First published in the Guardian on 17 April, 2017
I’m no great singer, but Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou only really trusted me after I had sung to her. “Something from your country,” she instructed, so there I found myself: in the tiny bedroom of this 93-year-old Ethiopian composer-pianist-nun at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, croaking my way through the verses of a Robert Burns song.
I was there to make a documentary about Emahoy, and given she does not agree to most interviews I felt I should do what I was told. The room was cramped and sweltering. A small bed, an upright piano draped in Ethiopian flags, stacks of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, a jumble of hand-written manuscripts. On the walls were portraits of Emperor Haile Selassie — Emahoy knew him in the 1930s — and her own paintings of religious icons. The door was propped open and in from the courtyard came smells of Ethiopian stews and sounds of monks going about their daily chanting.
First published in The Herald on 5 April, 2017
Sally Beamish had never written a piano concerto in her life until she wrote three within a year. Things had not been planned that way: orchestral commissions tend to come with long and fickle gestation periods, so she was as alarmed as anyone to find the pieces suddenly queued up in rapid-fire succession.
“Actually, the daft challenge forced me to be extra inventive,” she tells me ahead of the European premiere of the third concerto by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra this week and the first radio broadcast of the second by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra a fortnight ago. We’re in London, where she has been presenting a radio programme for International Women’s Day. She describes her mood as “great! relieved!” — relieved at how well the radio show went, but mainly to be out the other side of her accidental concerto triple immersion.
First published in The Herald on 28 March, 2017
“Are there doors? Do they open? Do they have handles? Are they just doors in the mind?” These are some of the questions mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill put to director Matthew Lenton during the first week of rehearsals for their new production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s been a discomfiting spring at Scottish Opera. First we had Pelleas et Melisande — Debussy’s intoxicatingly suggestive and inconclusive opera with its damaged relationships and moral murk. Now Bluebeard.
First published in The Herald on 22 March, 2017
Hanging on the wall of Dominic Parker’s office at City Halls in Glasgow are framed photographs of a concert hall from various interior and exterior angles. “Ah, right, a different hall,” says the new director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, looking as though he’s just been caught with pictures of an ex. The photos were a leaving present from his previous job at Sage Gateshead; in one of them, he and the Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell are harnessed onto the roof, which was no mean publicity stunt given the building’s architecture is all curves. Apparently Tickell managed to play a total of five notes before fear and the Tyneside weather set in.
First published in Gramophone, March 2017
In his autobiography of 1936, Igor Stravinsky articulated a claim that would end up being skewed, misconstrued and chucked back at him throughout his life. It was his theory of anti-expression, of music’s inherent emotional sterility, of listeners’ outmoded romantic habits of ascribing meaning rather than simply loving music for music’s sake. “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” Stravinsky wrote. “If music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it.”
Exactly 80 years later, at his kitchen table in Wiltshire on a midwinter afternoon, Sir Harrison Birtwistle is expounding on similar themes. The 82-year-old composer says he doesn’t believe in consciously expressing something — that expression comes in spite of oneself. Another thing he doesn’t believe in is inspiration. “I’ve been lucky enough to be musical, and maybe at one point I was inspired,” he admits. “You hear it all the time in the media: what was your inspiration? What it probably means is that you filched it from someone else. I think of it as something like the draft from under the door. It’s not conscious.” Perhaps inspiration filters through, whether he likes it or not?
He ignores the question, or rather answers it in a roundabout way by talking about place. “This thing about being English is an interesting one, because if anything I self-consciously — for so much of my career — I tried to write music that was not English. I mean to do with landscape and pastoralism and Vaughan Williams and all that.” When he says Vaughan Williams, he pronounces the G with exaggerated disgust. Is he implying that he was born with everything he would write already in him? “Probably,” he shrugs. “I wouldn’t be so pretentious as to say something like that. But yes, the thing that I had back when I started out, what made me do it, that’s what’s been making me do it all along. It has different guises, it manifests itself in different forms. Chameleon-like I suppose. But I think it’s all the same, what I’m doing.”
First published in The Herald on 8 March, 2017
Tonight is the first Scottish Awards for New Music. Winners will be announced during a ceremony at Drygate in Glasgow. That the inaugural event is literally a piss-up in a brewery sets the tone for an industry shindig that is pointedly less formal than the British Composer Awards or any equivalents I can think of. Winners will receive a ceramic singing bowl made by Elaine Henderson and decorated with a sonic wave from, or linked to, their winning pieces.
As with any such endeavour, much chin stroking and committee debate has gone into defining the perimeters of who is eligible, who can nominate, who will benefit, who will be left out. The awards are the initiative of New Music Scotland, itself a loose association of composers, programmers, performers and academics. Its members are mostly of classical-ish persuasion though NMS is keen to kick that image. The awards, they say, are ”intended to highlight and showcase the innovative, experimental and ground-breaking work taking place in Scotland, as well as the depth and breadth of the country’s contemporary music scene.”
First published in The Herald on 1 March, 2017
When Nicolas Zekulin was a music undergraduate at the University of Calgary, he co-hosted a regular 6am jazz programme on the local student radio station. The show was called Cereal Focus, and as well as playing “the most out-there” records he could lay his hands on — hour-long bootleg Coltrane solos for drivetime, anyone? — Zekulin would invent mock-serious critiques of breakfast cereals and read them out in elaborate detail. More than 20 years later, he still gets stopped on the street when he’s visiting his parents back in Calgary and asked what he had for breakfast that morning. (His default choice nowadays, he revealed to The Herald, is Stoats porridge oats served a la Canadiana with nuts and maple syrup. No salt.)
First published in The Herald on 22 February, 2017
Sir David McVicar is waiting for me in a rehearsal room engulfed in greys. Grey mock pillars, grey flooring. The set for his new production of Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande — which opens at Scottish Opera tomorrow — is inspired by the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi, an enigmatic Danish artist whose late 19th century portraits are layered in grey upon grey. When Hammershoi thought one of his works wasn’t quite grey enough, he would add another wash across the surface: more grey.
“It’s just a stepping off point,” McVicar warns me when I start to ask about visual-musical parallels. “It’s not like we’re slavishly recreating Hammershoi paintings or the singers are doing Hammershoi poses. It’s simply a visual correlation for the way I feel about the music. The sense of mystery. If there are subjects in the paintings, they’re often looking away from the viewer. Half-open doors, a sense that you don’t know what’s happening in the other room but you’re certain something is happening in the other room.”
First published in the Guardian on 14 February, 2017
Rory Kinnear is walking through a Shakespeare scene. It’s The Winter’s Tale, week one of rehearsals, jeans and t-shirts all round, and Kinnear is delivering a intent stream-of-consciousness while acting out what the character Leontes might experience the moment when he realises the daughter he thought he’d killed as an infant is now standing before him as a woman. “When you’re guilty and someone is nice to you, how good does that feel,” he murmurs. “And now I’m clocking her face, her hand, and now there’s this incredibly slow sensation of, oh wow, what the fuck.”
Kinnear is a solidly respected British actor, born into a theatre family and acclaimed for intelligent portrayals of Hamlet and Iago at the National Theatre as well as his marvellously dependable and subtly wry Bill Tanner in recent Bond films. “What I admire about Kinnear is that he pays scrupulous attention to language,” wrote the Guardian’s Michael Billington in 2010 — and even in early-stage rehearsals there is plain evidence of how his ultra realistic and unhysterical articulateness can bring a room to standstill.
First published in The Herald on 15 February, 2017
Neemi Jarvi has withdrawn from conducting his own 80th birthday concerts with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra this week, having been instructed by doctors to keep weight off a bad knee. His replacement is Elim Chan: a 30-year-old rising star from Hong Kong who came to international attention two years ago as the first woman to win the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition and was introduced to Scottish audiences two weeks ago when she conducted the RSNO in Kirkcaldy and Musselburgh.