Author Archives: VoxCarnyx

A Classical Solution…?

A CLASSICAL SOLUTION FOR A NEO-CLASSICAL ICON?

Is the future of Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School reaching a musical conclusion? A series of “cultural conversations” aims to state the case. KEITH BRUCE explains.

He may have been born in Glasgow, and designed buildings and monuments all over Scotland, but neo-classical architect Thomas Hamilton is most especially associated with Edinburgh, and there with two public buildings whose recent fortunes have been very different.

The Dean Orphanage, which sits above the Water of Leith in the West End of the capital, is now styled SNGMA2, an extension, across Belford Road, of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, previously simply the Dean Gallery and before that for many years a teacher training facility.

Beyond the East End of Princes Street, on Regent Road opposite the monolithic Scottish Office building, St Andrew’s House, is “The Old Royal High School”, as it has been identified ever since the school moved to Barnton, far out the Queensferry Road, in 1968.

Some recent media coverage of plans for its future has insisted that the building has been “unoccupied” in the half century and more that has passed, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the years after the school pupils for whom it was designed and built moved out, it has seen a great variety of tenants, and often occupied a very prominent place in the discourse about the future of Scotland.

What is beyond debate is the quality of the building itself. Built in the 1820s, it was greatly admired in its own century by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, and more recent architectural historians have called it “the architect’s supreme masterpiece and the finest monument of the Greek revival in Scotland”. With a commanding position on the side of Calton Hill in “the Athens of the North”, it is unsurprising that it was considered in the 1970s to be the natural home for a Scottish Parliament in the run-up to the 1979 referendum, which failed to clear the hurdle to establish such a body.

Nonetheless the debating chamber that had been created inside was pressed into service as the meeting place for the “Scottish Grand Committee” – as distinct from the Scottish Select Committee – a gathering of all of Scotland’s Westminster MPs. By the time Scotland did vote to have its own parliament, the old school building was judged to be inadequate to the purpose, and had, perhaps, become too closely associated with the campaign for more than devolution.

Pending the construction of a new parliament building at Holyrood on the site of a demolished brewery, the devolved administration set up temporary camp at the other end of the Royal Mile and Thomas Hamilton’s neo-classical masterpiece began a longer and more uncertain phase of its existence, but one which may at last be approaching a conclusion.

What is notable during that time, when responsibility for the building returned to Edinburgh City Council, is that the arts have often enlivened it, and been at the heart of plans for its future.

In 1998, Fringe impresario Richard Demarco moved in with a programme of performances and masterclasses during the Edinburgh Festival in a partnership with the European Youth Parliament.

In 2004 the Edinburgh-resident former press secretary to Her Majesty the Queen, Michael Shea, was the main spokesman for a multi-million pound proposal to convert it into a national museum of photography, an artform in which Scotland had produced a good number of pioneers, but which still lacks a major gallery. The plans failed to find the necessary Heritage Lottery backing.

Ten years later the Old Royal High School was pressed into service as a venue for the Edinburgh Art Festival, then in its own tenth year, with film installations in the main chamber and neon artwork on the façade.

Since 2014 speculation about the future of the building has centred around controversial hotel plans, while a proposal by St Mary’s Music School, currently housed in buildings not far from Hamilton’s Dean building, to return it to the realm of education, for which it was designed, has steadily gained ground.

With planning consent for the hotel proposal now lapsed, and the council open to offers for the site, the Royal High School Preservation Trust and St Mary’s have joined forces on the Perfect Harmony Development Board to drive forward the plan for a national music centre and national music school, with substantial backing promised from Carol Grigor’s Dunard Fund.

Part of that public awareness campaign will be a series of monthly Cultural Conversations online, informing people about the plans for the redevelopment of the building and the work of the school.

Vox Carnyx is delighted to be involved in these, with Keith Bruce and Ken Walton putting questions to key people involved in the project before open question and answer sessions. Architects and engineers, teachers and alumni will be taking part in the webinars running from March to August.

The first of these is on Friday March 5 from noon, when Keith Bruce will be speaking with William Gray Muir of the Royal High School Preservation Trust and Carol Nimmo of the Perfect Harmony Development Board.

Readers who wish to watch should visit https://stmarysmusic.ptly.uk/event/culturalconversations01 to receive an access code.

Image: Students of St Mary’s Music School in front of the Old Royal High School (credit Mike Wilkinson)

RSNO/Sondergard

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Let us hope that the RSNO is re-energised by the move into the larger space of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the opportunity to perform with larger forces in its recently-announced new digital season, because there is a slight sense of fatigue in this final concert of the current one.

That is no fault of guest soloist Nicky Spence, who brings expressive commitment and an enthusiastic musicality to Britten’s Les Illuminations. These nine Rimbaud settings may have been written for, and dedicated to, a soprano, Sophie Wyss, but that was surely as much because of the restrictions of the time (1940) and the emotions behind both the verse and Britten’s music sound more powerful in the tenor voice. The specific dedication of the seventh of them, the bold and assertive Being Beauteous, to Peter Pears, meant that the composer himself was being neither coy nor particularly careful.

The Scottish Ensemble made a go-to recording of the work with Toby Spence (no relation) and there is a coherence to that group’s string sound – with all the percussive effects and imitation of other instruments in this score – that is often missing here. The current necessity for social distancing might be some explanation for that, except that string players in general, and RSNO ones in particular, have noted some benefit in sitting at individual desks.

The Britten is preceded by George Walker’s roughly contemporary Lyric for Strings. While there is no argument that the compositions of the first African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize are ripe for rediscovery, his reputation might be better enhanced by tackling meatier fare than this early imitation of Barber’s Adagio, lovely though it is.

Thomas Sondergard’s Beethoven Five, which concluded the programme, is neither fish nor fowl – but then a hybrid of historically-informed practice and contemporary brio is what most orchestras and conductors aim for with the work these days. So we have natural trumpets and modern horns, and string playing that is brisk but not quite crisp enough in the first movement.

The conductor may be keeping his powder dry, but there is also an odd imbalance in the sound – uncharacteristic of engineer Phil Hobbs – which continues in the Andante, with the wind soloists, although all on fine form, rather too far up in the mix.

When more muscle comes into the performance in the Finale, that difficulty disappears, as does the lack of rhythmic rigour. The sprint to the tape, at least, whets the appetite for the orchestra’s return in April.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

In these lean times, when orchestral forces are pared to spartan COVID-friendly levels, it says a lot of a conductor when he can glean such richness of string tone as Mark Wigglesworth did from the BBC SSO in this latest Radio 3 live broadcast.

And it came with a dash of style, particularly in the two Classical symphonies that bookended the programme: Haydn’s spirited Symphony No 1 (yes, he had to start somewhere); and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (the second of his final three symphonies, not that he envisaged them as such).

The instant joie-de-vivre of the Haydn, a natural effusion of craftsmanship and ingenuity integrating prevalent Mannheim symphonic traits with newfound Austrian zest, produced a stimulating opener: nothing trenchant or intellectually taxing, just a no-nonsense, honest appreciation of the music’s charm and integrity. As with the later Mozart, there seemed a conscious limitation on string vibrato, which gave this performance a refreshingly raw, period countenance. 

If there’s anything Haydnesque about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, it’s the Soviet composer’s preoccupation with the cellular motif. Identified immediately by its brusque four-note monogram, Shostakovich powers his concerto with a single-minded insistence that borders on violence, which is why soloist Steven Isserlis refuses to play it on his Stradivarius. “For this, you need an instrument that doesn’t mind being hit,” he revealed in his pre-performance interview.

Despite the warning, Isserlis was careful not to go ballistic. Yes, there was forthright assertiveness and fiery detachment in his opening gambit, but this was not an exercise in basic extremes. Instead, there was a real sense of journey, the opening movement tempered with gnawing undertones, the Moderato equally cautious of overstatement, the cadenza shifting momentously from ruminative soliloquy to fiery springboard unleashing the rumbustious peasantry of the relentless finale. 

Fine horn playing, too, from SSO principal Alberto Menendez Escribano, and the lighter addition of a Kabalevsky dance (No 3 of 5 Studies for solo cello), played as an encore by Isserlis and dedicate to his friend, Berlin Philharmonic cellist Wolfgang Boettcher, who died last week.

Post interval, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte removed any lingering shockwaves from the Shostakovich, its wafting melodies and summer-scented harmonies, plus a sumptuous Ravel orchestration to die for, paving the way for the genius of Mozart.

This may have been 56-year-old Wigglesworth’s first time conducting the G minor symphony, but the clarity and cogency of his interpretation suggest the time was ripe. There was a meaty energy to this performance, essential in addressing the robust counterpoint of the finale, but never at the expense of capturing textural detail. It wasn’t the tightest playing of the evening, the occasional hint of rushed freneticism rocking an otherwise steady ship. But the overall encapsulation of Mozart’s heavier moods, especially that deliciously emotive chain of suspensions at the heart of the Andante, was enough to dispel any minor quibbles.
Ken Walton

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

Morison / Martineau

CATRIONA MORISON / MALCOLM MARTINEAU

THE DARK NIGHT HAS VANISHED
Linn

In one short song – Scheideblick (Parting Glance) – the justification for Scots mezzo soprano Catriona Morison’s inclusion of six of Josephine Lang’s Lieder in her debut solo album is sealed. It’s an emotionally muted number, a sinuous melancholic setting of a single poetic verse, Lang’s melodic shaping in perfect tune with the sentiment, the simplicity of the piano writing in pianist Malcolm Martineau’s capable hands gently nuanced with harmonic ingenuity, and Morison’s delivery impeccably and movingly intoned.

To position Lang (1815-80) amid such heavyweight songwriters as Schumann, Brahms and Grieg is to give her a rightful airing, for her songs, though mostly conservative in spirit, are both artfully expressive and stylistically adventurous within the parameters of the day. Early lessons from Mendelssohn and promotional support from both Robert and Clara Schumann were supportive in Lang’s bid to make a living from composition after the premature death of her husband, the lawyer and poet Christian Reinhold Köstlin.

It’s Reinhold Köstlin’s own words that are the inspiration for another of Lang’s songs, Ob ich manchmal dein gedenke, Morison again mastering the soft embodiment of this passionate setting. In all Lang’s songs featured here in fact, mostly from the Op 10 set, there is a genuine affinity between their easeful unfolding and a mezzo voice that exudes golden richness in its lower range and ringing lustre in its uppermost tessitura. The final number, Abschied, is a gorgeous example.

Morison and Martineau open this disc with Grieg’s Sechs Lieder and the springlike optimism of Gruss. The relative transparency of these songs, emphasised by their folkish charm, lead satisfyingly into the deeper realms of a Brahms selection that is introduced by the sultry questioning of Dein blaues Auge, and which lingers low until the final muscular exuberance of Meine Liebe ist grün 

Schumann’s Op 90 songs open in martial mode with Lied Eines Schmiedes, immediately countered by the sweet affection of Meine Rose. Morison negotiates the ensuing mood swings with honest and persuasive versatility, concluding on a sublime note with the rippling acceptance of Requiem, but not before releasing those gripping outbursts of passion at its heart.

This release comes at a significant time for Morison, given the enforced emphasis during these Covid months on her concert repertoire. She has the voice for it, and the musicality, and the proof is here.
Ken Walton

Six New SCO Concerts

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has followed the RSNO in announcing a new clutch of digital concerts which will be recorded at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall and Perth Concert Hall and broadcast free on Thursday evenings on the SCO’s YouTube channel and Facebook site.

The six concert season in March and April concludes with a world premiere from the orchestra’s Associate Composer Anna Clyne. Overflow, inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Jalaluddin Rumi, is for a group of wind soloists and will be directed from the oboe by Nicholas Daniel. That concert, on April 15, also includes music by Caplet and Dvorak, and it will, like everything in the season, be available to view free for 30 days after first transmission.

The season begins with an established showpiece for the orchestra’s principal clarinet, Maximiliano Martin. Sir James MacMillan’s Tuireadh, a lament for the victims of the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea, features on Martin’s recent Delphian disc with the Orquesta Sinfonica de Tenerife. It will be played on March 4 in its original version for clarinet and string quartet in a programme that also includes Britten’s Phantasy Quartet and Prokofiev’s Quintet in G Minor.

Piano Quartets by Mozart and Faure feature in the other new Queen’s Hall concert, on March 11, when violinist Maria Mloszczowska, Felix Tanner on viola, and principal cello Philip Higham are joined by pianist Susan Tomes.

The first of the run of concerts from Perth, on March 18, is an all-20th century programme of chamber music, pairing two familiar male names from Russia, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, with a wind quintet by Poland’s Grazyna Bacewicz and a trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Czech composer Vitezslava Kapralova.

The following week has a focus on percussion in a programme that sees Reich, Part, Andriessen and Britain’s Dani Howard, who is still in her 20s, bracketed by two works from Henry Purcell.

The penultimate concert, on April 8, features baritone Marcus Farnsworth, who is also due to appear alongside soprano Susanna Hurrell with the RSNO in May. In Perth he features in a recital of rare baroque repertoire including works by Telemann, Biber, Froberger, Muffat, Schop and J C Bach.

Full details and instructions on watching and listening to the concerts are available at sco.org.ukKeith Bruce

Mezzo at home in Berlin

With opera engagements on hold, Edinburgh-born Catriona Morison has been focussing on her recital career. She talks to KEITH BRUCE about her debut solo album.

Catriona Morison should be rehearsing in Bordeaux for Laurent Pelly’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff, playing Meg Page alongside the Alice Ford of Veronique Gens.

A staging with production partners in Spain, Belgium and Japan, the plug was only pulled on its March opening in mid-January, three weeks before rehearsals were due to begin. Such is the uncertainty of life for a singer in time of pandemic.

If she is disappointed, and hopes very much that the show will go ahead at some point in the future, as Opera National Bordeaux intends, the mezzo-soprano is far from downcast. Morison is only too aware that she has been dealt a hand that others in her profession might envy in this fraught era.

Her diary is not empty, even if it is less frantic than it was. There are recitals in May in Amsterdam and Bilbao with pianist Julius Drake and more in June, and a St Matthew Passion with the Rotterdam Phil, set to be live-streamed in April under the baton of Scotland’s John Butt, is still on her schedule. Whether the conductor is permitted to travel for that one is perhaps uncertain – for the Berlin-resident singer that is less of an issue.

And before all that there is the release of her debut album, a collection on 25 songs by Edvard Grieg, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Josephine Lang – whose music she is keen to champion. With master accompanist – and fellow Edinburger – Malcolm Martineau at the piano, and master producer Philip Hobbs at the controls, it was recorded at Crear in Argyll over a year ago, its release postponed as successive attempts to organise some concerts to promote it fell victim to the health emergency. In time – perhaps later this year – those dates may happen, but for now her most recent appearance in Scotland was at her alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in January 2020, with Julia Lynch at the piano.

Compared with those studying there now, Morison is aware that she has many blessings to count.

“I am lucky that I have started my career and have years behind me, and not coming out of university or college now with all the worries of Covid and Brexit. And I am fortunate to live over here so that travel is possible.”

Possible, but far from straightforward, as she recounts the complicated process to enable her to spend five days in Italy in December to perform a Christmas Oratorio with Trevor Pinnock, which involved much testing and form-filling in the accepted languages.

“It is currently a bit of a lockdown lottery, depending on where you are in the world. But there is a lot of humanity there too. In a time of desperation and need, there is a lot of positivity and hope. If we don’t have hope, we don’t have anything.”

Morison first stayed in Berlin as an Erasmus student in her third year as an undergraduate (a course no longer open to young British talent), and she returned to build her career in Germany, first in Weimar and then in Wuppertal. While applications for German citizenship made in Berlin have been taking up to a year to process, Morison made hers while still in the Ruhr valley and it was completed in a little over four months. She became a German citizen before the reality of Brexit and the pandemic struck.

Catriona Morison by Julie Howden

When she won the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2017, her teacher Professor Siegfried Gohritz, of Weimar’s University Franz Liszt, was in the audience to witness her triumph.

“I still see my teacher as regularly as possible to maintain my voice, and coaching is still allowed over here,” she says. “It is very good to have someone like that in your corner – you get a different kind of feedback than from elsewhere.”

She has also kept up-to-date with all the latest thinking about re-opening halls and theatres.

“There have been studies in Germany about the effectiveness of masks in auditoriums and a recent study in Dortmund found that with up to 40% of the seating capacity, transmission risk was very low.”

Such thinking is helping the prospects of her upcoming recital dates, even if her opera engagement is on ice. The programme for those is the result of specific requests from promoters, but it is clear that Morison is looking forward to the prospect of singing the music she selected for her debut album as soon as that is feasible.

“Brahms is definitely my go-to composer because he wrote so incredibly well for the mezzo voice. The Grieg Sechs Lieder are a charming set of songs that I have particularly enjoyed singing since I visited his summer house in Norway. The Schumann Opus 90 songs are quite different from anything else he wrote and go to places he doesn’t explore elsewhere, especially the Requiem.”

The six songs by Josephine Lang may be much less familiar, but sit well in the company. A friend in the US sent Morison a Spotify link to a selection of under-appreciated female composers, and the singer was immediately drawn to the work of Lang. She was tutored by Mendelssohn, who wrote to his sister Fanny about her.

“I think it is important to champion the work of women composers, if it is of quality, and I was astonished that I didn’t know these songs. There is that Romantic era feel, but she has her own voice and doesn’t sound like any of the other composers. There is an understated emotional connection through the text and music, and a quirkiness and subtlety. She does compare to the greats of the Romantic period and deserves to have her music played.”

Morison made contact with Lang’s biographers, Harald and Sharon Krebs, and was rewarded with an unpublished early song, from 1833, Gestern und heute, which shows the 18-year-old Lang to be already a sophisticated and expressive writer. Its inclusion adds a premiere recording to the album and its first line supplies the title of the disc, The Dark Night Has Vanished.

Discussions are currently underway about the set’s follow-up, likely to be of English repertoire and recorded with Martineau later this year. Morison is regretful that a return to the isolation of Crear to record it may now be impossible. “You are away from the world with no distractions, so you can knuckle down and get to work.”

What the pandemic has allowed her is the opportunity to get to know her adopted home well.

“I wouldn’t have liked to come here with no German, because it is such an international city. Instead it has felt like coming home, even though I always go back so happily to Edinburgh. And I’ve been able to explore it in a way I couldn’t have if I’d been busier, and get to know all the lakes, and parks and green spaces. Even though I am not at concerts, you do meet other artists and feel part of an international community.”

The Dark Night Has Vanished by Catriona Morison and Malcolm Martineau is released by Linn on Friday February 26.

RSNO’s New Digital Season

It is a measure of the confident way that Scotland’s national orchestra has dealt with the restrictions imposed on its work by the coronavirus pandemic – and coped with many enforced changes of plan along the way – that it is able to launch a new season in upbeat and positive style.

The headline news is the extension of the contract of Music Director Thomas Sondergard to the autumn of 2024. The further three years of commitment to the RSNO come as the Danish conductor is preparing to make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic on Saturday, stepping into the shoes of Sir Donald Runnicles to direct a programme of Prokofiev, Sibelius and Kurt Weill.

For Sondergard, the important analogy is that he has found the same warmth and eagerness to work in the German capital that he encountered in his first dealings with the RSNO. He also suggests that the work the Scottish orchestra has made available to a global audience with its online programme during the health emergency has enhanced reputations far beyond its home audience, which is likely to prove crucial if touring proves problematic in the future.

That optimistic tone is echoed by chief executive Alistair Mackie, whose pre-COVID enthusiasm to develop the orchestra’s online work has necessarily moved to the top of the agenda over the past year. “It is true that we have made progress,” says Mackie. “We have learned a lot from our first Digital Season, and, as many of our audiences will know, we often had to move quickly and adapt to travel and working conditions that changed with very little notice. I want to thank our audiences for the support they have shown us during this time.”

The new season will begin on Friday April 16 when Sondergard conducts a concert in the strand of Polish music announced nearly a year ago, including the Violin Concerto No 1 by Karol Szymanowski with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. Benedetti also closes the season on Friday June 11, when she plays Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto, working with the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Elim Chan.

Says Sondergard: “It is incredible to think that little over a year ago myself and the full RSNO Orchestra were touring Europe with Nicola Benedetti, performing in sold-out venues, and experiencing standing ovations night after night. We could not have imagined the experiences of the past year were waiting just around the corner. 

“The past year has been difficult for all of us, and sadly tragic for so many people. Music is our way of expressing and sharing our moments of grief and frustration, but also the moments of happiness and hope that help get us through these extraordinary times.”

Up until now, the behind-closed-doors concerts have been filmed in the orchestra’s rehearsal space in the RSNO Centre, but the new programme will be recorded in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall next door following its successful use for the online incarnation of the Celtic Connections festival last month.

The move enables compliance with social distancing guidelines for up to 75 musicians on the extended stage, when fewer than 60 could be playing together in the RSNO Centre, making areas of repertoire possible once more. The two concerts Chan conducts in June will include the Concertos for Orchestra by Bela Bartok and Witold Lutoslawski, the latter partnered by Chopin’s Piano Concerto No1 played by Benjamin Grosvenor, recreating the line-up on last year’s prize-winning recording of the work.

Lutoslawski also features in the May 14 debut of Polish conductor Marta Gardolinska with the orchestra, when his Mala suita prefaces Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, and in a chamber music concert a fortnight later, when principal oboe Adrian Wilson is soloist in his Epitaph for Oboe and Piano and Lena Zeliszewska plays Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata in D Minor.

The season also salvages more of the “Scotch Snaps” planned for the 20/21 live concerts – short pieces by contemporary Scottish composers, with works by Michael Murray, Craig Armstrong and Christopher Duncan. The first of these is included in a chamber music concert featuring pianist Paul Lewis, who featured in the RSNO’s recent all-Grieg concert conducted by Ed Gardner, and the Armstrong precedes Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, played by orchestra leader Maya Iwabuchi and conducted by Angus Webster.

Principal cello Aleksei Kiseliov is joined by pianist Alasdair Beatson for a programme of chamber music by Beethoven, Strauss and Dvorak on May 7 and conductor Kevin John Edusei is on the podium on May 21 for Schumann’s Second Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine and soprano Susanna Hurrell and baritone Marcus Farnsworth singing Schubert as arranged by Brahms.

An individual subscription to the new season is £85, with a household subscription priced at £150. Individual concerts are prices at £10 and £20 and there is a concessionary rate of £27 for all nine concerts, or £3 each, available to full-time students, those under 26 and people with disabilities or who are unemployed.

Download the season brochure and book tickets at rsno.org.uk

Keith Bruce

Raymond Yiu

THE WORLD WAS ONCE ALL MIRACLE
Delphian

Occasionally, a new composer will spring from nowhere with a musical style that seems completely chaotic, unapologetically eclectic and to all appearances untutored. Yet through the apparent mire emerges a personality so stirring, so imaginative, so wonderfully refreshing that what might be mistaken for stylistic naivety turns out to be an instinctive statement of wild self-belief.

If you haven’t heard of Raymond Yiu, he was born in Hong Kong in 1973, came to the UK in 1990 to study for A levels, before reading engineering at Imperial College London. Mainly self-taught as a composer, and with a freedom of language emanating from his early exposure to 1980s Western pop sung in Cantonese, his music was soon being played by the BBC’s orchestras, the success of the London premiere of The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured leading to commissioning of Symphony for the 2015 BBC Proms. Both feature on this curiously exciting disc.

Just how important it is to know that The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured takes its title from a pamphlet issued by the 18th century Scots-born bookseller Alexander Cruden – something of a latter-day Mary Whitehouse who styled himself a moral “Corrector” – is debatable. More interesting is Yiu’s analogy of modern-day international citizenship, a kind of cultural morass that finds form in the madness of extremes.

While the motivic germ is a borrowing from Elgar’s Cockaigne – a portrait of a very different London – this “game for orchestra” soon explodes into a restless, shifting menagerie of colour, gesture and references. There is violence and calm, industrial grit and spiritual calm, pealing church bells, wanton dance pastiche. It’s a crazy cacophony, skittish in parts, but hugely addictive. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under David Robertson, reveals Yiu’s underlying craftsmanship in a performance bursting with vital exuberance and energy. 

In Symphony, Yiu displays the same freedom of expression. The protagonist is a countertenor (Andrew Watts), present from the word go – or rather, the gradually emerging word “strong” – in a time-travelling selection of texts from Walt Whitman, Constantine P Cavafy, Thom Gunn and John Donne. The five-movement format offers greater scope for Yiu to frame his thoughts, self-regulating the seeming free-for-all of the earlier piece. 

In no way, though, does it curb his eclectic toolbox, from which the likes of esoteric modernism and seventies’ disco are plucked with shameless confidence. Watts’ flamboyant and versatile performance is matched by conductor Edward Gardner’s cool mastery over the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which is a remastering of the original Royal Albert Hall premiere.

The World Was Once All Miracle features the indomitable baritone Roderick Williams with the BBC SO, this time under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. Written in the years immediately following Symphony, it’s an extended setting of words by Anthony Burgess, commemorating the 2017 centenary of the A Clockwork Orange author’s birth, in which Yiu explores ever wider musical influences, such as the Malayan instrumentation that haunts the third song. 

Burgess’ words, of course, are just another perfect excuse for Yiu to engage in further wicked satire. With musical quotes from Thomas Arne (one very obvious snippet of Rule Britannia) and a blatant parody on mid-20th century popular song to end with (somewhat abruptly), mixed with anything else that takes his fancy, the charm of Yiu’s music is its compulsive listenability. Scots label Delphian, in remastering these performances, has done well to bring it to wider attention.
Ken Walton

RSNO / Gardner / Lewis

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Imagine this RSNO digital concert as a priceless painting encased in a tasteful picture frame that enhances, but never overwhelms, the masterpiece within. The latter is Edvard Grieg’s timelessly popular Piano Concerto in A minor; the outer casement consists of the two orchestral suites formed from the incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What’s not to like?

Throw in the presence of British conductor Edward Gardner, whose current position as chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic gives him a direct link to the composer (Grieg filled that post from 1880-82) and a feel for the Norwegian spirit that courses through this music. And Paul Lewis, of course, a pianist with an intoxicating ability to temper rigorous intellectual capacity with alluring simplicity and affection. The entire combination, along with an RSNO in the suavest of shape, is as near perfection as you’d hope.

Neatly filmed and produced, and with unpretentiously informative spoken links from tubist John Whitener, violist Katherine Wren, and Gardner and Lewis themselves, this is also a medium which the RSNO is now well on top of. We’d all like to be back in a live situation, but there’s no denying the new skills that have been learnt through desperate measures, slickly on display here.

Gardner’s shaping of the two suites is masterly, poetically restrained, but engrained with a crystalline folkish dynamic that brings every fresh detail and sighing nuance to the fore. He opens with Peer Gynt Suite No 2, arrestingly dramatic to begin with, but then a subsequent cocktail of vying charms, from the heavily pastiched Arabian Dance (its opening flute duo weirdly reminiscent of Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme tune to 1970s TV sitcom Some Mother’s Do Have Em!), to the sassy Peer Gynt’s Homecoming and calming simplicity of Solveig’s Song.

The more popular numbers – Morning Mood, Ase’s Death, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King – follow the concerto in Suite No 1, again lovingly shaped, the emphasis on richness of tone and unmannered suppleness. The shimmer of muted strings in Ase’s Death is sublime.

At the heart of this programme, though, is the clean-cut, effortless precision of Lewis’ concerto performance. He stops well short of proclaiming total detachment, allowing Grieg’s immortal themes to flow naturally from his disciplined fingers, avoiding temptation to sentimentalise, and knitting together the entire edifice – which too often invites misplaced overindulgence – in a riveting display of explosive control. 

Gardner supports without intrusion, but always with something to add to the mix, a counter-emphasis here, a loving whisper there. It’s that time of the year when the RSNO traditionally offers a St Valentine’s concert. Be sure and make a date with this one!
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

Pandemonium / Nicolson

The Galvanisers, SWG3, Glasgow

Pandemonium? Stramash? Sounds like the ingredients for a wild Glasgow night out in the No Mean City of times gone by. 

In this case, the Festival is Govan’s Pandemonium, the piece is Alasdair Nicolson’s Stramash, and together, in a spirited performance by the Glasgow Barons, they represent a more sophisticated Glasgow than that once synonymous with warring football hooligans and Gorbals razor gangs.

Stramash is the short, single entity in this latest Pandemonium digital release from Paul MacAlindin’s impressive series, a work written in 2006 by Nicolson (who currently runs Orkney’s St Magnus Festival) for the City of London Sinfonia. It has a certain tartan gallus-ness that gets the feet tapping.

Not immediately, though. A violent frenzy of pizzicato and wild cello/bass ostinati provide a chaotic scene-setter that quickly morphs into the first of several hurtling reels, venomous and virtuosic. MacAlindin’s string band negotiates the cut and thrust with biting energy and toughness. Alternating waves of action and respite define the narrative, the latter deconstructive in character and rarely without ominous overtones – chilled harmonics over a false, fidgety calm. 

It’s not an easy piece to bring off, yet the Barons do so convincingly, up to a point. For just as blistering heat motivates so much of this performance, with dazzling solos and gritty interaction, a sense of fatigue cools the closing moments, initially in the rhythmically-charged unisons that signal the route to a fragmentary ending, less taut than it ought to be.

That aside, here is yet another uncompromising achievement for this ambitious Govan initiative.
Ken Walton

Watch the concert via Vimeo at glasgowbarons.com

Scottish Opera: Hansel and Gretel

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

The range of filmed performance, from fully-realised cinematography, through outdoor spectacle, to “as live” theatre shows, that Scottish Opera has managed to produce under the restrictions of the pandemic is mightily impressive. Within that breadth of work, the company has also managed to create a very specific Covid-era aesthetic in its home venue, with a socially-distanced, masked orchestra performing on the stage, and a performance area for the singers built out over the pit.

It works well, with the grandeur of Theatre Royal safely accommodating the style of the mid-scale productions the company has toured to Scotland’s smaller theatres. That sort of show was the origin of the reduced orchestration that Derek Clark had previously made of Humperdinck’s dark family fable, and which has been retrieved from the library for this compact version of an opera that was scheduled for a full production before fate intervened.

The first thing to say is that the music hardly suffers at all. Clark’s arrangement makes the most of the score and conductor David Parry and the orchestra perform it superbly, with some lovely solo turns, particularly principal cello Martin Storey. The singing is top class too, with company debuts for Phillip Rhodes, who brings vocal power and real charm to The Father, and Nadine Benjamin as both The Mother and The Witch, and Kitty Whately and Rhian Lois tackling the title roles for the first time.

They combine beautifully, playing somewhat against the gender stereotyping maintained in David Pountney’s slightly laboured English translation of the libretto. Director Daisy Evans has some fun with the restrictions of social distancing, the children allowed to stretch yearningly for each other but never touch, and measuring their steps on the diamond tessellation of the floor-cloth. Her principals match every reference with vivacious performances. From their lining up of soft toys along the footlights as an “audience” in the empty auditorium, this is a show where small gesture means a lot.

Lois has the pick of the tunes of course, or at least the top line in all the familiar ones, and she also brings some of the sassiness of her Musetta in Scottish Opera’s summer outdoor La boheme to counter the cloying moments. Female role-models also get a work-over in Benjamin’s doubling, with her somewhat dowdy pregnant Mother, all threats and curses, contrasting with a very glam, corseted Witch, full of promises and enticements.

Evans consistently translates the limitations on her staging into strengths, although the Christmas Grotto elements, even if seen as post-Twelfth Night cleaning and clearing up, look a little dated mid-February. Charlie Drummond is clad in Mrs Mopp head-square-and-rollers as The Sandman and The Dew Fairy, and the liberated gingerbread children are an Anime quartet of young women in onesies. With two shopping trolleys serving as all the necessary set and props in the children’s temptation, incarceration and victory over the witch, the third act becomes a madcap cross between Tiswas and Supermarket Sweep.

Available to watch free via the Scottish Opera website, on its Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Keith Bruce

Image: Kitty Whatley (Hansel) and Nadine Benjamin (The Witch) in Hansel and Gretel. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop.

Passing The Baton

Charisma, not ego, makes a great conductor. New RCS professor, Martyn Brabbins, tells KEN WALTON how he plans to impart that message

Wilhelm Furtwangler defined the art of conducting as “the sensualisation of the spiritual and the spritualisation of the sensual”. Herbert von Karajan reckoned, like Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God”, that “something just comes, and it’s the grace of the moment”. Then there’s ego. “Of course I’m not modest,” asserted Bernard Haitink. “If I were, I wouldn’t be a conductor!”

These particular exemplars belong mostly to a bygone era, the youngest, Haitink, having only just retired in 2020 while in his nineties. The world of conducting is becoming increasingly democratised. The untouchable demigods are all but extinct. If not yet completely, they will surely be once Covid is licked. 

It’s within this seam of change that Martyn Brabbins, musical director of English National Opera and long associated with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (associate principal conductor, 1994-2005), is turning his attention to tomorrow’s professionals. “There’s no place for the dictator,” he believes. “I like it when people’s egos are under control, where there’re able to be a decent human being and collaborate well with the players in front of them.”

As the newly appointed visiting professor of conducting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, expect him to impress such values on the young hopefuls he takes under his wings. Well-respected by the many major orchestras he has conducted around the world, Brabbins practises exactly what he preaches. Musicians admire him for his slick musical efficacy and no-nonsense efficiency. He knows the score – literally. When orchestras are hit by last-minute conductor call-offs and difficult repertoire needs rescuing, the call invariably goes out: Get Brabbins! 

This is not his first association with the RCS. He tutored there when it first began offering conducting courses in the early Noughties. Why come back? “The time is right”, says the 61-year-old, whose own career has taken him from studies in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and winning the 1988 Leeds Conductors’ Competition, to being one of the busiest international conductors on the planet.  

Besides his hectic pivotal role at ENO, he is artistic advisor to the Huddersfield Choral Society, a visiting  professor at the Royal College of Music, globe-trots regularly (or did so before the pandemic), and is a ubiquitous presence with the UK’s BBC orchestras, especially at the annual BBC Proms.

“I feel I’m in a much better place to impart useful stuff to aspiring conductors compared to how I was 15 years ago,” he explains. “I’ve done a lot of teaching, at the RCM in London, in Orkney [directing the annual conducting courses run in tandem with the St Magnus Festival], and many other bits in between. 

“Also, the RCS department is thriving. They’ve had some real successes and they’ve got the new Leverhulme Fellows and a very good Masters course which means the Conservatoire attracts some high level emerging conductors.” Alumni include Ryan Bancroft (principal conductor, BBC National Orchestra of Wales), Kerem Hasan (chief conductor, Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck) and Jessica Cottis (international freelance and principal conductor, Glasgow New Music Expedition). 

RCS alumni Jessica Cottis conducts the Queensland Symphony Orchestra


Equally significant in influencing Brabbins’ decision to return is Michael Bawtree’s appointment last September as administrative head of the department. “In order to make things work you need someone on the ground with whom you have a strong relationship and trust. Michael’s made the whole thing very quickly his own and it’s shaping up in a very positive way,” says Brabbins. 

That’s all good and well, but what of the reality of giving these students an “instrument” to practise on? Violinists have their fiddles, flautists have their flutes, but how do you provide wannabe conductors with their very own symphony orchestra? 

There will, of course, be opportunities for hands-on experience with the RCS’s own symphony orchestra. That, in itself, has encouraged Brabbins to broaden his involvement with the Conservatoire. “I felt I ought to be a presence for the whole Conservatoire if I could be,” he explains. “So we’ve agreed that, once a year, I will do a concert with the student orchestra, and integrate some of the conducting students in the rehearsal process. The most rewarding and interesting bit of teaching conducting is when you have an orchestra at hand.”

More importantly, Brabbins’ has enormous clout with Glasgow’s professional orchestras, and he’s making full use of it. “I’ve already had very good conversations with the SSO,” he reveals, with the intention of making that relationship beyond what it has been over the past 15 years. “We want to achieve a really good integration, and both sides need to get more from that relationship,  ensuring that the orchestra, its management and players have at least some kind of say in who’s chosen by the Conservatoire to be a Fellow. That creates a real sense of ownership.”

It doesn’t stop there. Brabbins has also been speaking to RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie “so we can embrace the RSNO in all this”. He’s also held talks with Gregory Batsleer, chorus master of the RSNO and SCO, about how to build in experience of choir conducting.  

“Gregory feels there’s a big hole, in that many orchestral conductors really don’t have much idea how to approach amateur choruses, and let’s face it, we have a lot of very good amateur choruses in this country. They are an integral part of our musical fabric. 

“Get all that in place, do it well, and we’re on course to making Glasgow a leading conducting hub,” he predicts. “My students at the RCM don’t get that level of opportunity.”

All of which is worthless without the right calibre of student, and it’s here that Brabbins’ instinct for the future of the conducting profession really matters. “Post-Covid, things won’t get back to the way they were, and maybe that’s a good thing,” he argues. 

“When I was with the BBC Philharmonic last year, chatting to the principal clarinettist, he said: ‘yeah, it’s been wonderful to be shopping local’. He was genuinely pleased that the orchestra, by necessity, had been using UK-based conductors. Maybe musical culture will have to change now, and there won’t be this passionate desire by British orchestras always to seek the next young foreign conductor.”

But even if that does open up more opportunities, it still requires finding the right set of skills for today’s purposes. What does Brabbins look for in his potential recruits? “Some things never change,” he believes. “There are many essentials, but no two people will have the entire combination of these essentials. So when you’re selecting you have to weigh up the strengths. 

“There are obvious things, like musical awareness and musical excellence. I remember talking to [Jorma] Panula, the famous Finnish conducting teacher, and his first criteria is that the conductor is a virtuoso, a top class performer. That’s one way of looking at it and an interesting thing to have in your back pocket, but maybe not as crucial as he might think. Charisma, though, is hugely important. It comes in very different guises, but there has to be a very clear and passionate musical desire, a real personality, a real wish to make music in a certain way.” 

The days of great dictators are gone, he reiterates. “There has to be a willingness to collaborate. I’ve just been rehearsing the strings here in Cardiff, and you’re to-ing and fro-ing all the time.” That from someone who knows his stuff, gets the results he wants, and always gets asked back. 

Musical movies in the East Neuk

The East Neuk Festival of chamber music in exquisite locations in the Kingdom of Fife is, like many other events, still waiting to see what is possible this year after having to cancel last summer’s event.

In the meantime, it has embarked on a Big Project with its “Arts Activist” David Behrens to which local residents and any of the festival’s regular audience are invited to contribute. Behrens has made a beautiful – and surprisingly musical – little film, 3 Amazing Minutes in St Monans, which can – and should – be viewed on the Vimeo platform (https://vimeo.com/508804285).

It was shot entirely on his smart phone, and now the ENF is soliciting 10 second pieces of phone-made footage from its friends and followers for him to work with. Complete instructions and examples of the sort of thing he’s after can be found at eastneukfestival.com/bigproject. Our picture of the much-snapped breakwater at St Monans is a still from one short video by festival director Svend McEwan-Brown.

BBC SSO / Samuel

City Halls, Glasgow

It is likely that there were few arts organisations whose immediate response to COVID-19 was to make a SWOT analysis to inform their planning, but it has nonetheless become commonplace to point out some benefits to be appreciated as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

With social distancing limiting the size of musical ensembles and travel prohibition making the scheduled appearances of guest soloists and conductors impossible, there has been a focus on the wealth of international and indigenous talent that is resident in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra in particular has been able to let a wider audience see its players in many different chamber music combinations.

This programme from the BBC Scottish was in some respect much more like a programme that the SCO might have undertaken pre-pandemic, with a previous or current leader of the orchestra directing from the violin. But it is also true that even the much larger RSNO has ventured down that road recently, tackling Beethoven symphonies without a conductor and emerging with credit from the exercise.

Battling through the health emergency to meet its commitments, with changes of conductors and soloists, this was perhaps the first time the SSO used the situation to highlight the talent it has within its ranks, and what a buoyant uplifting experience it was.

It is not as if we did not know how good the orchestra’s wind principals are. Stella McCracken (oboe), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Julian Roberts (bassoon) and even newer member Alberto Menendez Escribano (horn) have all been in the ranks for some years, distinguishing concerts with their soloing.

That quartet had the spotlight for Mozart’s other Paris Sinfonia Concertante, from the year before the one for violin and viola that he probably played himself. Although designated a Kochel catalogue number, it is still not entirely accepted as being by him, in the absence of an autographed score.

If someone else did write it, they have surely been denied credit for a lovely piece of work, which gives all four of the wind instruments a platform, and the interweaving lines of the SSO players were beautifully captured in this broadcast.

At the heart of many an SSO concert, however, is its distinctive string sound, and with leader Laura Samuel directing from the concert-master’s seat, this programme was really a celebration of that strength. If the Mozart is not strongest in that department – in some respects the root of doubts about the score’s authenticity – it was bracketed by Czech works that more than compensated.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was hugely important for the composer, an early triumph on his rocky road to a professional career, and there is ebullience in every bar. That was what came across in this performance, liberated from any directorial interpretation that may have come from the podium. The tempo was not too strict to allow the music to flow naturally, with some lovely languid moments in the rich string sound.

The concert began with a briefer, less familiar, but also beautifully scored piece by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk, Meditation on an old Czech hymn “St Wenceslas”. Originally written for the Bohemian String Quartet, of which Suk was a member, it was a riposte to the occupying Austrians’ requirement that their national anthem be played at all concerts. Its political message may be obscured by distance and time, but the powerful community feeling it expresses was transmitted to an audience starved of the communal enjoyment of live music by the eloquence of the SSO strings.
Keith Bruce

Pandemonium: Sweeney

The Galvanisers, SWG3, Glasgow

Govan’s ongoing online music festival, Pandemonium, moves northwards across the River Clyde this week with the release of a single performance of William Sweeney’s suite for strings, Sian Orainn. The venue is The Galvanisers, part of the former Clydeside industrial yard now known as SWG3, and perfect as an adaptable bare-bricked performance space for these socially-distancing times.

That ruggedness is ideal for Sweeney’s atmospheric treatment of the South Uist songs that are the basis of the suite’s six-movement sweep, and which the strings of the Glasgow Barons Orchestra – a slick freelance band under Pandemonium’s artistic director, Paul MacAlindin – embrace completely as a resonant soundboard. The irrepressible folk muse casts its spell at every turn and in numerous hues.

Written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Highlands and Islands Tour in 1989, these six songs range from the patriotic to the pious, the romantic to the pragmatic. And while Sweeney conserves the traditional melodies themselves, his treatment of them, both virtuosic and affectionate, gives fresh character and dimension to their central presence. 

The galvanising unisons of “O my country” are a sturdy framework to the episodic solos that intersperse, immediately countered by the pragmatic motorised pace of “Have you seen Euphemia”, a waulking song with a catchy, jaunty gait. Ghostly heterophony adds wistfulness to the third song, shades of English pastoralism strike a foreign note in Buxom Mór, before the painful fate of the cook-in-the-pot drake – the one moment where the string ensemble falters from its otherwise solid togetherness – gives way to the solemn density of “Praise to the Saviour”.

MacAlindin’s players, led by Ben Norris, are a young outfit with fire in their belly. Between the many solo demands of Sweeney’s hauntingly coloristic score, and the mix of translucent and full-bodied texturing he variously calls upon, the Barons’ lustre and finesse capture the iridescence of these alluring pieces.
Ken Walton 

Watch the concert via Vimeo at glasgowbarons.com

Sound Festival 2020 (Part 2)

It’s highly impressive what soundfestival has done to counter the limitations impacted on it by the pandemic restrictions. What would normally have been a single, annual full-length live event last October went online like every other festival in these restricted times. More interestingly, it was split in two: one reduced instalment staged back then; the other held over to last weekend (28-31 January), and despite inevitable last minute rearrangements and postponements, running smoothly and with remarkable cohesion.

This latest mini-event continued soundfestival’s ongoing focus on endangered instruments, centring on the French horn, and in particularly a glorious recital by the Glasgow-based Rookh Quartet. Filmed in its ambient home base at the city’s south side Episcopal church, St Margaret’s Newlands, the diversity of music by Jamie Keeseker, Violeta Dinescu, Drew Hammond and Elizabeth Raum for four horns reflected the range of potential expressive possibilities of this ensemble, from brooding darkness to tumultuous resonance.

In another thematic focus, a mix of music, film and discussion threw the spotlight on the power of creativity to inspire composers on the autistic spectrum. If Siobhan Dyson’s audio-visual Sound commission, Listen Carefully, was a super-sensory eye-opener into her personal perceptions of the world, her music also featured with other autistic composers in a rerun of the Hebrides Ensemble’s award-winning Diversions programme, a collaborative performance with the Drake Music Scotland Digital Orchestra filmed in 2019 in Edinburgh and replacing an intended fresh programme by Red Note Ensemble.

Nonetheless, Siobhan Dyson’s Long Sharp Winds for solo violin (Elizabeth Wexler) packed vibrancy and punch, idiomatically indebted to Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale in part, followed by Joe Stollery’s The Skene Obsession, a wild reel infused with ghostly harmonic warping. Then to Rylan Greave’s moody and deep thinking Permanent Address, Benjamin Teague’s soliloquising Miniatures for Clarinet, Sustain and Snap by the late Lucy Hale, Jason Hodgson’s The Destination is Obsolete and the rich pulsating textures of Ben Lunn’s Symphonies of Instruments. 

But if anything really spoke for current times, it was surely the one genuine live event, in which the combined forces of the North East’s contemporary music ensemble Any Enemy and the Brandon University New Music Group of Canada committed to “going live” albeit via Zoom technology, each player contributing in real time from the isolation of their own home either side of the Atlantic, but somehow managing to feed meaningfully into the challenge of creating spontaneous group performances dependent on collaborative improvisation.

Echoes of E M Forster’s novelette The Machine Stops sprang immediately to mind, where individual human isolation is imposed, and any attempt to manufacture physical societal interaction struggles to achieve genuinely visceral impact. Give these musicians credit, though. This remotely combined ensemble of soprano and instrumentalists did an estimable job in making corporate sense of a very big ask.

Yes, it took time to settle. Passing the metaphorical baton between players in Pete Stollery’s Social D(ist)ancing, a wistful muse on the daily rituals we currently undertake when encountering others in the street, fell victim to the idiosyncrasies of Zoom. The luminous melancholy deep-rooted in Melody McKiver’s All My Requests also succumbed to technical fragmentation, diminishing its instinctive cohesion. 

With Michael Ducharme’s Social Bubbles weaving snippets of Covid public information announcements through a sequence of five brief movements, its snappiness was its winning charm. Keith Hamel’s Three Years achieved its cumulation of mournful images, but it was Ollie Hawker’s It’s More Than Just Midi To Me, read from a self-generating midi roll score, that inspired the most gripping, improvised results, a resolute journey from confusion to clarity.

There was something oddly dystopian about the fragility and disconnect implicit in this ambitious programme that provoked a far deeper question about what makes music vital, and what it is we are desperately without at the moment: which is the confluence of real performers and real listeners in real performance spaces. 

The notes might look good on paper, but without the spark of human presence on both sides of the equation its mind-blowing potential is incomplete. This soundfestival had lots to say and offer, but that was perhaps its most poignant message.
Ken Walton

Selected programmes are still available to view at www.sound-scotland.co.uk

RSNO / Helsing / Roffman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

If you can prise your violin-playing daughter away from Nicola Benedetti’s home-schooling videos, this is the concert for her. During an earlier lockdown, RSNO co-leader Sharon Roffman contributed some music for young people to the orchestra’s transmissions from home, and she proves as fine a teacher here in her spoken introductions to the two works on which she is the soloist, Dvorak’s Romance for Violin and Florence Price’s Second Violin Concerto. With Associate Leaders Emily Davies and Lena Zeliszewska on the orchestra’s front desk for this concert, the RSNO is far from short of female role models for violin students.

Taken together with an excellent programme note by Charlotte Gardner, the Dvorak Romance is placed beautifully in context before a very fine performance – it is a work that seems to blossom in the environment of a smaller number of socially-distance musicians.

The Price, on the other hand, requires a full band, complete with harp and celesta, tuba and three trombones. It is a late work by the African-American composer that was salvaged from the demolition of her summer home after her death, and in her own introductory remarks, Finnish conductor Anna-Maria Helsing – making her RSNO debut – implies that the score needs a deal of creative interpretation for it to work. However true that is, the piece sounds the real deal here, rather more expansive than its brevity might suggest and quintessentially of the USA, with harmonisations that are redolent of vaudeville and musical theatre.

The pieces that open and close the concert fare less well by comparison with those. It is hard to be definitive about Richard Thompson’s Suite from The Mask in the Mirror, because this seems a mere taster of a work that is already at a remove from the score of the opera premiered in New Jersey in 2012. While the full suite is a concert version of the narrative, this Scottish premiere of any of the music is just two movements from that. While they lack nothing in drama and atmosphere, with compelling orchestration, it is context that is singularly lacking.

But with Dvorak’s Symphony No 8, it is the composer who is sold a little short. Although its tunes are less well-known than those in No 9 “From the New World”, they are there in profusion. The balance that Helsing produces from the musicians in this performance, however, does not make the best of those melodic hooks, and they are often lost in the mix.

If the first movement could use more delicacy of touch, the third movement waltz is also less than light on its feet, and as for the instruction on the Finale, “Allegro, ma non troppo”, well, there is never really much danger of that. 
Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble / NYOS / Glass


Minimalism is the natural soundtrack to a train ride. Steve Reich made the point literally in his string quartet “Different Trains”. The connection is more of an interpretational one in this filmed performance of the final two movements of Philip Glass’ Symphony No 3 – the repetitive chuntering of the hypnotic third movement shifting gear to the motorised euphoria of the fourth – but no less incontestable.

Written in 1995 for the strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, it is presented here as a collaboration between the professional Scottish Ensemble and talented senior members of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland; and rather ingeniously as a film, created by Hopscotch Films, in which all 19 players are cast as passengers in a seemingly endless, dimly lit, train carriage. 

There’s a mysterious sense of the surreal from the outset. Through the windows is a restless haze of moonlit smoke and mist, the carriage interior a haunting chiaroscuro in which Glass’s autumnal timbres gradually journey from repeated cello and viola sequences to a point where the full complement of strings are woven deliriously together. 

The finale moves instantly up tempo, but now with more impulsive reiterated patterns. Urban images flash past the window. The train hurtles on. 

It’s a compelling piece of cross-genre interpretation. The production quality is top-notch, where neither film nor music is compromised. The deep mellow timbre of the opening has a golden glow – beautifully sound engineered, intensely performed – that is only enhanced by the unobtrusive synergy of visuals reflecting the aching dichotomy – stasis versus momentum – that embodies Glass’s personalised, often lugubrious minimalist style.

In the darkness, it’s often hard to pick out who is Scottish Ensemble and who is NYOS in the ensemble mix, but that’s part of this collaboration’s charm. Yes, there are minor slips in detailed synchronisation that could easily be put down to inexperience, but the overall homogeneity is sleekly polished and characterful to the last. 

As part of the Ensemble’s excellent ongoing digital work, and its commitment to working with young musicians – who in this instance also get hands-on experience of the filmmaking process – this 15-minute project is as significant as it is entertaining. 
Ken Walton

Available to view via the Scottish Ensemble website, www.scottishensemble.co.uk

SCO/Emelyanychev

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

A week after it was originally scheduled, this week’s online recital from musicians of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra reunites them with the dynamic young Principal Conductor who hardly had his feet under the table before the coronavirus brought a halt to live concerts.

As more recent restrictions brought a premature end to this series, it is appropriate that it is with a sequence of party pieces. As we have already learned, if a musical party is what you are after, Maxim Emelyanychev is your man.

He is at the harpsichord for the first two works on the programme – an Adagio and Fugue by Johann Adolph Hasse and an exuberant concerto by Haydn. The first may not even be the work of the prolific but now obscure German composer, but it sets a muscular tone in the real ferocity of the playing style of Emelyanychev and his string sextet. The Haydn then underlines the sparkling sound and superb playing of the man leading from the keyboard. It looks a beautiful instrument, but this vibrant performance of 18th century music is not about the kit, but about the playing. Even the antithetical Sir Thomas Beecham would surely have been beguiled.

Not only does Emelyanychev achieve a remarkable range of expression on the harpsichord, as director there is a delightful playfulness in his precision tempo adjustments across all three movements of the concerto.

The last of these is a lively set of variations on a Balkan dance tune, and is a link to the programme’s second half, which begins with the Yiddish songs that are the basis of Max Bruch’s Kol nidrei, composed for the Jewish community of Liverpool when he was Principal Conductor of the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra.

Cellist Philip Higham describes this duo rhapsody on two themes, with Emelyanychev on piano, as a prayer and a blessing, which is not only musically resonant but also makes clear, without overstatement, the significance of the work’s inclusion during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day.

It was composed in 1880, the same year as Giovanni Bottesini’s Gran duo concertante, an explosive concluding showcase for bassist Nikita Naumov and violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore, with Emelyanychev again at the piano. It is telling that both string players have the work from memory for this is a party piece par excellence, particularly for the double bass, with virtuoso passages beyond its usual range, above the bridge end of the fingerboard.

Available via the SCO’s YouTube and Facebook until February 28.

Keith Bruce

Sean Shibe rallies the troubadours

During the last weeks of 2020, as negotiations over the UK’s departure from the European Union ran to the wire, and agreement over access to fishing around the coast of these islands was said to be the stumbling block, it was often remarked that the financial value of that industry was dwarfed by the contribution that arts and culture make to the national economy. Despite that, the free movement of artists across borders was being thrown away in the pursuit of ill-defined “sovereignty”.

Within days of the start of 2021, however, it was clear that musicians and fishermen had common cause, alongside hauliers, in opposing a settlement that had produced no benefit to any of them.

When the Independent newspaper revealed that the British negotiators had been offered a deal to ensure soloists, bands, and orchestras could continue to travel without the requirement for visas, work permits and other red tape, only to turn it down, the reaction from the sector was understandably one of fury.

A letter published in The Times stated baldly that “musicians, dancers, actors and their support staff had been shamefully failed by their government” was signed by a  veritable Who’s Who of musicians, including Sir Simon Rattle, Nicola Benedetti, Sir Elton John, Bob Geldof, Robert Plant, Sting, Liam Gallagher and Ed Sheeran.

Which of these names was singled out for highlighting depended very much on the perceived readership of the publication that covered the story – and virtually every newspaper and arts-related journal did.

The role of the ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians) was often mentioned in the recruiting of many of the signatories. However the genesis of the initiative – so far the most comprehensive and powerful statement of opposition to the way Brexit has affected musicians – lay in a conversation between Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe and the wife of LibDem peer Lord Paul Strasberger.

“I’ve been in touch with Evelyn Strasburger since I did a couple of concerts for her in Bath,” explains Shibe. “Although we are not on the same path politically we talk about things a lot, so I drew her attention to the article in the Independent and she was furious about it because of what it would mean to young musicians she works with.”

As far as Shibe was concerned, “It was bemusing to read that the government could have taken an opportunity to save part of an industry, although it is perhaps not surprising that they chose not to.”

It was Lord Strasberger who made the link with the ISM, as well as recruiting other LibDems in the Upper House to the campaign, while Shibe himself was busy contacting colleagues in his own address book.

“We compiled a pretty comprehensive list of names for the letter of protest. Often these things are taken on by classical or non-classical types so it was good to have collegiate support across the board.”

The fact that his own role in the letter was swiftly overtaken by the starrier signatories was inevitable.

“I didn’t care if my name was mentioned or not; I am a very small part of this, sending a couple of texts and getting some good names on the letter. I just want something to happen, there is no glory in this. There has been deliberate obfuscation on the part of the government about what really happened and all the to-and-fro about ‘what they said’ and ‘what we said’ is not actually focussing on what could be solved.”

There was undoubtedly some confusion in the government response, with junior culture minister Caroline Dinenage and her boss Oliver Dowden apparently at odds.

Shibe explains: “On the same day that the letter was published in The Times, Oliver Dowden met with about 30 representatives of the industry on Zoom. The secretary of the Musicians Union, Horace Trubridge, told me that it was stated several times during that meeting that the treaty with the EU had been concluded and the UK was not going to change it.

“Taking that at face value, the MU thinks that the best it is going to get is bilateral agreements with individual EU states about reciprocal arrangements.”

“But Dinenage was blaming the EU, and saying ‘the door is still open’ implying that the EU had to come to them, refuting Dowden saying the deal was concluded. It all suggests there is still work to be done.”

Shibe says that Lord Strasberger and his colleagues are continuing to put pressure on the government behind the scenes.

“One hopes there is still work to be done. There is a lot of room for different sectors to work together, no matter how unlikely the alliance. Hauliers are being let down so badly, and I read that Cheshire Cheese makers are upset.

“To a degree it is now in other people’s hands. Writing to your MP really has more weight than people think it does, so I would encourage people to do that.”

If the political campaigning has kept the guitarist busy recently, he has not been entirely idle during the past year without live concerts. His most recent online recital was as part of Baroque at the Edge at LSO St Luke’s, a beautifully-recorded concert that ranged from the Scottish manuscripts he has recorded for the Delphian label to a flavour of the music that will feature on his first disc under his new contract with Pentatone.

“It will be out in August and is one of their priority releases for next year. It took lockdown for me to discover this repertoire of Federico Mompou, Poulenc, and Ravel.

“Compared to a lot of the stuff that I am interested in, it is on the easier end of the listening scale and outside of lockdown I might not have been enticed to explore it, but it is so comforting to play.

“Mompou’s major work for the guitar repertoire is the Suite Compostelana [composed for Segovia at the start of the 1960s] which traces part of the Camino pilgrim path to Santiago. There are references to the Galician small pipes and other links to the Celtic diaspora, before the sighting of the great church itself.

“So ‘Camino’ made sense as a title for an album of music that I’ve been on a path to get to, and repertoire that I deliberately did not want to explore earlier in my career because the guitar is so inextricably linked to Spanish repertoire. I wanted to be able to come to it with genuine enthusiasm, and this felt like the right time.”

As well as classic guitar repertoire, Shibe has also been adding lute music to his live concerts, most recently for Baroque at the Edge but also for his contribution to the online East Neuk Festival events last year.

“It was another thing that I’ve had time to explore during lockdown. The lute has been in and out of my life since undergraduate studies, which is the best part of ten years now. The technique that you require for the lute is so radically different and the joy of the instrument is its sensuality in playing it. Again it has been something that is very comforting.”

Nonetheless, the global health crisis came just as Sean Shibe’s star was rising and his career moving up a gear, so such consolations have to be set against the business of making a living in the music business.

“When lockdown happened I moved back to stay with my parents and save on rent. I am very grateful that Pentatone took me on when they did and I’ve already seen such substantial support from them, beyond promoting a record. It is much more holistic.”

He is aware that his predicament is no worse than that of many others in the music industry.

“As instrumentalists we always knew it would be hard work to keep going, but my friends in arts admin perhaps saw their jobs as more stable and that has been taken from them. And I really feel for those who are leaving college at the moment as well.

“ I have had two or three new concerti delayed. But delayed and not cancelled, so I am grateful for that. I have probably lost about £50,000 to £60,000 worth of work that was planned – and for that work to be there in the future those institutions will have to survive. Of course there are still things going on, but it is so much harder.”

Keith Bruce

To write to your MP and add your voice to the musicians’ campaign, use this online tool: https://hey-mp.uk/?c=music

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