Features

Schumann, Dvorak & the art of subtle anomaly

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First published in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra autumn 2017 newsletter, then in The Herald on 18 October, 2017

History is full of the times we got it wrong. The times an artist unveiled a bold new work or a change in direction and was met with incomprehension, or plain derision, from audiences and critics and their own artistic community. Beethoven got it for exploding string quartet form in the Grosse Fuge. Puccini got it for putting the lives of the poor and the sick on stage in his opera La boheme. Stravinsky for, well, pretty much everything about The Rite of Spring. Miles Davies for going electric.

In the cases I’ve just mentioned, general consensus swung around and, sooner or later, works that were initially heard as too weird or too radical were absorbed into the canon of ‘greats’. (Which didn’t always do them favours; ’canonical’ status often softens the way we play and hear things that still deserve to sound shocking.) In other cases, usually when the work in question is less obviously ‘out there’, those negative first impressions seem tougher to shift. We’re happy to reconsider wild unconventionality as creative genius in retrospect, as the product of a rogue but brilliant mind. But with subtler eccentricity we tend to fixate on the flaws. And one quality in particular that we can’t seem to handle is frailty.

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Interview: Graham McKenzie on 40 years of Huddersfield

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First published by Sounds Like Now, September 2017 edition

In his early years as artistic director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Graham McKenzie introduced a festival slogan: ‘Music Lives in Everything’. It wasn’t as new-age as it might sound. (If you’ve ever been in the company of the acerbic Glaswegian, who dresses exclusively in black and keeps his mood about as demonstrative, you’ll know that new-age is pretty wide of the mark.) The slogan was about widening parameters, about subtly but purposefully infiltrating a field that, he thought, had become too narrow. “The festival has become fixed on a very one-sided view of what new music is,” McKenzie said in 2006, his first year as director. “It has always dealt in music that is elaborate and complex, because it’s fully written down. I’ve nothing against written-out music — in fact, you’ll find plenty of it in the festival. But there’s this whole other area the festival has neglected.”

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Interview: Thomas Dausgaard on ‘composer roots’

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First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2017

When it was announced that Thomas Dausgaard would be replacing Donald Runnicles as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, various commentators pointed out that Runnicles would be a tough act to follow. The Scottish Wagnerian had the grandeur, the clout of top-flight opera houses, the romance of local-boy-done-good. What mark could Dausgaard, relatively demure, relatively unknown, relatively generalist in his repertoire, make on City Halls?

As the Danish conductor begins his second year in Glasgow, an answer is starting to emerge. Running through the BBC SSO’s new season – which opens tomorrow – is a strand called Composer Roots, and this strand has Dausgaard’s creative stamp all over it. The concept is simple. The orchestra will present a major piece of symphonic repertoire in the context of music that influenced it. Influences might include folk music, sacred chant, renaissance polyphony, certain key composers who paved the way.

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La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc: getting the music right

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First published in The Herald on 13 September, 2017

It’s a shifty thing, authenticity, especially when it comes to dramatising a character whose image has been constructed and reconstructed over the centuries, shapeshifting to suit whoever is telling the story. Take Joan of Arc. The 15th century saint has been variously claimed, or vilified, as a feminist, Catholic martyr, resistance fighter, French patriot, cross-dresser, pixie cut icon, political emblem of the left and of the right. For anyone who has seen Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, only one image of Joan will forever be burned into their retinas: those steely cheekbones and saucer eyes of Renee Maria Falconetti.

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On the Scottish International Piano Competition

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First published in The Herald on 6 September, 2017

“I don’t envy them. No way. Nope.” It’s dinner break on Day One, Round One of the eleventh Scottish International Piano Competition and Steven Osborne, one of this year’s judges, is having flashbacks. “The first competitions I entered were bad enough when it came to nerves,” he winces. “As I got older things only got worse.” Fellow judge Olga Kern tells me that the only form of nerve control that ever really worked for her was giving birth. “When I competed in the Van Cliburn I had a one-year-old child,” she says. “I decided I would play my recital for him. I had travelled all that way across the world without him… I wasn’t going to waste the effort. It put things in perspective!”

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Autumn preview

First published in The Herald on 30 August, 2017

We reach the end of a couple of eras. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has yet to name its next principal conductor but Robin Ticciati has already started his new job with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchestra Berlin, and their debut recording together, a beautiful disc of Debussy and Faure soon to be released on Linn, suggests the move has been a good one. Ticciati’s final season with the SCO focuses on the music of Dvorak and welcomes some illustrious pianists, with opening night including Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony and Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart (Edinburgh & Glasgow, October 12 & 13) and Andras Schiff performing Dvorak’s rarely-heard Piano Concerto (Edinburgh & Glasgow, December 7 & 8).

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On James Horner’s Titanic music. Yes.

First published in the Guardian on 29 August, 2017

Yesterday we learned that James Horner’s soundtrack to Titanic is the biggest-selling classical album of the last 25 years. According to the Ultimate Classic FM Chart, Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture has sold more than one million copies in the UK alone, surpassed 30 million copies worldwide and risen to number one album in 20 countries.

You know you know it. Cast your mind back to 1997. First come the uilleann pipes: that’s Eric Rigler, an American player who previously worked with Horner on Aliens and Braveheart and has a band horrifyingly called Bad Haggis. His grace notes communicate right to the album-buying soul of America’s Celtic diaspora. Then comes the breathy vocalise of Sissel Kyrkjebø, the bass lines lurking like icebergs in the deep and Horner’s intriguing ability to make the real instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra sound like midi files. Celine Dion’s big tune pops up all over the place, relentlessly rousing, though without the full force of her larynx it never feels quite right. (Eventually we get Celine herself, after an agonising hour.)

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Interview: Rachel Podger

First published in The Herald on 23 August, 2017

There are big laughs at the end of the phone. Violinist Rachel Podger, if you can pin her down, is a bright spark. On the day we’re due to speak she has six hours of train travel on various branch lines: she lives in Brecon, a village in the Welsh hills whose charms don’t include speedy access. That plan is scuppered when the bridge of her violin collapses and takes the finger board down with it. It’s the kind of instrument crisis that would panic most touring musicians, let alone one about to direct her own group for the first time at the Edinburgh International Festival. A few days later Podger is cheerfully telling me about her genius luthier in Ludlow. “The calmest man in the world,” she says. “He just exudes reassuring vibes. Fiddle sounds great now. Better than before!”

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Interview: Gianandrea Noseda on La bohème

First published in The Herald on 16 August, 2017

Winter of 1896, Teatro Regio, Turin. The star conductor Arturo Toscanini, not yet 30, premieres the latest opera by Giacomo Puccini to polarised reaction. Some factions of the audience can’t understand why they’ve just spent an evening watching the grotty minutiae of impoverished nobodies; surely opera is the platform for gods and noblemen. The streets of Paris have been revealed as dirty and cold. We see tough prostitution, the unnecessary death of a beautiful young woman whose only fault is to be poor. And the music – so compact, so direct, so impatient. Where are the luxuriant expanses of Verdi and Wagner? What new operatic urban realism is Puccini getting at?

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Classical music on the Fringe

First published in The Herald on 9 August, 2017

The International Festival series at the newly re-opened St Cecilia’s Hall is totally sold out — unsurprising given the room only seats 200 — but you can experience the museum’s stunning historical instruments and the gem that is the oval concert hall in five concerts hosted by the Friends of St Cecilia’s, starting today with keyboardists John Kitchen and David Gerrard playing music by Francois and Louis Couperin on the ultimate 1769 Taskin harpsichord. (St Cecilia’s Hall, August 9, 12, 16, 19 & 23, 3pm.)

If you’re missing soprano Anna Dennis as part of the superb Monteverdi operas coming to the International Festival next week (or even if you’re not), hear her in recital tomorrow: she’s joined by Owen Willetts (countertenor) and Tom Foster (harpsichord) for a programme of Baroque arias, cantatas and duetti da camera by Durante, Geminiani, Handel and Scarlatti. (St Andrews and St Georges West, August 10, 430pm.)

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