Monthly Archives: February 2014

Interview: Steven Osborne

First published in The Herald on 26 February, 2014

Concert pianists are an astounding bunch. They’re like extreme athletes: all those years of solitary training, the ferocious competition, the physical stamina needed to survive a Rachmaninov concerto, the mental capacity to remember volumes upon volumes of music, the psychological fortitude to cope with sitting utterly alone on stage.

To describe Steven Osborne as singular would be to suggest that there’s a norm among concert pianists, which there isn’t: there are many ways of dealing with those pressures as there are pianists in the business. But Osborne has always seemed remarkably, well, grounded. In an industry crowded with glossy marketing, his image has remained resolutely neutral. Publicity shots show a soft-featured, smiling man in his forties who could be a gardener or a chef or a history teacher. His stage manner is plain and calm. His playing is profound, lucid, sensitive, kaleidoscopic, but his demeanour gives nothing away.

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Peter Grimes: from the Coliseum to Cineworld

First published by the Guardian on 24 February, 2014

“The movie starts at about twenty past,” says the guy at the box office, authoritatively. “Just a bunch of adverts until then.” We ascend the eight flights of escalators, stock up on pic’n’mix and arrive at Screen 8 of Cineworld Glasgow with a couple of minutes to spare before 3pm. The feed to London’s Coliseum is already up and running. It’s a bit glitchy: definitely live, not adverts. The cameras pan across the well-heeled audience taking their seats, the orchestra tuning up and the chorus chattering in the wings. The house lights in London dim bang on the hour – ours take a few minutes to follow suit – and we’re off, plunged into the seething tensions of 1940s small-town Suffolk. A trickle of advert-averse viewers wander in at twenty past.

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Review: Fred Frith, Roscoe Mitchell & George Lewis with the BBCSSO

First published in The Herald on 24 February, 2014

City Halls, Glasgow

In the programme note for his 2003 orchestral work The Right Angel, Fred Frith tells a story about the first time he played electric guitar with an orchestra. It was 1974, he remembers, and “the entire back row of the orchestra made a show of putting their fingers in their ears”.

What a difference a few decades can make. This concert hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov celebrated three giants of improvised music: guitarist Frith, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trombonist/computer musician George Lewis. They presented orchestral scores that were intriguing, especially Lewis’s: his 20-minute Memex (written for the occasion) channels the creative scope of computer music through the visceral brawn of an orchestra — cue exciting spacial flux, shifting perspectives and ultra-vivid timbre.

Review: RSNO with Peter Wiegold

First published in The Herald on 24 February, 2014

Tramway, Glasgow

Reviewing work in progress always present a bit of a quandary. What exactly is up for critique here? Is it the process, the potential outcome of that process, the concept behind that process, or more simply (as is the case with most reviewing) the calibre of the on-the-night performance? To my mind, when tickets are priced rather than free then the last factor still comes first. And it’s on that basis that this concert didn’t hold up.

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Big Issue column 29

First published in The Big Issue, February 10-16

English Touring Opera describe their new production of King Priam as their most ambitious project to date. Most audiences won’t know the piece: Michael Tippett’s pacifist opera was written for the consecration of Coventry’s new cathedral in 1962 – just like Britten’s War Requiem, which became the far more famous work. It’s the old axiom that Britten’s legacy outshines Tippett’s. The War Requiem has been performed hundreds of times since its iconic premiere, King Priam hardly ever.

But Priam delivers its message every bit as profoundly. Tippett embeds a sense of human responsibility into his take on Homer’s Iliad (he wrote his own libretto, recreating the last days of Troy from the perspective of the ageing king) which somehow leaves a more troubling aftertaste than the bluntness of Britten’s score. The opera’s characters, Priam in particular, are all too aware of their own fallibility, of how their active decisions have led to the brutal mess of war. Tippett doesn’t shift blame onto the meddling gods; for him, the fault and the potential for change rest on human shoulders. London, 13-22 February; Poole, 15 March; Snape, 29 March; Cheltenham, 22 April; Sheffield, 12 April; Canterbury, 23 April; Norwich, 26 April; Exeter, 17 May; Durham, 20 May; Cambridge, 27 May.

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Review: Chris Watson

First published in The Herald on 13 February, 2014

Chris Watson
University of Glasgow Concert Hall

Chris Watson’s art is epic, transporting and inspirational, and at the same time utterly straight-forward. In the 1970s he founded the Sheffield post-punk band Cabaret Voltaire; now 60, he records wildlife and natural environments all over the world. In the first part of this lecture/performance he talked about the Galapagos and Icelandic glaciers, about train journeys across Mexico and Scott’s Antarctic hut where nothing has changed since the explorer walked out. “Just the sound of wind catching the chimney,” he described. “Like listening back in time to next-to-nothing.” There was unfussy poetry to the way he explained his work. A broader climate change message was woven in lightly but persuasively: by making us imagine these environments, Watson’s recordings also make us care.

Interview: Fred Frith


First published in The Herald on 12 February, 2014

What’s the appeal of improvised music? It’s an experience – call it free jazz, experimental classical, avant-rock or any number of other monikers – that many listeners find, well, challenging. All those screeches and scratches, those sudden squalls and moody silences. A common complaint is that it looks more fun for the performers to play than it is for the audience to listen to.

Few musicians are better qualified to tackle the question than guitarist Fred Frith. In 1968 he co-founded Cambridge avant-rock experimentalists Henry Cow; today he’s an indefatigable collaborator and one of the world’s most prominent and adept improvisers.

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Preview: Tectonics 2014


First published in The Herald on 12 February, 2014

Remember Alvin Lucier and the dangly ping-pong balls? Asparagus Piss Raindrop and the fluorescent sweat bands? Stephen O’Malley and Oren Ambarchi criss-crossing guitar licks through a haze of wobbly wave oscillation? Charles Ross’s weird sandbox?

The inaugural BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Tectonics festival was among the stand-out events of last year’s musical calendar, remarkable for its wide-open experimentalism and for its success at getting new audiences through the doors of City Halls and into orchestral concerts. This year the festival is back with a programme, announced yesterday, built on the same principles and featuring a whole new rostrum of experimental, eclectic, non-systematic and downright unpigeonholable artists.

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Review: Hebrides Ensemble & Marcus Farnsworth

First published in the Guardian on 7 February, 2014

Hebrides Ensemble/Farnsworth
University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel

This was a solemn, troubling and at times very moving First World War commemoration from the Hebrides Ensemble and the excellent baritone Marcus Farnsworth. Performed without break in front of a chapel war bearing the names of Glasgow students killed in service, the programme made context work like large-scale composition: each piece was coloured by that backdrop and by the music that came around it. Thematic links (loss, despair, defiance) tied the evening together on paper, but it was the emotional intensity of the delivery, particularly from Farnsworth, that kept me rapt.

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Review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 40th

First published in the Guardian on 7 February, 2014

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There were bouquets and balloons for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 40th birthday; a packed house, a warm home crowd and a rare (and very heartfelt) speech from the orchestra’s terrific young principal conductor Robin Ticciati. The celebrations steered clear of anything too flash, as befits an ensemble whose concern has always been their playing, not their image.

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