Features

Interview: Maxwell Quartet

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First published in The Herald on 15 November, 2017

Competition results are like a mass placebo effect. There is no qualitative difference in the sound of Glasgow’s Maxwell Quartet — no change in musicianship, technique, personnel, ethos, anything — since they were awarded first prize and audience prize at the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition in September. And yet, says the quartet’s cellist Duncan Strachan, vaguely bemused, “it’s only now that everyone is taking notice.”

If there’s an edge to that comment, a disappointment that many in the music industry rely on competition results rather than their own ears, it’s more than tempered by the welcome attention the group is now receiving. The win brings with it concert tours in Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, possibly the USA and Canada. There’s talk of a record deal and a debut album. The Herald has been hounding them for an interview.

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Music to die to.

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First published in the Guardian on 8 November, 2017

There is plenty of music designed to comfort the living. The lone piper by the graveside, the requiem mass appealing for rest and salvation, the Korean mudang shaman who sings and dances to exorcise the pain of the bereaved family. We have our rituals to bolster those left behind. Colombians sing grief-thick chants called ‘alabados’ or, if a child has died, the women of the community offer up quiet lullabies. Ghananian pallbearers dance as they carry their caskets. In the north of China, rival gujiang bands set up camp outside the house of the deceased and play popular opera arias into the night. In the streets of New Orleans, Cajun jazz bands lead mournful processions from church to grave then raise their trumpets to the sky and kick off the party. Funeral music is meant to console and celebrate. It’s meant to remind us: keep living.

What about music for the dying? That’s a tougher list. Maybe we’re shy of the fragile moments at the end of a life. Maybe we feel it’s too intimate a time and place to intrude upon with any extraneous sounds, but a deathbed doesn’t need to be hushed. French monks at Cluny in the 11th century practiced extensive dying rituals, singing Gregorian chant for as long the dying process required. Sometimes the chanting went on for weeks. In a 21st century parallel, Rufus Wainwright described how his whole family sang to his mother Kate McGarrigle as she breathed her last. “One of the nurses said this could go on for four days,” he recalled, “and we had already exhausted the back catalogue.”

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Interview: Lewis Murphy

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First published in The Herald on 1 November, 2017

Contemporary opera always needs fresh advocates, so here’s a name to watch. Glasgow-born composer Lewis Murphy, 25, is already nearing the end of a two-year residency with one of the UK’s most prestigious opera houses. He and his regular librettist Laura Attridge use their work to consider tough contemporary matters: their latest collaborations look at the refugee crisis and female infertility via artificial intelligence. Murphy’s music is as unpretentious and plain-speaking as he is; there’s a clarity, a candidness, an emotional honesty that really works when it comes to telling difficult stories in the most unthreatening possible voice. The results are disarming, and have a tendency to get under the skin.

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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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