A sea of people look up towards Edinburgh Castle; as the orchestra reach a dramatic crescendo, a playful palette of colour fills the sky. A stunning end to a festival, in the most picturesque of settings, the Bank of Scotland Fireworks Concert is, for many, as much an institution as the festival jamboree itself. Bold, bright and utterly spectacular, year on year it captures beautifully the passion and verve of the theatre, dance and music that comes before it. This year looks set to be no less spectacular.

Mad for the movies

Building on the Edinburgh International Festival’s theme of new worlds, 2010’s concert celebrates the greats from American film music, with a selection of composers that are all European émigrés or first generation Americans from émigré parents. Conductor Clark Rundell will lead the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a programme he refers to as treasures from a ‘delightful goldmine’.

“One of the interesting musical anomalies is that a lot of the composers who fled to America in the middle of the 20th century ended up in Hollywood, composing for movie scores,” explains Rundell, “so there’s this delightful goldmine to choose from. We had to fill around 40 minutes for the concert but the music from that era was so fantastic that we could have chosen hours and hours of material.”

This year’s concert showcases Erich Korngold’s Kings Row (famous for influencing John Williams’ Star Wars score), Leonard Bernstein’s dramatic urban imagining for On the Waterfront, Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful Marnie, with Franz Waxman’s incredible and ever-popular Taras Bulba closing proceedings.

“It feels like a wonderful mix,” says Rundell. “Korngold spent most of his life as a concert composer, while Bernstein’s On the Waterfront has a sort of cult status with the Marlon Brando connection; Herrmann has this incredibly tender and gentle approach to his writing and Waxman is the master of the big scene – he’s remembered for his wonderful chase scenes – so there’s a real dark and light in there.”

Coordinating pyrotechnics

Such a change of tempos and playful journeying from the light to the dark aspects of the music will doubtless help shape the main visual spectacle of the piece, the fireworks themselves. Rundell, who conducted the Bank of Scotland Fireworks Concert two years ago, admits the experience is unrivalled. “It’s quite amazing,” he says with a laugh. “The coordination is extraordinary. Pyrovision are the stars of the show in a lot of ways. We choose a basic tempo and they stick with that; in the end it’s like a ballet they have choreographed to make the images and scores work together.”

Additional excitement, admits Rundell, comes with the realisation that beyond the musicians on the stage, and the audience in Princes Street Gardens, people are watching from across the city, from Carlton Hill and Waverley Station to Inverleith Park, with around a quarter of million spectators expected to enjoy this year’s festivities.

Having had the experience of working with Pyrovision, who plan and coordinate the fireworks aspect of the show, Rundell was keen to select music that would help do the showcase justice. “I wanted to give the guys something to really hang on to, to really help make it a multi-sensory spectacle.” He continues: “The Scottish Chamber Orchestra have such ownership of the music they play, so it’s really about a creating a cohesive experience between the visual and the sound, in the most majestic of settings.”

For Keith Webb, sky director with Pyrovision, many of the elements are coming together long before the orchestra and Rundell take to their stands on Sunday 5 September 2010. Having been given a disc of potential tracks, Webb listens to them before reporting back; when the final selection is made he then spends months listening to the tracks over and over, creating potential images for the night in his mind.

“It’s like nothing else,” says Webb. “With so many events, like Bonfire night, you get some decent fireworks, but this is a highly coordinated event to music, it’s on a different scale. It’s like nothing else – and we strive to make it the best it can be. We don’t want too much of the same thing in the music; we want light and dark, fast and slow, so we can create that same effect with fireworks. It’s about the choreography between the conductor and the fireworks, so we make sure we’re all working from the same song sheet as it were.”

Writing a score with fireworks

Years of experience has ensured that over time ideas gel together as Webb researches what each piece means, as well as the tempos and the materials and fireworks at his disposal. “It’s like writing a music score only with fireworks,” says Webb, who is always keen for the fireworks show to explain the story of the music in some way. “For instance On the Waterfront is quite moody; you get a real sense of Marlon Brando on a dodgy area of the docks, so it becomes about how you translate that through the fireworks.”

Moreover, if audiences think it’s a hands-off, digital affair, they should think again. A staggering 12 tonnes of equipment and over 100,000 fireworks go into the castle, along with two weeks’ design time before the performance and a 15-heavy crew. On the night itself, it’s all hands on deck.

“It’s fair to say there’s a fair amount of assembly work,” laughs Webb. “A lot of people assume because of the sheer scale that it’s done digitally, but that’s just not the case. A computer can’t follow a conductor so the whole display, bar a few sequences, is manually fired. By the time the night comes I know the music back to front and inside out.”

While Webb admits to nerves on the night, the support of the setting, the music and the orchestra make for an exciting challenge he says. “About ten minutes before, I tell myself not to look over the battlements of the castle to the people below but I always do. It never stops being thrilling. The castle is a stunning backdrop whatever the event but with the music and the huge crowds, it’s just about making it the sense of occasion it deserves to be.”

- by Anna Millar

The Bank of Scotland Fireworks Concert, the finale of the Edinburgh International Festival 2010, takes place on Sunday 5 September at 9pm in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh. For further information on the concert, call Hub Tickets on 0131 473 2000 or visit www.eif.co.uk/bankofscotlandfireworksconcert.