Monthly Archives: June 2014

Review: St Magnus Festival 2014


First published in The Herald on 25 June, 2014

Here’s a thrill that never gets old: finishing a concert in the Norse-medieval vaults of St Magnus Cathedral then emerging into the musky, silvery gloaming of an Orcadian midsummer night. There’s no overstating the potent sense of place that underpins the St Magnus Festival. Sure, the festival’s programme is enticing enough – this year featured memorable performances from the Trondheim Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Fidelio Trio and more. But roughly half of ticket-buyers are visitors, able to access decent concerts much closer to home. What lures them north to these islands are the same factors that first attracted the festival’s founder, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, when he moved here back in the 1970s: the promise of music set against the Orcadian landscapes, soundscapes and light.

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Review: Laus Concentus in Orkney

First published in The Herald on 23 June, 2014

Orkney’s Italian Chapel sits alone on Lamb Holm, tiny, humble and exquisite; blink and you’d miss it as you travel along the causeways between the mainland and South Ronaldsay. The chapel was cobbled together out of two Nissen huts in 1943, built by Italian prisoners of war who had been brought to Orkney to construct the Churchill Barriers (crucial defences to the British fleet stationed in Scapa Flow). The soldiers painted the exterior in dazzling whites and reds and the interior in sumptuous Catholic iconography – the resilience of their creative imagination is in every brush stroke.

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Buxton, Cheltenham and Prokofiev via Osborne/Ibragimova

First published in The Big Issue, June 29-July 5

High in the Pennines, graced with good water and a Frank Matcham opera house, the Buxton Festival (July 11-27) specialises in rare operas by famous composers. This year they stage Otello – not the famous one by Verdi, but Rossini’s hugely overshadowed 1816 version. And how many of us could sing a tune from Dvorak’s neglected comedy The Jacobin? Not many, which is a shame: it’s a great piece. The central character, Bohus, is a passionate intellectual who has been to Paris to fight in the French Revolution and is now back in his small Czech hometown where he’s mistaken for a Jacobin and rejected by his community. The libretto has the usual love complications and plot twists and sombre undertones; mostly it’s the music that makes this opera so worth hearing. The vocal writing is tuneful and robust, orchestration is dark-hued and gutsy – it’s Dvorak at his spirited, nostalgic, folk-infused best.

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Interview: Iestyn Davies

countertenor Iestyn Davies

First printed in The Herald on 18 June, 2014

Countertenor Iestyn Davies claims that, based on the music he’s singing in any given concert, he can predict the precise words a critic will use to describe his performance. For example: if he’s playing the Voice of Apollo in Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, “all I have to do is turn up and the critic will write ‘otherworldly’. If it’s Handel, the word ‘florid’ invariably crops up…”

Davies is laughing as he tells me this, well aware of the fact that by earning these adjectives he’s clearly doing his job right. His voice-type – “approximately the range of an alto, sung by a man in his falsetto register or ‘head-voice’“ – remains a speciality, and composers of all periods have written for it with specific connotations in mind. Handel’s alto-range male characters are bold, heroic, dazzling and, yep, florid. For Britten, the countertenor tends to represent the mythical or the supernatural: think of Apollo, conjured by Aschenbach in a choloric fantasy, or Oberon, the darkly powerful fairy king in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Otherworldly’ is exactly the effect that’s required.

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Interview: Llyr Williams

Llyr Williams

First published in The Sunday Herald on 15 June, 2014

When he was still fairly early in his career, the Welsh pianist Llyr Williams made a conscious decision to learn as much music as he could before he turned 40 and then spend the rest of his life revisiting that repertoire. Now 36, he technically has four more years to add new works to the list — but as it turns out he’s ahead of schedule. “I’ve come to the end of the major pieces I want to learn,” he tells me with a hint of a sheepish smile. “I’ve got a range of repertoire upstairs that’s quite large by now. I’ve a done all the major Liszt, Schumann, Chopin and Brahms, Debussy, a lot of Bartok, the Second Viennese School, Janacek, Rachmaninov…”

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On Schubert, Schubertiads and the East Neuk


First published in The Herald on 14 June, 2014

East Neuk Festival is turning ten this year, and to celebrate it is holding a pretty specialist kind of a party: a Schubertiad. Basically this translates to an afternoon and evening of chamber music by the 19th century Viennese composer Franz Schubert. There are trios, string quartets, songs and solo piano pieces, with various musicians – the Belcea Quartet, the Gould Piano Trio, soprano Malin Christensson, pianists Christian Zacharias and Llyr Williams – all mixing and matching to make up the various configurations. East Neuk’s artistic director Svend Brown describes the event as a “quiet innovation” for the festival. “Sometimes it’s good to just nail your colours to the mast,” he says, meaning that for a festival whose reputation is built around the calibre of its chamber music, the intimacy of its venues and the loyalty of its musicians and audiences, there is no better celebration than a Schubertiad, epitome of all these qualities.

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Preview: St Magnus Festival 2014

First printed in The Herald on 11 June, 2014

It hardly takes a special occasion to point out the historic ties between Orkney and Norway: just look at any street map of Kirkwall or the surnames in any Orkadian graveyard. The islands are officially twinned with Hordaland County (the region of fjords and skerries around Bergen) and every year a huge Norwegian Christmas tree arrives in Kirkwall to symbolise those ancient links across the North Sea.

One of several anniversaries being marked at this year’s St Magnus Festival – Orkney’s prestigious midsummer classical music series – is the 200th year of the Norwegian constitution, signed on 17 May, 1814. At the time it was considered (apart from the minor concession of retaining a monarchy) the most radically liberal constitution in the democratic world; today it is the third oldest constitution still in operation, and its generally progressive ethos is reason enough to celebrate.

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Review: Cottier Chamber Project

First printed in the Guardian on 10 June, 2014

Now in its fourth year, the Cottier Chamber Project is thriving. This gutsy, lo-fi concert series operates on a shoestring yet attracts the best of Scotland’s chamber musicians; it seems to run on plain good will, plus the appetite for decent grass-roots programming when plenty of festivals simply buy in lookalike bills of touring artists. Every year the Project’s professionalism notches up a peg – this year’s opening weekend unveiled a newly-acquired good piano (a loan from an audience member) and the full gorgeous interior of Cottiers Theatre, at last rid of endless scaffolding.

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Mr McFall’s Polish tango

Adam Aston

First printed in The Herald on June 6, 2014

One of the highlights of last year’s Cottier’s Chamber Project was a concert of tango music given by Mr McFall’s Chamber – that roaming, beatnik bunch of musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and their friends. Tango, and in particular the music of Astor Piazzolla, has been in the McFall’s DNA since the group first formed to play an Edinburgh nightclub slot in 1996. Partly that’s thanks to their violist Brian Schiele, himself a bona fide Argentinian; partly it’s because tango suits the group’s sweet spot of formal and fiery, virtuosic and loose. This year McFall’s are back at Cottier’s with another tango programme – and this time there’s a twist. Instead of the classic Latin fervour of Piazzolla and Argentina, McFall’s turn east to Poland, delving into the huge wealth of klezmer-tinged tango that emerged from the country in the years between the First and Second World Wars.

Poland? Tango? It makes more sense than you might first think. Tango was never a pure-bred music anyway. The dance was born of Argentina’s immigrant communities in the bars and brothers of 19th century Buenos Aires, a tangle of sultry rhythms and sad love songs and bygone classicism. Tango arrived in Europe in the first decades of the 20th century, brought over by Argentine Orquestas tipicas carrying suitcases full of newfangled recordings. The dance took the continent by storm. Here was a music that had gone and come back – its European roots were there, sure, in the bolt-upright postures, the virtuosic flourishes of the violins and the melancholy chord progressions of the double basses. But like jazz, which began to surface in Europe around the same time, this was a seductively new-world craze.

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Tobias Hume: gallus viol player, Scottish soldier

First published in The Herald on 4 June, 2014

A soldier, a musician and a bit of a mystery, Tobias Hume is an extraordinary figure in Scotland’s classical music history – and yet we know next to nothing about him. He lived and worked around the turn of the 17th century; that much we can deduce from his two published volumes of viol tunes, First Part of Ayres (1605) and Captaine Humes Poeticall Musicke (1607). By his own description he was a military man first and an artist for pleasure: “My Profession being, as my Education hath beene, Armes,” he wrote; “the onely effeminate part of me, hath been Musicke”. Life as a soldier meant that he travelled a lot – Russia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, probably more – and travelling means that it’s hard to keep track of him. He turns up in Polish records from the 1620s and is mentioned in the court papers of Queen Anne of Denmark. Any real details of Hume’s life are tantalisingly sketchy. We don’t know where or when he was born, or where he spent a good 20-year chunk of his life, or why he ended up a pauper who had to forage snails for food among the nettles. Thankfully his music has been better preserved than his life story.

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