Live Reviews

Review: Orfeo ed Euridice

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.
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Review: SCO, Ticciati, Uchida

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.
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Review: Dunedin Consort do Coffee & Enlightenment

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.
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Review: Karine Polwart & Sam Amidon

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.

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Review: SCO/Swensen

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.

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Review: Inés de Castro

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.

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Review: Mike Vass’s In the Wake of Neil Gunn

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.
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Review: Hans Abrahamsen portrait concert

First published in the Guardian on 20 January, 2015

In the late 1980s, Hans Abrahamsen stopped composing for several years, stumped for direction. This biographical detail was hard to fathom during the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s portrait concert because the Dane’s music seems to know exactly what it wants to say, and how, and why. It doesn’t waffle or shy away; it contains much quiet mystery and evocation but never dodges the point. “The most interesting thing is an idea expressed using one pitch,” Abrahamsen told us from the stage, and that drive for clarity and concision sums up the evening.

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Review: Le Vent du Nord at Celtic Connections

First published in The Herald on 19 January, 2015

It would be a stony-hearted listener who wasn’t charmed, thoroughly, by Le Vent du Nord. These four indelibly cheerful Quebecers have been touring the world together for more than a decade and still appear to be having a whale of a time. They’re wonderfully uninhibited at showing it, too, in a way that can take us dour Scots aback. From any less lovable a quartet, the cheeky antics of accordionist Réjean Brunet or the persistently daft jokes of hurdy-gurdy player Nicolas Boulerice might induce eye-rolling. There’s a polish to their stage show that might grate against the earthy grain of their music — if that music wasn’t delivered with such robust spirit. Le Vent du Nord are the genuine article: a vibrant, big-hearted slice of Quebecois culture, happy banter and all.
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Review: Le nozze di Figaro at RCS

First published in The Herald on 19 January, 2015

Opening night of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s fine new Le nozze di Figaro began with an announcement that nearly the entire cast (understudies too) had been struck down with a nasty virus just days earlier. In the event Fiona Flynn sang Barbarina’s aria from the wings, and although Heather Jamieson acted the Countess compellingly, her role was sung, valiantly and persuasively, by Charlotte Drummond — the understudy Susanna.
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