Loch Shiel & rural Scottish chamber festivals


First published in The Herald on 19 April, 2017

Duncan Strachan is just back from Skye where he spent the weekend playing cello up the Cuillin in a blizzard. “We got all of the weathers,” says the cellist/composer, sounding equal parts awestruck, traumatised and still cold. He and violinist George Smith — they play together in the Maxwell Quartet — led an 80-strong intrepid audience two hours upward from Glen Brittle to the natural amphitheatre of Coire Lagan, and there they rigged lights and speakers around the lochan and premiered an electro-acoustic piece that incorporated archive recordings of the Gaelic singer Calum Nicolson. “The whole experience was a little more overwhelming than I had anticipated,” Strachan admits.

Will they do it again? Not the same set-up, not exactly, but a similar event is planned for the opening event of this weekend’s Loch Shiel Festival. This time the performance will be staged in a weatherproof bothy on Glenfinnan Estate — but “you still have the chance to get soggy on the walk in,” Strachan promises.

The Loch Shiel Festival is 20 years old, founded in 1997 as a chamber music series in and around the spectacular Lochaber scenery. Early editions included Steve Reich’s Different Trains performed by the Smith Quartet at Glenfinnan Railway Station and pianist James Clapperton playing Charles Ives’s monumental Concord Sonata at the Ardnamurchan Natural History Centre. In 2010, James Naughtie spoke the Voice of God in Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. In 2015, violinist Charles Mutter stood down as the festival’s artistic director and handed the reigns over to Strachan.

And after two years, the young cellist is already making the programme his own, integrating the same intrepidness, cross-genre-ness and passion for the outdoors that inspired his adventures in Coire Lagan. “I grew up going to this festival,” he explains. (He’s from Roy Bridge, 25 miles east of Glenfinnan.) “At that time, the Edinburgh Quartet was ensemble-in-residence, and I can thank Loch Shiel for my love of chamber music.”

His mission now, he says, is to keep chamber music at the heart of the festival programming but to bring in as many other styles and audiences as possible — and to connect to the land. “When Charles [Mutter] passed the festival on, he told me, ‘don’t try to do things I’ve done’. He knew he had influenced me a lot as a musician, but I also feel influenced by him in terms of thinking of curation as a creative act. An act that can be every bit as artistic as performing or composing. That’s what grabbed me about doing this job.”

That translates to what Strachan describes as “a quirkiness” in the way music is presented. “Trying to make us hear music differently by mixing the three of four styles together. Encouraging people not to feel excluded. Trying to widen accessibility. Lochaber is pretty spread out in terms of population — what’s the point of excluding any of our neighbours? We want to bring in as much of the community as we can. I don’t live there, but I know the politics of the place. I don’t want to tread on toes. I don’t want it to look like we’re swanning in from the city and taking advantages of their spaces.” This year’s programme includes Gaelic singer Rachel Walker and fiddler Megan Henderson, the Lochaber Gaelic Choir, the Maxwell Quartet with Robert Irvine playing Schubert’s Cello Quintet and a walk along the shores of Loch Shiel with local historian John Dye. The Loch Shiel Festival is tonight until Sunday at venues around Lochaber.

Loch Shiel isn’t alone in its intent to take chamber music out of the city and into Scotland’s most beautiful corners. Our rural classical music festival count is high and getting higher all the time. Last fortnight saw the second edition of Kinnordy Chamber Music — a classy-looking weekend of concerts near Kirriemuir in Angus co-directed by cellist Robin Michael and pianist Daniel Tong. Music at Paxton works along the same bijoux country house model, making its main stage an ornate picture gallery in a neo-Palladian mansion in the Borders that can seat 140, max. This year’s Paxton lineup has just been announced and it is typically enticing: the Elias, Carducci and Zaïde string quartets, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Pieter Wispelwey playing Bach’s Cello Suites, Steven Osborne playing Rachmaninov, baroque violinist Bojan Cicic with his Illyria Consort and the excellent soprano Ruby Hughes singing Schubert, Schumann and Mahler. Music at Paxton is July 14 – 23 at Paxton House near Berwick upon Tweed.

Strachan’s point about the challenges of winning local support for a classical series brought to mind the St Magnus Festival, and the work done in its early years by Peter Maxwell Davies and his fellow festival founders to make the Orkney event feel less parachuted-in. St Magnus has just launched its 41st edition and continues to tread carefully along that tricksy line. This year’s theme bolsters its Nordic ties and marks the 900th anniversary of the death of St Magnus with visits from the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, The Trondheim Soloists and Bergen Cathedral Choir. The festival also stands by its long commitment to new music with ten premieres by composers including Stuart MacRae, Alasdair Nicolson, Gemma McGregor and Philip Cashian. Jackie Kay is the festival poet in residence. The St Magnus Festival is June 16-24 at venues around Orkney.

Meanwhile two of Scotland’s flagship countryside festivals — East Neuk in Fife and Lammermuir in East Lothian — have become the only two Scottish organisations nominated for this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards. East Neuk is a contender in the Audience and Engagement category for Memorial Ground — a community choirs project by composer David Lang that premiered in Cambo then travelled around the UK. Lammermuir is in the running for the general Concert Series and Festivals category, which is no small achievement given it’s up against the cumulative illustriousness of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Welsh National Opera and the Cheltenham Festival. They were all founded in the 1940s; Lammermuir is not yet ten years old. Must be doing something right. The RPS Awards are announced at a ceremony in London on May 9.