First published in BBC Music Magazine, January 2019
George Benjamin began writing his first opera at the age of 12. “Setting the story of Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he winces. “And it was naive and terrible and thankfully came to an end halfway down page 34. Terrible. Terrible! Unspeakably terrible!” Who can corroborate? The world never heard those 34 precocious pages, but the operas Benjamin went on to create – Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence – have changed the sound, scope, brutality and sensuality of 21st opera. All three were premiered in the last decade but were somehow a lifetime in the making.
Benjamin laughs as he tells me about his early endeavours – a neat, precise giggle. He laughs with clarity and conviction, like every aspect of his conversation. Thoughts are held until they’re fully formed. Words are only ever the exact ones. If he can’t find the right word, he’ll wait, hand suspended in the air, eyes screwed tight as he searches his mind. He won’t make do with sloppiness and, brilliant teacher that he is, the effect rubs off so that in his company I become acutely aware of my own language. None of this meticulousness seems to get in the way of his enthusiasm, though. It’s a boyish, eager, clever enthusiasm, a wide-eyed marvelling. At 58, Benjamin says that above all he is “so, so enamoured with the nuts and bolts of music. Utterly passionate. Completely enthralled.”
First published in The Herald on 26 December, 2018
Brahms: Symphonies (Linn). The culmination of their nine years together: Robin Ticciati conducting all four Brahms symphonies at the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival. They were performances of clarity, intensity, discovery – the same energy and devotion captured on this brilliant valedictory recording. I love the sound the Scottish Chamber Orchestra makes here, the nut-warm 19th century horns and the sweet, super-alert period-ish strings. I love the transparency and the resulting detail. I love the intimacy in music that can sound bloated. Most orchestras use bigger forces for Brahms. I never once missed the bulk.
Monteverdi: Vespers (PHI). Claudio Monteverdi knew passions were complicated. He knew the messy emotions involved in faith, lust, sorrow, divinity – and he felt music should bring all that to life. Any performance of his 1610 Vespers that sounds chaste and stately misses the point. Philippe Herreweghe first recorded the score in the 1980s and fell into that trap. Now, though, he’s moved with the times and rerecorded the Vespers with his tremendous Collegium Vocale Gent. The two accounts are worlds apart: this new one is lithe, alive, conversational, conspiratorial and intimate.
Cassandra Miller: Just So (Another Timbre). The Canadian music series on Another Timbre is a thing of multifarious wonders. Ten portrait CDs championing music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Christopher Mayo and several others. The scope, the focus – it’s all compelling. No blunt conclusions are drawn about what Canadianness might mean in music, but I’m intrigued by Martin Arnold’s suggestion that it might have something to do with “slack” – by which he means a loose relationship to tradition, an open space upon which to make things new. Many of the discs in the series deserve mention here but Cassandra Miller’s music has knocked me sideways. Bold, kind-hearted, wistful, brave, simple, sophisticated… her string quartet About Bach is miraculously beautiful, with a bright, lonely violin drifting resolutely above the most gorgeous shapeshifting chorales.
First published in The Herald on 21 November, 2018
Nordic envy. You might know the one. It’s a common affliction for anyone who visits our neighbours to the north. Spend a few days in Oslo or Reykjavik or Helsinki and you’ll come home envying the kindergartens, the elderly care, the oil management, the sauna culture, the liquorice, the knitwear. You’ll regale your friends with utopian statistics on cycling networks and statutory maternity leave. You’ll lament our comparative deficiency thereof. If only Scotland could be more… Nordic.
Music provision is yet another envy-inducing factor here. The early-years exposure, the level of state support for performing groups and education, the extensive infrastructure for learning and making and promoting new music. Ever wondered about the inordinate number of Finnish conductors? The obscene creative talent emerging from Iceland – a country with the same population as Cardiff? There are easy explanations when you look at the root support for the arts. We have much to learn.
First published in The Herald on 24 October, 2018
In a parallel universe, Diana Burrell is an architect. The composer talks about buildings in vivid musical terms: the rhythms, the phrasing, the forms, the bold cacophony of lines and gestures. She lights up when she describes music that has the brutal physicality and gruff, jutting angles of the buildings she likes best. “My music,” she says, “has to make a clean, bold shape on the skyline.”
I love Burrell’s list of favourite sounds. Church bells, steel pans, the shrieking of seabirds, the clanging of metal in a building-site or scrap yard – she says she finds these sounds alluring for their impureness, their out-of-tune-ness and their strident imperfections. “I dislike prettiness,” she wrote in a kind-of manifesto in 1991. “I loathe all blandness, safe, pale and tasteful niceness. I detest the cosiness of pastiche and the safety of too much heritage. Give me instead strong, rough-edged things, brave disrespectful shapes and sounds, imperfect instruments that jangle and jar. I love both savage nature and the brutal modernism of the city’s concrete. There is passion and beauty in both.”
Karine Polwart & Neil Cooper on the politics of Edinburgh’s new concert hall; Laura Tunbridge on German art song between the wars; Jocelyn Pook on film music (less is more!) and mental health; Sonia Ben Santamaria on her mission to address gender imbalance in opera with her Glass Ceiling Orchestra; and MUDLARKING.
Listen to the programme here.
First published in The Herald on 19 September, 2018
The dawn of a new era for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with fresh management on the way (yet to be appointed) and a promising reshuffle on the podium. We already know how sleek and energised and generally alive the orchestra can sound under Thomas Sondergard – he was principal guest conductor for six seasons, always getting the best from the band – so it’s tantalising to hear how he’ll develop the ensemble now he’s been promoted to music director. And as if to cement the new role, Sondergard will be in Scotland a lot before Christmas: he opens the season with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (4 October, Dundee; 5 October, Edinburgh; 6 October, Glasgow) then turns to Ravel’s sultry, lambent Sheherazade with mezzo Catriona Morrison (12 October, Edinburgh; 13 October, Glasgow; 14 October, Aberdeen), Poulenc’s grandiose choral Gloria (8 November, Perth; 9 November, Edinburgh; 10 November, Glasgow) and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (23 November, Edinburgh; 24 November, Glasgow).
Meanwhile, don’t miss a giant of Polish music, Krzysztof Penderecki, conducting the RSNO in his own Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (30 November, Edinburgh; 1 December, Glasgow) and the bright-spirited Elim Chan – who fills Sondergard’s shoes as principal guest conductor – conducting Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1 November, Dundee; 2 November, Edinburgh; 3 November, Glasgow).
This photo shows the magnificent Else Marie Pade, first in our Hidden Voices series. Her life in Denmark was tough and focused; her music is dark, troubling and enthralling. Elsewhere, Neeme Järvi told me A LOT about the immense amount of music he’s recorded, and Ed Vulliamy talked with tremendous pathos about his new book When Words Fail – questions around what music might mean in times of war.
Listen to the programme here.
First published in The Herald on 5 September, 2018
The harpist Emily Hoile was 19 the first time we met. She had never done an interview before. She was just through secondary school in Edinburgh, newly a college student at Julliard in New York, still getting to grips with life outside the UK. She told me about the dismal calibre of tea drinking she encountered in the United States, and the lifeline that was her mum’s regular care package of chocolate bars. She was utterly self-effacing about having just been booked for a major five-concert residency at the Lammermuir Festival.
Seven years later, Hoile’s voice comes down the phone with her native Newcastle vowels now rounded by stints in New York, Munich and Berlin. Much has happened since we last spoke. She completed her studies at Julliard and immediately won a place on the world’s most prestigious orchestral apprenticeship scheme – Berlin’s Karajan Academy, in which select young players work side-by-side with members of the Berlin Philharmonic. Which is to say, a month after finishing her undergraduate, Hoile found herself touring with the most august orchestra on the planet. But even that didn’t last long – because a year into the scheme, Hoile was poached by another top German band. At the age of 23, she became principal harp of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
First published in The Herald on 22 August, 2018
It’s 11.30pm on a Friday night in the festival and I’m outside, in the rain, staring at a wall. There is no bar on this side of Summerhall, no official performance space, but chairs and tables have been arranged on a little veranda facing the bare stone facade. An usher hands out sets of wireless headphones and tells us to wait.
And then a tiny epic unfolds. A miniature opera buffa. It lasts for nine minutes and it careens us through a grand drama of life, love, regret, violence, state-of-the-nation political commentary. The visuals are gritty and vivid, a street-art aesthetic laced with tender heart. The music is punchy, searing, propulsive, extravagant, apposite.
Brian Irvine and John McIlduff’s Drive By Shooting is opera, alright: this is no parody. Real voices, real orchestra, real techniques, real emotional impact. The fact it’s a looped graffiti projection with pre-recorded music delivered through headphones – that adds a dislocated, absurdist appeal, as though the dregs of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre had been distilled into a cartoon strip only to infiltrate your unsuspecting night out. Even in the midnight drizzle, the unlikeliness is a delight.
First published in The Herald on 17 August, 2018
Helen MacLeod, who has died aged 37 in a car accident, was one of Scotland’s finest harp players. She was a passionate champion of traditional music, new music and classical repertoire; she was a spirited teacher, a warm-hearted collaborator, a talented composer and arranger. She will be profoundly missed by Scotland’s musical community.
MacLeod grew up in Inverinate, a small village on the north shore of Loch Duich near Kyle of Lochalsh in the West Highlands. Her father, Roddy, is a native Gaelic speaker and Helen studied Gaelic throughout her school years. Her love of music grew out of the rich traditional culture of the area, and she first learnt the clarsach locally with Christine Martin before winning a scholarship to study at St Mary’s Music School – a specialist music school in Edinburgh. There she continued her studies in both traditional clarsach and pedal harp with Charlotte Peterson as well as Isobel Mieras.
As a student at St Mary’s, MacLeod was gregarious, generous, witty, full of energy. I remember her from those years as a bright spark and joyous trouble-maker, a glamorous role model who spoke her mind and acted with conviction. She was also a tremendously caring friend.