Preview: Cottier Chamber Project

First published in The Herald on 25 May, 2016

No launch, no announcement. Astute observers might have noticed a trickle of June dates appearing on various websites of various groups set to perform, but otherwise there’s been scant sign of life from the Cottier Chamber Project even though opening night is less than a fortnight away. “Maybe we’ll whip up a craze of anticipation and mystery!” says artistic director Andy Saunders, always ready to put an optimistic spin on an unconventional tactic.

Then again, the Cottier Chamber Project has run on optimism from the start and has achieved remarkable things. The staff is tiny (two part-timers, give or take) and the office is a bothy in the middle of a Glasgow park, which is quaint but chilly. It’s quirky, all a bit rough around the edges and slapdash. But when it works it really works, and the series regularly presents a calibre of artist and range of repertoire that puts flusher operations to shame. Last summer’s duo recital by James Ehnes and Steven Osborne was a highlight of the year.

The 2016 programme has been a particularly tough one to hash out for several reasons, says Saunders. New venues had to be found for some of the concerts, partly because the festival’s main home and namesake, the Cottier Theatre in Dowanhill, considers summer weddings more lucrative than concerts. So the programme opens at the Hunterian Museum and closes at Tramway, with stops at Glasgow University’s Concert Hall, Chapel and Cloisters, the Alliance Francaise and St Simon’s Church in between.

Then there’s the money. A couple of key cash donations fell through during last year’s festival, and the assertive fundraising campaigns of two major Scottish classical music projects — namely the Theatre Royal extension and the new RSNO Centre — mopped up a good chunk of local arts philanthropy over the past couple of seasons. Questions could reasonably be asked as to whether it still made sense to stretch the Cottiers programme quite so ambitiously across a full three weeks; judging by the deep crease on Saunder’s brow, he’s asking those questions himself.

And yet there is so much good stuff in the lineup. Belgium’s Rosas Dance Company closes the programme at Tramway with founder Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker due to dance her landmark work Fase here for the last time. What a tremendous coup for a small festival. Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, among the boldest and most innovative soloists on the international circuit, plays Brahms and Ligeti with horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill and pianist Tamara Stefanovich. Austrian violinist Alexander Janiczek, a superb Mozartian and frequent guest director of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, plays two duo concerts with pianist Alasdair Beatson and a solo recital of Bach, Pierre Boulez and a new Cottiers commission by Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke for solo violin and live electronics courtesy of Ela Orleans. So far, so enticing.

On opening night we’ll hear music by Heiner Goebbels and Louis Andriessen. The Grosvenor Cinema is showing Kozintsev’s 1971 film King Lear with its rambunctious Shostakovich score. The Glasgow Chapel Choir joins up with Juice vocal ensemble and trombonist Davur Juul Magnussen for new works by Matthew Whiteside, Kerry Andrew and Magnussen himself. Mr McFall’s Chamber plays Frank Zappa; the SCO Winds play Beethoven; the Hebrides Ensemble plays a brand new opera by Alasdair Nicholson.

And that’s just the evening schedule. At lunchtimes Concerto Caledonia presents its own a festival within a festival — a nine-part series featuring the music of two baroque radicals, Heinrich Biber and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. Biber was a Bohemian-born Austrian composer/violinist who predated JS Bach by about half a century and pioneered extended techniques a few hundred years ahead of time. His music regularly requires its performers to detune their instruments, and in his 15 Mystery Sonatas (also known as the Rosary Sonatas) he begins and ends in standard tuning but tries out 14 alternatives in between. The effect is an incredible array of colours, from the bright glint of The Visitation to the sharp dissonance of Jesus Carries the Cross to the glowing transcendence of The Ascension. Bojan Cicic — a baroque violinist from Croatia who leads Florilegium and La Nuova Musica — will be playing the complete Mystery Sonatas across four concerts.

And Jacquet de la Guerre? “Elle est originale,” was Louis XIV’s summation of her talents, a seal of royal approval that was make-or-break for any French musician during the reign of the Sun King but especially crucial for an early 18th century female composer. Born on the Ile Saint-Louis in the heart of Paris, daughter of a harpsichord maker, Jacquet de la Guerre gave recitals at Versailles at the age of five and returned to sing obsequious songs in praise of the King at 12. By 23, in 1687, she had published her first book of keyboard pieces — music that is lyrical, lavish, spontaneous and full of surprises, with unmeasured preludes (bold move) and audacious flourishes. “The free preludes and toccatas feel like they nod towards Louis Couperin’s music,” says Alison McGillivray, cellist of Concerto Caledonia. “Even in that early collection from 1687, her style feels like a rich and fully developed language, unmistakably French.”

Jacquet de la Guerre went on to compose full-scale opera and spectacular cantatas for Versailles, and she was the first French composer to use the viol in a melodic role. In 1707, now in her 40s, she produced a chamber collection with the instructive title Pieces de clavecin qui peuvent se jouer sur le viollon (Pieces for harpsichord that can be played on the violin), which Concerto Caledonia will also dip into for their Cottiers programmes.

“It feels like the viol is in the room as a fully mature solo instrument but is graciously allowing the violin in on the action,” is how McGillivray describes Jacquet de la Guerre’s writing. “The early 1687 violin sonatas are harmonically experimental and far out, but the structures are concise, especially in the dance movements. They feel like a young musician who’s trying on different clothes. By the time she published the later set of violin sonatas, in 1707, there’s a mature and beguiling synthesis: the earlier more instrumental, the later more vocal. Or rather, their language can slip easily between the instrumental virtuosity and lyricism.”

It’s tantalising to wonder what she was like, this ambitious and risk-taking woman who so ably navigated the toxic sexual politics of Versailles to win the artistic respect of the Sun King. But apart from her publications, a few official portraits and the odd mention in court records, we don’t have much to go by. “Playing her 1707 collections, I do have a strong sense of her as a person,” McGillivray suggests. “Formidably intelligent and sophisticated. She obviously knew well how to please but never stooped to sentimentality. She creates strong structures with complete mastery but still pulls out surprises. I reckon she was a wit.”

The Cottier Chamber Project runs June 3-25 at the Cottier Theatre, the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University’s Concert Hall, Chapel and Cloisters, the Alliance Francaise, St Simon’s Church and Tramway