Interview: Lawrence Power

First published in BBC Music Magazine, February 2020 edition

Consider some of Lawrence Power’s recent concert programmes. This, for example: a marathon Brahms recital encompassing not only the two viola sonatas, but also relevant song transcriptions and (and!) all three violin sonatas – played on violin. Or this: an exploration into the notion of tombeau, interlinking tributes from Ravel to Couperin to Lorca poetry to Poulenc’s Violin Sonata via Thomas Ades. Power played viola and violin, and recited the poetry. Or this: ensemble music preoccupied with memory and sleep, from Dowland to Stravinsky to Tippett’s Corelli Fantasia to Britten’s Nocturne. Power conducted, no instrument in hand.

Aren’t these examples a bit, well, non-viola-centric? Which is precisely the point – the crux of Power’s musical ethos. Yes, he is a leading viola soloist, a passionate advocate for viola chamber music, an ardent renewer of viola repertoire. He plays one of the world’s most beautiful violas (Antonio Brensi, 1590) and makes arguably the richest-bodied viola sound in the business. So it is notable that he’s willing (not to mention able) to leave his viola in the box pick up a fiddle. But what’s more remarkable is how intently he pursues his lines of musical connection. Whether immersing himself in a single composer’s oeuvre or tracing themes across centuries, there is an intellectual restlessness that takes Power beyond his viola heartland, beyond the physical boundaries of the instrument. And if that means wielding a violin or a baton, so be it.  

Power credits his lateral creative appetite to multiple factors. Innate inquisitiveness, for sure, and simply being a viola player: there isn’t the breadth of existing repertoire to sustain night after night of concerto engagements, so he has to test the limits. That’s one reason he founded the West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and is essentially a gathering of Power’s friends, who happen to include the likes of Vilde Frang, Adrian Brendel and Pavel Kolesnikov. Critics aren’t exactly banned, but they aren’t actively invited, either. West Wycombe is where Power and pals have a chance to play around with repertoire and instrument swapping. “It’s important to have a space where we can all be out of our comfort zones,” he explains.

For the full interview, see February 2020 edition of BBC Music Magazine 




Quiet on here lately. Here’s why!

Faber acquires new landmark alternative history of twentieth-century music by Kate Molleson

Faber will publish the as yet untitled work by Kate Molleson in Spring 2022. Head of Faber Social Alexa von Hirschberg acquired World All Languages rights from John Ash at PEW Literary in a heated four-way auction.

Profiling a dozen pioneering twentieth-century composers – including American modernist Ruth Crawford Seeger (mother of Pete and Peggy Seeger), French electronic artist Éliane Radigue, Soviet visionary Galina Ustvolskaya and Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Gèbrou – Molleson re-examines the musical canon while bringing to life largely forgotten sonic revolutionaries working against a backdrop of seismic geopolitical and social change.”

Here’s the full announcement.

Interview: Missy Mazzoli on Breaking the Waves

First published in the Guardian on 16 August, 2019

Breaking the Waves is one of the most brutal, probing and provocative films ever made about Scotland. It’s also one of the most impressively silent. Lars von Trier’s 1996 breakthrough portrays an insular Hebridean community that is fiercely defensive of its values in the face of incomers and offshore oil development. The elders wield religious dogma in an attempt to protect a young woman, Bess McNeill, but their collective care pivots into tyranny and their fear turns xenophobic. Bess (played with galling vividness by Emily Watson) marries an oil worker called Jan; he becomes paralysed after an accident on the rig then instructs Bess to keep their relationship alive by having sex with other men and telling him about it. Von Trier shows it all in bleak, intimate and savagely quiet detail. With the exception of chapter interludes charged with 1970s rock (Procol Harum, Roxy Music, Elton John) there’s no music underscoring the austere camerawork. We feel the silent scrutiny of an island with no bells in its church steeple: the elders physically removed them and drowned them in the sea.

What happens when you add sound to such formidably oppressive filmic hush? It took New York composer Missy Mazzoli years to answer that question. “My librettist Royce Vavrek suggested the idea of making an opera out of Breaking the Waves in 2013. I said absolutely not – I thought the film was untouchable,” she tells me at the rehearsal studios of Scottish Opera, whose new production of Mazzoli’s acclaimed opera opens in Edinburgh this month. “But it was a question that wouldn’t leave me alone. The film deals with big ideas about the nature of loyalty, the nature of faith. Opera is a place for big ideas.”

The film is packed with classic operatic trademarks. The devoted, mistreated woman – fixture of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. The woman who sacrifices herself for the salvation of a man – Wagner’s redemptive heroines. The seething small-community groupthink to a backdrop of menacing, hallowed seascapes – think Peter Grimes of the north. Mazzoli recognises the weight of that lineage but her broad, brooding post-minimalism carries it lightly.

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Best recordings of 2018


First published in The Herald on 26 December, 2018

Brahms: Symphonies (Linn). The culmination of their nine years together: Robin Ticciati conducting all four Brahms symphonies at the 2018 Edinburgh International Festival. They were performances of clarity, intensity, discovery – the same energy and devotion captured on this brilliant valedictory recording. I love the sound the Scottish Chamber Orchestra makes here, the nut-warm 19th century horns and the sweet, super-alert period-ish strings. I love the transparency and the resulting detail. I love the intimacy in music that can sound bloated. Most orchestras use bigger forces for Brahms. I never once missed the bulk.

Monteverdi: Vespers (PHI). Claudio Monteverdi knew passions were complicated. He knew the messy emotions involved in faith, lust, sorrow, divinity – and he felt music should bring all that to life. Any performance of his 1610 Vespers that sounds chaste and stately misses the point. Philippe Herreweghe first recorded the score in the 1980s and fell into that trap. Now, though, he’s moved with the times and rerecorded the Vespers with his tremendous Collegium Vocale Gent. The two accounts are worlds apart: this new one is lithe, alive, conversational, conspiratorial and intimate.

Cassandra Miller: Just So (Another Timbre). The Canadian music series on Another Timbre is a thing of multifarious wonders. Ten portrait CDs championing music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Christopher Mayo and several others. The scope, the focus – it’s all compelling. No blunt conclusions are drawn about what Canadianness might mean in music, but I’m intrigued by Martin Arnold’s suggestion that it might have something to do with “slack” – by which he means a loose relationship to tradition, an open space upon which to make things new. Many of the discs in the series deserve mention here but Cassandra Miller’s music has knocked me sideways. Bold, kind-hearted, wistful, brave, simple, sophisticated… her string quartet About Bach is miraculously beautiful, with a bright, lonely violin drifting resolutely above the most gorgeous shapeshifting chorales.

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Music Matters ft Neeme Järvi, Else Marie Pade, Ed Vulliamy & weaponised music


This photo shows the magnificent Else Marie Pade, first in our Hidden Voices series. Her life in Denmark was tough and focused; her music is dark, troubling and enthralling. Elsewhere, Neeme Järvi told me A LOT about the immense amount of music he’s recorded, and Ed Vulliamy talked with tremendous pathos about his new book When Words Fail – questions around what music might mean in times of war.

Listen to the programme here.

Obituary: Helen MacLeod

First published in The Herald on 17 August, 2018

Helen MacLeod, who has died aged 37 in a car accident, was one of Scotland’s finest harp players. She was a passionate champion of traditional music, new music and classical repertoire; she was a spirited teacher, a warm-hearted collaborator, a talented composer and arranger. She will be profoundly missed by Scotland’s musical community.

MacLeod grew up in Inverinate, a small village on the north shore of Loch Duich near Kyle of Lochalsh in the West Highlands. Her father, Roddy, is a native Gaelic speaker and Helen studied Gaelic throughout her school years. Her love of music grew out of the rich traditional culture of the area, and she first learnt the clarsach locally with Christine Martin before winning a scholarship to study at St Mary’s Music School – a specialist music school in Edinburgh. There she continued her studies in both traditional clarsach and pedal harp with Charlotte Peterson as well as Isobel Mieras.

As a student at St Mary’s, MacLeod was gregarious, generous, witty, full of energy. I remember her from those years as a bright spark and joyous trouble-maker, a glamorous role model who spoke her mind and acted with conviction. She was also a tremendously caring friend.

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Interview: Danielle de Niese

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First published in BBC Music Magazine, May 2018 edition

Danielle de Niese is doing at least five things at once. Mainly she is telling me in animated detail about the psychodynamics of Don Giovanni’s relationship with Donna Elvira, but she’s also singing the entire cast, rapid fire, covering Mozart’s opera from overture to hellfire in about two minutes flat. Meanwhile she’s demolishing a plate of calf’s liver, texting her husband to say she’s running late and applying a generous new layer of makeup to her eyes. “Girl!” she exclaims when I admire her ability to do so without a mirror. “I grew up in Los Angeles! I’ve been multitasking forever! Lipstick at the wheel, eyeliner in traffic jams, mascara at the lights…”

An hour in the company of Danielle de Niese is as high octane as the operas she inhabits. She is loud and unfiltered. She’s funny and warm. She agreed to meet our photographer for an informal shoot before the interview, yet when I arrive at the private members’ club in Covent Garden she’s in full glamour mode, draped across a sofa in fur coat and black cocktail dress. “Honey!” she greets me with a wave of a hand, ignoring my t-shirt and trainers. “This is my informal look! I would dress like this any day of the week.”

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On merfolk, selkies and Sally Beamish’s new ballet score for The Little Mermaid


First published in The Herald on 21 March, 2018

Mermaids and mermen — let’s call them merfolk — live for approximately 300 years, after which they turn into sea foam. Who can say for sure what happens to humans when they die, but I doubt it involves much sea foam. This disparity is just one of the great melancholies that hang over The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who makes an ill-fated deal with a sea witch. The mermaid gives up her identity — tongue cut out, tail lost — for the love of a human prince. He hardly even notices her sacrifice. It’s a hopeless love, a feminist tragedy. His soul will live on after death (or not) while she’ll be foam.

Andersen was a complicated character himself. Born into poverty in Denmark in 1805, he was bisexual but he died a virgin. He wrote plucky female characters who head out on bold quests, and his handsome princes have flaws and sensitive sides. He published his works as plain Fairy Tales, soon abandoning the label “for children” because he realised his disturbing, wondrous imaginary realms belong to everyone. Some of his stories, like The Shadow, are so dark that I doubt many parents would risk reading them at their own bedtimes, let alone their children’s. Disney still cashes in on Andersen’s legacy — think of recent hits like Frozen, a rehash of Snedronningen (The Snow Queen). Except that in Disney, the most haunting details are glossed over and prettied up.

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Interview: John Wilson on Englishness


First published in The Herald on 12 April, 2017

What does Englishness mean in early 20th century orchestral music? Is there a discernible sense of national identity woven through the symphonies of Elgar, Walton and Vaughan Williams, the tone poems of Holst and Bax and Delius? And if so, does it mean the same thing when we hear it now as it did then?

These are contentious opening gambits. In 2017, in Scotland, in Britain, in Europe, we should know better than to prescribe any essentialising nationalistic attributes to a disparate group of artists. Yet for conductor John Wilson there is something in it — just not in any flag-clutching way. “The connection I can make with national identity is that there’s something about the melancholy of this music which is actually at the heart of the English character,” he says. “That’s what I respond to. That longing for something that was probably never there in the first place. It’s a peculiar English romance.”

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CD review: Lucy Crowe & Tim Mead sing Bach & Pergolesi

First published in the Guardian on 30 March, 2017

Pergolesi/Bach: Stabat Mater/Cantatas
La Nuova Musica/Bates/Crowe/Mead (Harmonia Mundi)

I was mainly excited about this recording because it features two of my favourite baroque voices of the moment — countertenor Tim Mead and soprano Lucy Crowe — but it turns out the instrumental playing is just as enticing. La Nuova Musica under David Bates sound lush and languid in two of Bach’s alto cantatas (BWV 54 & 170). They let phrases sigh and breathe and supply a decent amount of bass under properly expressive melodic lines. In Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater the ensemble sounds sparser but not astringent, and I love the space and tenderness Bates allows in the aria Fac, ut portem Christi mortem. And the singing? Crowe and Mead are both in sumptuous voice, both fiery in the most dramatic moments of the Stabat Mater, but her nimble grace and charisma is occasionally weighed down by his more flannely delivery. He sounds beautiful in the cantatas, though, eking out all the most resonant corners.