First published in The Herald on 28 May, 2014
This week the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra devote a special two-day retrospective to the music of Elliott Carter. Giant of modernism, towering figure of contemporary classical music, Carter was an American who embodied the European avant-garde, an intellectual who â€“ boldly, prolifically and usually with a twinkle in his eye â€“ wrote music that is unashamedly erudite but shimmers with wit and character. While America was seduced by the thrumming primary colours of minimalism, Carter furrowed ahead with works of glittering intricacy. His music is like life itself, impossible to boil down into one set of chords or one homogeneous rhythm. He lived to 103 and composed profusely until just a couple of months before he died. â€œWriting music has just become a habit,â€ he once said. â€œI canâ€™t give it up.â€
First published in The Herald on 23 May, 2014
Richard Jones’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Earlier this week, several prominent opening-night reviews included negative comments about the body shape of the mezzo-soprano playing Octavian (Tara Erraught). A media storm ensued, with cries of chauvinism from the singing world and defensive retaliation from some of the critics. The affair even earned its own Twitter hashtag: #taragate.
And so Robin Ticciati’s debut as Glyndebourne’s new music director came and went under a bizarre fracas. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal is the seventh conductor to hold the position in the house’s esteemed 80-year history. With its luxuriously long rehearsal periods and familial atmosphere, it should suit him to a T; no doubt #taragate was what he least expected in his first week on the job.
First published in The Herald on 21 May, 2014
When the Commonwealth Games organisers announced their plans to demolish five of the six remaining blocks of Red Road Flats as part of the opening ceremony this summer, Red Note found themselves with an inadvertent marketing coup on their hands. This week the Scottish contemporary music ensemble perform Elbow Room: a new work by composer Thomas Butler devised around ideas of urban destruction and regeneration in Glasgow. Butler had been gestating Elbow Room for years, but as he and his Red Note colleagues watched the online petition against the flats’ demolition notch up 17,000 signatures and the Games organisers perform a begrudgingly conspicuous U-turn, the piece took on an eerie timeliness.
Elbow Room’s starting point was in fact a pair of archive urban planning documentaries sponsored by Glasgow Corporation. Today they make for fascinating and disturbing viewing. The first, released in 1949, is a seven-minute piece called Glasgow Today and Tomorrow. It details a notorious city redevelopment plan devised during the dying embers of the Second World War, when the Corporation’s chief engineer â€“ a man grandiosely named Robert Bruce â€“ was charged with addressing the city’s chronic overcrowding and poverty. â€œA city of congested buildings and narrow roads,â€ clips the film’s plumby, patronising voice-over. â€œA great population living under outmoded conditions which give rise to much confusion as well as discomfort. It is Glasgow: a city of contrasts, where beautiful districts alternate with congested and ill-planned areas…â€
First published in The Big Issue, 18-25 May, 2014
The Bad Plus are a band of many guises. From the heart of America’s Midwest they became the slick-marketed success story of contemporary jazz, an accessibly rambunctious, gently intellectual trio who could cover Kraftwerk, Queen, David Bowie, Nirvana, Blondie, all with a cocked eyebrow and a quirky groove. Whatever their starting material, it was always subsumed into an iconic TBP sound: Ethan Iverson’s clean, thoughtful piano lines; bassist Reid Anderson’s rich, roaming swing; drummer David King throwing down irresistible polyrhythmic grooves. Their latest venture is a cover of The Rite of Spring, and bizarrely it’s the strictest thing they’ve done. They follow the progression of Stravinsky’s ballet score with reverent diligence, as though slightly cowed by the piece rather than feeling free to make it their own. Certainly it’s tamer than Stravinsky’s original, but there are some great touches along the way: the Introduction emerges from a heartbeat, like the start of a life cycle; Spring Rounds gains a sparse, sultry drawl. Best of all, The Bad Plus remind us that this music was meant for dancing. [Sony Masterworks 88843023042]
First published in The Herald on 14 May, 2014
Scottish Opera announced its 2014-15 season today, safe in the knowledge that the new programme is a step up from its widely-maligned ’13-14 offering. The figures aren’t hard to compare. There are more mainstage operas â€“ five rather than three â€“ and a better range of repertoire, from mid-18th century to late-20th century. One of the works was originally a major Scottish Opera commission. Another plays to the company’s strength as a Janacek house.
First published in the Guardian on 13 May, 2014
There are some juicy anomalies at the heart of Tectonics, the festival of new music curated by Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell and hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Take the last part of that sentence for starters: an orchestra, most 19th century of beasts, hosting indie icons like Thurston Moore and Richard Youngs? The BBC, most upright of institutions, printing off running orders for interpretive dances about fracking and art-rock concrete poetry? It’s to the credit of the BBC SSO that they allow Volkov to pursue his boundlessly gung-ho thing. Few other orchestras could collate such an eclectic programme, and very few could deliver it all with such unwavering skill.
First published in the Guardian on 9 May, 2014
Sir David McVicar’s 14-year-old take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has become a Scottish Opera stalwart, the kind of bullet-proof production that any company would be glad to have in its stockpile. It’s a handsome period piece (designs by Yannis Thavoris), unsentimental enough to be stylish, perceptive enough to be mildly provocative, safe enough to be a classic. The set is elegant and timeless, all gently askew angles and muted beiges and greys that would never tire the gaze. Touches of symbolism keep the mind ticking over: the butterfly silhouette as Cio-Cio San unwraps on her wedding night, the looming cherry branch laced with pretty flowers but also hinting at a lightening bolt. The final tableau (I won’t give it away) looks impressive and provides a neat jab at the illusionary American dream â€“ altogether it works as allegory, for those inclined to prod, but also as straight, heartfelt entertainment.
First published in The Herald on 7 May, 2014
An Icelandic musician once told me a theory for how his remote northerly country, with its population of 300,000, is able to produce such an inordinate number of interesting artists. “On a small island like ours,” he said, “a photographer can’t afford to only take landscapes.” His point was that Icelandic artists tend to muck in, creatively speaking. Whether it’s a world-famous pop star trying out an orchestral score or the local brass band leader organising a John Cage happening, “you can’t get too precious in a community where everyone knows your family,” the musician explained. “Maybe that gives us freedom. Maybe it means we aren’t afraid of trying stuff, even if it might not work out.”
First published in the Guardian on 6 May, 2014
Perth Concert Hall
Just two works made up this lunchtime programme, an intriguing pairing of music by Thomas Ades and Johannes Brahms. Both men were in their early 30s when they composed their piano quintets and their vying energy went well together: Ades’s beguilingly finespun one-movement work of 2001 next to Brahms’s muscular, sprawlingly romantic F-minor epic of 1864.
Ades’s quintet is a gem, full of gossamer textures and timeless themes that glimmer just out of reach like beacons in a haar. It’s fastidiously constructed, with intricately shifting rhythms and a structure so classical it seems almost radical, but it isn’t rigid, and the interlacing filigree needs a gentle flux that the Hebrides wasn’t able to muster. Part of the problem might be that the group doesn’t stick to a regular line-up; its membership seems to change for almost every programme. Individual players are superb (here the line-up included violinist Alexander Janiczek, whose pristine, silvery tone was perfect for Ades’s luminous writing) but they didn’t achieve the intuitive ebb-and-flow of musicians who work together all the time.
First published in The Big Issue, 4-10 May 2014
Tectonics is back (Glasgow, May 9-11) with another bold, off-message weekend that’s arguably the hottest festival on the UK classical music calendar this summer. Although ‘classical’ is a tenuous term here: Tectonics’ mission statement is â€œto perform as broad a series of works and sound-worlds that you are likely to hear anywhereâ€. Yes, there are orchestral concerts, with the host ensemble (the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) performing new works by David Behrman, John Oswald, Georg Frierdich Haas, Michael Finnissy and more. But it’s the not strictly orchestral â€“ the scrubbing out of borders, the lingering in mucky musical no man’s lands â€“ that makes Tectonics really interesting.