Glasgow Life : where has the classical music gone?

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First published in The Herald on 28 September, 2016

What happened to Glasgow’s classical music programme? I don’t mean the orchestral and ensemble seasons; I don’t mean Tectonics or the fine work coming out of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. All that is alive and kicking. I mean the mini festivals and concert series supported by the city council’s cultural arm Glasgow Life — titles like Minimal, The Piano and Artists-in-Residence. True, marketing or indeed basic listings information was never a strong point of Glasgow Life initiatives, but astute readers will have already noticed that these aforementioned events have simply vanished and have not been replaced by new classical music ventures.

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Review: The Elixir of Love

First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2016

The Elixir of Love
Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling

It took Donizetti a fortnight to write The Elixir of Love: bish, bash, bel canto gold. Fair enough that plot doesn’t stray from default 1830s farce. Poor and hapless Nemorino loves the rich and beautiful Adina and, inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde, spends his last pennies on a phoney love potion hoping it will work the magic for him. Along come classic twists and caricatures (smug sergeant, quack doctor, sudden death of wealthy uncle) but the music bubbles with such effervescent fluency and cuts the comic fizz with such charming sentimentality that, done right, we should believe that these characters actually posses emotional depths. Sure, Adina regresses from free-loving independent spirit to predictably dependent creature, but she does so with such candid and tender song that it seems she really must be in love.

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Review: BBCSSO/Dausgaard season opener

First published in the Guardian on 23 September, 2016

This was Thomas Dausgaard’s first concert as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra but there were plenty of spare seats at City Halls — possibly a lack of mass hysteria for an extra long version of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, possibly an indication of still-tepid feelings around the Danish conductor’s arrival. Dausgaard spoke at the start of the concert — demure, genial, standing earnestly with no microphone on an unlit patch of stage — about why it is important to hear Bruckner’s last symphony with its reconstructed finale. “He was finding an expressionistic, experimental voice, and the finale tips the balance to make it a piece that looks forward.” At least the sentiment was right for the start of a new era.

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CD review: Botanikk – Pauline Oliveros & co

First published in the Guardian on 22 September, 2016

Botanikk
Oliveros/Dillan/Storesund/Olsen S. (Atterklang)

One of the great recurring traits in the music of Pauline Oliveros — 84-year-old accordionist/improvisor who in the 1980s invented a Deep Listening practice to spur us into “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing” —  is how she’s always a friend to her audience, always aware of how and where and why we might get something from a piece of improvisation. She’s also a restlessly alert collaborator and this release from Norwegian label Atterklang brings her together with some of Norway’s most adventurous youngish-generation improvisors: vocalist Lisa Dillan, bass player Oyvind Storesund and pianist Else Olsen S. It’s an album all about plants, seven tracks named after seven northerly flowers, with a delicate Saxifraga Cotyledon (filmy, tentative), a creepy devil’s-bit scabious (barbed, nasal), a stoic arctic starflower primrose (gorgeously mulchy sounds from Storesund). In Calluna Vulgaris — that classic purple Scottish heather — Oliveros’s accordion makes a hardy centrifugal point to skittish textural stuff from the others, but elsewhere she’s the one who instigates the flightiest directions of play.

CD review: Claudia Molitor’s The Singing Bridge

First published in the Guardian on 22 September, 2016

Molitor: The Singing Bridge
(NMC)

London’s first Waterloo Bridge was built in 1817: grey Cornish granite with pairs of handsome Doric columns lining the thoroughfare for good measure. When the old foundations became too shaky during the Second World War, a workforce of women joiners and bricklayers erected the new reinforced concrete span and it’s that social history that inspired composer/sound artist Claudia Molitor to “open up a space for the listener to reconnect with this beautiful architectural structure”. The Singing Bridge is musical psychogeography more than anything and was probably best experienced the way it was intended — on a headset in situ overlooking the bridge as part of the Totally Thames festival. But it’s also proving gently evocative at home in my kitchen, with its sensitively layered watery location recordings, traffic noises and gently wonky, finespun, industrial-ish prepared piano sounds by Molitor plus contributions from poet SJ Fowler, folk band Stick In The Wheel and drum/synth duo AK/DK.

CD review: Janacek orchestral suites

First published in the Guardian on 22 September, 2016

Janacek: Orchestral suites
Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra/Netopil (Supraphon)

The best opera composers use their orchestras to tell the unspeakable emotional stories that words can’t or won’t. Janacek was a master of this, but he didn’t write many passages for orchestra alone and so various conductors and musicologists have pilfered bits from his operas to be played as instrumental suites in concert. Even then it’s no easy task given his vocal lines are so intertwined with his instruments — Janacek rhythms, especially, are all about the contours of everyday speech. This disc contains three hefty suites compiled from the operas Jenufa, Katya Kabanova and Fate; they’re medleys of big themes and interludes in which vocal parts are sometimes replaced by instruments (a trumpet in Jaroslav Smolka’s Suite from Katya, for example) and which are played by the Prague orchestra under Tomas Netopil with weighty carefulness. I missed the nimbleness and acerbic chatter of my favourite Janacek interpreters (Mackerras), but there is detail and richness in the playing that feels very much at home.

Interview: Stuart Stratford

First published in The Herald on 21 September, 2016

It should hardly be worthy of comment that a Scottish Opera music director is conducting the company’s national tour, or at least a bit of it. Venturing beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow seems a fairly basic diplomatic gesture for the creative head of a national company — especially one that badly needs to win back the confidence of audiences and the wider cultural community, and to re-assert the essential case for opera’s relevancy in the context of stretched arts funding.

But still, it’s not the done thing. Standard practice is for small-scale performances beyond the Central Belt to be delegated to assistants or up-and-coming batonists, or for tours to be accompanied by piano instead of orchestra and for the pianist (often the formidably capable Susannah Wapshott) to run the show.

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Interview: Robert Irvine on Songs & Lullabies

First published in The Herald on 14 September, 2016

Classical music doesn’t tend to deal in geopolitical statistics, but Robert Irvine found the numbers on the Unicef website pretty hard to ignore. “As an artist you can feel useless when you read those kind of facts,” the Scottish cellist told me, meaning the fact that a child dies as a result of violence every five minutes, or that a child dies as a result of malnutrition every 15 seconds, or that 17,000 children under five die every day because they don’t get the health care they need.

What to do? “Playing the cello will not end child suffering,” Irvine states early and often during our interview, “let’s be absolutely clear about that.” But his reaction to Unicef’s statistics became the impetus behind a new collection of short elegies for solo cello, released next week on Delphian Records. “I hope the theme of this album will at the very least make people pause and think about issues that contribute to children suffering around the world,” he says, handling with due frankness the issue of what it means to make contemporary classical music ‘useful’. All of the money raised from the sale of the CDs will go to Unicef, and all of the composers who have written pieces for the collection have donated their work for free.

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Review: Marian Consort’s Breaking the Rules

First published in the Guardian on 13 September, 2016

Gesualdo’s life was a shocker — the 16th century composer prince who murdered his first wife and her lover then lived out a life of debauchery and self-flagellation — but so too is his music shocking, so harmonically unbound that it was heralded as proto-serialism in the 20th century and still sounds superbly unnerving today, time after time.

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CD review: Sergio Merce’s be nothing

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First published in the Guardian on 8 September, 2016

Sergio Merce: be nothing
(Wandelweiser)

The cover is plain white with grey sans-serifs and on the inside sleeve, across from a dilated monochrome image of snow or possibly sand, are the lower-case words: “why are we frightened to be nothing?” Which would normally set me squirming except that it is all classic Wandelweiser — a select group of composers and performers whose common aesthetic fixates on acutely sparse, quiet, slow and subtly shaded sounds. The hour-long title track (the disc’s only track) for analogue synthesiser, microtonal saxophone and electronics by Sergio Merce, an Argentinian saxophonist, often dissolves into long stretches of silence or pauses for whole minutes to consider a single groggy drone. It goes further into ambient territory than most Wandelweiser releases and I can imagine yoga studios finding good use for it, but it is definitely not nothing. The overtones are whispered but listen closely and they’re incredibly lustrous; gentle palpitations in the bass keep nudging the momentum forwards, unhurried but always on the move.