Author: Christine Richard OBE FRSA

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Thursday, March 29th, 2007 at 9:25 pm
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Breath of Fresh Air From Oz

When he was a little boy, Jonathan Mills, who is masterminding his first Edinburgh International Festival this year, knew that he was musical, but he had no aspirations to direct the world’s most famous Festival of music, theatre and dance. Even now he says “I am not a professional Festival Director,” but this only serves to underline his innate modesty. When he was appointed to the post in 2006 to follow the towering reputation of Sir Brian McMaster there were those who thought that his lack of ‘track record’ would be a drawback. They are going to be proved wrong.

Jonathan Mills opening the Edinburgh International Festival
Jonathan is the only son of remarkable parents. His father Frank, who is now 97 and who he readily says is his “hero” is a doctor and a survivor of the Japanese prison camps in World War II, where he saw the brutality that took place and witnessed almost unbelievable atrocities of starvation, beatings and executions of fellow-prisoners. From this he emerged weighing 4 stone but as a man who believed in the essential good of human nature and with a determination to devote the rest of his long life to the service of others. He was a pioneer heart surgeon working in the United States and later in Australia. Frank Mills is still the moral compass in Jonathan’s life. His mother, Elayne whose family originated in Glasgow is also musical and Jonathan has inherited her ‘ear’ for music.

Jonathan’s own musical compositions include an opera “The Eternity Man” which was staged in London in 2003. He is typically modest about this achievement and says, almost casually, “I think this is going to be revived for filming”.

Deciding not to follow his father into medicine, Jonathan studied music at University and became involved in Festival direction in what he describes as a “happy accident”. His first Festival involved, as he put it, “heading for the hills” to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney for a long weekend. Innocent of basic facts, such as the fact that the amphitheatre overlooked a vast valley which meant that all the sound would be sucked off the stage was, as he later said, “a mere technical detail”. The inaugural Blue Mountains Festival in 1988, which had its origins in the first disastrous experiment, put on 76 separate events over eight venues and lasted for ten days. This was all done by Jonathan and four close friends. Somehow he pulled it off. And so he became, as he puts it “a festival junkie”.

Of course, his festival director credentials are of a much more solid nature than this implies. Until recently he was Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Director of the Alfred Deakin Lectures and an Artistic Advisor to the new Melbourne Recital Centre which is due to open in 2009. His previous posts have included that of Artistic Director of the Melbourne Federation Festival, the Melbourne Millennium Eve celebrations and the Brisbane Biennial International Music Festival. He is regularly commissioned as a composer and his work Sandakan Threnody for solo tenor, choir and orchestra won the Prix Italia in 2005.

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