First published in The Herald on 7 June, 2017
It is customary for this column to celebrate what’s happening in Scottish classical music rather than dwell on what isn’t, but this week we ponder a conspicuous (and hopefully temporary) hole in the 2017 calendar. There will be no Cottier Chamber Project this year. Opening night of the Glasgow West End music and dance series would normally be happening round about now, but, alas, “the festival will be taking a break,” reads a statement on its own website.
A bit of context before we get to the whys and wherefores. Since it snuck onto the scene in 2011 — originally as part of the West End Festival, then as its own organisational thing — this low-fi and tremendously plucky operation has become a much-valued annual gathering for musicians (and latterly dancers) based in Scotland and their international colleagues. Six years of gung-ho, slapdash and at times astoundingly high-calibre programming ran on a shoestring and provided artists with a safe space to try things out, get things wrong, play to an appreciative home crowd.
Some of my musical highlights of recent years happened at Cottier’s. There was the 2015 duo recital by pianist Steven Osborne and violinist James Ehnes — two of today’s top international soloists playing together for the first time, unguardedly exploring the music of Brahms and Beethoven for an audience who crammed into the aisles and sat cross-legged on whatever floor space they could find. The following night Osborne and Ehnes gave the same programme in London for broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but at Cottier’s we got the intimate version, and the rare chance to witness a genuine no-pressure conversation between new musical partners.
Or look at the 2016 programme, a testimony to what can be pulled off on dogged optimism and chutzpah. The festival opened with music by Heiner Goebbels and Louis Andriessen and closed with Belgium’s Rosas Dance Company’s Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker dancing her landmark work Fase for the last time in the UK. Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto played Brahms and Ligeti, Austrian violinist Alexander Janiczek played concerts with pianist Alasdair Beatson and a solo recital that included Bach, Boulez and a special collaboration with fiddler Aidan O’Rourke and electronic musician Ela Orleans. Concerto Caledonia gave a nine-part series featuring music by baroque radicals Heinrich Biber and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. And so it went on: 53 events, 162 pieces of music, 18 by Scottish composers, 19 by women composers — and that’s a gender ratio that blows other Scottish festivals out of the water.
The Cottier Chamber Project wasn’t slick and it wasn’t wealthy, and sometimes things went awry. Repertoire and personnel could change last minute, concert start and end times sometimes sailed past. Generally the home-spun informality was part of its charm. The whole thing seemed to operate on a huge amount good will plus an appetite among audiences and artists for decent grass-roots programming close to home. Musicians offered their services for a fraction of what they might get paid elsewhere because they appreciated the value of a friendly local platform. Neighbourhood residents felt ownership over the series, too, and offered the use of pianos and, on occasion, cash donations.
Which is where things went wrong. Cottier’s is not happening this year for three reasons, according to its founding director Andy Saunders. Here is his account of events. First and foremost of his reasons has to do with funding, and the extreme vulnerability of many of our arts organisations. Two years ago, he said, a substantial donation was pledged by a local resident who accidentally transferred the sum to the wrong festival. That shortfall took some time to sort out — long enough that while Saunders was planning the 2016 programme, some musicians were still waiting to be paid for concerts given the previous year.
The Herald reported on that situation in May 2016. “Key cash donations fell through during last year’s festival,” I wrote, “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 makes sense to stretch the Cottier’s programme quite so ambitiously across a full three weeks; judging by the deep crease on Saunders’s brow, he’s asking those questions himself.”
Yet Saunders, ever ambitions, did go ahead with the full three-week programme, and as detailed above the creative results were broadly superb. But the money issues didn’t clear up. Hearing of the festival’s difficulties, another local resident promised a major gift to rebalance the books. “An individual came forward who offered a large amount of money — around £100,000,” Saunders told me last week. “She made the offer to allow us to stabilise, and because of what had happened the year before, I made sure the paperwork was all OK. Unfortunately, after the festival, this person’s family got involved and prevented the money from being given.”
Without intruding in the private details of that case, suffice it to say the result is that artists who performed at last year’s festival have not been paid. Clearly for Saunders, himself a horn player who sits in orchestras alongside many of those still waiting for fees, the situation is in acute need of resolution. “Musicians have been incredibly generous and patient,” he said, “and they want the festival to keep happening. There’s a sense of common ownership which is fantastic, but obviously I need to plug the gap. And retrospective fundraising is very difficult. Until the issue is sorted, it’s impossible to plan anything new.”
That said, he is planning. The statement on the festival website advertises “plans to return to a new venue in June 2018. Put it in your diary now!” The venue change is another reason for the hiatus, Saunders explained: “the priorities of the Four Acres Trust, the charity that owns Cottier’s Theatre, seem to have changed. They do a lot of weddings now. Corporate stuff. It has become too difficult to work with them.” So if the festival does start up again next year, it will be in a new home and it will rebrand as The Chamber Project.
And the third reason? “I’m tired,” Saunders admitted. “All this takes a huge amount of energy. I’m not exactly heading off with the funds in a sports car to the south of France… The weight is on me. For things to continue, I have got to be sensible about things. The fact that people are missing the festival is brilliant but,” he repeats, “we can’t plan another edition until everyone gets paid.”
Discussions are underway with various trusts as well as with Creative Scotland and the Musicians Union, but, said Saunders, “the nature of those discussions is too sensitive to go into much detail. What I will say,” he added, “is that so many people have put so much effort into this festival. There’s a feeling that it is needed, that it has an important role in the ecosystem of music in Scotland. So no, I’m not going to let it float away into the ether.”