Wozzeck and the art of semi-staging

Alban Berg

First published in The Herald on 22 October, 2014

A century ago this year, the composer Alban Berg went along one May evening to the Rezidenzbühne in Vienna to see a then little-known play called Woyzeck. Its author, the German poet and dramatist Georg Büchner, had been born a century earlier in 1813 and died tragically young of typhoid at the age of 23; Woyzeck was the last play he wrote. 200 years on, it is still a starkly modern, brutally uncomfortable drama.

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Review: La Cenerentola

First published in the Guardian on 16 October, 2014

Rossini’s 1817 opera is basically a comedy; there’s an indubitable daftness to the characters, a gleeful frivolity to much of the music. Yet it’s also a socially-conscious retelling of the Cinderella tale. The title character is lifted out of hardship not by any flick of a fairy-godmother’s wand but by her own kindness – it’s the simple humanity of being charitable to a beggar that earns her a ticket to the ball.

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Preview: St Andrews Voices / The Marian Consort

First published in The Herald on 15 October, 2014

St Andrews Voices is young yet – the third annual edition opens next week – but as Scotland’s first and only festival dedicated exclusively to vocal music it already has a niche in the classical calendar. It has a strong footing within St Andrews, too. “There’s a huge appetite for singing in this town,” says Sonia Stevenson, the festival’s co-founder and artistic co-director. She points out that St Andrews Chorus is the largest choral society in Scotland and that the university’s top choir, St Salvator’s, is now good enough to rival the iconic chapel choirs of Oxford and Cambridge. “The enthusiasm and knowledge among the festival audience is extraordinarily high,” she says. “Almost everyone who comes along is a singer of some description themselves.” Incidentally, she defines ‘singer’ as anybody who hums a tune in the shower, but the point stands: St Andrews is a well-versed crowd.

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Review: SCO ’14-15 season opener

First published in the Guardian on 13 October, 2014

Symphonic Mahler isn’t exactly home territory for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: this is a band that made its name playing elegant, vivacious classicism, surely worlds apart from furrowed-browed late romanticism. Or is it? Since the arrival of Robin Ticciati as principal conductor the SCO has been treading new ground without ever losing sight of its starting point. This performance of Mahler’s Fourth had traces of other recent projects: the acute detail and vivid colours of the orchestra’s Berlioz recordings, the grand sweep and expressive depth of its Schumann symphony cycle. Yet it was vintage SCO, too, with the orchestra’s heritage etched into every poised phrase, every uncluttered tutti.

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First published in The Herald on 8 October, 2014

What does sneezewort sound like? A bit slimy. Lichen? Think intertwining, symbiotic melodies. Waxcap mushrooms? Plain murky. Cellist Sonia Cromarty and violinist Alice Rickards of the string duo High Heels and Horse Hair have commissioned eight Scottish composers to write music about local wild flowers. The likes of David Fennessy, Judith Weir and Eddie McGuire have contributed scores that depict the St Kilda dandelion (remote, resilient, unadorned), the sundew (deceptively pretty) and the humble clover (idyllic, bucolic and ever so slightly hallucinogenic).

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Review: New Icelandic Voices

First published in the Guardian on 6 October, 2014

It’s tenuous to describe a country’s contemporary music ‘sound’ – most likely there are umpteen – and even more tenuous to ascribe that sound to landscape. But this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert of new Icelandic works revealed a pronounced shared aesthetic among some, at least, of the country’s rising young composers. And call me prescriptive, but with their expansive vistas, subterranean rumbles, pale textures and chilly microtonal clusters, images of geysers and icy tundra were never far from the imagination.

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Review: The Cumnock Tryst, opening night

First published in The Herald on 6 October, 2014

This was the opening concert of James MacMillan’s brand new festival, The Cumnock Tryst. Besuited and beaming, the composer greeted his home audience at the door and gave his welcome address from the pulpit. St John’s was the church where he was baptised (as were his parents and grandparents) and where he played the organ as a teenager. “It all began here,” he said. “The Cumnock Tryst is my way of giving something back.”

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Interview: Karen Cargill

karen cargill

First published in The Herald on 4 October, 2014

“I refuse to get too bogged down in the business of being a singer,” says Karen Cargill, internationally-renown Scottish mezzo soprano. We’re talking about how she manages to keep her cool on the world’s biggest stages. “Let’s face it” – she leans over the table, whispering like a naughty secret. “Basically, I’m just a musician who stands up there and delivers words and melody. I don’t save the world, I don’t save lives. I try to give people something for however long I’m on stage. Some listeners might hate it, some might love it, but they’ll all have had an experience and that’s art. That’s what we do.”

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