St Mary’s Christmas Concert

St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh

At the start of 2022, VoxCarnyx was a partner in the campaign by St Mary’s Music School to inform the wider public, particularly in Edinburgh, of plans to transform the historic Royal High School at Calton Hill into a new home for itself and a public concert venue.

As the year comes to a close, approval for the development is in place and work will begin on the site next year. It is likely to be 2026 before the school has relocated from its current home in the west end of the city, but there was nonetheless a real sense of celebration at the school’s year-end concert that the 50th anniversary of St Mary’s starting instrumental teaching in Edinburgh has been marked by such a decisive step forward.

The younger pupils who performed on Monday evening – and the Junior Strings included a trio of girls from P5 – will see and soundtrack that move. Here they opened the instrumental programme with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, a work paralleled by the Handel of the older players in the Early Music Group, directed by the Dunedin Consort’s Hilary Michael and featuring some round-toned oboe from Alasdair Cottee.

A violinist in that group, India Reilly, would lead the senior orchestra in the concluding performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 56, while Sixth Form viola player Daisy Richards was the soloist and director of a nonet of strings for Hindemith’s Trauermusik. There was an admirable autonomy in that bold decision, but the lack of a steering hand from a conductor was audible in both cases. The inclusion of a pair of alto saxophones in the orchestra would have surprised the composer, but I’d suggest probably please him too.

The first half of the concert was bracketed with singing, from the St Mary’s Cathedral Choristers at the start and the school’s Senior and Junior Choirs at its end. Californian composer Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song was a highlight of the latter, while Manhattan-domiciled Norwegian Ola Gjeilo’s very traditional Sanctus showcased the pure tone of the young sopranos.

The premiere of the night was by school alumnus Simon David Smith, and the latest in St Mary’s Seven Hills Project. Working with a collection of poems written by Alexander McCall Smith, who read his “Corstorphine Hill” before the performance, the project celebrates the capital’s topography with seven composers commissioned to write music in response to the words.

Smith’s work had prominent roles for John Hall’s soprano saxophone, Daisy Richards and her viola in the pulpit and Carlo Massimo on St Cuthbert’s fine organ. Although its title, A Shared Mystery, came from the last line of McCall Smith’s poem, in fact the writer was musing on the hill’s supposed links with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, while the composition seemed more interested in the process of creation, and the freedom its structure gave to the players.

Fascinating stuff, and possibly more than idly reflective of the long journey St Mary’s has embarked on during its 50th anniversary.

Keith Bruce