Author Archives: VoxCarnyx

Scottish Opera: Baroque Masters

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

Another corps of string players from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera joined leader Anthony Moffat for the last of the outdoor lunchtime concerts on the set of the current production of Falstaff, offering a programme of early music with one short nod to the band’s operatic repertoire.

That anomaly, Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) sat less uncomfortably among the Purcell, Vivaldi and Bach than you might think. Stylistically from another era, and with very different melancholic chords, the ensemble sound was not so far from the slow movements of two of the Italian composer’s Four Seasons: Spring and Summer.

And ensemble sound was what it was all about. This was no virtuoso excursion for Tony Moffat, and if your favourite recording of the Vivaldi warhorse is the one by Nigel Kennedy, you may well have been left disappointed.

This Spring was a very understated one, and none the worse for that. It was very precise and measured and not at all splashy. And although the Presto finale of Summer was not short of pace, it was kept on a pretty tight rein. Those who come to the same venue on Sunday or Monday for the Scottish Ensemble playing the full year of Seasons may expect to hear something less placid.

The dynamics and tempo perhaps took their cue from the opening work, Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s Chaconne in G Minor. Britten wrote this work in his mid-30s, revising it 15 years later, and there is something of the schoolmaster and the Young Person’s Guide in the way the ground bass drops out to expose the upper strings and then returns with a bit of a bang.

All of which meant that the final piece, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, made the most impact in the hour, as the addition of solo flute, oboe and trumpet alongside Moffat at the front of the stage perhaps always made likely. With Kirstie Logan on oboe and guest flautist Taylor McLennan, the man to watch was the orchestra’s new first trumpet Paul Bosworth. He made light work of the stratospheric, nimble-fingered part, particularly in the opening of the last movement.

Although there had been a couple of lapses in intonation earlier, the ensemble strings made a rich sound here, and the propulsive continuo from Derek Clark at the keyboard with Martin Storey and Marie Connell on cellos and Peter Fry’s bass added a bit of welcome oomph.
Keith Bruce

Dunedin Consort / Bach

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

“It is the old Old Covenant. Man you must die!” These words, set as a grim fugue in Bach’s cantata “Gottes Zeit its die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus)” BWV 1043, have perhaps a natural resonance in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, where the signing of the National Covenant took place in 1638, and where the Dunedin Consort marked the start of its 25th Anniversary celebrations with a welcome return to performance before a live but limited audience. 

There’s an overriding calm about this work which translated into a gorgeous, relaxed warmth in Dunedin’s hands. The scoring for strings and two recorders also cut a tonal picture of softness and serenity, the focused purity of the voices colouring the cantata’s sometimes dismal message with hope and lustre.

It was a vintage Dunedin performance, director John Butt creating a magical cohesive entity out of the constituent sections, yet finding so many moments to let the music breathe, and signing off with a suitably accepting throwaway gesture. Musicality and spirituality combined in the most natural and enchanting ways, simple details such as the delicious woody quality of the chamber organ distinguishing this captivating presentation.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins introduced Dunedin regulars to the ensemble’s new leader, Matthew Truscott, who teamed up with Dunedin veteran Huw Daniel for the joint solo roles. Here was another inspired meeting of minds, each playing instinctively off the other, weaving the two-way musical conversation seamlessly, slickly underpinned by minimal ripieno strings. Either side of the central Largo, its artfully spun-out message loaded with unfussy sentiment, the outer movements were stylish, effortless perfection.

Against the funereal reticence of the opening cantata, the Pentecostal “O ewiges Feuer” BWV 34, with heraldic Baroque trumpets, provided a fiery, but ever-polished finish. There were gorgeously tender moments – the sublime central alto aria sung with utterly melting eloquence by Jess Dandy – but this was ultimately a statement of unquenchable optimism, as expressed in the outer choruses. The perfect message for such a heartening occasion.
Ken Walton

Available to view for 30 days at www.dunedin-consort.org.uk

Scottish Opera: Falstaff

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

There can be no great mystery why Verdi’s last opera has proved so popular in recent years, with productions at New York Met, by Laurent Pelly in France, and most recently with Bryn Terfel singing the title role at Grange Park. What can it be in a work about an over-weight amoral acquisitive sexist boor who gets his come-uppance that resonates so clearly in our times?

Thankfully Sir David McVicar’s new production, destined for Santa Fe Opera via an Edinburgh International Festival run, is not just caricature, and carries a conviction that even if the ensemble sings that life is farce, it has its serious side too.

From a rambunctious start with Roland Wood being rolled to the front of a stage in a bed he is sharing with an improbable number of others alongside his Doll-for-the-night, this is a boisterous, busy show where it pays to keep an eye on all corners of McVicar’s elegant tiered timber set. But all that choreography (by Andrew George) goes alongside some fine characterisation. From his first scene address to Bardolph and Pistol (Jamie MacDougall and Alastair Miles) about ‘honour’, there is a dark malevolence to Wood’s Sir John Falstaff that means he is never a mere figure of fun. That aria also marks the first pinnacle in what is a towering vocal performance, very possibly the baritone’s finest in a career that has already made him a Scottish Opera favourite.

There are a few of those in this cast, including Sioned Gwen Davies from Flight and Nixon in China, who is Meg Page, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mimi in the fine Boheme that played this same car park in rather less lavish style last September.

Technically, this Covid-era production at the Scottish Opera Production Centre is a big step up. It is obvious in the staging and audible in the sound, with the orchestra and conductor Stuart Stratford under cover in the building next door but every detail of the orchestration audible through the PA, and perfectly mixed with the voices, solo, ensemble, and chorus, arranged by gender on either side of the stage. Occasionally some words of Amanda Holden’s witty English translation of the libretto may be lost on the wind, but for the most part everyone is clearly audible in a cast of singers without a single weak link, and some other quite exceptional performances, including Gemma Summerfield as Nannetta.

Verdi’s sympathies with the women of Windsor, as opposed to the devious, pompous and sometimes hapless men, are never in doubt. McVicar adds his own sumptuous gloss to that in their costuming: the plot may have the men constantly dressing up to disguise or seduce, but the director gives his female cast members more changes of frock than Beyoncé.

Even that cannot rival the theatricality, all scrupulously in period, that he then unleashes for the final scene at Herne’s Oak in Windsor Park. Verdi’s score famously culminates in a fiendish fugue for all the principals, lined up across the stage, and this staging precedes that with a glorious spectacle of puppetry and costumes that makes Bardolph’s ultimate duping of Caius and Ford in the cause of young love all the more believable.

Keith Bruce

New Music Award Winners

The prize for Best Recording of New Music in this year’s Scottish Awards, sponsored by VoxCarnyx for the first time this year, has been awarded jointly to composer David Fennessy for Letters and to the double disc document The Night With . . .Live Vol. 1.

It was the only occasion in which the judges reached a split decision, although other nominees emerged from last night’s ceremony with a share of the spoils in more than one category.

The Scottish Awards for New Music ceremony was streamed live from the RSNO Centre in Glasgow, hosted by Scottish-based mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker, who will be appearing with the Chineke! Orchestra at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

The event included a live performance of Eddie McGuire’s Legend, performed by Nordic Viola (a.k.a. the RSNO’s Katherine Wren) in memory of its dedicatee, James Durrant, teacher of generations of Scottish musicians.

The strong shortlist of nominees reflected the resilience of Scotland’s contemporary music community in very difficult times. The Nevis Ensemble, Scottish Ensemble and composer Aileen Sweeney were big winners on the night, all achieving recognition in more than one of the 13 categories.

The full list of winners of the Scottish Awards for New Music 2021 is as follows:

Good Spirits Co Award for Innovation in New Traditional Music

–      The Declaration: GRIT Orchestra 

Award for Large Scale New Work (11+ performers), sponsored by PRS for Music

–      Above the Stars: Aileen Sweeney

Mark McKergow Award for Innovation in New Jazz Music

–      Corto Alto: Liam Shortall

Award for Installation/Sound Art/Electroacoustic New Work

–      these bones, this flesh, this skin: Martin Suckling with Joan Clevillé and Genevieve Reeves

The ISM Award for New Music in Covid Times

–      Lochan Sketches: Nevis Ensemble

Award for Environmental Sustainability

–      Scottish Classical Sustainability Group: Nevis Ensemble/Scottish Ensemble/various

Award for the Recording of New Music, sponsored by VoxCarynx

–      The Night With… Live Vol. 1

–      Letters: David Fennessy

The Dorico Award for Small/Medium Scale Work, sponsored by Steinberg

–      Plastica: Edwin Hillier

The Dorico Award for Solo Work, sponsored by Steinberg.

–      Skydance: Ailie Robertson

The SMIA Award for Creative Programming

–      2020 programme: Scottish Ensemble

The RCS Award for Education/Community Project

–      StAMP: Wallace Collection/St Andrew’s University

Award for New Music in Media

–    Sayo: Luci Holland

The RCS Award for Making It Happen

–    Aileen Sweeney and Ben Eames: Ear to the Ground

The awards are created by New Music Scotland with support from the National Lottery through Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund.www.newmusicscotland.co.uk/awards2021/

Shakespeare By Divas

 Nigel Osborne talks to KEN WALTON about composing the music for a new theatrical production of King Lear with a cast of opera singers 

When Shostakovich composed music for a 1940s Soviet stage production of King Lear, audiences may have been surprised to hear Jingle Bells appear as one of its main melodies. Eighty years on, Scots-based composer Nigel Osborne has called on songs he claims he heard as a foetus as inspiration for the music he has written for the same Shakespearean tragedy.

“I’m not being weird,’ insists the retired Edinburgh music professor. “Babies from the third trimester remember music heard in the womb. My mother, from Scots-Irish stock, enjoyed singing, especially those popular songs of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. I know that at that time in her pregnancy she was very worried – my father was suffering a nervous breakdown. She would sing herself to sleep with songs by Doris Day and the likes. I’m sure I emotionally remember that.”

For Osborne, these seemed the perfect model for the Fool’s songs, “so reminiscent of postwar Britain – soggy, funny and nostalgic.” As award-wining opera director Keith Warner intended to set his Grange Festival production of Lear in postwar Britain, why not respond with a corresponding musical style?

Mention of opera is key to understanding the novelty of this production. A quick look at the cast list helps explain why: veteran Wagnerian bass Sir John Tomlinson as Lear; tenor Sir Thomas Allen as Gloucester; soprano Susan Bullock as Goneril; tenor Kim Begley as the Fool; the brilliant upcoming soprano (and Edinburgh graduate) Louise Alder as Cordelia; the list of opera stars goes on. But why stage a theatre production at an opera and dance festival played by a cast of sixteen singers?

“It began with discussions between Keith and singers like John and Kim around the fact that the world doesn’t know opera singers can act,” Osborne explains. “They wanted to create a show that proved they can. King Lear is a great choice, one of the darkest, most emotional pieces you can imagine. This is where a singer’s voice quality is unique. They don’t bellow, but exert extraordinary control over every shade of their voices. They bring something special to Shakespeare.”

As such, this project has given Osborne the opportunity to think way out the box. For a start, there are no instruments involved. “We had these great singers, so I said why aren’t the voices the orchestra, in fact the whole sound design? They um’d and ah’d a bit, then turned round and said ‘great idea’.”

John Tomlinson in rehearsal as King Lear. Credit Clive Barda


If anyone else had suggested such an approach, they might have been laughed off the set, but Osborne has a proven track record in making people do things out of their comfort zone. He has dedicated much of his life applying his musical energy and creativity to aid work in the worst war-torn areas of the world, on projects to rehabilitate displaced children in the Balkans, India, Middle East and Africa. 

Nearer to home – he lives in the Scottish Borders – Osborne is currently engaged in a game-changing music therapy programme with the NHS in England, helping frontline workers to write songs as a means of alleviating their own trauma in the face of Covid. He’s convinced well-known artists to work with him – Sting, K T Tunstall and Eric Clapton among them – creating online technology and providing the musical support needed to help participants achieve extraordinary results.

“We’ve had all sorts of musical styles: jazzy ballads, folk and rock, and stuff that’s on the fringes of Kurt Weill-like music theatre,” he says. “One group of frontline surgeons and GPs wrote of the impossible decisions they were having to make every day, that sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and who’s going to die today?” 

Theatre has played its own part in Osborne’s renowned rehabilitation programmes. He’s the house composer for the Ulysses Theatre in Istria, where in 2000, not long after the war in Yugoslavia, he cut his teeth with King Lear. “We invited people from different parts of the former Yugoslavia to work together,” he recalls. “Most of the actors had opposed fascism and genocide and had been exiled or imprisoned. Lear is about a kingdom divided. It was like them telling their own story.”

And it was in Istria that Osborne explored ways of using extended vocal techniques in theatre. “It was through phonetics,” he says. “To be really crude about it, you can ask actors to make the sound of the wind, as they often do, and it’s terrible, because it begins as a mannered parody and ends up falling to bits after a few nights because there’s no discipline underpinning it.”

Fast forward to the Grange Festival today, where Osborne has been working on Lear with opera singers who thrive on discipline. “Singers hate the arbitrary,” he insists, which has allowed him to explore more deeply the possibilities and intricacies of a soundtrack driven by detailed analysis of the phonetics in such phrases as Lear’s “Blow, winds!”. 

The end result is a conflict of extreme musical worlds; those “soggy, sentimental post-war songs”, and a mysterious underpinning modernism built on vocalised harmonies etched out of weird scales. Sometimes these worlds collide. “Step by step, a whole-tone chord can become a 1950s George Shearing harmony. The brutal sounds of nature become nostalgic reminiscences.”

With such extensive experience of composing for opera and theatre – he was master of music at London’s Globe Theatre, and his operas have premiered world-wide from Glyndebourne and Scottish Opera to Oslo and Vienna – Osborne has the wit and confidence to allow the cast a certain creative flexibility. Not every aspect of his score is prescriptive. “Most singers have had to follow the detailed instructions of composers their whole lives. At the very moment they don’t, I’m not going to come along and give them instructions. Everything, then, is in their hands.”

Such moments, he says, are simply intended “to insinuate”, and they are liberating for the performers and the play. Is a Shakespeare audience ready for it? “I’m imagining a lot of knee-jerk reactions, but I’m happy with what I’ve done. It doesn’t bother me if some don’t like it. I just hope people will see something profound going on.” 

The Grange Festival’s production of King Lear runs from 14-17 July. Full information at www.thegrangefestival.co.uk

Scottish Opera: Dvorak, Stravinsky

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

Music director of Scottish Opera Stuart Stratford brought the affable and informative presentation style familiar from the company’s orchestral concerts at the Theatre Royal to what he called “the most exciting car park in Glasgow” on Tuesday lunchtime.

The winds and brass of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera moved to the front of the temporary stage built for the company’s production of Falstaff for the second of the musicians’ showcase concerts as part of the company’s Live at No.40 season. The third is on July 16, after a run of performances of Verdi’s Falstaff and a Citizens Theatre production of The Comedy of Errors.

Whatever stylistic playfulness directors Sir David McVicar and Dominic Hill bring to those, the composers featured in this recital had their own to display. Although from different eras and with different instrumentation, they all used form and styles to inventively explore and entertain.

The most familiar work, Dvorak’s Serenade for Winds, was led by the beautifully-rounded tone of Amy Turner’s oboe. What was especially notable, however, was the crucial role in the orchestration played by the two string players, Peter Fry’s double bass and especially Martin Storey’s cello. It was not until the second movement Minuetto that the horns settled into the groove, but the overall ensemble sound by the counterpoint of the Finale was very rich indeed.

As is the combination of instruments in Stravinsky’s 1923 Octet, with the composer’s use of muted brass and exploitation on the clarinet’s lower chalumeau register crucial to the colours. As conductor Stratford introduced it, there are indeed “classical” references in the modernist composer’s writing, but there are also suggestions of minimalism to come in the repetitions of some phrases, in what is a tricky and fascinating piece.

Enrique Crespo’s Suite Americana No.1 also has considerable difficulties for the players of the brass quintet, and its exploration of five dance forms would also be a challenge to actually dance to.  The shifting rhythms of the bossa nova, oompah waltz, and soundtracky samba are all great fun though. This evocation of South America almost brought the sun out.

Keith Bruce

RSNO Concert Dates

Those anxious to pencil concert dates into the latter months of their 2021 diaries can look forward to a new RSNO season running from October to December.

In an announcement due to be fleshed out in a full season launch later in the summer, when tickets will go on sale subject to government guidelines, Scotland’s national orchestra has unveiled the headline attractions of seven programmes. All will be played in Glasgow and six of them in Edinburgh, with one-off concerts in Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth.

In a cute terminological nod to the more-indulged sports sector, there are pre-season friendlies away in Aberdeen and Dundee on October 6 and 7 before a home performance of Mozart’s popular Clarinet Concerto in Glasgow on Friday October 8. The season proper begins with Music Director Thomas Sondergard conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird on Friday October 22 and Saturday October 23 in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Sondergard returns to the podium on the first weekend in November and again a fortnight later with Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall concerts of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony “From the New World”, and then the Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius. On the weekend in between, Michael Schonwandt conducts Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

South Korean pianist Sunwook Kim, who stepped in at short notice to play the RSNO’s last concerts before lockdown in March 2020, returns to play Brahms Piano Concerto No1 in Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow on November 25-27, and Principal Guest Conductor Elim Chan brings the series to a close with seasonal concerts of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in Edinburgh and Glasgow on December 3 and 4.

rsno.org.uk

Scottish Opera: Serenades & Idylls

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

How wonderful it is to see orchestral musicians back on stage, and just as welcoming to be part of the live audience watching them perform with Sir David McVicar’s imposing set for the company’s current production of Verdi’s Falstaff as an adorning backdrop.

This was the first in a series of lunchtime concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, part of the company’s Live at 40 series. And even with the weather somewhat soggy, and the auditorium a wall-less marquee in the grounds of Scottish Opera’s production centre, it was a happy atmosphere.

If the programme, divided equally between separate string and wind ensembles, reminded us of anything, it was that winds have always been a better outdoor bet than strings. The former also benefitted from a conductor – the company’s Emerging Artist Repetiteur Toby Hession – while the strings took the conductor-less route with associate leader Katie Hull directing from the front violin desk.

As an opener, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was a great idea, a work full of seasoned passion but with a willowy leisureliness perfect for this time of day. It may just have been that the semi-outdoor acoustic allowed the fruitiness of the ensemble to dissolve into the wider ether, but much of this performance seemed distant and self-contained. Where the central Larghetto had a summer evening stillness about it, the sun was missing. It was all a bit featureless.

More intriguing was Hull’s own arrangement for string orchestra of Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls, which effectively amplifies the original string quartet version into something much rounder and richer. Even then, the opening two idylls cried out for more exaggerated expression, vindication of which came in the final Allegro con moto, invigorated by a cello springboard opening that instantly incited greater alertness, character and swagger from the players.

After a full and lengthy stage switch, the winds opened with Gounod’s Petite Symphonie, something of a trifle in symphonic terms, but enjoyable for its operatic leanings and, beyond a stern opening Adagio, its joie de vivre. Hession’s unfussy direction harnessed a confident rhythmic assuredness from the outset. The gorgeous flute solo (Eilidh Gillespie) in the Andante cantabile was quintessential arioso, the Scherzo a sprightly captivating gallop. This performance connected well with the unconventional space.

For the most part, so did Richard Strauss’ E flat Serenade. Early signs of the composer’s penchant for ripe horn melodies were wonderfully evident, and Hession never got in the way of the music’s natural flow, from the chorale-like solidity of the opening, through its modest surges and on to its restful conclusion.

There are more of these concerts to come. They are a great idea and invaluable for instrumentalist who have suffered considerable concert deprivation over the past year. There’s inevitable city noise all around, but somehow it adds to the occasion.

Ken Walton

EAST NEUK: Lewis, Shibe/Baker

East Neuk Festival

Paul Lewis

Sean Shibe/Benjamin Baker

The live performances at a briefer East Neuk Festival – for a much-circumscribed audience capacity – may be over for the summer, but other aspects of it can be enjoyed online until August 1 via its website. Short films of very high quality sound and vision include performances by artists who were not part of the live events, like the Tallis Scholars and pianist Llyr Williams, as well as different projects by some of those who were, including violinist Benjamin Baker and guitarist Sean Shibe.

Those two combined forces at the Bowhouse on Saturday morning to play music by Arvo Part, Manuel de Falla and Bela Bartok in a recital that was far-removed from their individual film excursions into solo violin Bach and acoustic and electric guitar quartets.

There was an overlap in that Part’s Summa features in the films of Shibe’s guitar collective and his Fratres began the live concert, with the equally soundtrack-familiar Spiegel im Spiegel mirroring it (appropriately enough) at the end, when Baker was joined by his regular recital partner, Daniel Lebhardt.

Shibe, who had a solo spot playing Mompou from his forthcoming debut collection for the Pentatone label, was slightly the junior partner in the duos, if only because the stylistic switching required of the violinist in tackling the different composers was the more ear-catching. Baker was chill and precise in the minimalist music, with all that work on Bach with the Royal Conservatoire’s Head of Strings David Watkins doubtless bearing more modern fruit, and fruity and sassy in the Seven Spanish Songs and Romanian Dances.

He and Lebhardt also played the biggest work in the programme, the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Highland Scenes. If there were particularly Scottish references in the broad topography of Kaner’s demanding score, which had huge variation of tone, range and dynamics, they escaped me on first listen, but I’ll be keen to re-assess that impression when the recording is broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Pianist Paul Lewis was the big name live attraction at the Bowhouse, with concerts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Making his debut at the festival, the first programme was one that was a product of the pandemic – a single span of an hour and a quarter with only one brief pause for applause after the first work.

It was Mozart’s Sonata in A K331, on which the ringing tone of the Steinway hinted at what was to come, as did the clear impression from the opening bars that Lewis was as concerned with the arc of the whole work as its finer details, beautifully played though they were. That applause break was brief as Lewis sat down quickly, without leaving the stage, to enter the very different sound-world, and mindset, of Scriabin. The condensed expression of the Five Preludes the pianist treated as a preface to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, leaving no space between the last of those and the first Promenade.

This was as dynamic a Pictures as you are likely to hear, and if not to the taste of all, hugely exciting to my ears. Crucially, it at no point brought to mind the work’s later orchestration: this was pianism at full throttle. It was also, when it should be, very loud, the chords bouncing around the reverberant acoustic. The impression was of a musician exploiting the limitations of the venue with all his skills, stomping on the forte pedal of the concert grand like a man possessed. Importantly, though, no detail was lost, even in passages that were played faster than I had ever heard them.

After that, Sunday afternoon’s recital could only be a more sober affair, even if its biggest piece was Schubert’s Sonata in B, which is a bouncy imperious work, full of dances and marches. Mozart’s rather dark Adagio in B minor and five of Mendelssohn’s loveliest Songs Without Words, ending with the gorgeous hymn-like Opus 30 No 3, began the published programme, and Lewis added Schubert’s Allegretto in C Minor as an encore. The whole afternoon was a masterclass of the best piano writing.

eastneukfestival.com

Keith Bruce

EAST NEUK: Castalian / Tsoy

Bowhouse, St Monans, Fife

The East Neuk Festival has a long and successful record in platforming the best young string quartets. A central presence in this year’s downscaled live Festival activity – a much-welcomed three-day concentration of socially-distances concerts in the spacious Bowhouse venue near St Monans – was the Castalian Quartet, ten years old this year, but still very much part of the younger generation UK ensembles scene with a 2019 Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist of the Year award to prove it.

They gave two concerts in Fife last weekend: one on Saturday that tested their mettle (and Beethoven’s) against the torrents of rain crashing down on the Bowhouse roof; the other with a double dose of sunny Mendelssohn that wasn’t all it seemed, but which played out under more clement East Neuk skies.

In either case, the punchy individuality of this ensemble was a steady theme. It was Beethoven’s first composed quartet, Op18 No3, that came with foul-weather accompaniment, despite which the Castalians, with smiling acceptance, breathed continuous fresh thoughts into the music. Their teamwork was intuitive, the phrases rising and ebbing in natural, unanimous undulations. This opening performance took a moment to settle, but when it did their completeness fed the music with mirth, muscle and, when called for, a profound reflectiveness. 

It was paired with Dvorak’s last completed quartet, Op105, a work of intense emotional ambivalence that plays out like a tussle between the heart and the head. The players embraced that challenge, chasing the debate through the stormy passions of the opening two movements, the darker moods of the Lento, and the whirlwind finale, where doubts are finally dispelled.

Sunday’s second concert played games with the name Mendelssohn. For these were two quartets by different siblings – the famous Felix and his almost-as-famous sister Fanny – and second violinist Daniel Roberts made the most of a superbly concocted introduction that avoided telling us which was which. That, he said, would be put to a show of hands at the end. The majority got it right.

The superior consistency and seamless craftsmanship of Felix’s Quartet in F minor Op80 was evident from the the start, and a seething, virtuoso performance by the Castilians nailed it completely. The whole performance was lifted by crafty subtleties of interplay, expressive precision and, in the finale, fearless bravado. In Fanny’s E Flat Quartet – dedicated to the memory of her predeceased brother – they homed in on the gentler lyrical DNA, but equally revelled in another wild and dangerous finale.

This East Neuk series began on Friday with a solo recital by the young Russian pianist Samson Tsoy. His pairing of pieces was one of extremes. He opened with a selection of Geörgy Kurtág’s short and irreverent Játékok pieces, effectively games for the piano in which the composer indulges mean and mischievous humour. Guaranteed to jolt an audience into life is Hommage a Csajkovszkij, a grotesque play on the opening piano chords of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which are converted into an eruption of emphatic forearm clusters.

Tsoy, clearly at home in this ironic style, chose six of the pieces, including the more delicate Hommage a Schubert, which seemed a perfect teaser for the Schubert B flat Sonata that was to follow.

It was in that late Schubert sonata that Tsoy’s focus seemed to weaken. His articulation of the lyrical line was judiciously firm, and there was serious thought put into the character and shape of individual paragraphs. But as a whole, this performance was over-thought, in some cases over-wrought. Schubert doesn’t simply play itself, but there are natural dimensions within which his music is best kept. Tsoy took us into a more indulgent place.
Ken Walton 

Additional online activity from ENF is available to view till 1 Augustat  https://eastneukfestival.com/events/online/

IDYLLS AND IDEALS

Scottish Opera is showcasing its orchestra in a series of lunchtime concerts alongside its new production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Music director Stuart Stratford speaks to Keith Bruce.

Destined for indoor performances at the Festival Theatre as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Sir David McVicar’s new production of Falstaff is also giving Scottish Opera the focus for its own summer festival at its rehearsal space in Glasgow’s Edington Street. The Citizens Theatre, Scottish Ensemble and Scottish Opera Young Company are also part of a programme that runs to August 1 and sees the revival of concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, the first two of which are between the first two performances of the opera on July 5 and 6, with the third to follow on July 16.

Effectively these have become sectional showcases, offering all the players in the orchestra a chance to hone and display their skills. Falstaff will feature the biggest orchestra the company has been able to field since the start of the pandemic, while the concerts are three programmes of large-scale chamber music.

Music director Stuart Stratford explains: “It is all happening on the stage with the Falstaff set still there.

“We had to keep the numbers of the orchestra down, so the maximum number of players we can have is 15 with social distancing. That was one of the factors in deciding the programme, and we wanted to use as many players in the orchestra as possible over the three concerts. I think we utilised every player in one concert or another except for harp, timpani and percussion.

“It is all about getting us playing again and showing the depth of talent across the orchestra, not just the principal players. So the strings are split into two groups, one led by our assistant leader Katie Hull in the first concert, playing Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and the Three Idylls by Frank Bridge and then leader Tony Moffat leads the other half of the strings in the concert that he is curating with Bach’s Brandenburg 2, Vivaldi, Purcell and Puccini. It is all about a celebration of the orchestra and the repertoire stemmed from that – pieces that showed off our assets.”

The third concert is a showcase for the winds and brass of the orchestra, with music by Dvorak, Stravinsky, and Enrique Crespo.

The horn section of The Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Credit Beth Chalmers.

“I asked for suggestions from everyone. Many of the players suggested the Petite Symphonie by Gounod. Several people suggested the Dvorak Serenade for Winds. I was really keen to do the Stravinsky Octet as it is one of the few chamber pieces that has a bass trombone in it.

“I was delighted that Katie chose to include the Frank Bridge Three Idylls, which is beautiful and not that well known, and makes a nice pairing with the Elgar String Serenade. The Crespo I didn’t know at all. It is a brass quintet that really fitted the brief and it’s a real firework piece to end the brass and wind concert.”

The profile that the orchestra has enjoyed within the company over the recent difficult times looks from the outside to have been in marked contrast to the relationship Scottish Opera had with its musicians in recent years, when the company ceased to have a full-time chorus and put the players on part-time concerts.

That is an impression confirmed from the inside.

A long-term member of the orchestra told VoxCarnyx: “This last year and a half we’ve felt really connected and part of the company for the first time in about a decade. They’ve worked very hard to include us in their future plans. We know we are an integral part of the opera company but it hasn’t always felt like that. We have felt fully supported by Scottish Opera throughout this whole this period. Our artistic value may not have been fully appreciate in the past, but we have done lots of meaningful work during the pandemic.

“These concerts have been thought about very carefully, how to make it work for the size and the space and the players that they have. It’s such a good way to keep everyone’s playing in good form.”

Stratford is clearly proud of the work that the company has done in difficult times, from the film of Menotti’s The Telephone for last year’s Edinburgh Festival through online staged versions of Mozart, Janacek, Humperdinck, and most recently Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore.

“We have tried to keep people going. It is so important not just for their fingers and lips but for people’s mental health as well. We have been able to keep people busy in a meaningful way.”

The Orchestra of Scottish Opera performs as part of the Live at No.40 season on July 5, 6, and 16 at 1pm. Full details and booking information at scottishopera.org.uk

Main Image: Principal oboe Amy Turner with The Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Credit Beth Chalmers.

RSNO/Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There was no denying the enthusiasm that the players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and its Danish music director Thomas Sondergard, brought to their first live concert in their home venue in well over a year. As the conductor said before he lifted his baton, it was his treat to hear applause from a present audience, but also an important truth that any amount of individual practice only becomes meaningful with an audience in the hall.

The RSNO had chosen a tricky weekend to return, with the rival attraction of an England v Scotland football match for Friday evening in Perth Concert Hall and the televised finale of Cardiff Singer of the World on Saturday, but they did not have a huge number of tickets to sell. Weirdly, more listeners were permitted in Perth’s smaller hall (which had already pioneered post-pandemic live chamber music) than in the extravagantly-distanced seating on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It was a chamber-sized edition of the orchestra as well, but what a brilliantly-conceived programme of vibrant, colourful music Sondergard had chosen for them to play. On the face of it, here were three relative rarities of 20th century French composition, works by Ibert, Francaix and Poulenc; in reality we heard a glorious, compact exploration of the capabilities of an orchestra, as a collection of individual soloists, sections of similarly-played instruments, and as an entire ensemble. If a Parisian PhD student is currently working on a thesis about the supremacy of creativity in that era, Scotland’s national orchestra played the executive summary.

With just 15 strings, six winds and brass, timps, percussion and piano – every part utterly essential – Ibert’s Divertissement is a picturesque excursion that suggests a multitude of pathways (some of them very melodically familiar indeed) and pursues none of them. It is a glorious virtuosic tease of a piece, in which many individuals have engaging moments in the sun, but there are also big ensemble statements.

Principal oboe Adrian Wilson has been one of the recent stars of the RSNO’s online season, and he stepped out in front of the orchestra here for Francaix’s L’horloge de flore, a concerto in all but name, and one that shares as much of its inventive scoring with the orchestra. There was certainly sparkling solo work from Wilson, but the bassoons were also very busy and there are a number of differently-built ostinatos to indicate the workings of the clock.

The concert culminated in Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, which demonstrates both the tunefulness of the Ibert and a brilliance of rhythmic writing that draws the listener compellingly into its narrative, and  featured a lovely solo turn from first trumpet Chris Hart in its penultimate movement.

Welcome back, RSNO. Let’s have more very soon.Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera: L’elisir d’amore

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

As opera plots go, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is ostensibly unremarkable. The beautiful Adina is in love with the awkward Nemorino. We know from the outset they’re going to end up living happily ever after, but not before a quack doctor (Dulcamara) and military chancer (Belcore) delay the ultimate rapprochement with their risible delay tactics.

Thankfully there’s Donizetti’s music to make the two-hour journey worthwhile, an almost uninterrupted torrent of great tunes that give substance to the make-believe, tolerance to the silliness, and a reason why this opera remains so enjoyable nearly 200 years after it premiered in 1832.

L’elisir has played a memorable part in Scottish Opera’s history – a 1984 production famously using a 1930s’ Fiat 500 nicknamed Topolino as the vehicle of choice for Dulcamara’s triumphant entrance – and is back with the company once again, in partnership with Perth Festival, this time in a filmed stage production cognisant of Covid times, and directed by Roxana Haines who has been a creative beacon for the company during the past year.

Except that this production doesn’t quite set the heather alight. It’s handicapped for a start by the necessary confinement of the chorus to darkened seats in the audience stalls. Their presence should provide the visible buzz and spectacle in this Donizetti. It’s sorely missed.

That leaves us with the skeleton human interplay between the 5-strong solo cast and a permanent set of piecemeal trellis, scattered seating and fortepiano, the latter fulfilling a dual purpose of recitative accompaniment and stage prop, facilitated by the mute actor/pianist presence of Erika Gundesen.

Dynamic interaction is hampered by the need to keep distanced. Portrayals turn either to awkwardness or caricature.

So it’s back to the singing, and here we have something to shout about. All credit to a cast of mainly Scottish Opera Emerging Artists, one Royal Scottish Conservatoire student and the well-seasoned Roland Wood. 

From his opening aria, Chinese tenor Shengzhi Ren (ironic to have a Chinese singer cast as an Italian in the wake of Scottish Opera’s chastisement for casting westerners as Chinese in their production Nixon in China which they subsequently pulled last week from the South Bank Sky Arts Awards) finds fire and soul in the music of Nemorino, fearless in the topmost range, warm and emotive, with only a hint of fatigue midway that disappears as quickly as it arrives.

Catriona Hewitson cuts a formidable foil, just as intense in her vocal performance, from the tenderest sighs to the headiest effusions, often with a hint of mischievous. Arthur Bruce captures the stereotypical pomposity of Belcore, adding a vocal performance that is richly expressive and characterful. RCS student Elena Garrido Madrona looks and sings permanently perky as the frenetic Gianetta.

If stage experience shows, it’s in Roland Wood’s charismatic portrayal of Dulcamara. Compelling at every level, resonant and versatile of voice, his is a characterisation you can’t fail to believe in. He lights up this production.

There is fine playing, too, from Scottish Opera Orchestra, under the baton of music director Stuart Stratford and positioned rear stage behind the main action, a result of which is a glowing representation of Donizetti’s score, indeed moments where unexpected gems of orchestration are revealed to surprising beauty and effect.

Indeed, it’s the music that carries this production; it’s not a complete theatrical triumph. Could it be that we’ve just reached saturation point where online streaming is concerned? I suspect Scottish Opera’s next production, Verdi’s Falstaff to live audiences, will help us answer that.

Available to view at www.scottishopera.org.uk
Ken Walton

In partnership with Perth Festival of the Arts

New Music Awards

Despite all the extra hurdles that fate has been placed in its path over the past 15 months, the musical life of Scotland has continued to thrive, finding new ways to bring the best in composition and performance to the public, however it can be reached, and this website has been fortunate to be part of that effort.

VoxCarnyx is now delighted to be associated with the Scottish Awards for New Music in their fifth year of recognising innovation and creativity, and today we can exclusively reveal the shortlisted projects for the 13 awards this year. We are specifically associated with one of them, sponsoring the Award for Recording of New Music, to be chosen from Linda Buckley’s From Ocean’s Floor, David Fennessy’s Letters, the Live Volume 1 set of recordings from Matthew Whiteside’s The Night With . . . sessions, and LivMassive and Hessian Renegade’s Erocean.

The shortlist was selected by an impressive list of 22 panellists from across the UK music scene, including musicians, festival directors, composers and funders, and the winners will be announced in an online ceremony streamed live on the New Music Scotland website from the RSNO Centre in Glasgow on Wednesday July 7, hosted by writer and broadcaster Tom Service. The event will include a performance by Katherine Wren, of Nordic Viola and the RSNO, of Eddie McGuire’s Legend, in tribute to the late Jimmy Durrant.

Co-chair of New Music Scotland, Andy Saunders said of the shortlist: “The variety and number of works and projects nominated this year was incredibly impressive, given the situation that the music world has faced over the last year. There were some stunningly creative ideas, and a consistently high level of artistic integrity within the nominations. To see that so much brilliant music making was going on is nothing short of inspirational.”

The full shortlist of nominees for the Scottish Awards for New Music 2021 is as follows:

Good Spirits Co Award for Innovation in New Traditional Music

–      My Light Shines On: Aidan O’Rourke with Brìghde Chaimbeul, Bashir Saade, Rachel Sermani and Graeme Stephen/Edinburgh International Festival 

–      The Declaration: GRIT Orchestra 

–      Down the Line: Alastair Savage and Charli Ashton

Award for Large Scale New Work (11+ performers), sponsored by PRS for Music

–      Above the Stars: Aileen Sweeney

–      Pharmakeia: James Dillon

–      This Departing Landscape: Martin Suckling

–      Night Thoughts: Matthew Whiteside

–      Vigil I: Ninfea Currwell-Reade

Mark McKergow Award for Innovation in New Jazz Music

–      Corto Alto: Liam Shortall

–      Deepening the River: Paul Towndrow

–      Playtime

Award for Installation/Sound Art/Electroacoustic New Work

–      Be Mine in Patience: an embrace in B Minor – Michael Begg

–      Cheap Emotions: Darlene Zarabozo

–      Stolen Voices: Rebecca Collins

–      these bones, this flesh, this skin: Martin Suckling with Joan Clevillé and Genevieve Reeves

The ISM Award for New Music in Covid Times

–      Distant Duets: Drake Music Scotland/Tinderbox Collective

–      Be Mine in Patience: an embrace in B minor – Michael Begg

–      Lochan Sketches: Nevis Ensemble

–      Covid-19 Sound Map: Pete Stollery

Award for Environmental Sustainability

–      Let Them Not Say: Chris Hutchings/Choirs for Climate

–      Lochan Sketches: Nevis Ensemble

–      Scottish Classical Sustainability Group: Nevis Ensemble/Scottish Ensemble/various

Award for the Recording of New Music, sponsored by VoxCarynx

–      Erocean: LivMassive and Hessian Renegade

–      The Night With… Live Vol. 1

–      Letters: David Fennessy

–      From Ocean’s Floor: Linda Buckley

The Dorico Award for Small/Medium Scale Work, sponsored by Steinberg

–      Reflecting Instruments: David Horne             

–      High Energy Music: Nora Marazaite

–      Archipelago: transmissions between islands – Lisa Robertson

–      Plastica: Edwin Hillier

The Dorico Award for Solo Work, sponsored by Steinberg.

–      Skydance: Ailie Robertson

–      Her Lullaby: Martin Suckling

–      Curious-er: Sonia Allori

–      Omanjana: Simon Thacker

The SMIA Award for Creative Programming

–      Sonic Bites: Cryptic

–      Breathe and Draw: Nevis Ensemble/Alex Ho

–      Sound Festival 2020: Sound Scotland

–      2020 programme: Scottish Ensemble

The RCS Award for Education/Community Project

–      StAMP: Wallace Collection/St Andrew’s University

–      Intersections: Exploration 2020

–      Sonic Bothy

Award for New Music in Media

–    The Trial of Alex Salmond: Francis Macdonald

–    Sayo: Luci Holland

–    Henry Glassie Field Work: Linda Buckley

The RCS Award for Making It Happen

–    Aileen Sweeney and Ben Eames: Ear to the Ground

–    Ollie Hawker: The Owen Wilson Elegies

–    Rufus Isabel Eliot: OVER / AT

The awards are created by New Music Scotland with support from the National Lottery through Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund.

Announcement of the winners will be treamed online from the RSNO Centre via the NMS website on Wednesday July 7 at 8pm

www.newmusicscotland.co.uk/awards2021/

UnboundSound, Aberdeen

If you consume every morsel on your plate and read books through to the acknowledgements, you will appreciate the thorough approach of Aberdeen’s “new music incubator”, Sound, seizing the earliest opportunity to finish what it began in its last programme before embarking on whatever is possible for its next one.

That meant putting on the North East’s first concert in front of a live audience on Saturday night in Queen’s Cross Church, with Red Note Ensemble and soloist Richard Watkins, and then taking full advantage of the glorious weather the following day with two outdoor performances at Footdee, to give the area known locally as Fittie its Sunday name.

Until pandemic restrictions were lifted, Sound’s recent focus on the French horn had lacked Watkins’s performance of Philip Cashian’s Scenes from the Life of Viscount Medardo. Although the soloist had performed the piece previously with a pianist, this was the world premiere of the original scoring for a chamber ensemble, bringing together top players from Scotland’s orchestras with freelance specialists under the Red Note banner.

Cashian regularly finds inspiration in literary sources, and there is a huge amount going on in this sonic realisation of an Italo Calvino novella from the middle of the last century. The coincidence that its central battle between Italy and Turkey had been paralleled by a football match the previous evening went happily unremarked. With Ruth Morley switching to alto flute and Maximiliano Martin on bass clarinet, phrases were batted across the platform, with the virtuoso soloist using the reverberation of the church acoustic as part of his performance.

The piece was preceded by two works by young composers Sound has mentored, written for the same group of players, minus the horn. Aileen Sweeney’s Feda explores the medieval arboreal alphabet in three movements corresponding to birch, rowan and aspen, with the central one exploiting the combination of harp and violin. Rylan Gleave’s UNSUNG II; even from a loved one, is an extract from a longer, personal work which utilises the classic combination of flute and harp over a rocking two-note bass figure.

What all three pieces shared were fine, upbeat, ensemble finishes, that allowed the socially-distanced audience to bask in the delight of live performance once again.

Down by the dockside on Sunday afternoon, the French horn was to the fore again in the debut of Call, composed by Sound chairman Pete Stollery. Andy Saunders led a gradually-assembled group of seven players on one side of the entrance to the harbour, exchanging calls with two more on the far bank, and ultimately with the horns of vessels in the port.

The score resolved as an overlapping chorale of the old Alexander Brothers hit The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, surprisingly moving in itself but entirely upstaged by the Cyprus-registered offshore supply ship Normand Surfer, which added its own horn as it sailed out into the North Sea.

Stollery’s work, long in the planning and superb in execution, was preceded earlier in the day and a few yards away, by Esther Swift’s The Call, a three movement work which she was refining for the forces to hand that very morning. With two fiddles, cello, electric bass, bassoon, trumpet, flute, soprano sax, her own harp and a couple of singers, it included some very creative collective improvisation and ended on a lovely song of her own composition that spoke directly to the later commission.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Chan / Benedetti

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Regardless of the many obstacles that have had to be overcome, the RSNO has maintained the shape of its programme of work over recent months with a tenacity that does the organisation much credit. And as they have done since live performances were abruptly silenced in March 2020, the players of Scotland’s national orchestra step up to the plate here with thoughtful contributions to the online world, joining conductor Elim Chan and soloist Nicola Benedetti in making interesting spoken contributions to this concert film, as well as playing their socks off.

With a return to performing for audiences scheduled for next weekend in Perth and Glasgow, this concert neatly wraps up the current digital season, Benedetti returning as soloist for Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2 (having opened the series with No 1). That work completes the Polska Scotland strand of the season, while Christopher Duncan’s Stac Dona, which precedes it, is part of the Scotch Snaps strand.

Like the Craig Armstrong piece in April’s last concert, the latter is from the Lost Songs of St Kilda project, arranged by a young composer better known under his pop alias, C Duncan, whose parents have played with the orchestra and whose aunt still does. Scored for strings and harp, it is a very filmic, romantic piece that makes the most of its folk melody.

The Szymanowski also springs from its environment, Chan notes, in particular the mountains of Poland. This may have been the first time she and Benedetti had worked together, but both women are so familiar with the orchestra that introductions were unnecessary. Beginning with a rumbling piano chord and a duo of clarinets, it is a work that quickly becomes very intense, and virtuosic for the soloist, with powerful scoring for horns, brass and percussion.

A single 20-minute movement, its cadenza may be the work of the piece’s dedicatee, violinist Pawel Konchanski, but it is very much of a piece with the atmospheric and picturesque whole. This is a full-blooded performance, with some sparkling dialogue between Benedetti and the wind principals, and some gorgeous playing on the lower strings of her instrument on the Andantino before the frenetic dance of the finale.

Many of these elements mirror parts of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, in what is another ingenious piece of programming, with the virtuosity now being required of everyone on the platform. This is a work that needs the orchestra’s return to the big hall, with the brass in the choir stalls, but it is also intricate, and Chan recognises the dangers of losing sight of the bigger picture when she speaks of taking an approach that is “not nerdy”.

The gentle beginning here is on the low strings, and if the Szymanowski is a political work with a nationalist agenda, Bartok is internationalist, if no less political, writing in the middle of the Second World War and after the diagnosis of the cancer that would kill him. The brooding, mystical third movement may be indicative of his state of mind, but it is surrounded by the distinctive staccato rhythms of the second and the musical japes of the fourth. And just as Benedetti had danced us home, the Presto finale trips fantastically to the last bar.

Keith Bruce

Celebrating diversity in classical music

The founder of Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku, speaks to Keith Bruce ahead of its Edinburgh Festival debut.

It is easy to put a kilt on the story of the Chineke! Orchestra, the ensemble of black and ethnically diverse musicians that is “championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music”.

The orchestra was conceived in the catalytic presence of Glaswegian Gillian Moore, Director of Music at London’s Southbank, as founder Chi-chi Nwanoku relates in the well-rehearsed tale of her “lightbulb moment”.

The board of the organisation includes the former chief executive of the RSNO, Krishna Thiagarajan, and one of its most recognisable regular musicians, and social media advocates, is RSNO timpanist Paul Philbert. When it made its live re-appearance at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of May, Jane Atkins of the Scottish Ensemble was leading the violas and RSNO cor anglais Henry Clay was principal oboe. The Munich-based conductor Kevin John Edusei, who has impressed with the BBC SSO, the SCO and the RSNO in recent years, came to UK attention via his Chineke! appearances on the podium.

Now the orchestra, and its associated Chamber Ensemble, will make their Edinburgh Festival debuts, in concerts that include music by Judith Weir, and with mezzo Andrea Baker, who is now based in Scotland, as soloist.

But back to that “lightbulb moment”. Nwanoku had a 30-year career as an orchestral double bassist, notably with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, when she began to be invited to sit on the boards of organisations like the Association of British Orchestras and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.

“That was where I heard the word ‘diversity’ being used around the table,” she says. “It wasn’t something I’d heard being discussed in the orchestra, but then Ed Vaizey, the culture minister at the time, asked me why he only ever saw me as a person of colour on the concert hall stage.

“And I was often the only person of colour, not just on stage but in the entire auditorium. And that included the composers of the music we played, and the management and the backstage staff.”

Around the same time, Nwanoku attended a Southbank concert by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra of the Congo and was struck by the absence of black British musicians in the filming of a documentary about the visiting Africans. There was obviously a job of work to be done to raise the profile of players like herself.

“On the Monday I phoned every musical institution and told people what I was going to do. I began contacting all the principals of all the music academies and asking about their alumni. I wrote to soloist friends asking if they had noticed other musicians of colour in the orchestras they’d played with.

“Don’t assume I’ll know them!” I said. “One person would lead me to another, and we began putting a junior orchestra together as well. Exactly a year later that Junior Orchestra performed in the afternoon in the Clore Ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall and you couldn’t move for the number of people who came to hear them. Two hours later the Chineke! Orchestra, the professional orchestra, walked out on the Queen Elizabeth Hall platform to a sold-out audience.”

That was in 2015, and the profile of Chineke! has been growing impressively in the years since. Already an MBE, Nwanoku was awarded the OBE in 2017, the year the Chineke! Orchestra made its debut at the BBC Proms. In 2019 the Royal Philharmonic Society introduced a new category to its prestigious awards, Game-Changer, and Chineke! was the first recipient. In the citation, the Wigmore Hall’s John Gilhooley said: “Chineke! came from nowhere, and it is now almost impossible to imagine a world without it.”

“The energy and the mixture of people on the stage directly affects who is in the audience,” says Nwanoku. “Chineke! is not just for black and ethnically-diverse people, it is for the industry to benefit. Any initiative that is inclusive produces results, across any business and all walks of life.

“Classical music looked like the last bastion where ethnically-diverse people were excluded. When we did our first Prom in 2017, the television broadcast was the most viewed in Prom history. Of the 75 people on the stage that night, seven were white, and 95 per cent of them had never set foot on that platform before.

“In the pre-pandemic days when we could share music stands, there were never two people from the same background sharing a stand in the Chineke! Orchestra. I love that.”

There’s another plaid swatch in the kilted version of the Chineke! story in the pre-Festival life of EIF Head of Music Andrew Moore. He can be glimpsed in a documentary about a pre-Chineke! Chi-chi Nwanoku, being given a double bass lesson at her London home. Some years later he has booked her orchestra to visit Edinburgh for what will be its Scottish debut.

“I think EIF were waiting to see how we were going to do, as a lot of people did. They did want to see that we were worth our salt. But we are pushing against open doors now.”

Significantly, the Festival invitation came with proposals as to the programme the orchestra would play, and with whom. Moore not only suggested the major work in the concert but also its conductor, and soloist. Judith Weir’s woman.life.song was written for Jessye Norman and sets words by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2000, and was reprised by Norman at the London Proms the same year.

“EIF suggested that piece to us,” says Nwanoku. “It’s the first time a Festival or venue has suggested what we play, but I’ve loved the music of Judith Weir since I played a piece by her with the BBC Singers and just the double bass.”

It is, however, Chineke! philosophy to play a work by a composer of relative ethnicity in every programme, so the orchestra has commissioned Ayanna Witter-Johnson to write a short new work to precede the Weir.

“She’s a really talented black British composer. We recently premiered a piece at St Paul’s Cathedral that was a sort of requiem for the climate and she wrote the first movement, the Creation.”

Afro-American conductor William Eddins, conductor emeritus of Canada’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 2005 to 2017, is also new to Chineke!.

“It is a great opportunity to meet another conductor, says Nwanoku. Our conductors are as much a part of our musical success as the orchestra.”

As Chineke!’s founder explains, it has been very important “optically and politically” that an ethnically diverse orchestra was not being directed from the podium by a white man. That said, there are advanced plans for a very well-known conductor who fits that description to work with the orchestra on a major work that was scheduled for last year’s cancelled Proms. The huge orchestral and choral forces required mean it is still postponed and Nwanoku has her fingers crossed for 2022.

This year the orchestra is returning to the Royal Albert Hall, on August 24, and will be working with its first woman conductor, Kalena Bovell, who is also American and conducted Chineke! in November. The programme includes composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price, with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason playing the latter’s Piano Concerto in One Movement.

As part of Edinburgh International Festival 2021, Chineke! Chamber Ensemble is at Old College Quad on August 16 playing Vaughan Williams and Coleridge Taylor. William Eddins conducts Chineke! Orchestra at Edinburgh Academy Junior School on August 17. 
eif.co.uk

Dunedin Consort: Dido’s Ghost

Barbican, London

This Mahogany Opera collaboration at the Barbican, with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque and Chorale now also onboard as co-commissioners, is a radical step for Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort. Yes, it is built around a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which is in the group’s familiar repertoire range, but composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have gone far beyond the original masque in creating a three-act contemporary opera where the music of Purcell, and the story he told, is just one element.

This is a concert performance, conducted by John Butt and directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, with elements of staging and the orchestra and chorus sharing the platform, and it works well in that form, even if the filming of it for the live stream is not of the high standard we have seen elsewhere during the pandemic. However, it is not difficult to imagine a fully-realised production, and it is desirable beyond argument that Dido’s Ghost becomes a repertoire work.

Wallen’s music ranges far and wide in its material. In what is the score’s best trick, and eventually the coup de theatre of the work, the famous Lament of the Queen of Carthage seems about to appear at many points before we eventually hear it. But the composer is not merely responding to the baroque era – there is jazz and blues in the mix as well, and the instrumentation ranges from Elizabeth Kenny’s lute and theorbo to Fender bass guitar, with a little Caribbean hand-pan tuned drumming in there as well.

Stace’s words are richly poetic, from the early image of a society “confused as bees without a queen”. Those words are sung by Isabelle Peters, who stepped up to the title role from covering it, following the withdrawal of South African soprano Golda Schultz. She is quite superb, in what is surely a career-establishing performance – but she is far from alone in filing a personal best.

Dunedin stalwart Matthew Brook has never been better than he is here, as Aeneas, his acting performance matching the nuance of hers, and his voice finding new areas of upper register gentleness. Nardus Williams as the supportive Belinda is also a powerful presence, and Scots mezzo Allison Cook is fearsome as Lavinia, with a voice to match her disturbingly Aleister Crowley-esque stage business.

The narrative, musically and theatrically, is compelling, and the underlying subject matter – guilt and its status as a feeling without a statute of limitations – could hardly be more appropriate for our times. Towards the end of the work, there is some gorgeous filmic writing for the strings before a virtuosic solo from Peters and then the sucker-punch appearance of that Purcell aria, succeeded by a lovely chorus and instrumental coda.

Structurally – and perhaps not intended at all – there are similarities between this profound new work, now on the road to Buxton and then Edinburgh, and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which will also have a star-studded concert performance at August’s Festival. Despite all that has happened this past year, the EIF’s 2021 opera programme is looking very exciting indeed.

Keith Bruce

RSNO: Chan/Grosvenor

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If asked to name the main contenders for a Polish-themed concert, Chopin and Lutoslawski would certainly be among the front runners. Not so much Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013), much of whose music lies embedded in the 150 or so film tracks he contributed to, including The Pianist and The Truman Show, yet very much an accomplished composer in his own right. All three feature in this, the latest Polska Scotland concert in the RSNO’s current digital season.

The steely vitality of principal guest conductor Elim Chan suits Kilar’s high-energy symphonic poem for strings, Orawa, to a T. As an opener it is nothing less than attention grabbing. An obstinate solo ostinato folk motif gathers steam as more instruments join in, rising in pitch and intensity, the infectious energy turbocharged by Kilar’s rhythmic surprises, a metrical hiccupping owing much to Bartok and Stravinsky, and a riotous party finish that has the musicians shouting for joy, literally.

If that is Kilar’s visceral rustic impression of life in Orawa, a mountainous region in Southern Poland, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 is a product of time – the universal gloss of 19th century Romanticism – rather than place. A more stylised passion drives this music, albeit coloured by Chopin’s distinctive poeticism, and who better to deliver it than the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

His impact is monumental in this performance, especially when his opening flourish immediately dispels the somewhat general purpose playing that Chan’s initial direction elicits in the orchestral introduction – a little airless, without sufficient delineation between the key themes. 

Grosvenor asserts himself immediately, and from that martial first statement fluid melodies gush like water from a spring, always driven yet thoughtfully crafted. Immaculate finger work colours Chopin’s filigree ornamentation, adding to the enthralling intensity of the performance. Chan even finds moments of illuminating magic in the deceptively workaday scoring of the Romance, and its stormy eruptions remain tempered by a persuasive gentleness. The closing Rondo is a collaborative triumph for pianist and orchestra.

The zest missing from the opening of the Chopin is there in spades in the organic starkness of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Chan summons its demons with fiery intent, once again the pounding elementalism of Stravinsky rearing its head in the opening Intrada. She plays mischievously with the gossamer scurrying of the Capriccio offset by its central terrorising surge, and in the final Passacaglia, Toccata and Corale matches logic and abandon in a thrilling journey from fidgety, elephantine basses to the skirmishing conflagration of the final bars.
Ken Walton

Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk

Edinburgh Festival 2021 Goes Live


In the wake of last year’s swiftly improvised online Edinburgh International Festival, director Fergus Linehan told VoxCarnyx that “2021 will only be the journey back; probably 2022 will be the great celebration.” The announcement of year’s programme, while still cautionary, goes much further than realistic hopes might have anticipated, even if Linehan’s predicted path remains the longer term likelihood.

Classical music fans will be pleased, as the continuing restrictions on social distancing and indoor performance mean that the overriding emphasis of the 2021 Festival programme – which runs from 7-29 August – is on live music performance, facilitated by three major bespoke outdoor venues.

These are to be located at Edinburgh Academy Junior School, Edinburgh Park and Edinburgh University’s Old College Quad, each prefabricated structure open-sided to allow ventilation, and capable of seating between 300 and 700 people. The music programme will be centred on two of these: 26 concerts featuring some of the UK’s top orchestras at the Edinburgh Academy site; 36 smaller-scale recitals at Old College, embracing what would normally have been the Queen’s Hall intimate chamber music series. Repeat shows will open up each programme to a wider audience.

The orchestral series, for obvious practical reasons, has stuck with UK orchestras, opening with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Dalia Stasevska, in the premiere of PIVOT by Edinburgh graduate and current associate composer with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Anna Clyne. Vassily Petrenko directs the RPO with guest pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, Sir Simon Rattle returns with the LSO, and the idiosyncratic Chineke! Orchestra performs Judith Weir’s song cycle woman.life.song with Scots-based mezzo soprano Andrea Baker.

Predictably, Scotland’s own orchestras play a key role. The RSNO performs several programmes, under Thomas Søndergård, Valery Gergiev and Elim Chan respectively, The SCO teams up with Kazushi Ono, while former RSNO principal guest conductor Marin Alsop conducts the BBC SSO in Peter Maxwell Davies’ A Spell for Green Corn and Jessie Montgomery’s Strum.

If staged opera is inevitably limited, it has presented Linehan with one of the few opportunities this Festival has to go completely indoors. It means, of course, that only 370 people at a time (compared to the usual 1800 capacity) can attend Edinburgh Festival Theatre for any of the four performances of David McVicar’s production of Falstaff for Scottish Opera.

Otherwise opera is, says Linehan, “very much in concert form”. Further to its premiere in London this weekend (see latest features in VoxCarnyx), Dunedin Consort perform Errollyn Wallen’s Dido’s Ghost, an imagined continuation of the story in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and starring South African soprano Golda Schultz. Sir Andrew Davis conducts a brand new concert staging by Louisa Muller of Strauss’ Ariadne aux Naxos with the RSNO and a cast led by Dorothea Röshmann in the title role.

It will be hard to avoid the presence of Nicola Benedetti, whose Festival residency makes full use of the Scots virtuoso’s growing versatility. Besides a concert focusing on Vivaldi, in which she appears with her new Benedetti Baroque Ensemble, she teams up with another handpicked ensemble for a performance of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, and goes solo in a presentation called The Story of the Violin.

It’s in the chamber recital series at Old College Quad that the Festival has preserved most its reputation for internationalism, given the lesser risk involved in flying single artists from around the   world as opposed to full orchestras. Thus a line-up that includes soloists Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Renée Fleming, Ronald Brautigam and the 20-year-old Anne-Sophie Mutter violin protege Noa Wildschut; notable ensembles such as the Zehetmair, Goldmund and Gringolts Quartets, alongside the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble; and a tribute to the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s birth by soprano Elizabeth Watts and pianist Malcolm Martineau.

On a lighter musical vein, Thomas Quasthoff, as well as starring in Ariadne aux Naxos, joins fellow German jazz musicians in an evening of vocal classics, while opera director Barrie Kosky and singer  Katherine Mehrling go cabaret with lesser known songs by Kurt Weill. Pianist Wayne Marshall directs a handpicked cast in A Grand Night for Singing, celebrating the classical musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein.

While the key emphasis of this year’s Festival is on live audience performance, eight of the Classical concerts will be accessible online.

General booking for the 2021 EIF opens on Friday 11 June. Full details are available at www.eif.co.uk

Image: Dalia Stasevska conducts EIF opening concert

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