New paths for Dunedin

The foundation stones are still firmly in place, but following its celebration of 25 years in the business of quality music-making, Dunedin Consort announces a 2022/23 season that sees it introducing new faces and welcoming familiar ones in new roles, forging new partnerships, and taking up residence in a New Town forty-odd miles from the one in Scotland’s capital.

Those building blocks first, which begin with an Edinburgh Festival concert in the Queen’s Hall, directed by John Butt and featuring the voice of Associate Director Nicholas Mulroy. The tenor will be in charge of the choral tour next May, which is a programme of Marian music, early and modern, that visits Aberdeen, Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Butt also directs the group’s December Messiah performances in Glasgow, Lanark and Edinburgh, and an Easter outing for Bach’s Matthew Passion in Edinburgh and Glasgow with Andrew Tortise the Evangelist and Neal Davies as Christus. Wigmore Hall concerts of music for Christmas and New Year are also under the baton of the Artistic Director.

Of the new directions, a three-year partnership with the RSNO has already been revealed. It begins in October with Elim Chan conducting side-by-side concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow that bracket soloist Jorg Widmann’s concerto Echo-Fragment with Haydn and Beethoven.

There’s more Haydn in February when Peter Whelan directs concerts of three early symphonies and CPE Bach’s Cello Concerto in A, with Jonathan Manson as soloist. Performances in Perth, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Benjamin Bayl is guest director for an all-Handel programme in March with Nardus Williams the soprano soloist, and in June the solo female voice is featured again in what are thought to be the first ever UK performances of the cantatas of seventeenth century composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.

With its continuing Bridging the Gap initiative providing a step on to the career ladder for young singers, Dunedin is now joining forces B’Rock Orchestra and Concerto Copenhagen to offer similar mentoring for instrumentalists in a new scheme entitled Intrada. The ensemble’s other outreach initiatives are joined by a new partnership at Cumbernauld’s Theatre’s new home, Lanternhouse, with family concerts, cinema screenings, open rehearsals and events for children all on the bill.

After the Edinburgh Festival, the season opens with Dunedin’s biggest venture of the year, performing Mozart’s C Minor Mass in a new completion by Clemens Kemme at Lammermuir Festival, in Perth Concert Hall and in Saffron Walden, as well as recording the work for a Linn label release. John Butt directs and Lucy Crowe, Anna Dennis, Benjamin Hulett and Robert Davies are the soloists.

Full details at dunedin-consort.org.uk

Portait of Nardus Williams by Bertie Watson

Juggling high and low art

Sean Gandini, founder of Gandini Juggling, talks to KEITH BRUCE about his company’s first appearance at the East Neuk Festival

As many have observed, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions played havoc with perceptions of the passage of time, so that memories of events past can seem more distant or more recent than expected.

Five years ago, in the Dreel Halls in Anstruther, two young musicians played the work of composer Steve Reich in a concert that was to prove more the start of a journey for one than the other, although both have maintained a strong connection with the East Neuk Festival and are part of the 2022 programme.

Guitarist Sean Shibe unveiled elements of his softLOUD project that would go on to wow the Edinburgh Fringe and win him the first of a sequence of awards in its recorded form. Clarinettist Julian Bliss, on the other hand, took a different path by forming a jazz septet. The George Gershwin music he subsequently performed at ENF recently won huge acclaim at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the group brings a new programme of show tunes, entitled Hooray for Holywood, to Anstruther Town Hall on Friday July 1.

Shibe returns this year in the company of violinist Benjamin Baker, both of them former beneficiaries of East Neuk Retreats that enabled the focus on new directions in their music. This year Baker and Shibe are working with ENF debutantes Gandini Juggling on Light the Lights, a son et lumiere combination of music and movement that is another new direction for the festival.

While artistic director Svend Brown has built rewarding loyalties with chamber musicians and ensembles that are the heart of the East Neuk Festival, he has included various non-classical ingredients in the recipe over the years. Visual art, from sand sculpture to film-making, has often been present, while a flirtation with literary events came and went, possibly because of the boom in book festivals at other picturesque locations in Scotland.

This year, as well as jazz and movie music, there is choreography, both from the Daniel Martinez Flamenco Company, who are in the Anstruther venue the evening after Bliss, and from the Gandinis, whose back catalogue has paired their juggling skills with contemporary dance – especially the work of the late Pina Bausch – as well as Indian classical dance and ballet.

Five years ago in Gandini Juggling history, Sean Gandini received a Herald Archangel Award from the Glasgow-based newspaper for his decades of contribution to Edinburgh’s August festivities, and the Angel-winning shows he had brought to the capital. At the time, his group had also recently made a ground-breaking contribution to Phelim McDermott’s acclaimed production of the Philip Glass opera Ahknaten which earned it a Grammy award at the Metropolitan Opera and an Olivier award for English National Opera in London.

Sean Gandini receiving Herald Archangel from Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy in 2017

When he and I speak, he has just returned from a revival of Ahknaten in New York, and ENO will re-stage the work at the Coliseum next spring. He is now in France, where Lyon’s Les Nuits de Fourviere festival is presenting both parts of the Bausch-influenced shows, Smashed and Smashed 2, together for the first time.

“That is happening at the same time as the Scottish performance which is a much more musical affair,” says Gandini. “We have split the team in two, because we live in an age of extremes and we are now weirdly busy after the pandemic – and one thing we have learned to do is work remotely!” With German juggler Doreen Grossman in charge of realising the ENF project, after Gandini has edited the shape of it via online rehearsals, Light the Lights will premiere at The Bowhouse near St Monans the day before the Gandinis open in Lyon.

“They have had Pina Bausch’s company many times and we will be performing the shows back-to-back at night in a square in front of the opera house where she used to perform.”

The music of Steve Reich is to the fore once more in the East Neuk show, alongside that of Bach, and Grossman will be programming the illuminated juggling to synchronise with the score.

“Light the Lights is a one-off commission, although we have worked before with these light-emitting clubs that are programmed to change colour in time with the music.” Gandini explains.

“It includes Reich’s work with phasing that accelerates a bit of material so that you end up staggered in timing. That is something that is of great interest to us, especially coming straight after working on the Glass. They are so similar and yet so different, those two composers.

“There was dialogue, but it was the Festival that suggested the choice of music and I hope that the show will have a further life, because that is the way that we work. At least elements of it will certainly return because we are working more with live music, and that is so special.”

Beyond any debate is the way that Gandini Juggling has taken the discipline at the heart of its art out of the world of circus and street performance into more exalted company.

“I’d love to do more opera,” Gandini confirms. “There was some suspicion of our involvement in Ahknaten until people actually saw it. It is a very unusual way of using juggling, but then there is a problem of hierarchy in the arts: juggling is lower in the pecking order than opera. Perhaps if Louis XIV had been obsessed with hula-hoops rather than ballet, things might have turned out differently!”

Light the Lights has its first, and so far sole, performance at The Bowhouse on Friday July 1, as part of the East Neuk Festival, June 29 to July 3. Full details of the whole programme are available at eastneukfestival.com

Pelleas and Melisande

Laidlaw Music Centre, St Andrews

The first night of a radical revision of a crucial work in the operatic canon this may have been – and one involving a good number of less-than-experienced talents at that – but there was an impressive atmosphere of relaxed professionalism around Byre Opera’s chamber version of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece on Wednesday evening.

Partly that may be explained by the extended gestation period the production has enjoyed, first announced to follow the St Andrews music department’s off-site double bill at Guardbridge back in June 2019. The creators of this production, music director Michael Downes and stage director Kally Lloyd-Jones, have lived with Matthew Rooke’s inventive reduction of the score and Janice Galloway’s new translation of the libretto through the pandemic, and the university’s new Laidlaw Music Centre has been completed and thoroughly tested as a home for it since Byre Opera’s last show.

Lloyd-Jones and her designer Janis Hart make the fullest use of the venue in their black-and-gold staging. It emerges from the architecture of the McPherson Recital Room, the adaptable 13-piece band in the midst of the action and the auditorium and off-stage areas part of the sonic mix. With mirrored cubes and flying arches becoming pools, caves, beds, towers and windows, and the cast proving themselves adept stage managers and follow-spot operators as well as actors and singers, the production is stylish and splendidly lucid. Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist narrative has the clearest exposition, helped in no small measure by a healthy leavening of ironic wit in Galloway’s dialogues between the characters.

Soprano Rachel Munro, who was Nora in Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea in 2019, has a big sing as the supposedly silent Melisande, and is more than equal to the task, while her Pelleas, Sebastian Roberts, makes a remarkably assured step up from G&S to his first opera role. In the St Andrews way, these young people are students of mathematics and Classics, literature and languages, but their musical abilities are top quality. The cast’s sole professional singer is baritone James Berry, in the role of Golaud, whose conservatoire training (at RNCM) and experience in houses in England and Norway shows not just in his voice but in the authority he brings to the opera’s opening and the Act 4 scenes with Rebecca Black’s Yniold in particular.

The instrumentalists, led by Lucy Russell, first violin of the Laidlaw’s resident string quartet, the Fitzwilliam, have a very busy time of it, two of the violinists doubling on viola, and harpist Sharon Griffiths adding the timpani line to her part. Rooke’s arrangement also makes crucial use of Anne Page’s harmonium, and cuts nothing from the full score. It often sounds as if it might have come from the pen of the French composer himself, and seems very likely to find further productions.

Keith Bruce

Further performances June 17 and 19.

Picture: Rachel Munro as Melisande and James Berry as Golaud (by Viktoria Begg)

Debussy to Scale

Byre Opera promises a fresh perspective on Pelleas and Melisande with brand new reduced orchestration and straight-talking translation, writes KEN WALTON  

On the face of it, music director Michael Downes and his Byre Opera team at St Andrews University seem to have set themselves an impossible challenge: to distill one of opera’s most psychologically intense libretti and musical scores down to chamber music dimensions, while also translating its mellifluous French narrative into plain English. 

Yet that’s exactly what they’ve done to Debussy’s symbolist opera Pelleas and Melisande, which the company performs this week in a reduced score specially created by composer Matthew Rooke and to a newly commissioned translation by novelist Janice Galloway. It’s a momentous occasion on several fronts. 

The production, directed by Kally Lloyd-Jones, marks Byre Opera’s first live production since 2019; it’s the first opera to be staged in the university’s new £14m Laidlaw Music Centre, and this new chamber version of Debussy’s landmark opera (first performed in its original form in 1902 with celebrated Aberdeen soprano Mary Garden as Melisande) is also the first ever re-scored version, permitted by its release from copyright in 2019, 70 years after the death of Maurice Maeterlinck, from whose play the libretto was shaped.

It was in a chance conversation in 2015 between Downes and Rooke in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the latter was director of the border town’s Maltings Theatre, that Downes shared his wish to do a reduced Pelleas, and Rooke revealed that he had already started to make such an arrangement. 

‘We resolved then that we would stage the piece, though we could not have imagined it would take more than seven years to do so. Much of this delay, of course, has been due to Covid-19, which was for this project both immensely frustrating and highly productive, since it gave us the opportunity to test, refine and improve our new version in a way we could not otherwise have done,” Downes writes in an explanatory programme note. “The delay has also allowed us to present our Pelleas in the McPherson Recital Room, ensuring that our singers’ voices and Matthew’s orchestration are heard to best advantage.”

Also key to this production is Jonathan May, head of vocal studies at St Andrews and Byre Opera’s company manager, who has coached the student cast. The biggest challenge, he says, has been “the conversational nature of this piece”. “It’s like an escalator that just keeps moving. There’s very little structure. It’s a very challenging sound world to get used to, especially for such young voices.”

In that respect Rooke’s scaled-down orchestration has been advantageous. “If we accept that Debussy’s full score is like a wraparound blanket, this is more a cushion than a blanket,” May suggests. “But Matthew has done such an extraordinary job in maintaining richness in the texture, helped by the addition of a harmonium within the ensemble. As a result, the singers lose nothing in terms of instrumental support, but actually gain by not always having to cut through a big orchestra.”

Then there was Downes’ belief that the work should be presented in English, no easy task when the linguistic nuances between French and English are so fundamentally different. He approached Janice Galloway, a writer of proven musical sensitivity (she studied music at university, was librettist for Sally Beamish’s opera Monster, and in her novel Clara wrote a highly-acclaimed  fictionalised account of the life of Clara Schumann) whom he says “produced a libretto that is wonderfully fresh and contemporary without ever jarring with Debussy’s music.”

May, who is married to Galloway, offers some further insight. “Janice’s first reaction was ‘I can’t possibly do this, it’s not how I write’.” Persuaded to continue, however, he reckons the outcome actually adds to the power of an opera in which the characters, in French, rarely say what they mean. “Janice has succeeded in making the characters’ intentions clearer; they express more definite opinions, even if that has meant using the odd Scottish-ism to get the point across – at one point a character exclaims, ‘it hurted me’.”

Downes conducts three performances of Pelleas and Melisande this week (15, 17 & 19 June) with a cast consisting mainly of St Andrews students, joined by one outsider, baritone James Berry, who sings the role of Golaud. Sets are by the Scots-based theatre designer and filmmaker Janis Hart. Lucy Russell, lead violinist with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, heads up the 12-piece chamber ensemble.

Further information and tickets available at www.byretheatre.com

Who Are Concerto Budapest?

Violinist-turned-conductor András Keller tells KEN WALTON about the Hungarian orchestra he has reshaped and renamed. 

There’s a force of nature winding its way north this week and due to descend on Edinburgh at the weekend. It’s not a much-needed summer heatwave. Prepare instead for Concerto Budapest. According to at least one review of its first ever UK tour, this relatively unknown orchestra is hot stuff. “Virtuosity was turned to emotional ends,”  wrote the Times critic of last Monday’s tour opener in London’s Cadogan Hall, which has subsequently progressed to Guildford, Basingstoke, Birmingham and Manchester.

It’s a solid, powerful and popular programme that conductor András Keller and his 80-strong band will repeat in their final concert at the Usher Hall this Sunday, amply framed by Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Mozart’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A, K488, and soloist Angela Hewitt, in the middle. But the questions many may be asking are: who exactly are Concerto Budapest; and isn’t Keller that eponymous lead violinist of the Keller Quartet?

The answer to the latter question is yes. After a successful career as a concert violinist and founder of his own string quartet, Keller turned to conducting with the opportunity in 2007 to become artistic director and chief conductor of what was then the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, now destined to become, under his leadership, Concerto Budapest.

Why the name change? It was, says Keller, an essential rebirth brought about by the need to resist artistically damaging commercial pressure. Two years after he joined the orchestra, its former sponsor, Hungarian Telekom, withdrew its support. “They changed their image and began supporting more popular musical styles than classical music,” he explains. “The ensemble was on the verge of collapse, followed by a long period of existential uncertainty – the musicians worked for ten months without pay. Both they and I made enormous sacrifices for our survival.”

Eventually the government stepped in and took over the funding and Keller set about rebuilding the orchestra. “The ensemble wasn’t in particularly good shape, going downhill. I simply started to relearn with them the entire repertoire: in the first two years, Haydn’s symphonies and Mozart’s piano concertos; then we moved on to Beethoven. I am convinced that all symphony orchestras must stand on the foundation of the Classical period. You can only build on that.”

And built on that it has. Well-respected for its refreshed vision of the classics, but armed also with equal recognition for its all-round mastery of the wider repertoire, not least its close championing of the music of Hungary’s foremost contemporary composer György Kurtág, Concerto Budapest is beginning to make waves around the world. The current UK tour follows previously successful visits to East Asia and France.

For Keller, his mission hasn’t just been about repertoire. During his 15 years with the orchestra his prime focus – as you’d expect from a player steeped in the rarefied intimacy of the string quartet world – has been on developing a distinctive sound. “One of my goals is that instrumental music should sound like a single human voice through the many hearts and one unified soul of our musicians. If an eighty-member orchestra can play with one heart and one soul, it will be an extraordinary ‘transfiguration’ of music.”

Transfiguration is a term readily applicable to the two big orchestral works in Sunday’s programme, even one so familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth. “The very fact that it’s maybe the best-known of all compositions ever written makes it an even greater challenge for each and every one of us. It gets at us. I sincerely hope that our performance will contribute something valuable to the piece’s history.”

As for the Bartók, who better than a spunky team of Hungarians to tell it as it is, to put this colossal 20th century figure in pertinent historical context. Every time we play Bartók’s Concerto it is undoubtedly a tremendous musical feast for me,” says Keller. “I regard Bartók as Beethoven’s successor, and the Concerto and its ideal are an equal to Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, as it articulates similar ideas regarding man and the world. 

“Let me quote Bartók himself on this: ‘My main idea, which dominates me entirely, is the brotherhood of man over and above all conflicts… This is why I am open to influence by any fresh and healthy outside sources, be they Slovak, Romanian, Arabic or other’.”  

Angela Hewitt performs Mozart with Concerto Budapest

To have had Angela Hewitt as soloist in the Mozart – Edinburgh audiences know her refined, articulate style well – has, for Keller, been a mutually creative experience. “I particularly enjoy working with soloists with whom I don’t need to have lengthy discussions on the essence of the piece, where we can organically tune into each other and enrich one another in the performance. Angela is one of these artists.”

As one who once exclusively inhabited the performance arena, what was it that drove Keller to pick up the baton instead of the bow? “Most probably, such thoughts had been ripening in me subconsciously for quite some time,” he recalls. 

“As a musician, I felt that I wanted to experience a wider spectrum of music than string quartets, which are wonderful in themselves, but I had always been deeply interested in the symphonic repertoire too. Since I had acted as a soloist, a chamber musician and the concertmaster of various great symphony orchestras, this change had a well-grounded personal musical history.”

While he still performs with his Keller Quartet, conducting is now number one preference for the 61-year-old. “To be frank, or rather I feel that in a certain sense, it is easier to lead a symphony orchestra than a string quartet. One thing is for sure: my past in chamber music greatly influenced my notions of the performance style of a symphony orchestra.”  

Scots, should they venture to the Usher Hall on Sunday, can test for themselves how well he has succeeded.

András Keller conducts Concerto Budapest as part of the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics series on 12 June at 3pm. Details at www.usherhall.co.uk 

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The vicissitudes of Covid (specifically me catching it) meant taking the digital streaming route to the closing concert of the RSNO season, and that proved to have its compensations, if it was still a poor substitute for being present in the hall.

These revolved around the new work in the programme, Our Gilded Veins, Jay Capperauld’s concerto for the orchestra’s popular first flute, Katherine Bryan. Not only does the concert footage available online come with an introduction to the work by the composer, the performance is followed by reflections on it by the soloist – all very helpful with a brand new work.

Helpful, but not absolutely essential, because this is a very approachable piece that may well be the one to lift the young composer another few rungs up the ladder of international recognition. Only the very finest flautists will be technically equipped to play it, but all the best ones will surely want to add it to a concerto repertoire that is far from extensive.

Postponed because of the pandemic, Capperauld and Bryan have been working together on the piece for more than five years and that shows in the maturity of the writing for orchestra and soloist, and the way it is tailored to her voice. There is little that is fey and wistful in Bryan’s rich tone – she wants her instrument to be competing with the strings, brass and percussion for solo attention, and Our Gilded Veins is all about turning deficiencies and limitations into attributes.

The composer’s plan of the concerto may be that it journeys from sharp-edged fragments to ensemble unity – a percussive climax followed by a sequence of musical dawns on the lower register of the flute and then the whole orchestra – but Capperauld’s cacophony is still melodious and his resolutions far from placid, even a little bit funky.

While Our Gilded Veins is a terrific showpiece for the soloist, it is also a demanding work for the orchestra in its different rhythmic pulses and has some magnificent widescreen string and brass writing.

Once scheduled as a season-opener, the concerto came to rest in the season finale company of Beethoven’s Choral symphony, in which the RSNO Chorus were on especially strong form, most singing from memory, and the sopranos producing a united ensemble in those top notes from the start.

To my ears the four soloists – Eleanor Dennis, Stephanie Maitland, Benjamin Hulett and Bozidar Smiljanic – did not blend as well as one might like, but the bass-baritone began the Ode to Joy in superb robust style.

Conductor Thomas Sondergard had given an early indication of the crisp, sharp style of playing he wanted from the orchestra in the opening of Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, which began the orchestra’s programme, and that was especially evident in the symphony’s epic Scherzo movement.

The concert was prefaced by the RSNO’s contribution to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in a solo performance of Diu Regnare (Long to reign), a pipe tune commissioned from Stuart Liddell for the occasion and played here by Finlay MacDonald. Apparently the short piece was played a remarkable 5000 times around the world last weekend.

Keith Bruce

Concert available online until June 30: rsno.org.uk

Picture: Katherine Bryan

Dunedin Consort

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

This original presentation of unaccompanied Renaissance madrigals, sung with passion and precision by a quintet led and directed by tenor Nicholas Mulroy, would not have come about but for the pandemic. Available free to view via the Dunedin Consort’s website for the month of June, it exists as a film, while this concert and the one in Glasgow replace the a cappella performances onscreen with live singing, now that is permissible once again.

What it does, however, would have been just as valid an exercise without the strictures that necessitated its imagination. We hear much of the liturgical side of early vocal music in this godless age, while the lustful secular work from 16th century Italy is more rarely performed. Somewhat blasphemously co-opting the structure of Advent’s Nine Lessons and Carols, A Lover’s Discourse takes its title from the 1977 book by French post-modernist Roland Barthes, recently filmed by Claire Denis as Un beau soleil interieur with Juliette Binoche.

The texts from the book are interwoven with the madrigals by Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Luca Marenzio, and the very early Cipriano de Rore, with great skill, so that imagery hops happily across 400 years or so. At the same time, there is also a remarkable similarity of tonal expression in both, the philosophical rigour of Barthes – for whom being in love seems a fairly joyless business – remarkably akin to the mannered style of the songs, for all their saucy metaphors.

Mulroy’s emphasis is on the ensemble sound, although he himself and bass Ben McKee are both on especially fine form. They are joined by Dunedin regulars soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans and alto Jessica Gillingwater, with the Consort’s former Head of Artistic Planning, tenor David Lee, completing the group – and it is Lee who is the true Renaissance man onstage.

He is now a partner in the Leith-based company Arms & Legs, whose film work for artists during lockdown has been much admired, and not only was the concept of A Lover’s Discourse his own, but his professional career straddles all its elements.

Eight actors are seen delivering the Barthes text, stylishly filmed at locations in Edinburgh – a few not far at all from the company’s premises. Martin Quinn, Matthew Zajac and Kim Allan have the most effective contributions, in a café, a kirkyard and by the River Almond in Cramond, but all make remarkably light work of Barthes’ weighty words, just as the singers do with the music. Completing the picture are snippets of electronic underscore, by composer Pippa Murphy, that dovetail the translated French fragments with the older music.

For fans of the Dunedin’s usual fare, there is no compromise here at all – in fact the (post-) modern text is often harder to grasp than the early music, for all that it is in English. Instead, necessity has proved the mother of invention of a clever cross-genre creation.

While the singers were filmed in Glasgow’s Engine Works for the online version, in this Edinburgh Fringe venue the Dunedin Consort found a perfect venue for the project, with excellent acoustics. It is repeated in Glasgow this evening, at what is now confusingly called Platform in Midland Street, which has nothing to do with the longer-established Platform in Easterhouse, but which most folk will remember as The Arches.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Nicholas Mulroy

Letting The Cracks Show

Jay Capperauld’s new flute concerto is a Japanese repair job, but it represents a positive healing process, he tells KEN WALTON

For Jay Capperauld, Christmas has come early. It’s only a matter of weeks since the RSNO performed the 33-year-old up-and-coming Ayrshire composer’s Fèin-Aithne, written originally for the BBC SSO, alongside Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Last week, the SCO announced that for the next four years he is to succeed Anna Clyne as its associate composer. This weekend, his new flute concerto, Our Gilded Veins, is premiered by the RSNO and its principal flautist, Katherine Bryan.

When we spoke, the SCO announcement was still under wraps, but there was a pent-up excitement in Capperauld’s manner that suggested something big was in the offing. “I can’t say at the moment,” he blurted cautiously, clearly wishing he could.

We’d met to discuss Our Gilded Veins, a work that began life pre-pandemic, was duly postponed from its planned 2020 premiere, underwent subsequent refashioning during lockdown, and will now emerge in its freshly-minted form this week under the baton of RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård and in the exalted company of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. 

Anyone who has followed Capperauld’s upward trajectory since graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland will appreciate to what extent extra-musical inspirations – often surreal, often funny, always potent – are a defining feature of his music. “I generally always write to a concept. I rarely work in absolute abstract terms,” he says. Our Gilded Veins is no exception.

The title refers to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, “a tradition whereby you break a plate or a bowl, then put it back together using gilded lacquer in order to highlight the breakage, as if you are celebrating the history of the object, warts and all,” he explains. “To me that’s just a delicious metaphor for the human condition, especially after what we’ve all been through over the last couple of years.”

“Kintsugi has been a hugely positive influence on me, in the sense it allows you to perceive things you’ve gone through, those bad experiences, in a positive way and not cover things up. The biggest step forward in the past five years or so is that we’re able to talk about mental health. It’s visible in the same way as the ‘gilded veins’ on these objects. It leads to conversations that need to happen.”

The “conversation” explored in Our Gilded Veins had already taken root in a previous piece for solo flute, The Pathos of Broken Things, which itself acted as the prototype for the concerto. Both stemmed from his encounter with Katherine Bryan. Impressed by a work Capperauld had had performed as a participant in the RSNO’s 2015/16 inaugural Composers’ Hub scheme, Bryan had later sought him out and asked if he had written any flute music. The answer was no, but he immediately set about composing one, which led in turn to the concerto commission.

Revisiting a work is not unusual for Capperauld. He did so for last month’s RSNO performance of Fèin-Aithne, rewriting around half of it, and he’s done the same for Our Gilded Veins. “The pandemic played a part in the nature of these revisions. It was, for me compositionally, an opportunity to spring clean. It also made complete sense as both pieces are about self-identity, and my perception of myself had changed significantly during that period.”

That’s reflected  in the altered narrative. “That now starts at a place where trauma has just happened. In the original version, we were seeing it unfold and transpire over the entire narrative. So there’s a fractured sense to the music straightaway, where the lines are unconnected. The whole first half of the piece is now about those lines trying to find each other, gluing themselves together, so we can then explore what that positive aspect of Kintsugi implies. By the end we revisit the trauma material, but in a new and reassuring harmonic context.”

Another key factor in the ongoing evolution of the piece has been Capperauld’s creative dialogue with Bryan. As she herself says, “Jay got to know me well during the process as a player: that I like to tell stories; that I love big-hitting, powerful stuff; that I like the emotional drive behind a piece that I can really talk to an audience with. He must have thought I liked a big challenge. This piece is so hard, but breaking through those challenges really enhances it.”

Katherine Bryan: “I love big-hitting, powerful stuff”

With so much original music excised in the revision process, does it just go in the bin? “No,” insists Capperauld. “I hang on to absolutely everything. I learned that from Harrison Birtwistle, whose advice to young composers was ‘keep everything’. There might be something you’re working on that you don’t have a context for at the time, but years down the line you find one. So who knows, maybe some scraps from the old version will find their way into a new piece of music at some point.”

Meantime, Our Gilded Veins – which Bryan and Capperauld will also be utilising in an outreach project at the Kibble Educational and Care Centre in Paisley – is partnering Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and the Choral Symphony in this week’s close-of-season concert by the RSNO. How daunting is that?

“Hugely,” says Capperauld. “Knowing that was very scary, but all I can do is focus on the matter in hand. I’d be foolish to think that because my piece is being performed alongside Beethoven Nine I must try to express myself to that same level, cos that ain’t gonna happen! I can’t make that judgement call as a composer. That’s for the audience to decide. All I can do is my best work.”

Katherine Bryan and the RSNO premiere Jay Capperauld’s Our Gilded Veins at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (3 March) and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (4 March). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Gabel

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There were some younger children in the hall, but the empty seats in prominent positions spoke of a few cancelled family outings after soloist Nicola Benedetti sent her apologies for this week’s RSNO concerts.

By some measures, this is less explicable than it may appear. The orchestra management had swiftly secured the services of charismatic Dutch violinist Noa Wildschut, much nearer in age to school fiddle students as a role model, and she was playing the Mendelssohn concerto, a more accessible work than Mark Simpson’s very fine, but demanding, new composition.

It is also probably true that the RSNO sums were based on a full-house, the ticket income allowing the luxury of the extra musicians required for the other two works on the programme.

Be all that as it may, those who attended had a fascinating evening, starting with the novelty of the orchestral interlude La nuit et l’amour by Augusta Holmes, a Paris-based composer who pioneered women’s rights in the misogynistic musical world of the late 19th century, and an associate of Liszt, Saint-Saens and Cesar Franck.

Although she was of Scots/Irish stock, the work is very French, all flutes and harps and sweeping strings, very Romantic and picturesque and an ideal precursor to the Mendelssohn. Guest French conductor Fabien Gabel, last on the podium for the RSNO a decade ago, was in his element.

Wildschut, who gave a much admired fresh reading of Bruch on her debut with the orchestra two years ago, is perfectly suited to lyrical Romantic repertoire, with a light, precise style that always found a fine balance with the orchestra without ever seeming over-assertive. That there is muscle in her playing was confirmed by her Bach encore, but firstly in a bold first movement cadenza. Gabel and she found a very collaborative reading of the slow movement, and a particularly moving way with the exchanges between soloist and the wind section in the finale.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is a sumptuous treat for any lover of orchestral music, poised between Beethoven’s Pastoral and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but probably less popular than either because it is slightly bonkers. Gabel’s reading acknowledged the work’s eccentricity but preserved the glorious showcase for an orchestra that it is – and not solely a party-piece for timpani and other percussion.

The string ensemble, under first violin Sharon Roffman, was authoritative across the sections from the opening movement, and the combination of Henry Clay’s plaintive cor anglais and the answering off-stage oboe of Rachael Clegg in the slow movement sounded precisely as it should in this hall. Gabel’s pacing of the tense build up to the March to the Scaffold was similarly exemplary, and his grasp of the mental adventure play-ground of the piece thorough. As principal trumpet Chris Hart had amusingly shown in his spoken introduction to the concert, Hector Berlioz’s narrative for the symphony makes little literal sense, but Gabel and the RSNO grasped all its musical riches with style.

The programme is repeated in Glasgow this evening.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Noa Wildschut by Esther de Bruijn


Madama Butterfly

Perth Theatre

Opera Bohemia’s compact, punchy Madama Butterfly may never have looked and sounded as good as it does on the stage of Perth Theatre for the company’s debut at the 50th Perth Festival of the Arts.

Working with the earliest version of Puccini’s score and with a small chamber orchestra in the pit for the first time, John Wilkie’s production may be nearly a decade old, but the clean symmetry of Magnus Popplewell’s set, the simple use of shadow-work on its screens, and the clarity of the story-telling, recognising the prescience of the work’s political message, are unimprovable.

Under the baton of Bohemia’s music director Alistair Digges, this revival’s great asset is that 11-piece ensemble, led by Feargus Hetherington, whose own solo contributions are a particular highlight.

On stage, the men in the cast supply some especially careful characterisation. Whitaker Mills is a troubled Sharpless, who sees disaster looming from early on but is not bold or interested enough to avert it. Seumas Begg gives much more subtle shape to Goro, the estate agent/pimp who makes the fatal introduction, than is often seen. There is a moral equivalence in the way both back off rather than become involved which casts the US Consul in an especially bad light here.

This is a modern dress production, with the nice touch of having Butterfly adopt contemporary American teen clothes in the “American home” she is keeping for her absent naval officer husband at the start of Act Two. Such detail does a lot of work in showing how little colonial geo-politics have altered since Puccini’s librettists were writing at the start of the last century.

Thomas Kinch gives a bluff, macho Pinkerton of slow emotional intelligence, so his tendency to over-sing the role early on could be said to match that interpretation, although his big tenor voice really comes into its own later. Like Louise Collett’s Suzuki, Catriona Clark’s Cio-Cio San is a link with earlier stagings, assured and at home in the coloratura of the role.

There is strong vocal casting in the smaller roles too, with Stephanie Stanway as Kate Pinkerton and Fiona Mackenzie taking the role of The Registrar, while special mention must be made of the (very) young Robert Nairne-Clark, who absolutely nails his extended presence on stage as Sorrow, the fought-over issue of the relationship. There is a further performance this evening.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Catriona Clark

Dunedin Discourse

Associate Director of the Dunedin Consort, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, tells Keith Bruce about the group’s upcoming concerts

The 25th anniversary season of Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort is showcasing the work of Nicholas Mulroy in his role as Associate Director, although his fine tenor voice has been a feature of the choir’s sound for most of those 25 years.

One of the foremost Evangelists of his generation, Mulroy also directed the Easter performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Edinburgh and London, and he has his two hats on again next week for the more experimental programme A Lover’s Discourse, before reviving his role as Acis in Handel’s Acis Galatea in June tour of the work under music director John Butt.

“The directing has developed naturally and I do tend to sing and direct,” says Mulroy. “For the Dunedins’ choral stuff I might stand at the front but then the group needs something different when it is a larger group of singers. But, like all things Dunedin, there is an atmosphere of collaboration and openness, because John Butt has never been a directorial director and I hope I am not either.”

That role has also found a balance with the tenor’s other work.

“My guesting with orchestras also tends to be the early stuff, with a bit of Britten thrown in, and that seems to be picking up again, post-pandemic. Easter is always one of my busiest times, and this one was as busy as one would expect, with that combination of whole teams like Dunedin and things like working in Antwerp with Richard Egarr, which was my first time with them and with him. I like that sense of having some long collaborations and new things that keep the ideas nice and fresh.”

That is a description that might particularly apply to A Lover’s Discourse, which was originally planned for February and will be performed at Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy on Tuesday May 31 and Platform in Glasgow on Wednesday June 1, with an online version available for the whole month.

As those unfamiliar venues suggest, the project is a new direction for the Dunedin, and much of the initiative for it came from the group’s former Head of Artistic Planning, David Lee, also a tenor who will be singing in the performances, and a partner in filmmakers Arms & Legs, who are responsible for the video aspect, shot across Edinburgh. Both on film and live, seven Scottish-based actors speak text from French writer Roland Barthes.

Mulroy explains: “A Lover’s Discourse arose from a desire to make late Renaissance madrigals speak more directly to a modern audience.

“Their language can seem a bit remote and a bit mannered, but the emotions they deal with are the nuts and bolts of human existence – love and lust and desire and loss and anger, all these things that we recognise. The idea of bringing in the Roland Barthes was to add a different medium of delivering that language of love; his texts make it feel current and located in a particular place.

The Barthes is about a situation where things are intense and new and unfamiliar – that heightened sense of reality when we are ‘out of our comfort zone’. Both the madrigals and the Barthes text deal with that in a specific way, which I hope marry together.”

Mulroy is full of praise for the way the actors inhabit the words they were given to speak – something he says was very instructive to the singers for their part in the performances – and for composer Pippa Murphy’s electronic soundtrack to the film, tailored to fit harmonically with the older material.

“David and I chose the music based on the Barthes text, different aspects of being in love matched with particular madrigals. There was a real wealth of choice and I think the music is all first rate, from the top drawer of that repertoire.

“Sung a cappella, there should be a real direct line of communication with the audience. It is music that should grab you by the lapels, in the nicest possible way. It is not the sort of programme that would sit well in a church – it is very secular, very sensuous, and wouldn’t feel right in Canongate Kirk!”

Nor would that be a natural home of Handel’s early opera of jealous love, Acis & Galatea, which the Dunedin Consort will perform in Perth Concert Hall and Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on June 22 and 23. Galatea will be sung by Rachel Redmond and Christopher Purves, Anthony Gregory and Nicholas Scott complete a top-notch cast who go on to perform the work at Wigmore Hall and as part of Stour Music Festival and Nevill Holt Opera’s summer season.

The Dunedin version of the work is one of the award-winning albums the group has made on the Linn label.

“That was recorded in 2008, longer ago than we care to think about!” says Mulroy. “It has become a real staple for me, and more importantly for the group. It is one of those programmes that we have been able to tour because it only has five singers and a small band, and it is always nice to come back to.

“It’s ‘young man’ Handel and it feels quite slight in some ways, but it is full of energy and vitality and incredible tenderness toward the end, when everything goes pear-shaped for the characters, as these things tend to.

“It is a lovely work and a lovely audience experience, and John has a real way with it.”

Nicolas Mulroy directs and sings A Lover’s Discourse with Ben McKee, David Lee, Jessica Gillingwater, and Rachel Ambrose Evans at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh on Tuesday and Platform, Glasgow on Wednesday. Available to watch free online for 30 days from May 31. dunedin-consort.org.uk

SCO 22/23 Season

Two premieres from the pen of Sir James MacMillan and a focus on the work of Brahms by Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev are the headline attractions in the new season unveiled by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The first of the MacMillans will be his Second Violin Concerto, with soloist Nicola Benedetti, for whom it has been written. The world premiere will take place at the end of September, shortly after the violinist has taken up her new post as director of the Edinburgh International Festival. It will be conducted by Emelyanychev in a concert that also includes John Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.

The other new Macmillan work is a short piece on a football theme that had its world premiere in Antwerp last week as part of the repertoire the SCO took on its European tour. The first UK performances of “Eleven” will be next March in concerts Emelyanychev is directing with himself as soloist on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22, K482.

The conductor is at the harpsichord for a programme of “Baroque Inspirations” in November that teams Vivaldi with Grieg, Hindemith and Gorecki. At the end of  February he conducts an all-Brahms concert with the Symphony No. 1, preceded by the Violin Concerto with Aylen Pritchin as soloist, and at the start of March an all-Mendelssohn one with the Italian Symphony and the Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The season concludes next May with Brahms’ German Requiem, Sophie Bevan and Hanno Muller-Brachman the soloists and Gregory Batsleer’s SCO Chorus concluding a busy year. The same two singers are joined by tenor Andrew Staples for The Creation by Haydn in October, with Emelyanychev again conducting, and Richard Egarr directs Handel’s Israel in Egypt in December, with Rowan Pierce, Mary Bevan, Helen Charlston, James Gilchrist and Andrew Foster-Williams the soloists.

Other familiar faces conducting and directing concerts include Clemens Schuldt, with a November concert that includes Alban Gerhardt giving the Scottish premiere of the cello concerto written for him by Julian Anderson, Peter Whelan with music of the Scottish Enlightenment, Andrew Manze, Joseph Swensen, Joana Carniero, Francois Leleux and violinist Anthony Marwood.

Next Spring, Bernard Labadie directs an evening of music Handel wrote for Royal occasions, joined by singers Lydia Teuscher, Iestyn Davies and Neal Davies, following a fortnight residency by Finnish violin maestro Pekka Kuusisto who has singer-songwriter Sam Amidon and tenor Allan Clayton, singing Britten’s Les Illuminations, as soloists and composer Nico Muhly featuring in both programmes.

The star names keep coming at the season’s end, with mezzo Karen Cargill singing Berlioz and cellist Laura van der Heijden playing Shostakovich in April and Lawrence Power giving the Scottish Premiere of Cassandra Miller’s Viola Concerto, under the baton of John Storgards, in May.

Full details at sco.org.uk

Perth Festival / Tenebrae

St John’s Kirk, Perth

Goodness knows how many times we heard the word “Maria” sung in this Perth Festival performance by the superlative vocal ensemble Tenebrae under its founding director Nigel Short. At one point Górecki, in his motet Totus tuus, treats the word with such plaintive repetition it almost turns into the famous hit number from West Side Story. But this was an altogether more religious affair: a programme called Queen of Heaven dedicated to music inspired by the sanctity of the Virgin Mary.

If the setting seemed perfect, the ancient cathedral-like architecture of St John’s Kirk with its golden acoustics, an idle thought that the anti-Marian John Knox launched Scottish protestantism on this very spot did warrant a moment of ironic reflection.

But that was instantly washed aside by the integrity of performances that certainly didn’t hold back on the theatre and passion. It began with a rearguard assault, a piercing cry of “Maria” from the back of the St John’s nave, Tenebrae issuing the shrill declamatory opening of the Górecki with the same electrifying fullness that was to inform the entire evening. 

Whether in the seamless polyphony of Robert Parson’s 16th century Ave Maria, or the infectiously chaotic and exotic modernism of Giles Swayne’s 1982 Magnificat, this was a brand of choral singing that combined impeccable homogeneity with penetrating expressive range. Intonation was unshakeable, but the tonal options were never restrained. The bass voices reverberated in the rich acoustics, the high soprano notes ecstatic in flight, between which the inner parts wove with tastefulness and purpose. 

It was enlightening, too, to experience such rarely-heard Ave Marias as Bruckner’s seraphic setting, compared to the cool austerity of Stravinsky’s Russian Orthodox version. Or the more effusive and worldly Ave maris stella by Greig and Mater ora ilium by Bax, with Britten’s simple, strophic Hymn to the Virgin allowing a breakaway ensemble to enjoy a moment of blissful antiphony.

The second half opened with the haunting primitivism of Owain Park’s Ave maris stella and the unaffected lucidity of Tavener’s Mother of God, before interweaving a series of palate-cleansing chants with the lushness of Verdi (his Laudi all Vergine Maria for upper voices), the bittersweet piquancy of Poulenc’s Salve Regina and the euphoric climax provided by nonagenarian Margaret Rizza’s plainsong-inspired Ave generosa. 

Perth is currently celebrating its 50th annual Festival of the Arts. If Monday’s demonstration of choral perfection by Tenebrae is anything to go by, it’s doing so in style. 

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Wilson

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

For anyone unclear what a conductor does – particularly one visiting for a single weekend’s concerts in a season – Saturday’s performance by the RSNO under John Wilson provided the perfect illustration. Since his contract with the BBC Scottish ended, we do not see enough of Wilson in Scotland, and his execution of this brilliantly-conceived programme showed what a loss that is.

Music from the second, third and fourth decades of the 20th century, played in chronological order, was as fine a showcase for a large symphony orchestra as might be found anywhere in the repertoire. The mutual admiration between Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin is well-documented – and was amusingly recounted by the conductor in his introductory remarks – but the trans-Atlantic musical conversation that Wilson revealed, with Rachmaninov possibly eavesdropping on the long path to his Third Symphony, is rarely so clearly expressed.

The 1912 orchestration of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales calls for six percussionists, two harps and celeste, and begins in a style that seems a precursor of Kurt Weill and Weimar cabaret music. The eight short pieces are often very beautiful, and benefitted here from the expressive flute of Katherine Bryan, who had a starring role through the evening. The work’s final bars were quite exquisitely shaped by Wilson.

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin was clearly still learning his orchestral craft, the immediate cross-over success of Rhapsody in Blue notwithstanding. Led by the timpani, the Concerto in F, begins like a Broadway overture, but the closing movement starts with a clear “borrowing” from a Stravinsky ballet score before asking the piano soloist to explore his inner Art Tatum and Meade Lux Lewis.

Soloist Louis Schwizgebel revelled in the bluesy chords he was asked to play from the start, as well as in his proximity to the front desk of the violins and leader Emily Davis, who has a few bars in the style of Joe Venturi in a central slow movement that also included a fine solo from first trumpet Chris Hart. There is often a big-band feel to the music Gershwin writes for winds and brass, but he was already a good distance from the work he wrote for Paul Whiteman.

Schwizgebel made the demanding piano part look breezy and capped it with a perfectly-chosen encore of a Jazz Etude by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, which was dreamily atmospheric.

If performances of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 3 are comparatively rare, it’s perhaps because the work lacks the ear-worms that litter the composer’s other work, and persist in the mind afterwards. Instead its riches lie in the thorough exploration of all the sounds an orchestra can make and Wilson was all over every detail of the score, insisting on fine gradations in the dynamics and precision engineering of the balance for the solos, which come from every section and front desk.

The lush orchestration of the opening movement is followed by an Adagio that here glanced back to the start of the concert in sounding startlingly French, while the carnivalesque finale is as much Hollywood as Mittel-Europe. In 1936, sadly, that musical consensus so meticulously expressed here by Wilson and the RSNO was about to be torn asunder.

Keith Bruce

Picture: John Wilson

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

The six-year relationship between the BBC SSO and its Danish chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard all but concluded last week. His last season concert – there are still some recordings and a final BBC Proms programme to come – also brought to an end Dausgaard’s valedictory project, a complete survey of Carl Nielsen’s six symphonies. Signing off with No 4, The Inextinguishable, was to go out with a blast.

There were two Nielsen symphonies in this programme, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. Opening with the First took us to a place where the quintessential Danish composer was testing the water, but already armed with sufficient confidence to explore new and individualistic ground. Dausgaard’s opening gambit, grittily echoed by the SSO, was to embrace its ebullience and joyous intent, a gutsy start beyond which Nielsen’s fitful argument jockeyed between rage and reflection. 

Fast forward to the concert climax and The Inextinguishable, cast in the same discursive mould, but which proved itself altogether mightier, meatier and mind-blowing in its universal message. If, indeed, it’s about the unquenchable affirmation of the human spirit, a cathartic resolution to life’s questioning and contradictory experiences, then that is no better expressed than in a ferocious peroration dominated by two battling sets of timpani. 

Dausgaard adopted the theatrical quirk often associated with Finnish conductor Leif Segerstam, asking the second timpanist to emerge dressed in civvies from the audience, like some rogue opportunist fancying his chances on the big drums. The impact as Alasdair Kelly launched his first brutal salvo was electrifying, the ensuing cross-stage duel with SSO principal timpanist Gordon Rigby as bellicose as the previous weekend’s destructive rampage of Celtic fans around the City Halls’ environs.

So yes, this was a Nielsen Four bristling with fervour, demonic and transformative in equal measure, but not without tenderness and simplicity when moments called for it. What short-changed it were these inexplicable hypos where Dausgaard visibly seemed to release his grasp on the action and draw back as if in some personal conversation with himself. At these points glitches appeared, uneven attacks or the odd tremor in the rhythmic flow. 

Between the symphonies, the contribution by soloist Jörg Widmann in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was a baffling one. He’s a known eccentric, and this performance lived up to that reputation from his very first utterance, adopting a coarseness of tone that veered towards agonising. Add to that affectation his tendency to skew the intonation, and a certain ugliness found its way into a very beautiful concerto.

It wasn’t all so questionable, Widmann proving in the slow movement how lyrically poised his playing can be, and imbuing much of the finale with sparkle and stylistically conducive incision. Moreover, Dausgaard found a place in this for an SSO performance that was lithe and poetically Mozartian, even if the task of following Widmann’s rhythmic idiosyncrasies made the job more difficult than it ought to have been.

All in all, this Dausgaard finale was one of mixed results, which is a fair enough assessment of his time with the SSO.

Ken Walton

Available for 30 days after live broadcast via BBC Sounds

Festival Gala / Scottish Opera

Perth Concert Hall

The Perth Festival has changed markedly over its 50 years, but as it celebrates that Golden Jubilee, a determination to present opera as part of the annual event remains a commitment. This year’s staged performance arrives at Perth Theatre next week in the shape of Opera Bohemia’s Madama Butterfly, and for many years it provided the only Scottish opportunity to see English Touring Opera and some very fine singers at the start of their careers. Before that John Currie masterminded the festival’s own bespoke productions, but in 1972 it was Alexander Gibson’s Scottish Opera company who brought two productions to the first festival, so it was fitting the national company provided this year’s opening gala concert.

Fitting, but perhaps also a little surprising, in that Scottish Opera has its hands full at the moment, with the revival of Don Giovanni newly opened in Glasgow and its own 60th anniversary season just announced. That meant the orchestra, conductor Stuart Stratford, and one of the quintet of young vocal talent on stage had been performing the previous evening in the Theatre Royal with only the smallest overlap in the repertoire they played in the Fair City.

That Don Giovanni duet, La ci darem la mano, teamed young mezzo Lea Shaw, who sings Zerlina in the touring production, with Jonathan McGovern, who takes over the title role from June 9. It opened a Mozart sequence that also featured Eleanor Dennis as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro and McGovern duetting with Catriona Hewitson as the Magic Flute’s Papageno and Papagena.

After the interval, that section was mirrored by the music of Puccini where the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut was bracketed by Hewitson singing O mio babbini caro from Gianni Schicchi and McGovern the very much less often heard Questo amor, vergogna mia from the composer’s early Edgar.

Neither of those parts of the substantial programme included the undoubted star of the evening, for all the quality of the singing throughout. Scotland’s Cardiff Singer of the World winner, Catriona Morison, was a compelling presence whenever she was on stage as well as being, with Stratford, an architect of the shape of the evening.

Her music was all in French and German, beginning with a sequence from Bizet’s Carmen that also involved Hewitson and Shaw as Frasquita and Mercedes, and then McGovern singing the Toreador’s song. Hewitson also partnered her in music from Massenet’s Werther and provided the Sandman to her Evening Hymn with Dennis as Hansel and Gretel. Those three also brought the programme to a close with music from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier which was, apparently, as much a treat for some members of the orchestra as the audience.

In fact the instrumentalists had the meatiest music of the night, in the instrumental interludes, in the appropriate opening fanfare of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and then the Overture to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, which began the second half. After all its trials and tribulations, the opera orchestra is currently at the top of its game.

For them, and for Perth Festival, this opening gala ticked a lot of boxes, and admirably included some more unusual music alongside the famous hits, even if that meant some tricky leaps in style, pace and tone, for the listener as much as the performers. Those structural flaws perhaps make it more difficult to berate the citizenry of Perth for failing to fill more of the seats.

Keith Bruce

Sponsored by Brewin Dolphin

Picture: Catriona Morison by Fraser Band

Scottish Opera / Don Giovanni

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

From the flashing of the house-lights, thunder sound effects and appearance of a masked figure behind the gauze at the beginning of the overture, there is a Hammer Horror kitsch element to Sir Thomas Allen’s Gothic Venice-set Don Giovanni, Simon Higlett’s clever adaptable designs for the Theatre Royal’s restricted space beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan. Even the chorus scene of Zerlina and Masetto’s pre-nup party is very monochrome, and only Kitty Whately’s Donna Elvira costume – is her character choosing to be a scarlet woman? – provides a flash of colour.

That scenic palette is, however, in stark contrast to almost every other element of a subtle production. Starting in the pit, where natural trumpets sit alongside modern horns, and the continuo playing is superbly balanced with the orchestra’s big dramatic moments, this an evening in which nothing is over-played. Giovanni can be performed very effectively as melodrama, but this narrative staging is much more interested in realism, even soap opera – in a good way.

All the central characters are believably human, with the inevitable exception of Keel Watson’s stocky vengeful Commendatore, who spends most of the evening cast in stone, after his initial appearance as a worried father. The physical balance between Zachary Altman’s miserable but venal Leporello and Roland Wood’s cavalier, single-minded Don Giovanni is pretty much ideal, which is often not the case. That casting common-sense runs through the principal roles, with Whately at once the most authoritative of the women and the most vulnerable, and Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in glorious voice as Donna Anna, somehow revelling in her victimhood. Completing a top trio of female performances, Lea Shaw, who is in her second year as a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, grows more confident in each role she undertakes, and is both blowsy and naïve as Zerlina.

Besides Altman, the other company debuts come from Emyr Wyn Jones as Masetto and Pablo Bemsch as Don Ottavio – Zerlina’s low-born fiancé likeable but dim, Donna Anna’s effete courtier equally useless but whose equivocal arias are exceptionally well sung.

With the focus clearly on the ensemble work from trio to septet, no-one pitches for the applause in their solos, and given the liveliness of the show elsewhere, some of these stand-and-sing moments seem the weakest elements, regardless of the quality of the singing. By comparison, the end of Act 1, when the stage is full of distractions to cover Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, including an early ghostly appearance by the Commendatore, is quite masterly, and the perfect set up for the intricate music of that septet.  

The stage-craft of Allen and his cast, with choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones and James Fleming and Gary Connery directing fights and stunts, is top drawer, and even the sub-Cyrano business of Giovanni and Leporello swapping clothes and identities at the start of Act 2 is dispatched with casual ease.

While there is never any doubt who is villain of the piece – Wood is consumed by flames and booed at the curtain call – no-one escapes censure in Da Ponte’s libretto or in this production.  In the closing sextet, often omitted in years gone by,  they sing that Giovanni’s death was a fair result for his evil life. The ambiguity in the air is whether their share of culpability might also prove a stumbling block on the path to the Pearly Gates.

Keith Bruce

Performance sponsored by Miller Samuel Hill Brown. Touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Picture: Roland Wood (Don Giovanni) and Lea Shaw (Zerlina) by James Glossop

Scottish Opera fighting fit

Alex Reedijk and Stuart Stratford tell Keith Bruce about the company’s new season

Recognising the nation’s collective slow recovery after Covid, Scottish Opera’s General Director Alex Reedijk emphasised the rude health of his company, in its 60th anniversary year, when he launched its first full season following the pandemic.

His words were peppered with metaphors from the gym, as he talked of “new muscles” built during the health emergency that bring confidence to work presented outside conventional theatres, and of ScotOp being happy to undertake the “heavy lifting” in developing new productions on which other companies are happy to come aboard as co-producers.

The two shows he was referring to are the boldest projects on the new slate of work, which opens with the current revival of Don Giovanni in Sir Thomas Allen’s 2013 production, touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen after the Glasgow performances.

It is followed in August by Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, performed in a specially-constructed tented venue behind the company’s production studios in Glasgow’s Edington Street, on a space now styled “New Rotterdam Wharf”. The production’s precursor in the company’s repertoire is the promenade staging of Pagliacci in Paisley in July 2018 rather than either of the Edington Street car-park operas, La boheme and Falstaff, it mounted while theatres were closed.

“We are using what we’ve learned about the robustness of the art form, on a piece that occupies a really important place in the life of Scottish Opera,” said Reedijk.

The “Scottish Opera version” is regarded as the go-to score of Candide. It was made in the 1980s with the approval of the composer, who was present in Glasgow, by his student John Mauceri, the company’s music director at the time.

“It is about displaced people and we are working with the Maryhill Integration Network to recruit members of the community chorus, which will team 80 volunteers with 20 professional singers,” added current music director Stuart Stratford.

Stratford has plenty of experience in this type of work, having worked with director Graham Vick in Birmingham Opera and with Tete-a-Tete Opera. Freed from the restrictions of Covid regulations, the potential audience for each of Candide’s half-dozen performances will still be limited to 400, that being the number that Vick demonstrated could reasonably be shepherded and stewarded to each of the performing stages without slowing the action.

“I loved working with Graham Vick on those shows,” said Stratford, “and hopefully there are people who will feel able to come to something that is well-ventilated and semi-outdoors who might still have misgivings about visiting a theatre.”

Reedijk has plans to have a performance filmed, although no specific platform is signed up to broadcast it. That was a tactic the company used for the recent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, recently transmitted on BBC Four and watched by over a quarter of a million people around the world.

November sees Scottish Opera back in the Theatre Royal and Festival Theatre with what will be the UK’s first staged production of Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar.

“It premiered in 2003, and is a series of reflections on the life of Federico Garcia Lorca,” said Stratford. “It has been done in static way as an oratorio in London, but the music is unbelievably dramatic.”

With Latin-American percussion in the pit and flamenco dancers on the stage, choreographer Deborah Colker will direct a show that has been developed in partnership with Opera Ventures, who were also involved in Greek in 2017 and Breaking the Waves in 2019.

“Those shows have made possible co-production partnerships with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Detroit Opera as well as with Welsh National Opera,” said Reedijk.

Like much of the season Scottish Opera can now unveil, Ainadamar was in the works before the pandemic.

“The Gondoliers was delayed because of Covid, and the opening for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was stopped because of it. Ainadamar we had been cooking up with Opera Ventures, and Il Trittico we’d been talking about with David McVicar since before the lockdown,” said Reedijk.

The Puccini triple-bill will reach the Scottish stage in March, before which Sir David McVicar’s last two Scottish Opera productions will have opened in Santa Fe (Falstaff) and Los Angeles (Pelleas et Melisande).

Also a co-production with WNO, Il trittico has never been staged in its entirety in Scottish Opera’s 60 years, nor has McVicar previously directed it. Il tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) and the comic Gianni Schicchi are distinct and contrasting stories, but McVicar is adopting an ensemble approach with a cast that includes company stalwarts Roland Wood, Sinead Campbell-Wallace and Karen Cargill and shared elements in the set design by Charles Edwards.

With a dinner-length interval before the concluding tale of the trilogy, Scottish Opera is selling Il trittico as an epic night out, a visual theatrical feast and a big work out for the orchestra. As with all but the last of the staged productions in the new season, Stratford is conducting.

For that final show in May 2023, Australian-Chinese conductor Dane Lam is on the podium for Bizet’s Carmen. Sung in English, it will be directed by John Fulljames, director of the much-lauded 2020 staging of John Adams’ Nixon in China, with that show’s Madame Mao, Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in the cast, and Justina Gringyte in the title role, as well as parts for four of the company’s current Emerging Artists: Zoe Drummond, Lea Shaw, Osian Wyn Bowen, and Colin Murray.

“Coming out of Covid we wanted to demonstrate ambition,” said Reedijk. “So there is work that we know audiences will be interested in like Carmen and Don Giovanni, but also something of the scale of Trittico, the artistic diversity of Ainadamar, and the curiosity of Candide for people to respond to.”

Nor is that the full story of course. Already announced are new dates for the company’s travelling outdoor shows, Pop-Up Opera, and two tours of Opera Highlights to community halls across Scotland. Building on the success of the Puccini Collection concert in Dundee’s Caird Hall, which incorporated long scenes from the composer’s operas in concert, The Verdi Collection will play in Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stratford will direct the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and sections of Otello, Don Carlos and La Forza del Destino will feature.

There will also be a staged concert performance of Massenet rarity Therese at East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival and in Perth Concert Hall in September, directed by Roxana Haines with Estonian Anu Tali conducting. Haines also directs the Scottish Opera Young Company’s summer show, Rubble, composed by Gareth Williams with a libretto by Johnny McKnight, and Young Company Artistic Director Chris Gray conducting. And Gray MDs a touring revival of the Lliam Paterson’s opera for babies, BambinO, with Charlotte Hoather and Samuel Pantcheff.

All of which means that Scottish Opera will more than achieve the aim of its CEO that it visits 60 places in Scotland to mark that anniversary year. “We are in good order, and in good health,” said Reedijk.

General booking for Scottish Opera’s new season opens on Tuesday, May 31. More information is available at scottishopera.org.uk.

Picture: Scottish Opera’s 1988 production of Candide

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

When it comes to reflecting on Thomas Dausgaard’s 6-year tenure as principal conductor of the BBC SSO, it could very well be that his swan song will be seen as his greatest moment. At least, that was the immediate impression gleaned from last Thursday’s concert. It marked the midway point in what should have been his valedictory vision of all six Nielsen symphonies – he called off January’s opening performance of the Third, but made it for the Sixth in March – which ends this coming Thursday with a mighty two-pronged finale of Nos 1 and 4 (The Inextinguishable).

In this case, we heard the Symphony No 2, The Four Temperaments, one of the composer’s most gritty and direct, placed in the second half as a plain-speaking riposte to the burning fervour of Bartok’s ballet score The Wooden Prince. From the word go – an impatient and decisive downbeat that carried the ballistic shock effect of an Olympic starting gun – Dausgaard had the SSO playing with penetrating rhythmic bite and an immediate sense of propulsion that foretold the unceasing excitement about to unfold. 

Each movement relates to four Ancient Greek temperaments – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine – their characteristics filtered, in Nielsen’s case, through crude images he observed on the walls of a rural Danish pub. What transpires is a sequence of edgy, to-the-point musical representations, devilishly curt in both expression and length, but all the more visceral and entertaining for it.

The journey from feverish impetuosity in the opening Allegro collerico and dismissive charm of the scherzo-like Allegro commode e flemmatico, through the ultimate resignation of the slow movement (Andante malinconico) to carefree exuberance of the concluding Allegro sanguineo, was a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride.

Before that, the 1932 shortened version by Bartok of his The Wooden Prince, asked naturally for more expansive treatment, which it received by way of Dausgaard’s impassioned but unobtrusive approach. More than he often does, and without losing a hold over the big picture, he allowed the SSO ample scope to shape its own take on the descriptive tale of a prince whose ruse to win the heart of a princess by creating a puppet of himself initially backfires when the princess falls for the puppet.

The music itself was revelatory, Bartok dipping into a sea of derivatives, from Wagner to Stravinsky, yet marking his own presence with signature affirmation. If there was room for Dausgaard to exercise some of the same ferocity he applied later to the Nielsen, there was plenty in this performance to signal its fascination and extreme worth.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

SCO/ Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s marketing department sold this season-closer under the banner “Maxim’s Firebird” and energetic Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev obliged by delivering a singular account of Stravinsky’s score that was only predictable in its unpredictability.

Preceded by the encapsulation of Beethoven’s craft that is the Leonore Overture No 3 and the equally compact and radical First Violin Concerto of Prokofiev, with Alina Ibragimova as soloist, this was a concert of music usually heard by larger orchestras performed by a big edition of the SCO that made explicit use and purpose of its chamber music sensibilities.

In all cases, but especially in the Stravinsky, the result was revelatory. There were details in the music that appeared fresh and newly-minted; from Simon Smith’s celesta and piano and Eleanor Hudson’s harp on the one hand, and from first horn Zoe Tweed, first flute Daniel Pailthorpe and the regulars on the reed instruments on the other.

Just as important, though, was the dynamic control the conductor produced from the musicians all evening. That was evident in his clear insistence on playing more softly at the start of the Beethoven, and reached its apotheosis in the sequence of Rondo, Infernal dance, Lullaby and Hymn at the culmination of the Stravinsky. There have been louder Firebirds, but few with such contrasts in sound and mood, turning on a sixpence with breath-catching impact, and with a momentum that was truly magnificent.

Towards the end of Overture, following a perfectly positioned off-stage trumpet, there was a brief sense that the winds were overloud, even as the strings produced an impressive pianissimo, but in the Firebird Suite (the version Stravinsky made in 1945) the balance was always fascinating. It should be remembered that this is the hall in which Emelyanychev and the SCO worked on filmed music during lockdown, so they know the acoustic well.

That applied to the concerto as well, with Ibragimova fully on board with the project and projecting her own virtuosity at often daringly low volume. The opening Andantino began very quietly indeed and even the central, speedy Scherzo: Vivacissimo was working to hairline tolerances in terms of balance between soloist and ensemble. The concerto may not have had the narrative of the other works on the programme, but it lacked nothing in drama. The lyricism that reappears in the final movement was combined with a powerful edge, honed like tempered steel.

As former chief conductor Robin Ticciati steered the SCO into spheres of music it had previously not visited, as well as recalibrating more familiar repertoire, so too, in his own inimitable style, has Maxim Emelyanychev. He may, however, be bringing a more radical, and – crucially – more intimate approach to that aspect of his job.

Keith Bruce

Concert repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and City Halls, Glasgow tonight and tomorrow.
Picture: Alina Ibragimova

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