Cumnock Tryst

Various venues, Cumnock

It’s hard to believe The Cumnock Tryst is approaching the significant landmark of its first decade. Nine years ago, local boy, now globally-celebrated composer, Sir James MacMillan founded the event, modelled on the likes of Orkney’s St Magnus Festival, in the hope it would play its part in accelerating the cultural and economic revival of the former mining-dependent Ayrshire town. 

It has certainly proved sustainable. MacMillan’s contacts book may have been essential in enticing celebrity names from the classical world and beyond, but just as imperative has been the Festival’s catalysing effect on generating projects involving local people that impact so positively on their social and cultural well-being. 

The 4-day 2023 Festival was no exception, witnessing on the one hand the magnetic persona of Australian-American opera star Danielle de Niese, the electrifying a cappella vocal ensemble Tenebrae and leading Scots folk singer Findlay Napier; while on the other, such big-hearted community events as BIG Saturday!, back-to-back concerts in the new Barony Hall of Robert Burns Academy, a central hub in the sprawling multi-school Barony Campus newly built on the edge of the town.

Both hour-long concerts – “In the Stars” and “Darkness into Darkness” – were the culmination of a three-year project celebrating the legacy of the local coalfields, in which schools and older community groups (including the now well-established Festival Chorus) engaged with composers and songwriters to create their own musical responses. These were performed by the participating groups with professional support from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under MacMillan’s direction.

I witnessed Saturday’s earlier event, “In the Stars”, notable for its slickness of presentation and stylistic variety the challenge produced: from Doon Academy, an attitudinal percussion number with narration by singer-songwriter Karine Polwart; from Netherthird Primary Choir the catchy Elder of the Woods; from Logan Primary the whimsical Crow from Crow Wood; and finally Robert Burns Academy’s vocal pop number, The Colour Room, its title borrowed from an actual Cumnock hairdressing salon.

Dalmellington Brass Academy had set the mood with brass band composer Andrew Duncan’s Knockshinnoch 1950, a robust tribute to an historic local mining accident. Further short orchestral links written by Duncan, Electra Perivolaris, Michael Murray, Gillan Walker and Jay Capperauld, and ranging in temperament from Murray’s brooding and mysterious Visions of the A-Frame to the minimalist lustre of Capperauld’s Zenith, secured a vital continuity, and a vehicle to offset the successive performers’ comings and goings. With MacMillan’s riotous football tribute, Eleven, a pugnacious BBC SSO blew the final whistle. 

Friday evening offered a stimulating juxtaposition between the sacred and the secular. The former was delivered by Nigel Short’s excellent a cappella vocal ensemble Tenebrae in a programme entitled I Saw Eternity, referring to the Scottish premiere of MacMillan’s eponymous anthem, a work written specifically to partner Bach’s motets.

Which is precisely what Tenebrae did, coupling that and more by MacMillan’s choral settings with two of Bach’s loveliest cantatas, Komm, Jesu Komm and Jesu Meine Freude. The Bach interpretations were supreme, drawing an uplifting combination of homogenous perfection and nuanced elasticity from the singers. The choral partita format of Jesu Meine Freude, while immense, even symphonic in scope, maintained its intimacy throughout. Intonation was electrifyingly spot-on.

MacMillan’s music provided freer scope for Tenebrae’s expressive war chest. The three Tenebrae Responsories, reminiscent in many ways of Bruckner’s motets and driven by the same spiritual potency and molten ecstasy, gave rise to some of the programme’s most heightened thrills, some reaching a level of intensity so penetrating that this modest venue – St John’s Church – almost strained to contain it.

After the liquid density and visionary warmth of I Saw Eternity, the programme ended with his Miserere, a pertinent endpoint, and a hugely transformative one as MacMillan’s famous “Tryst” melody – a recurrent feature in many of his works – appeared in its original completeness like an awakening sunburst. Something of a Götterdämmerung moment.

Along the road at the Dumfries Arms Hotel, Friday’s late-night slot was given over to folk musician Findlay Napier, his affable repartee and earthy lyricism like beer and crisps to the earlier sacred sustenance at St John’s. From Hamish Imlach’s Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice to his own The Blue Lagoon (a sardonic response to the famous Glasgow chippy’s claim of having served Justin Bieber a haggis supper), Napier, through smiling charm and gentle ribbing, gradually reeled in an slow-burning audience. A more liberating cabaret-style setting might have loosened inhibitions quicker.

Danielle de Niese struck gold immediately with her audience in Thursday’s Festival opening recital in Old Cumnock Church, which featured two brand new songs written for her by MacMillan, their emotionally introspective core perfect as a preface to Poulenc’s highly-charged operatic one-acter, La Voix Humaine.

If the Poulenc – in which a fraught woman’s telephone call to her unseen lover confirms his wish to end their relationship – was the natural outlet for de Niese’s red-hot theatricals, so too MacMillan’s songs, setting words by Michael Symmons Roberts, played directly to this versatile soprano’s hot-blooded instincts. 

The unfettered spirit defining both MacMillan songs – the questioningly enigmatic Soul Song and the sparkling abandon of The Vows – was charismatically captured by de Niese and pianist Matthew Fletcher, whose mutual response to the music’s crystalline sparkle never missed a trick. MacMillan and Symmons Roberts intend to add further songs to the collection.

The most intriguing aspect of the Poulenc was to witness it in this version for piano-only accompaniment. Again, Fletcher’s own dramatic instinct multiplied its effectiveness, attuned perfectly to the breathtaking, at times breathless, spontaneity of de Niese’s solo portrayal. It was a mesmerising performance, de Niese piercing the character’s rawest emotions, minimal props throwing the spotlight wholly on the feverish restlessness of a truly intoxicating score.

Ken Walton

Photos: Stuart Armitt