First published in The Guardian on 4 March, 2015
Like a screen actor on the small stage or a stadium band unplugged in a jazz bar, it’s often hugely illuminating to hear an orchestral musician in chamber setting. Players who spend their lives following a baton and projecting nuance across a hulking symphonic ensemble are suddenly able to zoom in and take charge; usually the musician in question is thrilled by the chance to whisper rather than shout, and that thrill is no bad starting place for exciting music-making.
First published in the Guardian on 2 March, 2015
Suave and fastidious, the German composer/conductor Matthias Pintscher has been artist-in-association of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra since 2010. Inevitably we’ve seen less of him in Glasgow since he became director of the Parisian new-music bastion Ensemble Intercontemporain last season, but here he was back with a classic Pinscher programme: a trio of atmosphere-heavy new works by close friends plus a titan of 20th-century modernism.
First published in the Guardian on 23 February, 2015
That Sibelius had his share of demons is no secret; his music has been picked apart for traces of self-doubt and alcoholism. In the Violin Concerto, written during a particularly bad patch in 1902-5, the solo line treads the fringes of control, alternately cajoled and comforted by a surging orchestra. Had violinist Guy Braunstein thought through his boozy encore, joking that his version of Kreisler’s Toy Soldier must have had a bit to drink? It earned a few uneasy laughs.
First printed in the Guardian on 20 February, 2015
Gluck called his 1762 setting of the Orpheus legend an ‘azione teatrale’, a kind of pocket-sized musical play in which vivid drama was paramount. It was also the first of his ‘reform operas’, a new stylistic thrust that aimed to strip away the frills of the baroque era and hone in on real emotion. There are elements to enjoy in Scottish Opera’s new production, whose modernist chic nods to the 20th century’s reclamation of clean lines after romanticism. But there’s an irony in its best parts being its frills. Costumes are eyecatching, set and lighting are clever, crowd scenes are stylishly done. But musically, things are ropey. In an opera fixated on the transcendental force of beautiful music, whose hero can supposedly tame wild beasts and lost souls with his singing, something is important is missing.
First published in the Guardian on 8 February, 2015
Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have been on a Haydn binge — not the sexiest box-office fodder (turn-outs in recent months have been notably low), but grounds for some of the most spontaneous, subtle, daring playing we’ve heard yet from this extraordinary partnership. Last week they recorded a clutch of the late symphonies, and evidence of fastidious work done under the microphone was everywhere in the ultra attuned, exhilaratingly free performance of Number 101 (‘the Clock’) that ended this concert. Inner lines were alert. The tick-tock Andante had a fragile grandeur that was disarming and poignant. In the brilliantly rustic Minuet you could really feel the ground beneath the orchestra’s feet. Look forward to that recording.
First published in The Herald on 8 February, 2015
There was something tremendously uplifting about walking into the Glad Cafe — that cheery multi-arts space/community cafe in Glasgow’s Southside — and encountering a bloke wielding a baroque trumpet at the bar. In terms of getting early music out of the concert hall and into a space that appeals to a different crowd, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort couldn’t have chosen a more convivial setting. Roughly half of the audience had never been to a Dunedin concert before. Later the same night the Glad hosted a Seattle punk band.
First published in the Guardian on 28 January, 2015
They say the way to deal with nerves is straight-up. “To cure me of a case of the jitters, would you sing a song?” Karine Polwart asked her Celtic Connections audience, who cheerfully obliged with a round of Matt McGinn’s daft number Oor Wee Wean can Sook a Bar of Chocolate (“promoting Scotland as a health-food destination,” Polwart joked). It’s hard to imagine someone of such musical and political conviction having the jitters about anything much. Polwart writes music for social change, with lyrics that articulate their values poetically and succinctly, obliquely and persuasively. The best of her songs — the dignified indignation of Sorry; The King of Birds, inspired by the Occupy movement; The River, among the most touching songs ever written by a parent for a child — get deep under your skin and make you think.
First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2015
When Scotland’s politicians talk of a new Nordic nation, they’re only loudhailering what John McLeod’s music has been gently telling us for decades. Born in Aberdeen and 80 last year, McLeod has always found a common soundworld across the North Sea. His latest work was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to mark the 150th anniversary of Danish composer Carl Nielsen and it does exactly that. Fragments of Nielsen’s music (the rat-a-tat rhythms of the Clarinet Concerto, chunky themes from the Fourth Symphony) are woven together diligently and unambiguously. As per the title, the score begins in silence and grows in an arch that’s unpretentiously easy to follow. The SCO played attentively under Joseph Swensen. It was a respectful tribute, if not enormously memorable.
First published in the Guardian on 23 January, 2015
James MacMillan’s first full-scale opera is harrowing: almost unremittingly, sometimes salaciously. Its heroine, Inés, is Spanish mistress to the Portuguese prince Pedro; when the countries go to war, she is branded politically dangerous and executed. Pedro seizes power and forces his citizens to play out macabre fantasies at gunpoint. There’s no missing the grim narrative in this opera. Both text and music signpost every gory twist.
First published in the Guardian on 22 January, 2015
In 1937, the writer Neil Gunn quit his job as an Inverness customs officer, sold his house, bought a small boat and set off sailing around the Western isles. If this was a mid-life crisis it was seriously constructive: the following year he published an account of the trip, Off in a Boat, full of soft wit and poetic musings on the sea and its mythologies. It solidified Dunn’s status as central figure in the Scottish Renaissance.