Features

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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Interview: Mark-Anthony Turnage on Greek

First published in The Herald on 2 August, 2017

“I haven’t been so angry for a long time,” says composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. His voice is laconic, as though the statement is too obvious to even bother. “I was angry during the Thatcher years. Now I’ve got my anger back.”

There is older anger afoot. Oedipus is raging in a greasy spoon. We already know how the story ends: he’ll commit murder, he’ll accidentally sleep with his mother, he’ll gouge out his own eyes. This is the East End of London in the late 1980s, Thatcher’s Britain, a backdrop of football chants and social depravity. Oedipus – let’s call him Eddy, the protagonist of Steven Berkoff’s play Greek – aspires to better but fate pulls him back. “Fate,” his mum warns him, “makes us play the roles we’re cast.”

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Interview: John Eliot Gardiner on Monteverdi

First published in The Herald on 28 July, 2017

On the bare wooden stage of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Penelope, Queen of Ithaca, strikes a defiant pose. This is the moment of messy revelation in Monteverdi’s 1640 opera Il ritornello d’Ulisse in Patria. After 20 years, our hero Ulysses (though arguably Penelope is the true hero of the drama) has returned to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, has been jeered for his poverty, has not yet been recognised by his wife. When Penelope challenges her grim suitors to prove their strength by using her husband’s bow, not one can even hold it, let alone live up to all their macho talk. Only the gentle beggar can lift the weapon, and he proceeds to slaughter the lot of them to the sound of triumphant thunderclaps from Jupiter. Are we to rejoice?

In John Eliot Gardiner’s production there is no bow, no dark, broad sea of Ithaca, no gory killing spree. Lucile Richardot’s splendid Penelope is dressed in a simple brown tunic with just her body language (dignified) and voice (intensely, magnificently shaded) to communicate the hurt and stoicism of two decades’ faithful waiting. “No props,” Gardiner stresses. “Everything stylised, nothing literal. These operas speak to us most directly if we allow our imaginations free rein to listen and make up our own cinematic images.”

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Edinburgh 70: lessons from the archives

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First published in The Herald on 26 July, 2017

Circumstances could hardly have been worse for the dawn of the world’s largest arts festival. Britain was two years out of war, the economy was crippled, rations were still in place, relationships around Europe were dismal. Maybe circumstances could hardly have been better.

It’s an old story but it’s worth telling again. Rudolf Bing, general manager of the young Glyndebourne opera, was strolling through Edinburgh one night in 1942 when he looked up at the castle, spotted a resemblance to Salzburg – one of the great music centres of Europe – and had an inkling that Edinburgh would make the right place for a festival. It had the grand beauty, the historic tourist industry, the centuries-old links with Europe. Bing also knew that music could provide hope and unity even at the most broken of political times.

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Interview: Peter Whelan on music & scandal in 18th century Edinburgh

First published in The Herald on 12 July, 2017

Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci was an 18th century superstar, a rags-to-riches singing sensation, a seducer, a fugitive, an honorary Scot. Born poor in Siena, he was castrated as a child and went on to become vocal teacher to Mozart in Vienna and admired internationally for his clear and fabulous soprano. Bach wrote for him. Woman flocked to his concerts. “He was noted for his vanity and an extravagance which left him continually dodging his creditors,” notes one tight-lipped biographer.

Tenducci’s voice made him famous but a sex scandal made him infamous: in 1766 he married the 15-year-old Dorothea Maunsell, one of his students, and because he was a castrato the marriage was technically illegal. She wrote a breathless teenage account of their love affair and later, when she bored of the novelty and fell in love with someone else, she went to the courts to have the marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. That she happened to be pregnant at the time was another complicating and seemingly miraculous factor (the father turned out to her next husband: a story for another day.)

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