First published in The Herald on 27 June, 2018
Less than six weeks to go. Here’s my pick of classical music and opera at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Worth emphasising that this is the International programme only — there are excellent musical happenings on the Fringe, but that’s a list for another day.
Piotr Anderszewski. One of the few pianists I would cross time zones to hear. When he appeared at EIF in 2014, I wrote the following: “There is a singular and fascinating logic to everything that this Polish-Hungarian pianist does. He is so immersed in his playing that it sometimes feels intrusive to be listening. But it’s exciting to hear someone who so radically bypasses all received notions of interpretation – who doesn’t moderate his emotions into any kind of palatable middle ground.” This year he plays Bach’s Third English Suite and Beethoven’s immense Diabelli Variations. Queen’s Hall, August 7
Siegfried. We’re deep into the greatest operatic epic ever told — i.e. three quarters of the way through a complete Ring cycle in concert performance. This next instalment is the story of Siegfried: his childhood and adolescence, how he is raised by Mime in the forest and grows into a hero, how Wotan guides him to find the shattered pieces of his dad’s famous sword. How he uses said sword to kill the giant Fafner and take possession of the cursed Ring, how he tames the ring of fire to reach Brünnhilde and how she teaches him at last — at last! — to feel love and fear. Mark Elder conducts the Hallé with a solid Wagnerian cast led by Simon O’Neill as Siegfried. Usher Hall, August 8
First published in the Guardian on 25 June, 2018
A medieval Book of Hours was an intimate thing, personalised prayers decorated in gold leaf for the wealthy or simple print for the poor. The point was to punctuate the everyday with private moments of beauty and reflection, like the 15th century equivalent of a mindfulness app.
Contemporary classical music can tread awkwardly around notions like ‘beautiful’ and ‘reflective’, as though they’re anathema to complexity and intellect. Curators might court fans of the soft-grained or the tough but tend to avoid the collision. Not so at Louth Contemporary Music Society, where director Eamonn Quinn sidesteps protocol with a rogue charm and a quiet punk mettle — or maybe just a simple strategy of programming whatever he wants to hear. The location is unlikely and perfect, debunking the delusion (again) that serious art only happens in world cities. Quinn started putting on concerts in Dundalk just over a decade ago. He invited the big names (Glass, Pärt, Lucier, Wolff, Gubaidulina, Riley, Sciarrino) and to his astonishment they came, infiltrating the Irish border town with world premieres and enflamed debate across late-night noodles.
The programming is un-faddish, un-cliquish, unpredictable, embracing the abstruse and the plainly sweet. This year’s edition ranged from the tender minimalism of Gavin Bryars to the saturated silences of Michael Pisaro to the restless cerebral bravura of Rebecca Saunders. And because it was all framed as a Book of Hours for our times, somehow the mix sat right: beauty and provocation given carte blanche to coexist, as any meditation might flit through multiple conflicting states.
First published in The Herald on 13 June, 2018; photo of Kate MccGwire‘s Sasse/Sluice at Snape
Thea Musgrave — Scottish composer, conductor, pianist and teacher who turned 90 last month — thrusts a glass of wine into my hand. She’s teaching me “la langue verte”: juicy phrases she learned in France in the 1940s. “Merde a la treizième” is her favourite, she grins. “Can you print that?!”
There is cause for celebration. The day before we meet, Musgrave was given an Ivor Novello Award alongside Billy Bragg, Lionel Richie and Shane MacGowan. The day after, she’s off to Buckingham Palace to receive The Queen’s Medal for Music. Around the world her 90th birthday is being marked by orchestras and ensembles — including a portrait concert in Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra this week. “They got me started,” she says. “They gave me my chance when I came back from Paris in the 1950s. And you know who was assistant conductor? Colin Davis!”
Musgrave was born in Edinburgh on 27 May, 1928. She studied at the University of Edinburgh, where she was inspired by the legacy of Donald Francis Tovey and his belief that that meaning in music comes from the music itself: that there’s plenty of drama in the way notes relate to each other without grafting on some kind of external narrative. After graduating, she trod the path of many brave 20th century composers to study at the Paris Conservatoire with Nadia Boulanger, whose fastidious ear and fierce attention to craft founded in Musgrave a lifelong propensity for clarity and discipline. She spent four years in the French capital, during which time she began to turn heads back home with her student works. In 1954, she returned to Edinburgh for a composing apprenticeship, and many of her early orchestral pieces — Obliques (1958), the Scottish Dance Suite (1959) — were premiered by the BBC SSO.