First published in The Herald on 22 August, 2018
It’s 11.30pm on a Friday night in the festival and I’m outside, in the rain, staring at a wall. There is no bar on this side of Summerhall, no official performance space, but chairs and tables have been arranged on a little veranda facing the bare stone facade. An usher hands out sets of wireless headphones and tells us to wait.
And then a tiny epic unfolds. A miniature opera buffa. It lasts for nine minutes and it careens us through a grand drama of life, love, regret, violence, state-of-the-nation political commentary. The visuals are gritty and vivid, a street-art aesthetic laced with tender heart. The music is punchy, searing, propulsive, extravagant, apposite.
Brian Irvine and John McIlduff’s Drive By Shooting is opera, alright: this is no parody. Real voices, real orchestra, real techniques, real emotional impact. The fact it’s a looped graffiti projection with pre-recorded music delivered through headphones – that adds a dislocated, absurdist appeal, as though the dregs of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre had been distilled into a cartoon strip only to infiltrate your unsuspecting night out. Even in the midnight drizzle, the unlikeliness is a delight.
First published in The Herald on 17 August, 2018
Helen MacLeod, who has died aged 37 in a car accident, was one of Scotland’s finest harp players. She was a passionate champion of traditional music, new music and classical repertoire; she was a spirited teacher, a warm-hearted collaborator, a talented composer and arranger. She will be profoundly missed by Scotland’s musical community.
MacLeod grew up in Inverinate, a small village on the north shore of Loch Duich near Kyle of Lochalsh in the West Highlands. Her father, Roddy, is a native Gaelic speaker and Helen studied Gaelic throughout her school years. Her love of music grew out of the rich traditional culture of the area, and she first learnt the clarsach locally with Christine Martin before winning a scholarship to study at St Mary’s Music School – a specialist music school in Edinburgh. There she continued her studies in both traditional clarsach and pedal harp with Charlotte Peterson as well as Isobel Mieras.
As a student at St Mary’s, MacLeod was gregarious, generous, witty, full of energy. I remember her from those years as a bright spark and joyous trouble-maker, a glamorous role model who spoke her mind and acted with conviction. She was also a tremendously caring friend.
First published in the Guardian on 15 August, 2018
Lads in tracksuits hurl themselves across the stage, all hoods and fists and aggro. There’s no music but screeching sirens and the dense thuds of bodies hitting floor and each other. Then the overture kicks in with a brute shock of sweet-voiced lutes and harpsichords. The contrast works like a punch in the gut, and the audience lets out a collective gasp.
Musical and moral collisions abound in any production of The Beggar’s Opera. John Gay’s 18th century satire is a gleeful period piece of irredeemably patchy values: heartthrob villain who makes gang crime look sexy and misogyny look cute; clingy damsels who paint a flagrantly unreconstructed portrait of the female psyche – meek or manipulative, or both. But The Beggar’s Opera is also a riot and a farce, wickedly funny when done right. It’s the original musical packed with tender airs and lusty sing-alongs. What’s a director to do? Ditch it? Dodge it? Rewrite it?
Zimmer-frame opera to renaissance polyphony, Verdian comic gold to total piobaireachd immersion. My pick of music on the Edinburgh Fringe. Enjoy!
Drive By Shooting. An octogenarian discovers her husband has been having an affair with the next door neighbour. Armed with zimmer frames as getaway vehicles, she and a friend stage a hit on the cheating husband. The music builds as a fast and furious thriller, culminating in the immortal operatic line: “shoot the fecker in the pecker!” Composer Brian Irvine has a wicked way with words. The Belfast maverick plays with the daft pizazz of everyday speech, the big drama of Irish rhetoric. Drive By Shooting is a graffiti-style animated opera made in collaboration with writer/director John McIlduff, whose video loop is projected life-size onto a wall at Summerhall. Macabre, full-frontal comedy told through classic operatic idioms of passion, betrayal, revenge and fasle teeth. (Nine performances daily, 15 minutes duration, until August 26 at Summerhall)
Out of office! I’m currently teaching a class on criticism and new music writing at the Darmstadt Summer Course.
Check out the daily podcasts produced by our students – Good Morning Darmstadt – plus reviews & opinion pieces on their Talking About Music blog.
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.”