First published in The Herald on 6 February, 2019
It’s a routine many artists will recognise: long periods of solitary graft then every project accidentally culminating at once. Glasgow composer David Fennessy is in the thick of it. In January, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra premiered an orchestral work called Ground – intensely jubilant music built on archive pibroch recordings and the heartbeat of Fennessy’s unborn daughter. The piece is bright-eyed, bright-lit, lion-hearted; it reconfirms the visceral and original way Fennessy writes for instruments.
This month brings the long-awaited premiere of Fennessy’s full 70-minute orchestral trilogy Conquest of the Useless, which would have been unveiled at the New Music Dublin festival last year if the entire event hadn’t been cancelled due to the freak snow and ice of the so-called Beast from the East. The aptness, or possibly the irony, of that intervention from the heavens was not lost on the creative team. The piece is the summation of a decade of work for Fennessy, inspired by diaries written by Werner Herzog while making the film Fitzcarraldo. The piece is about obsession, crazed ambition, compelling vision – and failure. When Conquest of the Useless finally comes to fruition in Dublin on 28 February, many fingers will be crossed for meteorological cooperation.
First published in BBC Music Magazine, January 2019
George Benjamin began writing his first opera at the age of 12. “Setting the story of Pied Piper of Hamelin,” he winces. “And it was naive and terrible and thankfully came to an end halfway down page 34. Terrible. Terrible! Unspeakably terrible!” Who can corroborate? The world never heard those 34 precocious pages, but the operas Benjamin went on to create – Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence – have changed the sound, scope, brutality and sensuality of 21st opera. All three were premiered in the last decade but were somehow a lifetime in the making.
Benjamin laughs as he tells me about his early endeavours – a neat, precise giggle. He laughs with clarity and conviction, like every aspect of his conversation. Thoughts are held until they’re fully formed. Words are only ever the exact ones. If he can’t find the right word, he’ll wait, hand suspended in the air, eyes screwed tight as he searches his mind. He won’t make do with sloppiness and, veteran teacher that he is, the effect rubs off so that in his company I become acutely aware of my own language. None of this meticulousness seems to get in the way of his enthusiasm, though. It’s a boyish, eager, clever enthusiasm, a wide-eyed marvelling. At 58, Benjamin says that above all he is “so, so enamoured with the nuts and bolts of music. Utterly passionate. Completely enthralled.”
For the full interview, please see BBC Music Magazine – January 2019 edition
First published in The Herald on 21 November, 2018
Nordic envy. You might know the one. It’s a common affliction for anyone who visits our neighbours to the north. Spend a few days in Oslo or Reykjavik or Helsinki and you’ll come home envying the kindergartens, the elderly care, the oil management, the sauna culture, the liquorice, the knitwear. You’ll regale your friends with utopian statistics on cycling networks and statutory maternity leave. You’ll lament our comparative deficiency thereof. If only Scotland could be more… Nordic.
Music provision is yet another envy-inducing factor here. The early-years exposure, the level of state support for performing groups and education, the extensive infrastructure for learning and making and promoting new music. Ever wondered about the inordinate number of Finnish conductors? The obscene creative talent emerging from Iceland – a country with the same population as Cardiff? There are easy explanations when you look at the root support for the arts. We have much to learn.
First published in The Herald on 24 October, 2018
In a parallel universe, Diana Burrell is an architect. The composer talks about buildings in vivid musical terms: the rhythms, the phrasing, the forms, the bold cacophony of lines and gestures. She lights up when she describes music that has the brutal physicality and gruff, jutting angles of the buildings she likes best. “My music,” she says, “has to make a clean, bold shape on the skyline.”
I love Burrell’s list of favourite sounds. Church bells, steel pans, the shrieking of seabirds, the clanging of metal in a building-site or scrap yard – she says she finds these sounds alluring for their impureness, their out-of-tune-ness and their strident imperfections. “I dislike prettiness,” she wrote in a kind-of manifesto in 1991. “I loathe all blandness, safe, pale and tasteful niceness. I detest the cosiness of pastiche and the safety of too much heritage. Give me instead strong, rough-edged things, brave disrespectful shapes and sounds, imperfect instruments that jangle and jar. I love both savage nature and the brutal modernism of the city’s concrete. There is passion and beauty in both.”
First published in The Herald on 19 September, 2018
The dawn of a new era for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with fresh management on the way (yet to be appointed) and a promising reshuffle on the podium. We already know how sleek and energised and generally alive the orchestra can sound under Thomas Sondergard – he was principal guest conductor for six seasons, always getting the best from the band – so it’s tantalising to hear how he’ll develop the ensemble now he’s been promoted to music director. And as if to cement the new role, Sondergard will be in Scotland a lot before Christmas: he opens the season with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (4 October, Dundee; 5 October, Edinburgh; 6 October, Glasgow) then turns to Ravel’s sultry, lambent Sheherazade with mezzo Catriona Morrison (12 October, Edinburgh; 13 October, Glasgow; 14 October, Aberdeen), Poulenc’s grandiose choral Gloria (8 November, Perth; 9 November, Edinburgh; 10 November, Glasgow) and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (23 November, Edinburgh; 24 November, Glasgow).
Meanwhile, don’t miss a giant of Polish music, Krzysztof Penderecki, conducting the RSNO in his own Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (30 November, Edinburgh; 1 December, Glasgow) and the bright-spirited Elim Chan – who fills Sondergard’s shoes as principal guest conductor – conducting Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1 November, Dundee; 2 November, Edinburgh; 3 November, Glasgow).
First published in The Herald on 5 September, 2018
The harpist Emily Hoile was 19 the first time we met. She had never done an interview before. She was just through secondary school in Edinburgh, newly a college student at Julliard in New York, still getting to grips with life outside the UK. She told me about the dismal calibre of tea drinking she encountered in the United States, and the lifeline that was her mum’s regular care package of chocolate bars. She was utterly self-effacing about having just been booked for a major five-concert residency at the Lammermuir Festival.
Seven years later, Hoile’s voice comes down the phone with her native Newcastle vowels now rounded by stints in New York, Munich and Berlin. Much has happened since we last spoke. She completed her studies at Julliard and immediately won a place on the world’s most prestigious orchestral apprenticeship scheme – Berlin’s Karajan Academy, in which select young players work side-by-side with members of the Berlin Philharmonic. Which is to say, a month after finishing her undergraduate, Hoile found herself touring with the most august orchestra on the planet. But even that didn’t last long – because a year into the scheme, Hoile was poached by another top German band. At the age of 23, she became principal harp of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
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 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)
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