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A Who’s Who of the Edinburgh Festival

By Daniel Parker


It’s that time of year again; Edinburgh is ablaze with art, theatre, and music from around the world. For the month of August, Edinburgh is the culture capital of the world, as thousands of musicians, street-performers, actors, comedians, authors, and artists demonstrate their art at various venues across the city. Some of the most famous names to have performed at the festival since its inception in 1947 are listed in Who’s Who and Who Was Who. Edinburgh Festival is a collective term for an array of arts and music festivals that take part in the city during August. The original and largest component festivals are the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. So please take your seats at the front, sit back, and take a cultural tour of the Festival and its stars.

Jonathan Edward Harland Mills has been the Director of the Edinburgh International Festival since 2007. Jonathan’s video introduction to the 2013 Edinburgh Festival shows that one of the primary themes of this year’s festival is how artists take seemingly simple concepts and use them to transform our perceptions of the world around us. He highlights Andreas Haefliger and the Scottish Ballet, amongst other, as events that should not be missed. Unlike the Edinburgh Fringe, performers at the Edinburgh International Festival must be invited to perform by the Director himself. The Edinburgh International Festival hosts the world’s best classical musicians and focuses on delivering the very best in opera, dance, and solo performances each year. This tradition dates back to the creation of the festival in 1947, as its list of founders includes Sir Rudolf Bing, who was at the time the General Manager of Glyndebourne Opera Festival.

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Regular performers at the Edinburgh International Festival include Yo-Yo Ma, world renowned cellist, and André Previn, the German-American conductor, pianist and composer. As one of the most famous cellists of the modern-age, Yo-Yo Ma has received multiple Grammy Awards, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. André Previn has won four Academy Awards for his work in film scores, eleven Grammy Awards for his recordings, and has been a Guest Conductor at Edinburgh several times. The music doesn’t stop there though, oh no. Who’s Who includes the most famous musicians to have performed at the Edinburgh International Festival throughout the 20th century. From Maria Callas to Sir Michael Tippett, from Jacqueline Du Pré to Mstislav Rostropovich, and from Sir Malcolm Sargent to Humphrey Lyttelton, Edinburgh International Festival has played host to an incredibly diverse selection of the highest class musicians since 1947. Rostropovich’s 1960 Edinburgh performance was particularly memorable as it was the first performance in the UK of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, a concerto written and dedicated to Rostropovich in 1959.

It is not just the footsteps of past musicians that you can retrace in Edinburgh though. Actors and directors such as Sir John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Dame Edith Ashcroft, and Ingmar Bergman have all appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Richard Burton played Hamlet in a critically acclaimed Old Vic production that later made the journey down to London, setting the trend for successful Edinburgh shows in the future. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has become the largest arts festival in the world and continues to grow each year. More and more shows premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe, only to go on runs in London and New York after. The 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival spanned 25 days, and totalled over 2,695 shows from 47 countries in 279 venues. Out of these shows, 1,418 shows were having their world premiere.

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It is for this reason that so many performers use Edinburgh as a kind of “Litmus Test” to gauge the appeal of their show – or to make their name in such a competitive industry. For instance, Rowan Atkinson impressed so much in the Oxford University Revue sketch show in 1976 that within a few years, he was the youngest ever stand-up comedian to have a one-man show in London’s West End. At a similar time, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival also launched the careers of Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Emma Thompson through the Cambridge University Footlights Group in 1981. Other performers in recent years that have cut their teeth at the Edinburgh Fringe include; Tim Minchin, Ronni Ancona, Steven Berkoff, Dame Judi Dench, Alan Rickman, and Miranda Richardson.

However, it is not always the case that positive reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe translate to positive reviews in London or New York — or even that negative reviews in Edinburgh culminate in the death of a show. Indeed, Alan Bennett, co-author and actor in Beyond the Fringe, was disappointed by a tepid response to his sketch-show at Edinburgh. Yet, after the play transferred to the Fortune Theatre, London, Beyond the Fringe became a huge success story and is often credited as seminal in the rise of satire in London’s West End.

So that’s it. The curtain is coming down on this Edinburgh Festival tour. But if you enjoy a good encore (and who doesn’t?) then discover even more performers who made their name at the Edinburgh Festival in Who’s Who Online.

Daniel Parker is publicity assistant for Who’s Who and numerous other OUP online products.

Who’s Who is the essential directory of the noteworthy and influential in every area of public life, published worldwide, and written by the entrants themselves. Who’s Who 2013 includes autobiographical information on over 34,000 influential people from all walks of life. You can browse by people, education, and even recreation. The 165th edition includes a foreword by Arianna Huffington on ways technology is rapidly transforming the media. Please note that the Who’s Who articles in this blog post will be freely accessible until the 20th June 2013, after which you can access through a subscription. You can follow Who’s Who on Twitter @ukwhoswho.

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Image Credits: (1) Elvis Character at the Edinburgh Fringe via iStockphoto. (2) Rowan Atkinson via Wikimedia Commons.

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