First published in The Herald on 7 June, 2017
It is customary for this column to celebrate what’s happening in Scottish classical music rather than dwell on what isn’t, but this week we ponder a conspicuous (and hopefully temporary) hole in the 2017 calendar. There will be no Cottier Chamber Project this year. Opening night of the Glasgow West End music and dance series would normally be happening round about now, but, alas, “the festival will be taking a break,” reads a statement on its own website.
A bit of context before we get to the whys and wherefores. Since it snuck onto the scene in 2011 — originally as part of the West End Festival, then as its own organisational thing — this low-fi and tremendously plucky operation has become a much-valued annual gathering for musicians (and latterly dancers) based in Scotland and their international colleagues. Six years of gung-ho, slapdash and at times astoundingly high-calibre programming ran on a shoestring and provided artists with a safe space to try things out, get things wrong, play to an appreciative home crowd.
First published in The Herald on 31 May, 2017
Bartosz Woroch is talking devastation. “For example,” says the Polish violinist, detailing a kind of sliding scale of devastation in the music of various Slavic composers, “I find it really easy to get into the horror of Shostakovich’s music. That comes naturally. Whereas Dvorak? He wrote about homesickness but was brave enough to finish things on a joyful note every time. Now that is a challenge. To give so much and end up somewhere uplifting… The Polish way,” he grins, “would be utter devastation.”
On Monday the Scottish Ensemble launched its new season, and once again the emphasis is on collaborations: a co-production with theatre company Vanishing Point featuring the music of Arvo Part; concerts with percussionist Colin Currie, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, early music vocalists I Fagiolini; more tours for the courageous Goldberg Variations dance project with Swedish company Andersson Dance; a multi-media piece with poet Jackie Kay and artist Graham Fagen for this summer’s Edinburgh International Festival.
First published in The Herald on 24 May, 2017
What is it about Mahler and endings? Last week Thomas Dausgaard and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra closed their season with the composer’s Seventh Symphony: enigmatic, nocturnal, radical music that for Arnold Schoenberg signalled the twilight of romanticism and the dawn of the modern movement. Next week Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra bring their season to a finale with Mahler’s Third — the original mega symphony, over-abundant with visions of nature, love, death, the profane, the euphoric, the personal, the universal, the lot.
First published in the Herald on 17 May, 2017
“It doesn’t gloss over you. It burrows in deep.” Tenor Nicholas Mulroy is talking about Monteverdi’s madrigals — music he’ll be directing (and singing) with the Dunedin Consort in Aberdeen, Lerwick and Edinburgh this week, music that is four centuries old and still some of the most daring, technicolour and radically expressive vocal work ever written. Monteverdi compiled eight books of madrigals during his life and a ninth was published posthumously. They make for a diary of his own creative and philosophical awakening: the writing gets bolder and bolder, not just in the shock dissonances and the ultra-vivid way he deals with words, but in the essential form and function, how the voices work, how they sing together, what kind of fierce impact they make on his listeners.
First published in The Herald on 10 May, 2017
Here’s a heckelphone (an oversized oboe); here’s an alto fagotto (a tiny bassoon). Here’s a guitar from 1650s Venice made of a thousand small pieces of wood glued together like a parquet floor. Here’s a weird looking flat-bellied violin like the ones Henry VIII imported from Italy. Over here are instruments from Burma, from 14th century Iceland, from Mexico and Uganda, a Yamaha DX7 — think 1980s synth pop — and a wall of saxophones made by Mr Sax himself. Over there is a complete 1920s jazz band, the likes of which would have played upstairs when St Cecilia’s was a dance hall.
I’m in the new gallery space at St Cecilia’s, which opens to the public tomorrow after a £6.5 million redevelopment that brings Edinburgh University’s collection of historic instruments under one roof for the first time. There is a unique joy in wandering around an instrument museum like this. The weird and wonderful old marvels, the outlandish serpents, the ancient clarinets, the unidentifiable prototypes and precursors of instruments we nowadays take for granted. Downstairs the building houses two galleries: one arranged taxonomically, the other thematically into ritual, classical, popular and folk instruments. Upstairs are the keyboard instruments and the gem of a concert hall itself.
First published in The Herald on 3 May, 2017
Subtle music is having a moment. Maybe it’s not surprising: a quiet revolution of slow, careful, inconclusive sounds that speak, or whisper, against the noise and dogma of the times. “Maybe people are wanting work that allows you space to just be with it,” suggests Linda Catlin Smith, a Toronto-based composer whose calm, clear music features at this weekend’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow.
Catlin Smith is part of what she calls a “lineage” of composers who spend their lives writing delicate abstract scores. A double album of her work was released recently as part of a major study on Canadian composers by the Sheffield-based contemporary music label Another Timbre. It’s a series that doesn’t so much try to define a Canadian school, and certainly doesn’t bother with any cliches about wildernesses or frontier mentalities, as link together composers who share a “similar art pad”.
First published in The Herald on 19 April, 2017
Duncan Strachan is just back from Skye where he spent the weekend playing cello up the Cuillin in a blizzard. “We got all of the weathers,” says the cellist/composer, sounding equal parts awestruck, traumatised and still cold. He and violinist George Smith — they play together in the Maxwell Quartet — led an 80-strong intrepid audience two hours upward from Glen Brittle to the natural amphitheatre of Coire Lagan, and there they rigged lights and speakers around the lochan and premiered an electro-acoustic piece that incorporated archive recordings of the Gaelic singer Calum Nicolson. “The whole experience was a little more overwhelming than I had anticipated,” Strachan admits.
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.