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37th EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL HARP FESTIVAL - Edinburgh 30 March - 4 April 2018

Since Edinburgh's International Harp Festival made its home amid the beautiful surroundings of Merchiston Castle School on the outskirts of the city, it has been a source of great pleasure between the scheduled courses, workshops, afternoon recitals and evening concerts to be able to stroll around the school grounds with views of the Castle and the Forth in the distance. However, there was little opportunity this year due to the miserably cold and damp weather which culminated in a very snowy last day. Fortunately, in stark contrast, the music on display throughout this extended Easter weekend more than made up for the weather, living up to the festival's long standing reputation with a scintillating series of evening and afternoon performances along with the regular variety of courses and workshops on offer.

The evening concerts featured a range of familiar and new faces and visitors from all over the world. An intriguing opening concert starred the multi-talented clarsach player, composer and arranger, Ailie Robertson, in a duo with her colleague from the Outside Track, the fiddler Mairi Rankin from Cape Breton's famed Rankin Family. They were preceded on stage by Ismael Ledesma, a Paraguayan harpist now based in Paris, whose gentle solo playing provided a fine contrast to the more lively harp/fiddle combination of Ailie and Mairi, whose set included some step-dancing from Mairi.

The following night, Rachel Newton (who had been named Musician of the Year in the BBC Radio 2 Awards at this time last year) made a welcome return to the festival with her trio, accompanied by Lauren MacColl on fiddle and Mattie Foulds on drums. They performed a mixture of her own material, songs in Gaelic and English, for the most part from her recent album, Here's My Heart Come Take It. Once again there was a fine solo support spot from Breton harpist, Nikolaz Cadoret.

A Sunday night concert combined jazz harpist Park Stickney, a festival regular, with the more classical playing from Italian harpist Gabriella Dall'Olio. This followed an afternoon recital of early music celebrating Easter and Spring given by Canty and Bill Taylor- this being Easter Day and, weather-wise, the nearest to Spring all festival!

A major highlight of the festival was Maeve Gilchrist's concert with Mr McFall's Chamber. Maeve, originally from Edinburgh, is now based in Brooklyn and is much in demand for her composing and playing with various orchestral and group combinations. She is always very welcome when she returns to the festival. This night she had percussive dancer Nic Gareiss accompanying her during the first half, during which the combination of his footwork with Maeve's playing and improvisations was remarkable. The second half featured the four members of Mr McFall's Chamber alongside Maeve, opening with a duet between Maeve and cellist Su-a-Lee, followed by two short pieces from the quartet. Finally there was the premiere of a new work commissioned from Maeve by the festival. Pastures Red is a piece written for clarsach and string quartet inspired by a passage from Samuel Beckett's novel, Watt, and was performed by Maeve and the Chamber to a rapturous reception and was a fitting climax to an enthralling night of accomplished musicianship.

Throughout the festival several afternoon performances took place between course sessions, beginning with a children's concert on the Saturday featuring schoolchildren from all over Scotland as well as Mod prize winner, Abigail Cavanagh, and a group of young players from the Isle of Man, Claasagh, under the direction of Rachel Hair. The Tea Concert, always a popular feature of the festival, performed in the school cafeteria with afternoon tea provided, hosted a harp ensemble from Russia, the Moscow Harp Orchestra, alongside two members of up-and-coming band Tannara - Joseph Peach on accordion and harpist Bekka Skeoch. There was also a From Scratch concert, involving participation in rehearsal and performance on the Wednesday afternoon, which I was unable to attend due to the snow making its appearance!

The afternoon performance which attracted my attention most was an all too short hour of music from Cornwall and the Isle of Man, showcasing songs and music from the two smallest Celtic nations. Sarah Deere-Jones's renditions of traditional music from Cornwall alongside her own compositions delighted, and although she has produced many publications on Aeolian and medieval music for harp and voice, it appeared that it was her first visit to the festival - hopefully she will return.

The performance by Ruth Keggin (vocals) and Rachel Hair (harp) was something I had been looking forward to especially, having spent a memorable time at a festival at Peel Castle on the Isle of Man many years ago. I had also seen and heard Ruth with Mary Ann Kennedy and Irish sean-nós singer, Eoghan O'Ceannabhain, in the pan-Celtic project Aon Teanga In Chengey (One Tongue). Ruth also has her own band, plays the flute and has made two solo albums. Rachel's connection with the Isle of Man is that she has been travelling from Glasgow to the Isle every month to teach the harp for some considerable time. One highlight of their short set was Ruth's rendering of Runrig's Chi Mi'n Geamhradh into Manx Gaelic, Heeym Yn Geurey.

Following last year's spotlight on Brittany, the festival focussed this year on the Isle of Man, and linking with the short afternoon performance was a three hour workshop on the final morning entitled 4 Horns, 3 Legs And No Tail: Everything You Wanted To Know About The Isle Of Man But Were Afraid To Ask! This was a comprehensive and fulsome introduction for the complete newcomer, but I myself also learned a lot more about life on the island since my visit almost 20 years ago. Ruth and Rachel told us not only about the music but also the ancient and modern history and geography of the island, among other things, and we were even given a taste of the Manx language and some food! It was well worth struggling in through the worsening weather!

The continuous snow and wet conditions didn't prevent a full house from attending the final concert on Wednesday night, which provided a truly spellbinding display of virtuoso musicianship from long-time musical partners, Catriona McKay and Chris Stout, performing material from their latest acclaimed album, Bare Knuckle, and proving themselves to be a harp/fiddle duo extraordinaire. At the end of the concert, Catriona and Chris were informed that they had been named Best Duo that evening at this year's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Just like last year, the Harp Festival finished with news of a great number of Scottish and Irish artists dominating these awards. A nice final touch to the festival I felt, having spent the morning immersed in all things Manx, came when word arrived that the Young Folk award (that had gone to several Scottish musicians in recent years) had this year been awarded to one of Rachel Hair's students in Ramsey on the Isle of Man, Mera Royle, a Manx harpist! Perhaps Mera will be a future performer at this ever expansive annual gathering of established and younger musicians and enthusiastic learners who come from far and wide and who assuredly won't be deterred by this year's weather from returning in the future.

Neil Hedgeland