Preview: Tectonics Glasgow 2016

First published in The Herald on 3 February, 2016

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced the line-up for its fourth annual Tectonics Glasgow: two days of experimental sound art, orchestral premieres, wacky electronics, rogue vocalists and unlikely collaborations involving all or various of the above. Most festival programmes are easy enough to scan for the big names, the commercial compromise, the box-office mollifiers, but not so much with Tectonics. For an orchestral endeavour it stands out as joyously uncompromising and off-piste. Long live public service broadcasting.

Continue reading

CD review: Vilde Frang’s Britten & Korngold

First published in the Guardian on 29 January, 2016

Britten/Korngold: Violin Concertos
Vilde Frang/ Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Gaffigan (Warner)

Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang calls Britten’s Violin Concerto “one of the greatest dramas in the repertoire”; she has also described “never feeling closer to death” than when playing the piece. It’s a good place to start. What she means (I think) is the constant struggle going on within the violin part: Britten wrote it in the late 1930s as a pacifist exiled in Canada, and Frang clinches that unresolved tension in the nervy, yearning writing. Her sound is superb — icy, fiery, ultra-rich, whispered — and her phrases pour out fearlessly, urgently. It’s a fresh, personal and convincing performance. She couples the Britten with the wartime concerto by Erich Korngold and though she goes full-throttle at its syrupy contours she also brings out some interesting doubt and fragility. James Gaffigan and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony are robust backers, if not quite as sparky as Frang deserves.

CD review: Marais 1689

First published in the Guardian on 29 January, 2016

Marais 1689
Paolo Pandolfo etc (Glosso)

Son of a French shoemaker, Marin Marais (1656-1728) played his way into the court at Versailles and became the finest viola da gambist of all time. Pieces for One and Two Viols was his coming of age statement: published at 30 and glowing with invention while his contemporaries argued among themselves about proper hand positions and such. Three years later (1689) he added accompaniments and thus transformed the viol from solo instrument into band member. Paolo Pandolfo’s stylish new album highlights that moment — a “radical and definitive change in the French gamba style”, he calls it — and there’s a cheerful conviviality in Markus Hunninger’s busy harpsichord lines, Thomas Boysen warm, chunky theorbo and a pliant second gamba voice from Amelie Chemin. The group has fun with the Suite in G Major’s robustly extravert Chaconne, but it’s the quiet, spacious moments that really show off viol’s capacity to sing like a human voice: the mournful Tombeau de Mr Meliton, the aching Sarabande from the Suite in D Minor.

CD review: Elena Langer’s Landscape with Three People

First published in the Guardian on 29 January, 2016

Elena Langer: Landscape with Three People
Dennis/Towers/Daniel (Harmonia Mundi)

Elena Langer’s new opera Figaro Gets a Divorce premieres at Welsh National Opera in March; meanwhile here’s a chance to get to know the Muscovite’s deft vocal writing up-close. Landscape with Three People is a song cycle that sets Lee Harwood poems — and to some extent narrates his love life — for soprano Anna Dennis, countertenor William Towers and small ensemble led by oboist Nicholas Daniels. It’s nimble and light, sensual without forcing the point, folksy but not quite fey, whimsical in the deconstructed manner of Berio or Nono. The two voices lilt together in First Love Scene, sultry and restrained while the oboe flits about saying what the signers won’t. There’s a rapturous duet for oboe and countertenor in His Return; I Hear You is all sighs and quickened breaths. The performance is excellent — especially from Dennis, whose voice is grainy, unswerving and laced with metal. The album also contains older Langer songs including the haunting Russian lament Tucha and a feverish 17-minute monologue called Ariadne.

Interview: Garry Walker

First published in The Herald on 27 January, 2016

News recently in of another astute faculty appointment at the the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: Garry Walker is to become Artistic Director of Conducting. It’s a new post created especially for the 41-year-old Scot, and it comes hot on the heels of the announcement that Walker will be chief conductor of the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie Koblenz (the Rhenish State Philharmonic Orchestra) starting in September 2017.

Continue reading

Interview: Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh on The Devil Inside

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset
First published in the Guardian on 22 January, 2016

What makes a good story a potential good opera? It’s a question that writer Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae — about to premiere their latest co-commission for Music Theatre Wales and Scottish Opera in Glasgow this Saturday — have been pondering a lot lately. “We’re constantly sending ideas to each other,” says MacRae. “They look a bit like spam emails: ‘Hi! Look at this!’, then a link.” Welsh says it can take “ages” to figure out whether an idea is best destined as a short story or choral piece or a poem, “or just an anecdote you tell down the pub”.

Continue reading

Interview: Bela Fleck

First published in The Herald on 20 January, 2016

“You know the one where hell is a bunch of banjos?” Bela Fleck is laughing about his favourite Far Side cartoon down the phone from Memphis, Tennessee. (If you haven’t seen it: the devil ushers a conductor into a room full of banjo players — ‘right in here, Maestro’.) This Saturday Fleck plays a concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as part of Celtic Connections. It’s a piece he wrote — it would be; there aren’t a lot of other banjo concertos in the repertoire — and it’s called The Impostor. Much is packed into in that title. The instrument’s lambasted reputation, centuries of Western musical hierarchy, Fleck’s own family history, even his name. “It’s kinda good I can laugh about it, right?”

Continue reading

Review: Sam Lee & friends

First published in the Guardian on 17 January, 2016

“I am what you might call ‘surrounded’ just now. I had better get this right.” Sam Lee is one of English folk’s most resolute and colourful champions but he gave a nervous laugh as he opened his Celtic Connections show. By ‘this’ he meant a set-list of Traveller songs, material he has spent years gathering from communities around the British isles and which features on his striking second album Fade in Time. On stage with him in Glasgow was Jess Smith, luminary of Scottish Traveller singing and storytelling, and in the audience was a fairly vocal contingent of Travellers from across the UK. ‘Surrounded’ was accurate, musically and physically.

Continue reading

Review: BBCSSO, Ilan Volkov, Seven Stars’ Symphony

First published in the Guardian on 15 January, 2016

The Seven Stars’ Symphony hasn’t been performed in the UK since the 1960s and isn’t exactly a pops classic elsewhere, so this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert was a rare outing. It was a persuasive account — clear, attentive, soft-grained, unsentimental — but Seven Stars is still a weird piece. It’s a series of fond and fairly abstract musical portraits composed in 1933 by Charles Koechlin, a Parisian who was friends with Satie and Debussy, in which each movement is dedicated to a star of silent film or the early talkies.

Continue reading

Interview: James Robertson on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset
First published in the Guardian on 14 January, 2016

Hejira is Joni Mitchell’s brooding chronicle of the road. She wrote the album in 1976 while crossing the United States from Main to Los Angeles, often driving alone and without a licence, or so the story goes, tailing truckers who flashed their lights when police cars were ahead on the freeway. Hejira is also the Arabic term for Mohammad’s flight from persecution in the year 622. Mitchell’s songs examine what it is to wander: the fears and thrills of rootlessness, how liberty and loneliness can easily share the passenger seat. The music roams from folk to rock to jazz and blues — of all her great albums Hejira probably takes the longest to get under your skin, but after a few listens it lodges. That serpentine drawl, those itinerant vocal lines, the odd-time lilt and lush guitars… And then there are the lyrics.

Continue reading