First published in the Guardian on 13 November, 2014
Centrepiece of this America-themed programme was Michael Daugherty’s 1993 gimmick concerto Dead Elvis, in which a bassoonist dresses up in a King suit and gyrates while playing brash notes and fancy licks. “If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis,” Daugherty writes in his notes to the piece. Back when it was premiered the cynical sales trick was probably provocative; now the eight minutes of stock jazz tropes and ballsy post-minimalism seem tired, more show than substance. Granted, no bassoonist could have been more persuasive than the lithe, lush-toned Peter Whelan. Emerging from a puff of smoke in costume, quiff and shades, he made the instrument squeal and swoon – and all this from a noted baroque specialist.
First published in The Herald on 11 November, 2014
The cumulative experience on stage was vast: Elisabeth Leonskaja has been giving piano recitals since the 1950s, while the Emersons have been at the forefront of American concert life since the late 1970s. This pairing should have easily filled City Halls but on Sunday the balcony was empty and the stalls had scores of folded seats. Was it scheduling? Basic marketing? Either way, the atmosphere was dishearteningly flat for such esteemed musicians.
First published in The Herald on 27 October, 2014
Erwan Keravec is a Breton bagpiper, improviser and potent performer. His music roams far from traditional pipe territory and he galvanises composers and other improvisers to confront an instrument that can, he suggests, be tethered by ‘cultural associations’. The project he brought to Sound festival was called Vox/Nu-piping #2 – a meeting of pipes and the classical voice, although there was little ‘classical’ about the fearless singing of Donatienne Michel-Dansac and Vincent Bouchot. In Oscar Bianchi’s Fluente they unleashed squeaky-high undulations while Keravec’s pipes whispered and crooned. In Jose Manuel Lopez’s No Time, they used loudspeakers to enact a phone call between ex-lovers while the pipes spluttered incredulous commentary. There was a surprise appearance, too, from the astounding Basque vocalist Benat Achiary, whose improvised duets with Karavec encompassed gospel, bluesy scat, primal catharsis, vintage chanson and the poetry of Kenneth White. Throughout it all Karavec meddled with the pipe’s drone tuning, shifting parameters, making anything seem possible.
First published in the Guardian on 26 October, 2014
Aberdeenshire’s estimable Sound turns ten this year and has plenty reason to celebrate. This is a festival that clinches that most elusive of ideals: it’s a genuine meeting point of community engagement and contemporary music. The programme happily blurs genre lines in the name of inclusivity but doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting new work. Over the past decade it’s done energising things for arts in the North East of Scotland; hopefully double digits will bring the wider recognition it deserves.
First published in the Guardian on 24 October, 2014
There was a poignancy to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Wozzeck before it even began. This performance came the day after Donald Runnicles announced he will be standing down as the orchestra’s chief conductor in 2016, a post in which he has done great things. No other company would present Alban Berg’s formidably complex masterpiece in Scotland these days. With a mediocre La Cenerentola currently playing up the road at the Theatre Royal, there’s fat chance from Scottish Opera.
First published in the Guardian on 16 October, 2014
Rossini’s 1817 opera is basically a comedy; there’s an indubitable daftness to the characters, a gleeful frivolity to much of the music. Yet it’s also a socially-conscious retelling of the Cinderella tale. The title character is lifted out of hardship not by any flick of a fairy-godmother’s wand but by her own kindness – it’s the simple humanity of being charitable to a beggar that earns her a ticket to the ball.
First published in the Guardian on 13 October, 2014
Symphonic Mahler isn’t exactly home territory for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra: this is a band that made its name playing elegant, vivacious classicism, surely worlds apart from furrowed-browed late romanticism. Or is it? Since the arrival of Robin Ticciati as principal conductor the SCO has been treading new ground without ever losing sight of its starting point. This performance of Mahler’s Fourth had traces of other recent projects: the acute detail and vivid colours of the orchestra’s Berlioz recordings, the grand sweep and expressive depth of its Schumann symphony cycle. Yet it was vintage SCO, too, with the orchestra’s heritage etched into every poised phrase, every uncluttered tutti.
First published in The Herald on 6 October, 2014
This was the opening concert of James MacMillan’s brand new festival, The Cumnock Tryst. Besuited and beaming, the composer greeted his home audience at the door and gave his welcome address from the pulpit. St John’s was the church where he was baptised (as were his parents and grandparents) and where he played the organ as a teenager. “It all began here,” he said. “The Cumnock Tryst is my way of giving something back.”
First published in the Guardian on 26 September, 2014
There’s a mini Shostakovich strand to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s new season, with performances of the Fifth and Fifteenth symphonies coming up in the next few months. The opening concert was a brawny all-Russian affair that culminated in a gripping account of the Tenth Symphony. The collective focus, drive and dynamism of the playing only confirmed what has been clear for some time: that under its chief conductor Donald Runnicles, this orchestra really is outstanding.
First published in The Herald on 23 September, 2014
Don’t let anyone tell you that the narrative of Acis and Galatea is too vapid for decent drama, nor that an opera in concert performance can’t be properly entertaining. What little plot there is to Handel’s 1718 pastoral mini-opera involves a nymph, a shepherd and an evil monster, all lifted from book eight of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Usually a performance is worth sitting through for is its gorgeous music alone: this concise little two-acter contains some of Handel’s most irresistible tunes.