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.
The one-act opera Simoon is an intriguing case in point. Scored for three soloists and small orchestra, it’s the last in a triptych of taught, dark thrillers called Murder in Three Keys. The text is a Strindberg play — the name refers to a North African desert wind — in which a woman wreaks total psychological revenge on her lover’s murderer; that she is an Algerian muslim and he a French Legionnaire gives the opera stark racial and religious overtones, as loaded today as when Chisholm was writing in the early 1950s.
Simoon had only ever been done with piano accompaniment until this week’s valiant performance at the Cottier Chamber Project, but the orchestral score is the most interesting thing about it. Teeming and seething, percussive, restless and evocative, Chisholm is marvellously adept at conjuring up the desert storm and conductor Ian Ryan drew focused and atmospheric playing from the musicians of Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland. The strained, aimless vocal lines are less persuasive — think underpowered Berg — but Jane Irwin made an urgent, beguiling Biskra and Damian Thantrey a credibly lusty, damaged Guimard. There were no sets or props, but a stylish, sensitive accompanying silent film by Roddy Simpson depicted the action through lyrical dance. Simoon might not be Chisholm’s masterpiece but I’m glad to have seen it, and this rendition did it proud.