First published in The Herald on 6 July, 2015
It feels a bit churlish to complain when a sound is too beautiful, too consistent, too polished. Classical musicians spend decades honing techniques to achieve exactly these qualities, then we turn around and demand something rough, uneven, unpredictable, plain ugly? Well yes, sometimes. Or rather, it’s the music that makes the demands.
First published in the Guardian on 11 June, 2015
There’s a tricky mystique to the music of Scottish composer Erik Chisholm, who died 50 years ago this week. Partly it’s his deft brew of exotic and local, modernist and earthy, so enthralling in his finest works — listen to the piano concertos or the gorgeous Violin Concerto. But there’s also the prosaic factor that most of his music is hardly ever played; we just don’t hear enough to form a full picture of this composer at his best and his less-good.
First published in the Guardian on 20 May, 2015
Watching Over You, a new song cycle by composer Rory Boyle setting texts by Dilys Rose, is a hushed and intimate account of new motherhood. Seven poems share the first-person thoughts of a woman shortly before, during and just after childbirth. The language is unambiguous, occasionally simplistic; there are plain descriptions of trepidation, doubt, bafflement, gushing tenderness. Boyle treats the verse with carefully luminous textures, leaving plenty of room for the words to resonate and painting warm colours with vibraphones, low flutes and lapping violins. Red Note Ensemble played it all sensitively under conductor Jean-Claude Picard.
First published in the Guardian on 15 May, 2015
There’s devious melancholy to the verse depicted on Glasgow’s coat of arms: Here is the bell that never rang/ Here is the fish that never swam. Actually the lines refer to the miracles of St Mungo and that cheeky dolefulness masks a certain chutzpah; to me it always seemed a quintessentially Glaswegian trick.
Lau are currently touring their latest album, The Bell that Never Rang, whose long title track was commissioned around last year’s Commonwealth Games and whose subtle, boisterous cleverness treads a similar line to that verse. Lau are typically referred to as ‘experimental folk’, usually with various glowing superlatives attached. They compose in intricate layers, play about with form, motor along to fun, glitchy beats and the odd bout of grungy electro-acoustic noise-making. Bartok’s string quartets were an inspiration and it shows in the motivic development. Mainly the tunes on The Bell That Never Rang are sturdy and supremely singable, thrumming with the exuberance of dazzling players and inventive musical minds.
First published in the Guardian on 8 May, 2015
It has not been the cheeriest spring season at Scottish Opera. Physical and psychological brutality prevail in MacMillan’s Ines de Castro, Janacek’s Jenufa and now Verdi’s Il trovatore, three operas dealing in infanticide and maternal trauma. Oddly, this production of Verdi’s dark tale — an old Martin Lloyd-Evans staging — opens in slapstick when a lone soldier gets a fright and tumbles from his perch, but the laughs soon fizzle as Ferrando recounts how a gypsy woman once threw a baby into the fire to avenge her mother’s death.
First published in the Guardian on 4 May, 2015
Rapt, intensely subtle, exquisitely slow, the music of Eliane Radigue was the heart and soul of this year’s Tectonics. The 82-year-old French composer was a pioneer of electronic music in the 1950s and for decades only produced synthesiser sound art, but it was her recent acoustic series OCCAM OCCEAN that featured in two concerts here, with playing of virtuosic control from harpist Rhodri Davies, bassoonist Dafne Vincente-Sandoval, cellist Charles Curtis and tuba player Robin Hayward. In shifting configurations they dovetailed ultra-quiet sounds to reveal infinite gradations of pitch, timbre and overtone tints, culminating in a glowing, graceful quartet. Radigue’s message is uplifting: slow down, listen in close and marvel at the radiant colours contained in the detail.
First published in The Herald on 24 April, 2015
On June 8 it will be 50 years since the death of Erik Chisholm — pianist, organist, conductor, concert promoter, musicologist, educator, Scotland’s greatest 20th century composer and a name too rarely heard, even in his home country. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is doing its bit for Chisholm’s weirdly neglected legacy: it programmed the Second Piano Concerto last year and now the Violin Concerto, with Michael Collins conducting and Matthew Trusler as eloquent soloist.
First published in The Guardian on 16 April, 2015
Oliver Coates mixes things up: a fine classical cellist who collaborates with Johnny Greenwood and Massive Attack, who reworks music by Squarepusher and Boards of Canada, whose website lists Pierre Boulez next to MF Doom. He’s of a generation of composers and performers whose horizons take in indie, electronica and folk as well as contemporary classical music, all of which chimes happily for those of us whose listening habits do the same.
But genre blending can’t work as an end in itself. This hour-long show staged by Glasgow’s Theatre Cryptic comprises eight short pieces, three with insipid accompanying video art by Laura Colmenares Guerra. With no real meat to the programme, no particular thrust or substance, it is weirdly back at square one, fixated on same labels and packaging it’s so self-consciously in the act of ditching. “Sometimes I feel like I’m wandering through a deserted video game,” Coates told us from the stage, which seemed about right.
First published in the Guardian on 8 April, 2015
“Don’t abandon my joyful stepdaughter,” Kostelnicka implores of the rakish young Steva at the heart of Janacek’s desperately harrowing opera. But Steva walks away, disowning his baby and leaving its mother, Jenufa, with options that are anything but joyful in a society whose women pay for mistakes beyond their due.
Annilese Miskimmon’s intelligent and sensitive new co-production for Scottish Opera and Danish National Opera relocates the drama from Moravia to the west of Ireland in 1918, where interior decorations and social dynamics feel unnervingly close to home. The first act plays out against the whitewashed exterior of a life-size stone cottage; later the drama moves inside to a handsome period kitchen, astutely rendered down to the Brown Betty. With heartbreaking empathy and an eye for subtle gesture, Miskimmon makes every character reasoned, every disastrous decision explicable, every relationship as complicated as real life. It’s like watching a troubled slice of your own family history.
First published in The Herald on 6 April, 2015
Counterflows is no timid affair: here is a festival that trusts its audience to handle what it dishes out by way of bold, borderline mystifying experiments in sound art. Judging by sizeable and attentive Friday and Saturday crowds at this fourth edition, the trust goes both ways.
On Saturday round about teatime I had my eyes cast heavenwards along with the rest of the congregation at Glasgow University Chapel, trying to make sense of unworldly sounds being unleashed by Sten Sandell’s organ improvising. He made the beast throb, palpitate and squeal; he was clearly drawn to its extreme ends, with notes so high and piercing it hurt, and so low you didn’t so much hear as feel them at the back of the skull. Down on our level, saxophonist Evan Parker kept things grounded with softer-edged lines and the occasional frenetic Parkerian blast, so irrepressibly exuberant he had to circular breath for long minutes to uphold the flow. I’m not sure how much of a duo this performance really was, or whether each musician was simply doing his thing in the congenial company of the other. Either way, that the playing ended just as the chapel bells chimed time was a nice touch of straight-up synchronicity after the fray.