’s general tastes.’

Linehan’s own festival favourite this year was a performance from the Queen’s Hall series: Matthias Goerne and Daniil Trifonov on the final weekend. ‘It was a very small, very intimate concert but it was so beautiful. You’re very tired and vulnerable at the end, so to have this heartbreaking morning of Lieder on the last Saturday was just one of those moments when everyone in the room was like “oof, this is incredible”.’

Here’s to more incredible moments in 2016.

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