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Orkney festival pays homage to island poet

A special tribute to the late Orcadian poet and novelist George Mackay Brown is at the heart of Orkney's 30th annual arts festival, which begins today (Friday).

Marking the 10th anniversary of his death, Mackay Brown's legacy will be celebrated in music, readings, theatre, films and exhibitions during the six-day St Magnus Festival. The festival will also explore the deep and lasting creative bond between the writer and the festival's founder, the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

"George was, from the beginning, at the very heart of the festival," says its director, Glenys Hughes. "He was a founder member of the festival committee and his involvement has been absolutely central.

"He is recognised as one of Scotland's greatest contemporary poets."

Among the events to commemorate Mackay Brown is A Hamnavoe Man, a promenade performance which dramatises his life and the subject matter that inspired him - predominantly the landscape, people and folklore of Orkney.

Set in Stromness - the Hamnavoe of Mackay Brown's own pen - the play moves through the main street of the town in search of St Magnus, the history of the islands and town and, ultimately, the ordinary characters that bring the community to life.

Involving a walk of three-quarters of a mile (on Saturday, Monday and Wednesday), audience groups of up to 50 are advised to bring umbrellas and waterproofs.

The festival lecture tomorrow focuses on the poet's love of the islands he called home; a BBC Scotland film, An Orkney Friendship, screened on Sunday and Wednesday, documents the 25-year bond between Mackay Brown and Maxwell Davies; and in A Johnsmas Foy, on Sunday and Tuesday, a new generation of Orkney writers will celebrate Mackay Brown's literary legacy.

"This year we are celebrating his remarkable legacy by showcasing the work of writers living and writing in Orkney," explains Mrs Hughes.

"It was his prerogative to invite a distinguished writer every year, so we've had people like Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Norman MacCaig over the years."

This year's festival poet is Malawian bard, linguist and scholar Jack Mapanje. Imprisoned without trial for more than three years for expressing himself through poetry, Mapanje is recognised for his academic achievement and contribution to poetry and human rights.

He is introducing another of this year's themes: Malawi. The festival will explore the music, art, literature and culture of the country, with Mapanje, the Limbe Choir and an exhibition of carvings from the KuNgoni art centre.

"Last year I took leave from the festival and spent a year in Blantyre, in the south of Malawi, teaching music in schools and working with the local choirs," says Mrs Hughes, explaining the connection. "I wanted to bring back to Orkney and the festival some of the wonderfully vibrant artistic life of that country."

The BBC Philharmonic is this year's featured orchestra, playing today, tomorrow and Sunday, conducted by Paul Daniel, Martyn Brabbins and James MacMillan. The repertoire ranges from Mozart's Requiem, Strauss and Rachmaninov to MacMillan and Maxwell Davies. MacMillan is another focus of this year's festival, which explores his work as both composer and conductor.

Other highlights of the programme include virtuoso Canadian violinist James Ehnes, Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans, London chamber group the Nash Ensemble, Scottish vocal ensemble Cappella Nova, Italian guitarist Emanuele Segre and traditional music eightsome Whistlebinkies. The music of living composers will be heard alongside Mozart, Ravel, Saint-Sa ns, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Brahms.

A concurrent 10-day conducting course, led by Martyn Brabbins, attracts emerging conductors from around the world. Festival audiences can attend various public sessions to learn how to bring a score alive.

The festival's finale on Wednesday will feature string players from Orkney's schools performing with the Scottish Ensemble.

www.stmagnusfestival.comBox office, tel 01856 871445

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