Review: Scottish Opera’s Don Pasquale

don pasquale

First published in the Guardian on 27 January, 2014

Scottish Opera sorely needed a triumph after an autumn dominated by management crisis and artistic drift. As one of only three full-scale operas they stage this season, the pressure was on for their new production of Don Pasquale to compensate in fizz and vibrancy for what the ’13-14 programme lacks in substance.

It’s by no means a flop, but it’s not a triumph either. French-Canadian director/designer team Renaud Doucet and Andre Barbe update Donizetti’s 1843 comedy to 1960s Rome, where Don Pasquale owns a shabby pensione and his nephew Ernesto manages the reception. The period suits the opera’s inherent generation clash: it’s entirely plausible that the ageing Pasquale feels out of touch, that the youth flagrantly disrespect him and that Norina’s spending spree escalates into La Dolce Vita decadence.

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Review: Steven Osborne

First published in The Herald on 27 January, 2014

It wasn’t surprising that the Conservatoire’s concert hall was packed with students for this lunchtime recital. Who better a role model than pianist Steven Osborne? Here is a musician at the very top of his game, a musician with enough authority that he doesn’t have to shout loud to make us listen in close. His technique is ferociously powerful, sure, and he really let it fly in a barnstorming performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata. But it was the gradations of colour, the way he breathed space into phrases, the inquisitive touch and magical sense of flux that made this recital so captivating. His playing is exciting for its latent possibility: the knowledge that it could erupt at any moment, but usually doesn’t.

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Review: A Northerly Land at Celtic Connections

First published in The Herald on 27 January, 2014

When drummer/composer Iain Copeland spent a year-long residency in the north-west of Sutherland, his interest was piqued by the residential boarding hostels that host remote students through the school week. “Some kids loved it, some hated it,” he says, and launches into an accordingly misty, ambivalent opener called Halcyon Daze. Later in the set he returns to the hostel theme. “I imagine most of the kids shared a certain jubilation on the bus going home for the weekend” – cue a thumpingly bright-spirited tune, Homeward Bound, bolstered by cheerful guitar licks and big-band brass.

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Review: Väsen at Celtic Connections


First published in The Herald on 24 January, 2014

After 25 years in the business the Swedish string trio Väsen are sounding better than ever. They write gorgeous tunes and deliver them with a spry step, airtight ensemble and bittersweet lyricism that gets deep under your skin. They’ve lost none of their daft banter, none of their warm and raucous rapport. A hearty cheer went up when they ambled on stage at the Mitchell: they’re Celtic Connections favourites and for obvious reason.

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Review: Academy of St Martin in the Fields with Joshua Bell

First published in The Herald on 22 January, 2014

Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Bell
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It was as soloist that Joshua Bell opened this concert and as soloist that he closed it. The American violinist is music director of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields – a position that rolls conducting, leading and concerto-playing into one – and despite the orchestra’s virtuosic flair there was never any question of who was centre stage. Whether that’s a negative depends on the extent of your appetite for Bell’s sound, style and musical ideas.

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Review: The National Jazz Trio of Scotland

First published in The Herald on 21 January, 2014

National Jazz Trio of Scotland
The Tron, Glasgow

Reviews of the National Jazz Trio of Scotland tend to open with a pile of contradictions: this isn’t a trio, they don’t play jazz, they’re not an official ‘national’ ensemble. But don’t be fooled by the cheeky misnomers. The music of Bill Wells – the band’s pianist/composer backbone – might be deceptively simple, but his songs are never less than disarmingly sincere in their sweet wistfulness, their dreamlike nostalgia, their shy, poignant confessionals. Wells’s mastery as a composer works on the power of small, strange twists and artful arrangements. He builds tinkly motifs into roaming dream sequences and shrouds the husky, vulnerable vocals of Aby Vulliamy in haunting instrumentals.

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Review: La clemenza di Tito

First published in The Herald on 20 January, 2014

La Clemenza di Tito
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow

Mozart’s last opera is an awkward beast. It was composed on speedy commission for the coronation of a king (Leopold of Bohemia) and wears its moral message on its sleeve: Tito is a benevolent ruler whose knack for granting clemency – the ‘clemenza’ of the title – sees him ride out disaster through sheer kingly goodness. Compared to Mozart’s great operas the plot is staid, the characters flimsy and the musical forms old-fashioned. It’s a challenge for any opera company to bring it to life.

What carries this student production is its restraint. The staging is slick: huge block letters (modern sans serifs) set the scene and provide neat shifts in spacing and atmosphere. Director Ashley Dean doesn’t try to spice up the drama with gimmicks; instead he moves the cast in stark, striking poses that look good and leave them room to sing. Likewise conductor Tim Dean focuses on drawing graceful lines rather than fancy flourishes from the score.

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Review: Lars Vogt, Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

First published in the Guardian on 19 January, 2014

City Halls, Glasgow

How to breathe fresh life into an old warhorse like Grieg’s A-minor Piano Concerto? For German pianist Lars Vogt the answer is to treat the work like an improvised rhapsody: to oust all stock gestures and blow strange, dark drama in their place.

Vogt’s performance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles was steely and volatile, not always comfortable but totally gripping. He pulled around phrases with the authority of someone who doesn’t suffer compromise – it was wilfully fitful, refusing to settle even when Grieg offers respite (the tender Adagio was sumptuously played by the strings but thorny from the keyboard). Vogt’s casual gloss through chunky passages sounded borderline flippant, and in tuttis he turned to eyeball the orchestra as if defying them to wallow. Yet his glassy touch and cool detachment brought a stark, chilly grace to the work, and his sense of flux was breathtaking – the simple second subject of the opening movement had the loose beauty of a Brad Mehldau ballad.

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Review: MacMillan conducts MacMillan

First published in the Guardian on 13 January, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

There often comes a time when nostalgia and the safe distance of decades draws composers back to their earliest works. James MacMillan has been rifling through his dusty bottom shelves of late and unearthed a pile of student scores that he’d all-but forgotten. He used this BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra showcase, which he conducted himself, to air two of them for the first time. “It’s like re-reading old letters,” he explained from the stage. “You recognise yourself but you realise kind of wistfully how much you’ve changed in the intervening years.”

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Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Donald Runnicles and James Ehnes

First published in the Guardian on 13 December, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

At the heart of this concert by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was an staggeringly powerful performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with playing so eloquent and direct from Canadian violinist James Ehnes that it just about eclipsed the rest of the programme.

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