First published in BBC Music Magazine, May 2018 edition
Danielle de Niese is doing at least five things at once. Mainly she is telling me in animated detail about the psychodynamics of Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira, but she’s also singing the entire cast, rapid fire, covering Mozart’s opera from overture to hellfire in about two minutes flat. Meanwhile she’s demolishing a plate of calf’s liver, texting her husband to say she’s running late and applying a generous new layer of makeup to her eyes. “Girl!” she exclaims when I admire her ability to do so without a mirror. “I grew up in Los Angeles! I’ve been multitasking forever! Lipstick at the wheel, eyeliner in traffic jams, mascara at the lights…”
An hour in the company of Danielle de Niese is as high octane as the operas she inhabits. She is loud and unfiltered. She’s funny and warm. She agreed to meet our photographer for an informal shoot before the interview, yet when I arrive at the private members’ club in Covent Garden she’s in full glamour mode, draped across a sofa in fur coat and black cocktail dress. “Honey!” she greets me with a wave of a hand, ignoring my t-shirt and trainers. “This is my informal look! I would dress like this any day of the week.”
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.
First published in The Herald on 30 May, 2018
Ronnie Hughes started fishing out of Pittenweem in 1968. At first he worked on the small boats that would land their catch daily at harbours around the East Neuk of Fife. After a couple of years he graduated to bigger vessels out of Aberdeen, crewing alongside men from Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Lossiemouth. They would head out to sea for weeks at a time — and that’s when he became aware of the singing.
It mainly happened on a Sunday, he tells me. “The lads from the north-east coast, they were generally more devout than us Fifers, and a lot of them would not work on the sabbath. That meant the boats would just shut down for the day, just lie there, even if we were out at sea. It was a strange thing, that silence, because generally on fishing boats there is gear hauling, there are radios blaring. Generally it’s a very noisy business. And then there would be this strange calm, and the songs.”
First published in The Herald on 16 May, 2018
Last week the Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe was named Young Artist at the prestigious RPS Awards — call it the Mercury Prize for classical music. He was nominated alongside the soprano Louise Alder and the conductor Elim Chan, which means he had stiff competition.
The award recognised his “significant impact in the UK during 2017”, which indeed was a big year for 26-year-old Shibe. He released his first solo album — Dreams & Fancies: English music for solo guitar — a disc of refined, intelligent, stylish musicianship. Last summer, he toured a programme called softLOUD using acoustic and electric guitars, from Scottish medieval lute manuscripts to Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. Now he has recorded that programme, and it’s due for release on Edinburgh’s Delphian label in September.
First published in The Herald on 25 April, 2018
When I was at music college, I dearly wanted to learn to play a rare early electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot. That career dream was thwarted by the fact I never managed to get close enough to actually try one in the flesh, but it turns out there is a small room at the Paris Conservatoire — where else? — that is home to the world’s most extensive collection of ondes Martenots. Herein reside seven of the glorious instruments, in various states of playability, but still: seven ondes. Being in their company makes me feel simultaneously giddy and guilty, like waiting years to see a wild cat then rounding a corner and meeting an entire nonchalant family.
My host here is Nathalie Forget, one of today’s leading ondistes and a featured artist at next weekend’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow. She shows me around like a protective mother, eyeing my water bottle (liquid and rare electronics: not an ideal mix) before switching on various instruments to see which one might “be in a good mood” on this given morning. An exquisite array of sounds emerge: astral swoops, angry grunts, whispered snippets of sad elegies. “Since the beginning,” she tells me proudly, ”these instruments have had important fans. Messiaen, Varese, Murail. Composers in Japan and Canada. A lot of cinema and theatre makers. Pop singers. Jacques Brel, Radiohead, Kraftwerk. These ondes” — she surveys the room — “have experience in every kind of music.”
First published in The Herald on 4 April, 2018
Time is noisy but we’re good at not hearing it. The ticking of second hands, the beep of a watch marking the hour, the thrum of a pre-set heating system switching on just before morning. Cockerels and church bells. School bells. Radio alarms. The pips. The dawn chorus. The one o’clock gun. The city revving up for rush hour. We choose when to tune in and the rest becomes prosaic din.
The harpist Rhodri Davies grew up fascinated by the mechanisms of time. His grandfather, Titus John Davies, was a horologist who opened a jewellery shop in Aberystwyth in 1948. He sold and repaired clocks and watches, and later Rhodri’s father took over the business. “I was fascinated with my grandfather’s workbench,” says Davies. “Fascinated by my dad’s workbench. They held the same kind of allure as a harp workshop. Rooting through tiny, delicate, mysterious objects. Clocks at various stages of dismantling. All those cogs and springs.”
First published in The Herald on 21 March, 2018
Mermaids and mermen — let’s call them merfolk — live for approximately 300 years, after which they turn into sea foam. Who can say for sure what happens to humans when they die, but I doubt it involves much sea foam. This disparity is just one of the great melancholies that hang over The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who makes an ill-fated deal with a sea witch. The mermaid gives up her identity — tongue cut out, tail lost — for the love of a human prince. He hardly even notices her sacrifice. It’s a hopeless love, a feminist tragedy. His soul will live on after death (or not) while she’ll be foam.
Andersen was a complicated character himself. Born into poverty in Denmark in 1805, he was bisexual but he died a virgin. He wrote plucky female characters who head out on bold quests, and his handsome princes have flaws and sensitive sides. He published his works as plain Fairy Tales, soon abandoning the label “for children” because he realised his disturbing, wondrous imaginary realms belong to everyone. Some of his stories, like The Shadow, are so dark that I doubt many parents would risk reading them at their own bedtimes, let alone their children’s. Disney still cashes in on Andersen’s legacy — think of recent hits like Frozen, a rehash of Snedronningen (The Snow Queen). Except that in Disney, the most haunting details are glossed over and prettied up.
First published in The Herald on 7 March, 2018
What’s the point of awards? I’m not talking Oscars, though this week we feel the reality check of a ceremony that saw the fewest female winners in six years despite all the high-vis momentum of #MeToo. Big industry awards validate big industry, and that ship turns slowly.
Even without matters political, the notion of declaring objective “better” in the arts is endlessly problematic. Which is better: a film in which a woman procreates with a sea creature or a film in which a woman finds her way with clove cigarettes? A new piece of music about an eczema sufferer or a new piece about the suffering Mary while Jesus was on the cross? It might sound like a platitude to say that anyone shortlisted is already a winner, but when it comes to music awards — especially contemporary music awards — basic recognition is the ultimate raison d’être.