Cottiers 2015, and Erik Chisholm’s Simoon

erik chisholm

First published in The Herald on 4 March, 2015

The Cottier Chamber Project announced its fifth summer programme last night, and once more this industrious little festival with scant funds and a just-about-full-time staff of two has magicked up a rather fine lineup. With 56 events across three weeks and several venues, here’s proof of what can be strung together on good will, brazen chutzpah and a Creative Scotland grant of £30,000.

The programme includes artists who grace substantially more lucrative festivals at home and abroad: pianists Steven Osborne, Alasdair Beatson and Susan Tomes; violinists Alexander Janiczek and Catherine Manson, not to mention the star Canadian soloist James Ehnes (who performs with Osborne in a programme they take to London’s Wigmore Hall the following night). There are several Scottish ensembles — the contemporary music outfit Red Note, the superb baroque collective Ensemble Marsyas and Glasgow’s early music renegades Concerto Caledonia — as well as lunchtime song recitals, late-night jazz and a sizeable dance strand. There are still rough edges aplenty and it’s easy to dream of what could be done here with more money, particularly around commissioning new work. But what’s clear from flicking through the festival brochure is that Scottish classical musicians of all career stages have a genuine appetite for this kind of platform for intimate, informal performances close to home.

For the second year running, the Cottiers programme includes an opera. Presented by Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland — the slightly laboriously-named collective of Scottish Opera’s freelance orchestral players — this year’s offering is a tantalising prospect. June 8th at the Western Baths sees the world premiere of the full version of a chamber opera by the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm. Written in the early 1950s, Simoon is an inexorably dark thriller based on a play by August Strindberg. Potentially one of Chisholm’s masterpieces, it was only ever performed with a piano reduction instead of its uniquely colourful ensemble score.

Perhaps that isn’t so surprising given the lack of due attention Chisholm’s music has had in Scotland both during his lifetime (1904-1965) and since. Composer, pianist, organist, conductor, concert promoter and educator, here was a ferociously bright, spirited musician who championed the works of his contemporaries as much as he ever pushed for performances of his own. In the 1930s he was hugely influential as the founder of the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music, which until 1937 ran a Glasgow concert series whose guest rostrum is eye-popping (to give an idea, the list of honorary vice-presidents alone includes Hindemith, Bax, Bartok, Bliss, Sibelius, Medtner, Delius and William Walton). Chisholm was responsible for the first UK performances of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. As his biographer John Purser notes, “he was not outside a movement and learning from it; he was in it and creating it along with some of the greatest of his contemporaries — for he did not only sit beside them: they too sat beside him.”

Like Bartok (whom he brought to Glasgow twice) Chisholm was passionate about the folk music of his own country, particularly pibroch, but had a vast curiosity for the wider musical world. He travelled extensively in India and spent a significant portion of his career as head of the music department at the University of Cape Town. His influences come from Scotland, Russia, Hungary, India, South Africa and plenty of other directions besides.

Of his twelve operas, Simoon is not the best known: that would be Dark Sonnet, a devastating one-acter in which a woman reprimands her unfaithful husband (off-stage) so relentlessly and so comprehensively that he commits suicide by the end of the piece. Simoon — the name refers to an eerie desert wind — is equally devastating, about an Algerian woman determined to revenge the murder of her former lover. Since childhood, Chisholm had had an interest in film noir; he and his brother used to film little pastiches of German expressionism on a Pathe-Baby Cine Camera, and he was surely drawn to the Strindberg for its taught, tense drama (he sets the text word for word).

But there’s also the simmering politics. Chisholm was always a socialist (something that caused him trouble during WWII, when the BBC and other organisations stopped offering him work). John Purser is in no doubt of the subject matter’s deliberate significance: Chisholm was writing the opera against a political backdrop of Charles de Gaulle and the Franco-Algerian crisis. “The plot is brutal,” says Purser. “Two devout Muslims, one seeking revenge on a Frenchman, and I mean total revenge. She doesn’t just want her former lover dead; she wants the total destruction of his soul. It’s a profound psychological study.”

With Ian Ryan conducting and Jane Irwin in the lead role, Simoon is by far the most ambitious work that Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland has undertaken since its founding in 2012. They had hoped to fully stage the performance, but the difficulty of the vocal writing means that memorising the parts would have taken more rehearsal time than either they or Cottiers can afford. Instead they’ll present the work in concert setting with projections by the video artist Roddy Simpson.

For Purser, this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to focus on the astonishing music of Simoon. “There’s immense refinement in the scoring,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything of his that is so full of care and attention. Musically it’s tougher than [Alban Berg’s opera] Wozzeck: it is totally uncompromising. There is a strong feeling of the Middle East and of India, and its soundworld is totally original. I mean, who else had used a harmonium in an opera pit?” With celest, tubular bells, four-handed piano and a wind machine to conjure that eerie desert storm, “it is very rhythmic writing,” says Purser, “stuffed full of interesting textures.”

“I first got to know it when I was researching the Chisholm biography about ten years ago, and as I was going through the score I became more and more enthralled. It’s incredibly atmospheric music, with this desert wind that spooks everyone. I’ve been fighting for this opera to be performed ever since I came across it. It’s masterful. But I never thought I would see it happen.”

Simoon is at the Western Baths, Glasgow, on June 8. The 2015 Cottier Chamber Project runs June 5-26.

Cottier Chamber Project 2015: highlights

  • Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland: Erik Chisholm’s Simoon. June 8
  • James Ehnes and Steven Osborne: Beethoven & Brahms. June 10
  • Catherine Manson and Alasdair Beatson: Beethoven sonatas. June 16
  • Alexander Janiczek and Puppetlab: Bach, Biber and Berio (with puppets). June 17
  • Ensemble Marsyas: Handel’s Apollo e Dafne. June 18
  • The Gavin Bryars Ensemble with the Stephen Pelton Dance Theatre. June 21
  • Red Note: Webern, Lutoslawski and Bach. June 24
  • Lunchtime song recitals at the Hunterian: Mhairi Lawson and David McGuinness (Haydn’s Canzonnettas, June 8); Jamie McDougall and Susan Tomes (Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, June 9) and Anna Flannagan and Yuval Zorn (Lili Boulanger’s Clairières dans le ciel, June 16)