First published in the Guardian on 5 February, 2017
For decades Shirley Collins was the lost icon, the secret treasure of English folk whose own story was as tragic as the ballads she used to sing. In the 1970s she lost her voice through heartbreak and dysphonia and eventually stopped performing altogether. Those in the know rehearsed the details like a legend. Her early recordings were coveted for their ultra-direct pathos — in an age of divas, here was a totally unadorned and unflinching way of singing that bypassed ego and mainlined the authenticity of words and music no matter how disturbing the tales they told. She was revered as an archivist, too, who had travelled the US with Alan Lomax and unearthed the dark, scary ballads of her native Sussex. She inspired acid folk and psych folk and folk punk-rock and pure folk, all the while living a quiet life in Lewes without much inkling of her impact.
First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017
This was a one-off Celtic Connections commission to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and featuring the first formal collaboration between Scotland’s Evelyn Glennie and India’s Trilok Gurtu, two of the world’s most famous percussionists. The programme — called The Rhythm In Me — was partly improvised, partly reworkings of existing material by Glennie and Gurtu, and had been devised via Skype then rehearsed a day before the concert. It sounded accordingly: a kind of meandering east-meets-west scratch project injected with signifiers of meaningfulness (Glennie opened and closed with heartfelt voice-over readings of Rabindranath Tagore’s Where The Mind Is Without Fear and Robert Burns’s A Man’s A Man) and saved by flashes of genuine conviviality and flair.
First published in the Guardian on 24 January, 2017
Margaret Barry, born a hundred years ago, knew how to entertain a crowd. She had to — she left home at 16 with a bicycle and a banjo and sang her way to the Albert Hall via Cork street corners and the Irish pubs of north London. She was fearless, toothless (literally), a tiny balladeer with a colossal voice and tenacious soul in the way she sang, smoked, charmed and drank Guinness. She was dubbed “queen of the Gypsies” by a promoter and the moniker stuck, despite the fact she wasn’t really a gypsy at all. She told a good tale and didn’t let details get in the way.
First published in the Guardian on 15 January, 2017
The Last Supper is Harrison Birtwistle’s intense and mysterious ‘dramatic tableau’ — an opera, but more static and more stylised — with a libretto by the late Canadian poet Robin Blaser. It premiered in 2000 and was specifically a millennium piece: it deals with time, the weight we put on single moments (the striking of midnight, the Crucifixion), how we rework those moments in hindsight, how we replay old stories with horrible inevitability and reenact rituals we would rather escape. Hearing the work in 2017, its depiction of historical amnesia and collective entrapment felt starkly relevant.
This is not easy entertainment by anyone’s standards. Birtwistle himself has called it “a tough grub”, and though we all know the story, broadly speaking, the detailed implications are obscure. Time telescopes across two millennia but for two hours nothing much happens. The premise is that Ghost — Greek chorus, conscience of the audience, sung with superb conviction by Susan Bickley — invites the disciples to reconvene for another Last Supper. The men trickle in, greet each other, chat about what they’ve been up to for the past 2000 years. Judas turns up against the odds and the others shun him; I was deeply moved by Daniel Norman’s diffident and remorseful portrayal. Then Jesus arrives, a tremendously noble and resonant performance from Roderick Williams, and begins to play out Passover events.
First published in the Guardian on 14 November, 2016
At the start of Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake, the beleaguered Daniel spends hours on the phone to the DWP, driven nuts by a chirpy holding jingle. Later we see Dan take a spray can to the local Job Centre: “I, Daniel Blake, demand my appeal date before I starve. And change that shite music on the phone.”
The ‘shite music’ in question is the opening of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: overplayed to numbing point, life-sappingly familiar. Various musicians have made various efforts to strip back the naff associations and remind us that these four concertos are real and wonderful pieces. “Gentle confusion can give everyone a chance to hear something in a new way,” writes Jonathan Morton, artistic director of the Scottish Ensemble, and to demonstrate he commissioned sisters Anna (composer) and Eleanor (illustrator) Meredith to make an audiovisual work that might frame, refract and refresh Vivaldi’s originals.
First published in the Guardian on 7 November, 2016
“Symphonic boa-constrictors” is how Brahms famously slated Bruckner’s symphonies. A century and a half of might-is-right Brucknerian performance practice taught us to brace for august cathedrals of sound if we’re lucky, bloated juggernauts of Teutonic stodge if we’re not. But does this music have to be unrelentingly hefty? Various conductor have asked the question. Robin Ticciati has made a habit of redressing big romantic orchestral works through the neat, lithe lens of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra — together they’ve unveiled ravishing colours in Berlioz and Brahms and now Bruckner, making his Fourth Symphony sound all sorts of unBrucknerian adjectives like limpid, refined, nimble, inquisitive.
First published in the Guardian on 31 October, 2016
This concert wasn’t even supposed to happen, but the violinist of Red Note (Sound festival’s original Friday billing) cut her finger in a lemon-slicing incident and Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet stepped in last minute. It’s an impressive festival that has a group this good up its sleeve.
The new programme was brief and splendid: three works exploring the quietest possible sounds made with the fewest notes and a lot of silence in between. Alvin Lucier’s Disappearances is a study in dissipation and refocusing, all unison tones that darken and brighten until we hear the tiniest of gradations. As concert opener it was an exercise in what Murray Schafer calls ‘ear cleaning’ or Pauline Oliveros calls ‘deep listening’. Scelsi’s Third Quartet is a tetchier poke around the perimeters of quietness — movements with names like The Great Tenderness that throng in close intervals then dilate into surprising, glittering triads.
First published in the Guardian on 25 October, 2016
Mascagni’s first opera was the mega hit Cavalleria Rusticana and he spent the rest of his life trying to live up to it. His second effort, L’amico Fritz, is as pastel and sweet as Cav is blood-red and fiery; it’s flimsy, dated, occasionally gorgeous, mainly unmemorable. Given Scottish Opera’s thin provision it is debatable whether a diaphanous Mascagni romcom should be top priority here, but the company’s new-ish music director Stuart Stratford is mad for the composer (he held the score aloft as he took his bow) and has promised to bring us more Mascagni every season.
First published in the Guardian on 4 October, 2016
It’s the ultimate success story in DIY music promotion. A few days before Christmas, 1808, Beethoven rented out a performance space (Vienna’s Theater an der Wein) and organised arguably the most momentous concert in history. The hall was cold, the musicians were underrehearsed, at one point the performance was so shambolic it fell apart and had to be started again, yet the public stayed for four hours of new works including the Fifth and Sixth symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto, movements from the Mass in C, the Choral Fantasy. “To judge all these pieces after only one hearing,” noted the overwhelmed critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, “especially considering the language of Beethoven’s works, in that so many were performed one after the other, and that most of them are so grand and long, is downright impossible.”
First published in the Guardian on 25 September, 2016
The Elixir of Love
Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling
It took Donizetti a fortnight to write The Elixir of Love: bish, bash, bel canto gold. Fair enough that plot doesn’t stray from default 1830s farce. Poor and hapless Nemorino loves the rich and beautiful Adina and, inspired by the legend of Tristan and Isolde, spends his last pennies on a phoney love potion hoping it will work the magic for him. Along come classic twists and caricatures (smug sergeant, quack doctor, sudden death of wealthy uncle) but the music bubbles with such effervescent fluency and cuts the comic fizz with such charming sentimentality that, done right, we should believe that these characters actually posses emotional depths. Sure, Adina regresses from free-loving independent spirit to predictably dependent creature, but she does so with such candid and tender song that it seems she really must be in love.