Author Archives: VoxCarnyx

Ayanna Witter-Johnson & LSO Percussion Ensemble

The Hub, Edinburgh

Since Ben Tindall created a home for the Edinburgh International Festival in an abandoned Church of Scotland building on Castlehill in 1999, the architectural confection lumbered with the prosaic name of The Hub has presented a challenge for successive directors of the event. Although there have been successful one-off concerts and productions there over the years, it possibly achieved maximum usefulness as a studio for filmed chamber music during the restrictions of the Covid pandemic.

Nicola Benedetti’s solution to the use of the place during the three weeks is an eclectic series of recitals reflecting the range of the wider programme, which she hopes will make it a venue for the conversation she wants to have with the audience about the future direction of the Festival.

Few of the musicians performing there will encapsulate that range more individually than songwriter and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson. She last appeared in Scotland as a member of Peter Gabriel’s touring band and at EIF as a composer, her specially-commissioned work, Blush, paired with Judith Weir’s, performed by Chineke! and Andrea Baker during those Covid years. That piece, which plundered the archives of 70s jazz orchestration and Blaxploitation movie soundtracks, suggested a restless musical mind which her cheerful engaging combination of soulful performance and virtuosity here quickly confirmed.

Her collaborators were jazz pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock and the long-serving Principal Percussionist of the London Symphony Orchestra Neil Percy with three of his LSO colleagues from the section. The Hub stage was filled with their instruments, tuned and simpler, but the metronomic beat of much of the music came from a foot-pedal and woodblock operated by Witter-Johnson herself, as, standing, she also played riffs and improvised on her long spiked cello, both bowed and pizzicato, and sang quite beautifully. As her solo encore of Sting’s Roxanne, complete with Bach-like introduction, demonstrated, she developed that startling one-woman-band technique to perfection before success brought her the luxury of these musical partners.

Her relationship with the LSO goes back more than a decade to her youthful involvement with the orchestra’s composers’ hub (every arts organisation has to have one) initiative, but it has reached a new level with the release in October of an album by this ensemble, Ocean Floor, on the LSO Live label. This concert was a showcase for that recording, built around her suite that gives it its title.

There are tragic stories, historical and personal, behind the music Witter-Johnson has composed for the project, but you might not guess that on an initial listen. She has a gift for joyful melody, both instrumental and vocal, and the complexity of her own writing teamed beautifully with Neil Percy’s improvising and Simcock’s arranging of her earlier tune, Chariot, in a distinctly Steve Reich style.

Simcock’s own composition for the album, Holding, although expansively introduced by the pianist, was less successful, probably because the short theme which it explores is less interesting in itself, but it did give each of the other players – David Jackson, Tom Edwards and Sam Walton (also a member of Colin Currie’s quartet) – their own moment in the spotlight.

Keith Bruce

EIF: Dunedin | Yeol Eum Son

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Fresh from their success with Mozart’s Mass in C at the London Proms, John Butt’s Dunedin Consort turned their attention to J S Bach for an Edinburgh Festival Queen’s Hall performance of all four Orchestral Suites. They are fascinating works, the composer drawing together prevailing features of the 18th century Italian and French styles to create a high Baroque sound that, if arguably German in character, is unarguably Bach.

Few understand that better than the excellent Dunedin players, responding to Butt’s innate knowledge of the composer and his refreshing and personable insight into Baroque performance style with complete assurance, mixed with an almost self-governing freedom and bountiful spontaneity. There wasn’t a moment in this concert where the music spoke without natural sparkle and captivating expressiveness.

What gave it all a pleasing aesthetic balance was the inherent diversity of the various suites themselves: two opulent D major ones, Nos 3 and 4 respectively, topped by glorious phalanxes of oboes and trumpets and which Butt, directing form the harpsichord, sensibly placed as the opening and closing works; the more delicately-scored C Major (No 1) and flute-dominated B minor (No 2) providing a softer, creamier centre. 

Stars emerged, but never out of context. Katy Bircher’s flute playing in the concerto-like B minor Suite was subtly prominent, the tenor of her performance proudly virtuosic yet generously integrated, tempered naturally by the delicacy of her period instrument. Minimum strings made for a sinewy, compact unit, fired by Bach’s dazzling writing and their own swashbuckling counter-play. In the larger-scaled suites, it was the martial thrill of the trumpets and timpani that blew us away. Bach as it should be, stimulating and sublime.

Tuesday’s Queen’s Hall recital by South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son came from a later time zone, the heady Romanticism of the 19th century in the wake of Beethoven. That composer’s presence was both the climax of the programme and its fundamental starting point. Son’s second half featured a single work, Beethoven’s late Sonata, the ‘Hammerklavier’, and one that must have startled its original audiences.

For this pianist it seemed to represent a logical product of the composer’s earlier, though in many cases equally provocative, sonatas. She immediately embraced the irascibility of the opening, its splintered rhetoric and impatient questioning, a beast that is never fully tamed in the volatile first movement. Her Scherzo evoked, as it should, a more even temperament, crisp and lithesome, yet still with darker shadows hovering. There was tenderness and thoughtfulness in her Adagio, more cool than ethereal, tossed brutally aside by the sheer bullishness of the closing fugue.

Leading up to all this, Son chose a series of mainly variation-type concert pieces that traced a notional lineage from Beethoven’s pupil Czerny, through his own pupil Liszt to Bizet and the troubled French piano virtuoso Alkan. It was a colourful journey, beginning with Bizet’s kaleidoscopic Variations Chromatiques, a flowering of imaginative diversions germinating from the most perfunctory of themes. 

In Czerny’s Variations on a Theme by Rode (’La Ricordanza’), Son flouted her immaculate finger precision and effortless facility, not least in a final variation sounding like stride piano before its time, but not before stilling the atmosphere with the work’s simplistic theme. Liszt’s Trancendental Study No 9, also subtitled ‘Ricordanza’, emerged almost like a postscript, yet characterised by its own expansive eloquence.

Finally, Alkan’s Variations on a Theme of Steibelt took us to the interval, its childish theme mischievously deceptive, given the ensuing maelstrom of notes that increased exponentially as Alkan’s characteristic virtuoso demands breached the near impossible. Never a problem, though, for this engaging pianist. 

Ken Walton


Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Its own EIF concert is another significant step in deserved recognition of the quality of the choir Christopher Bell founded, and which passed its quarter century anniversary during the strictures of the pandemic.

The early evening performance of two gems of the choral repertoire was preceded by a show-and-tell, a demonstration by Bell of some of the music education techniques employed by NYCOS, derived from the work of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, with choir members – and early arrivals at the Usher Hall – willing guinea pigs.

It would have been more interesting to see the charismatic conductor work his magic on a different crowd, truth to tell. Many of those there at 4pm for the pre-show were already invested in the NYCOS project, perhaps with family among the many young people whose lives it has changed. This lot were a little too good at the singing games and rhythm clapping to pass for rookie seven-year-olds being introduced to the Kodaly method for the first time, only to find themselves being able to read music fluently a few years later.

The proof of that came in the concert an hour later. The main work was the Requiem composed by Maurice Duruflé during the Second World War, a work of devotional intensity that calls for singing of muscular power as well as great tenderness. On the platform with NYCOS was the RSNO and two local soloists, Cardiff Singer of the World 2017, mezzo  Catriona Morison, who had featured in The Magic Flute the previous evening, and baritone Paul Grant, whose recent career has included a run of roles at La Scala, Milan.

He had pivotal moments in the Offertory and the Libera Me, his role parallel to mighty crescendos by the choir, while Morison had the Pie Jesu, Duruflé following the lead of Fauré in that section of his Requiem. Teaming her voice with the low strings and featuring a fine solo from principal cello Pei-Jee Ng, it is one of the gentlest sections of the mass setting, only surpassed by the choir’s In paradisum at the end – surely one of the loveliest evocations of heaven in all music.

With a full-strength RSNO on stage, this choir was never in any danger of being swamped but nor did the ensemble sound ever seem forced. The balance between the pure toned sopranos and wordless accompanying chorus in the Lux aeterna was another memorable moment.

Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the concert, was sung by the most recent addition to the NYCOS stable of choirs, its Chamber Choir, in its debut recital at last year’s Lammermuir Festival. Setting the words of eccentric 18th century poet Christopher Smart to very inventive contemporary music in 1943, here was the bigger choir tackling the version orchestrated by Imogen Holst for an Aldeburgh Festival nearly a decade later.

The ear-catching words – “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry” began soprano soloist Emily Kemp – were on the supertitles, but the immaculate diction of NYCOS made then unnecessary. Holst’s arrangement, which retains the organ alongside a small orchestra of 32 strings with crucial wind soloists, made the piece, although very different, an ideal partner for the Requiem.

That finding of God in Smart’s pet was followed by alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith and tenor Euan McDonald seeing divinity in a mouse and flowers, before bass Joshua McCullough spelled things out in the text’s child-like alphabetical way. It is a great work for NYCOS to have made its own, the building-blocks of the poet’s faith echoing the lessons in musicianship we’d mimicked earlier.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Catriona Morison by Andrew Low

EIF: KBS Symphony Orchestra / Inkinen

Usher Hall, Edinburgh
An important ingredient of any Edinburgh International Festival is the arrival of an orchestra few of the audience will have had an opportunity to hear before. As part of the partnership Focus on Korea in Festival and Fringe this year, the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) Symphony Orchestra ticked that box, bringing a very accessible programme of the Dvorak Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony under Chief Conductor Pietari Inkinen.

The works are close together chronologically in terms of composition – the Dvorak 1895, the Tchaikovsky 1888 – and share the characteristics of memorable melody, uncanny orchestration, and unbridled passion. Dvorak had to be persuaded to a second attempt at a cello concerto but the result is one of the most performed for the instrument, while Tchaikovsky combines some of his darkest moments with his most jubilant in the symphony.

Young Korean cellist Jaemin Han is a superbly exciting performer with all the qualities to propel him to the top of the profession. His technical ability is married to melodic sensitivity, razor-like sharpness and a sort of passive aggression that made his Dvorak far more than a fine performance of a golden oldie. 

The style and flair he displayed in the outer movements were surpassed by a communication with the orchestra in the Adagio, the tranquillity momentarily shattered by a robust middle section, real passion in the soloist’s performance.

Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen is in the first year of his appointment with the KBS, and the Tchaikovsky in particular suggested a relationship developing nicely. There was a lovely gradual ensemble build-up in the first movement, an excellent horn solo in the second and a memorable vitality to the waltz before the crashing chord that heralds the finale.

Czech and Russian music, played by a Korean orchestra, with a Finnish conductor: it is what an international festival is all about.

Garry Fraser

EIF: The Magic Flute

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

When actor Neil John Gibson bustled onto the platform with a gag in the local vernacular about the buses at the start of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s concert performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute, as well as laughter in the capacity house there was detectable bristling in some of the more expensive seats.

There is, however, nothing tokenistic about a commitment to access that runs through new director Nicola Benedetti’s first Edinburgh Festival programme, so hackles will have risen in vain at the pantomimic elements in the presentation of this most problematic of operas. That included baritone Gyula Orendt’s Papageno throwing sweets to the front row of the stalls as well as Gibson channelling the spirit of Gerard Kelly or Andy Gray in some of his delivery.

It certainly leavened some of the darkness in a story that includes sexual assault and attempted suicide alongside racism and masonic ritual – The Magic Flute is not without its challenges for modern audiences. The first of what are to be annual concerts of Mozart operas by conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the SCO, this was a bilingual version, readers Thomas Quastoff and Gibson working with a new English text by Sir David Pountney, and sung in German, with English supertitles.

Seated to the side, Quastoff and Gibson brought a range of voices to their contributions, while the singers were simply the high quality cast that we have come to expect of Festival concert operas at the Usher Hall. Tenor Ilker Arcayurek was an engaging Tamino from the start, who seemed as attached to his magical flute as he was to Julia Bullock’s rather serious Pamina, her characterisation perhaps deliberately in opposition to the playful charm of the Three Ladies, local hero Catriona Morison flanked by Elizabeth Watts and Claudia Huckle.

Of Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night – a role she has sung all over the world in all the best houses – there can be only the highest praise. Quite how she can stride out on to the stage and turn on an instrument operating at that pitch and power is beyond comprehension.

With Brindley Sherratt an imperious Sarastro, there was strength across the whole cast, Pountney even lightening the character of the darkest role, Peter Hoare’s Monostatos with the prop of a cricket bat – a daft visual pun on the sport’s use of the term “guard” that probably stumped as many in the audience as caught it.

With three youngsters singing more of the three boys’ music than is often heard in full productions, the other star vocal ingredient was the SCO Chorus, Emelyanychev ensuring that some of the finest music in the score – at the end of Act 1 and after Pamina’s aria in Act 2 – was given the fullest expression.

Ultimately, and despite the stellar competition onstage, this was the ebullient conductor’s show. His fingerprints were everywhere – on the casting, cueing the singers, in his superb relationship with the players and on the keyboard in front of him, where he added a few ornaments of his own to Mozart’s music.

This was a Magic Flute full of magical moments, and given its occasional emphasis on what used to be called “the battle of the sexes” suggested that the differently problematic Cosi fan tutte might be a good choice for next year – there were a few in this cast who would be good in that too.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Andrew Perry: Rachel Redmond as Papagena and Gyula Orendt as Papageno

EIF: BFO / Fischer 4

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Edinburgh Festival residency was one of diminishing returns. Or to put it another way, what began with the invigorating and enlightening razzmatazz of Tuesday’s beanbag presentations, and continued with Wednesday’s energised Hungarian collaboration with the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls Choir, veered dangerously towards gimmickry for the orchestra’s valedictory appearance on Thursday.

It’s the BFO’s trademark to throw surprise and mischief into its performances, ideas that its reforming maestro Iván Fischer believes will “take the musicians closer to their audience”. While the placing of a split horn section raised either side to the rear made complete musical sense at the start of Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, where pairs of horns correspond antiphonally, the decision to bring each section successively to its feet in the closing moments of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, Duke Ellington-style, took us dangerously into naff territory.

It also seemed strangely at odds with the tenor of the German Romantic repertoire that dominated the evening. Der Freischütz survived unharmed, the horns back among the regular ranks once the point of their segregation was made, and Fischer pushing the momentum on to satisfy the rugged, grumbling rhetoric of Weber’s score. 

Nor was there anything to necessarily rock the boat in the same composer’’s famous Violin Concerto, other than the somewhat mutable whims of the young Swedish-born soloist Daniel Lozakovich. There was no lack of technical assurance in his performance and moments where he beautifully extended the lyrical lines to sublime ends, but this was frequently undermined by rhythmic seizures that would suddenly thrust the tempo into overdrive, unnaturally so, surprising even Fischer and his orchestra in the process. 

Nonetheless there were clear calls for an encore, Lozakovich obliging with the mesmerising acrobatics of Nathan Milstein’s Paganiniana – variations on the theme of Paganini’s most famous Caprice – and a steely virtuosity he had hitherto concealed.

Between the Weber and Mendelssohn, the BFO again reverted to emblematic unorthodoxy, discarding their instruments to form a choir and deliver a creditable rendition of Fanny Mendelssohn’s a cappella choral setting “Schnell Flihen Die Schatten Der Nicht”, the fourth song from her Gartenlieder. It was sweet and sentimental, reflected Fischer’s belief that “all instrumentalists benefit from singing”, and revealed in Felix Mendelssohn’s sibling a comparable compositional expertise. Nonetheless, it bore only a token presence.

There was nothing superfluous about the “Scottish” Symphony, Fischer powering it forward incessantly, but not without regard for its opening sobriety, the sun-filled nonchalance of the Scherzo, the Adagio’s tender expansiveness, and the heroic denouement of the finale. It may have seemed rough in places, a lack of refinement in collective woodwind contributions, but there was plenty fire and soul, and a self-belief clearly communicated by the inspirational Fischer to his receptive players, never more palpable than in the rip-roaring Dvorak encore.

Ken Walton

EIF: Trojan Women

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Scottish Opera’s Ring cycle was not the only treat in Brian McMaster’s 2003 Edinburgh International Festival for those with the stamina for long-form performance.

That year’s programme also included a remarkably comprehensive introduction to the Korean art of pansori, sung story-telling stretching out over hours in which a single vocalist is accompanied by a percussionist on traditional instruments. Audiences for the shows were predictably small, but we select few had an unforgettable experience of what was acknowledged to be an endangered art-form, and a designated “national treasure” in its country of origin.

This flagship production of the Korean strand in the 2023 EIF programme is labelled “Music Theatre” in the printed brochure (although Nicola Benedetti’s first Festival commendably downplays such categorisation), but it might equally be described as “Opera”. It serves no worthwhile purpose to restrict that word to fully-staged productions of a limited list of works in Western culture beyond giving the smaller-minded something to froth about when there isn’t enough of it for them.

Trojan Women is not pansori, but that tradition is an essential ingredient of the magnificent production Singaporean director Ong Keng Sen has fashioned with the help of one of the surviving practitioners of the art, Ahn Sook-sun. She composed – improvised, really, as it was not notated – the music to which much of the text by Bae Sam-sik is set and which the cast have then learned, and was herself a member of that cast when the show first opened.

This work is presented by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea, and changgeuk theatre is a larger form, with an ensemble company, sets and choreography and more musicians, which began with the five pansori stories that have come down to us before embracing narratives from other cultures, East and West.

Euripedes’ contemporaneous account of the fall of Troy and the war between Sparta and Greece is the basis of the story here, but the musical material used to tell it is all Korean, traditional and modern, Ahn Sook-sun’s pansori music combined with contemporary K-pop by the composer of the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning movie Parasite, Jung Jae-il.

The result is not just operatic in its sound and appearance, most of the dialogue sung by the seven principals or chorus of eight and Cho Myung-hee’s set design, Scott Zielinski’s lighting and Austin Switser’s video projections using the language of current opera staging, but in details of the score, with Wagnerian leitmotiv and characters teamed with individual instruments of the accompanying ensemble.

The female chorus is terrific, their declamatory unison voices sometimes resembling Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson of art pop band The B-52s from the Athens in Georgia, and the principal cast, led by Kim Kum-mi as the matriarch Hecuba, is without a weak link. All the characterisation is fascinating, the stylised movement married to naturalistic individual expression. The disbelieved Cassandra (Yi So-yeon) has bouffant hair like Ronnie Spector and a big voice to match, while the casting of male K-pop star Kim Jun-soo as Helen of Troy – possibly more bold in the current fetid climate of personal politics than it should be – is justified entirely by the poise he brings to the role and the piano ballad he has to sing.

The riches of this multi-faceted production are beyond number, as are the parallels with other forms of drama – Hecuba’s emphasis on endurance is Beckettian while her railing at the gods towards the end of the piece is unmistakably Lear-like, but her exchange with Andromache (Kim Mi-jin) could be from a TV soap. Most importantly, however, it is a fully-realised work from elsewhere that speaks to a global audience and to universal experience, which is exactly what the Edinburgh International Festival is all about.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Jess Shurte

EIF: BFO / Fischer 1&2

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is not the only orchestra in the world to recognise that survival requires significant change. The key, of course, is how orchestras change. Some flirt with educational projects, others with the general staidness of traditional symphonic presentation, while others tinker in order to address funding whims. But few take the bull completely by the horns, rip up the rule book and think way out the box, as the BFO has done for decades under the radical leadership of its conductor Iván Fischer. A demo, effectively, on what it’s all about opened their residency at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Only the arthritic will have baulked at the beanbags littering the Usher Hall stalls, which turned out to be the best seats in the house for the purpose of Tuesday’s two related concerts. If there was a main gig, it was the later one, a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No 8 in which we beanbaggers could choose a position amidst or around the orchestra. It was itself scattered with Fischer standing centrally to conduct and compere simultaneously.

This approach, he said, is as much for the audience’s benefit as the players’. And sure enough, as observers we sensed immediately the electricity that sparked between sections or vying soloists, while the players, shooting winks and glances at some of us, seemed to revel in the closer contact. Near the start, Fischer stopped and sought our feedback. Faster or slower? Broody or brio? What do you reckon? He then proceeded to illustrate the consequences of the options. In his hands, interpretation is an open book, changeable at a whim.

Ultimately this Dvorak 8 was fascinating because it wasn’t a straight performance. There were several stops en route, Fischer asking the clarinets to think again about their melancholic response to a blissful statement by the flutes. “Imagine you are miserable street beggars,” he suggested. They duly obliged. If this was a snapshot of the orchestra’s regular demeanour, it must be fun to be a concertgoer in Budapest.

Importantly it was not a gimmick. Having seen the BFO rehearse and perform in other locations – recently in Mahler at the Royal Festival Hall – there is no question that the spontaneity of the preparation process feeds powerfully into the moment of delivery. While this presentation resembled something between an open rehearsal and a masterclass, it had a serious purpose, which was to say to us that we are all intrinsic to the concert experience.  

For the earlier event, A Model For The Future, Fischer took centre stage with Festival Director Nicola Benedetti to discuss the wider policies of his orchestra, and his long-held belief that reform is critical in ensuring the long-term survival of the species. His own model has been that exposed by Pierre Boulez, which is to regard the orchestra as a pool of musicians who can either appear en masse or in various smaller contingents that reflect their particular enthusiasm. 

Cue a bristling early music troupe, complete with sparkling recorder player, joined by a choir populated by others from the orchestra, which performed Monteverdi madrigals with stylish elan. Other integral ensembles took their turn: a steamy Argentine tango ensemble, a gritty Klezmer ensemble and a red hot traditional trio ramping up the momentum to a final of Romanian folk dance

Ken Walton 

EIF: Budapest Festival Orchestra / Fischer 3

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

On paper the third concert of the BFO’s residency at this year’s Edinburgh Festival looked a brief affair, with just half an hour of music before and after the interval. In practice it turned out to be a very complete evening, and that was down to more than the stage re-setting required for the different elements of the programme.

Most obviously that included bringing the concert grand to the front of the stage for Sir Andras Schiff to play the third and last of Bartok’s Piano Concertos. Designed by the dying composer as a legacy for his pianist wife Ditta to sustain her career in their US exile, in fact she quickly returned to Hungary after he succumbed to leukaemia and it was premiered by Gyorgy Sandor and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1946.

It is a very different beast from his rigorous Piano Concerto No2 and Schiff took a characteristic chamber music approach to its performance, engaging audibly and visibly with the superb wind principals of the orchestra in the opening movement and revelling in the referencing of Beethoven’s late string quartet in the Adagio religioso. The delightful transition into the work’s lively closing movement heralded a real vibrancy, poignantly suggesting that the composer was earnestly hoping not to die soon.

The personal content of that late work was framed by the practical music-making we heard on either side of it. The concert began with two performances of a selection of Romanian Folk Dances, Bartok’s orchestral transcription of 1915 preceded by a rougher version of the same material played by a folk trio drawn from the ranks of the orchestra, viola chords and slap bass accompanying the fiddle top line. Conductor Thomas Dausgaard essayed a similar lesson in a concert with the BBC SSO some years ago but it was a little po-faced next to this foot-stomping demonstration of Bartok’s way with traditional sources.

Alongside all the Budapesters on the platform, the local lasses of NYCOS National Girls Choir faced a challenge in performing Bartok’s Seven Choruses for Female Voices and Orchestra – one which, of course, director Christopher Bell’s young choristers rose to magnificently. As immaculately disciplined as always, with diction that non-Hungarian speakers could only marvel at, they performed entirely from memory and clearly beguiled Ivan Fischer, the conductor barely bothering with his instrumentalists to focus entirely on them. Beyond their musical excellence, the Fringe’s comedy awards panel should have been present to hear 75 young women being funny in Hungarian.

Bartok wrote his choruses to complement his colleague Zoltan Kodaly’s education programme, the music tuition method used by NYCOS today, so it was appropriate that the concert concluded with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta. Like Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances they celebrate their traditional sources in the superbly-crafted arc of an orchestral suite, and once again those Budapest Festival Orchestra soloists were immaculate.

Nor was it quite the end of the night, as Fischer re-made his resources of human talent into a baroque band and choir of 20 plus voices. The link between the encore of Monteverdi and the singing we’d heard previously was in the lyrics rather than music, and their expression of female experience – and this was one the NYCOS girls will surely remember for many years to come.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Ivan Fischer by Marco Borggreve

EIF: Buddha Passion

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Where Bach’s Passions narrate the Christian path to salvation – symbolised by the crucifixion and resurrection – Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion follows the young prince’s path to Nirvana and its foundation in compassion. If one were to draw any musical comparisons, it might be the mutual simplicity of Dun’s Chinese chants versus the Lutheran chorales used by Bach to provide the popular commentary, the voice of the people.

Either way, Dun’s epic conception was a powerful vehicle for the opening of Nicola Benedetti’s debut Edinburgh Festival programme as artistic director, a Scottish premiere performance conducted by the composer and employing the visual theatre of two choruses (the Edinburgh Festival and RSNO Youth Choruses), an exotic mix of solo performance traditions, and the powerhouse of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Dun has proclaimed this piece essentially a concert opera, a quality intrinsic in the literally thousands of murals in China’s historic Mogul Caves – many of them depicting musicians – that inspired its composition. As such, we witness beyond its purely musical strength a sense of animation, physical interaction and sensuous colourings. 

Its Edinburgh performance recorded maximum impact through the palpable engagement of its constituents. Dun drew from the adult chorus and its ethnic chants the most opulent of unisons, the singers equally happy to throw inhibitions aside when their role converted to primal laughter or dramatic gesture and exhortation. The youth chorus topped this with singing of pure and lustrous resilience.

With such a diverse team of solo performers, the key characterisations never failed to surprise, extending from the sparkling precision of soprano Louise Kwong and mezzo-soprano Samantha Chong, and cool-headed Western-style persuasiveness of tenor Chen Chen and baritone Sun Li, to the challenging unorthodoxy of Pipa player and dancer Chen Yining enacting a truly mesmerising choreography, indigenous singer Tan Weiwei, and the extraordinary subterranean vocal reverberations and harmonic overtones created by Mongolian throat singer (and morin khuur player) Batubagen.

Combined with the luxuriant orchestral score – a sound world constantly bouncing between Puccini, mystical avant-garde and unadulterated 20th Century Fox that proved easy meat for the RSNO – Dun presented us with an initially soft-centred, but ultimately profound performance. If spectacle, scale and originality are key to a successful EIF opener, this did the trick.

Ken Walton 

EIF: BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

For many of a generation older than Nicola Benedetti’s (specifically, mine) the question the new director of the Edinburgh International Festival is posing on the cover of her first programme and in the title of this concert, Where Do We Go From Here?, is less the last book completed by the Rev Martin Luther King before his assassination, and more a line from the debut hit single five years later by David Essex, Rock On.

It is not too flippant to add that in the case of the final work in this short concert, Three Screaming Popes by Mark-Anthony Turnage, the name of the teen heart-throb’s chart-topper would not be an inaccurate answer. Turnage’s youthful, visceral response to the paintings of Francis Bacon was by far the oldest work of the four the BBC Scottish played under the baton of Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, and its power and intensity, and dramatic conclusion with a referee’s whistle and  dying piano chord could only really have been placed at the end of the programme.

Where we journeyed before that, as Benedetti, writer and broadcaster Tom Service and the conductor guided us through a trio of 21st century pieces, was no less musically rewarding, especially the longest and most recent work, Hans Abrahamsen’s Let Me Tell You, with soprano Jennifer France.

The soloist has the commanding starring role in this three-part song-cycle which gives voice to Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, drawing inspiration from music writer Paul Griffith’s experimental novel. France was superb, but Wigglesworth’s introduction, deconstructing the composer’s method with the help of the SSO musicians, ensured that this audience was also paying close attention to the instrumental score.

Although no-one mentioned it – in an event that had clearly drawn a good audience partly because of its verbal component – Griffith’s other work as a librettist, on Tan Dun’s EIF-commissioned Marco Polo and Elliot Carter’s sole opera, What Next?, also chimed rather fortunately with this year’s Festival.

Between those two works, the presentation team employed the established tactic of having the orchestra play a new work twice to give the least well-known piece a chance to win us over. Elizabeth Ogonek’s vibrant as though birds is just four minutes long, so that was eminently feasible, and to my ears it sounded sharper, not in pitch, but in precision of performance, the second time around – but that could equally have been my ears.

The concert had begun with Virga by Helen Grimes, a modern pastoral piece which has at its heart some exquisite string-writing – and playing in this performance – decorated by harp, celeste and percussion and more robust brass and wind colouring.

Of the quartet featured, she was the only composer present in the audience. Would I have preferred to hear her talk about the work? Perhaps. But without the Benedetti attraction, this programme – an encapsulation of the director’s whole approach to her new job – would surely never have put so many bottoms on Usher Hall seats.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Jennifer France by Nick Cutts

St Andrews Organ Week

Caird Hall, Dundee

St Andrews Organ Week, which began in 1980, is an event of international standing, with students at the current event travelling from Australia, Hungary, Spain and Italy and tutors including Massimilano Guida (Italy), Katelyn Emerson (Cambridge), Henry Fairs (Berlin) and St Andrews’ own Chris Bragg.

Events are not limited to the East Neuk university town, with Crail Parish Church and Dundee’s Caird Hall , both home to Harrison and Harrison organs, also recital venues. The large Caird Hall organ, 100 years old, with 51 stops, and maintained by an active Friends organisation who were co-promoters of this Dundee concert, was given a showcase recital by Henry Fairs on the Tuesday evening of Organ Week, surely a revelation to any hearing the instrument in its solo glory for the first time. 

Fairs found every nuance and contrast in sound and texture this organ can supply, and clearly enjoyed the wide range of registration the instrument offers.

Opening with Bach’s B flat minor Prelude and Fugue (from the Well-Tempered Clavier), he chose the Max Reger arrangement, which gives the work an orchestral feel, the rich elaboration perhaps at the expense of the composer’s template-setting originality.

The Caird Hall organ has some brilliant solo stops, as Fairs demonstrated with the oboe and clarinet lines in Bossi’s Colloquy with the Swallows. Switching from full organ to sudden pianissimo was a dramatic device that worked superbly here and throughout his entire programme. 

The highlight for this listener was the Four Sketches by Robert Schumann that followed, a treat from a composer not renowned for his organ works. Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s surreal Pastels from the Lake of Constance were less effective in comparison.

Percy Whitlock’s Fanfare brought the concert to a close, the organ’s tuba stop reverberating through the hall. Is this instrument the finest concert organ in Scotland, as is sometimes claimed? Last week that was a question of international as well as local debate.

Garry Fraser

Scottish Opera Young Company

Edington Street Studios, Glasgow

The ampersand in the heading of this review is doing a lot of heavy lifting. For all the skill and cleverness evident in every aspect of this challenging double-bill from the youth wing of Scottish Opera, the way in which director Flora Emily Thomson, conductor Chris Gray and this excellent ensemble achieved the transition between Henry McPherson’s contemporary take on Dark Ages myth and a faithful presentation of Kurt Weill’s compact tale of mid-20th century rural American Gothic was quite masterly.

There was no break in this double-bill, some swift side-stage costume changes and a stripping-back of lusher elements of the sylvan setting (both the work of Finlay McLay) taking place as the musicians segued from McPherson’s score to Weill’s. It was bold, but made perfect sense because of the shared elements of the stories, in which insular communities demonstrate a fearful ruthlessness at the expense of the charismatic hero we are all rooting for.

McPherson’s Maud was first seen as part of a triple-bill of short premieres at Glasgow’s SWG3 in 2018 in an event that looked back to Scottish Opera’s 5:15chamber-opera commissioning strand and forward to the establishment of the Young Company as a successor to the company’s “Connect” project. It had the best of the presentation then, and – although scaled down in terms of its instrumental forces – worked well here too, even if the balance between the keyboards and percussion and the whispering ensemble was initially difficult to tune into.

Young mezzo Imogen Bews, who also brought a fine swaggering presence to her trouser-role as Thomas Bouché in the Weill, supplied the role created by Danish mezzo Lise Christensen as the Wise Woman overseeing the tale with a strong and flexible voice. The triple-casting of the title role – Elinor Gent, Maria Wotherspoon and Anna Sophie Montgomery – gave our heroine a physical presence to match the meaner influences of her parents and the villagers with their palpable suspicion of “the other”.

McPherson’s music may not be the most melodious or harmonic, but his use of arias and choruses was recognisable enough, and the ensemble singing was as impressive as the range of solo voices.

If that piece was far from an easy sing for these young musicians, neither is the Weill, even if the composer’s use of traditional American folk songs suggests a closer kinship with musical theatre. The star solo turns here were baritone preacher/community leader Joshua Campbell, tenor Luke Francis as Brack Weaver, and especially Helena Engebretsen as the central love interest, Jennie Parsons.

With violinist Katie Hull joining the keyboards of Karen McIvor and Hilary Brooks and percussionist Darren Gallagher, her solo line was a key partner to the soprano’s anguish in what is almost a Victorian melodrama transferred to the rural USA. Told in flashback, the crucial fight scene was excellently choreographed in a production in which the ensemble movement, using all of the auditorium, was as accomplished as the choral singing.

The Young Company can be seen  at Barrfields in Largs on Saturday (July 29) and Stirling’s Albert Halls on Sunday (July 30).

Keith Bruce

Picture of Helena Engebretsen and Luke Francis in Down in the Valley by Sally Jubb

Dudok Quartet

Music at Paxton, Paxton House, Berwickshire

The Dudok Quartet Amsterdam made an interesting point when introducing themselves to this Music at Paxton audience. Noted for their progressive approach to string quartet performance, cellist David Faber explained that the ensemble’s artistic policy is not so much to limit itself to pure string quartet music per se, but rather to play music that befits a string quartet. 

What that does is to free them from the confines of a purpose-built repertoire “invented” in the mid-18th century, most notably by Haydn, and instead let them utilise a wider spread of music from further back in time transcribed for the genre. So this opening festival programme began with a surprise: a miscellany of pre-Baroque miniatures dating from between 1200 and 1600, all examples of vocal music recast for strings.

We weren’t actually expecting any of this, the advertised Piatti Quartet having cancelled last-minute due to travel issues, but swiftly replaced by the young Dutch players who had hot-footed it from Yorkshire’s Ryedale Festival. Any disappointment gave way instantly to revelation.

That said, the bulk of the Dudok’s programme was mainstream, the clean textures of Mozart’s final Prussian Quartet dominating the opening half, Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet filling the post-interval slot with a fulsome flood of Russian Romanticism. In a further gesture of originality, the Quartet applied a series of differently-styled bows reflecting the relevant musical periods: Baroque bows for the early music, a later linear design for Classical Mozart, and modern design for the Tchaikovsky. There was certainly a distinctiveness in the results, but whether that was actually down to the bows is a moot question. 

Suffice to say, overall, that an intriguing and generally lively programme was also one of mixed success.

It all began with a buzz, an arrangement of Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes whose austere 12th century primitivism translated arrestingly into something resembling a belligerent pre-echo of Bela Bartok-meets-Steve Reich – a form of rustically-charge minimalism, considerably more gutsy than the version of this piece once favoured by the Kronos Quartet.

Then, with “just intonation” principles applied to Machaut’s Kyrie (from his Messe de Notre Dame), the resultant tuning distortions played mischief with our modern-day sensitivities, fascinating in one sense, grotesque in another. And finally, where Gesualdo’s music generally comes with in-built futuristic dissonance, his madrigal Deh come invan sospiro, in this string version, and for all its incongruous harmonic shifts, seemed strangely emasculated. 

No such quibbles with the ensuing Mozart, granting the first genuine opportunity for Dudok to show their real worth. This was a stylish performance that pitted 18th century Viennese grace and charm against the growing maturity of Mozart’s quartet writing at this late stage in his short life. Now and again, its focus dimmed and details were scurried over, particularly the inner textures, but on the whole there was a joyousness, daringly picturesque at times.

Tchaikovsky’s Quartet, with its sublime and funereal slow movement, transported us to more heated realms of expression, which the ensemble responded to vigorously, if occasionally short on full-blooded passion and complete rhythmic unanimity. Where they consistently excelled was in capturing the spontaneous thrills that ignite the frenetic scherzo and distantly muted Andante. 

Prefacing the quartet with a transcription of Lasky’s Aria from the same composer’s Eugene Onegin was tasteful and touching, but probably unnecessary. A Shostakovich encore, on the other hand, was fully justified.

Ken Walton

Music at Paxton runs till Sunday 30 July. Full programme details at

iuchair Ensemble

Govan Old Parish Church

Govan, all too often, gets a bad press. Yet in recent years, thanks to the lively initiatives of socially-minded conductor Paul MacAlindin and his Glasgow Barons organisation, this rough-by-reputation satellite Glasgow community’s historic Old Parish Church has been a centre of regular classical music activity. If it’s not the Glasgow Barons themselves – a proficient and enterprising freelance orchestra – MacAlindin programmes interesting guests with intriguing music. 

On Thursday it was an emerging Glasgow-based vocal ensemble, something akin to a rarefied boy band specialising in hits from the Medieval and Renaissance canon. For their hour-long programme, the iuchair Ensemble focused on one of two key masses by the 15th century Franco-Flemish composer Petrus de Domarto. 

At its time – probably the 1450s – the Missa Spiritus almus was deemed a challenging venture into the world of 4-part mass writing, its unapologetic dissonances and rhythmic freedom edgy and daring, if counter to the tastes of some, including 15th century theorist Johannes Tinctoris, whose adverse critique of the time apparently damned the music to reasonable success by notoriety.

In the vast, shadowy jadedness of Govan Old, the pungent early evening sun picking random targets to illuminate (unfortunately not the black-clad singers visually muted in a permanently dark spot), the four male voices brought a patent enthusiasm to a carefully measured performance. It wasn’t always perfectly in tune, which rather dulled the impact of Domarto’s built-in harmonic tensions, but it did have a certain rawness of tone that gave character to this unfamiliar, explorative music.

Nor, as per its original liturgical function, was the Mass presented as a continuous entity, interjected appropriately by relevant plainsong and motets. Among them were Johannes Touront’s florid 3-part O Florens Rosa, sung distantly from the “east end”; Guillaume DuFay’s gritty Ave regina caelorum, intoned in a rugged continental style; and Leonel Power’s Ave maris stella, which seemed extraordinarily uncouth in its harmonic construction – those parallel octaves! – yet proved fascinating as an earthy reflection of its primitive origins.

In all, the iuchair Ensemble – joined in parts, with a certain funkiness, by Bodhrán player Craig Baxter – unveiled a sequence of repertoire that demands deep understanding of its fragile quirks, unrefined experimentation and historical context. There was much in their performance that proved fresh and enlightening, even where the occasional imbalance of voices – was it tiredness in the demanding top tenor line? – slightly rocked the boat. We left having learnt something new.

As an added bonus on exit, and save for the muffled mass drumming of a distant marching band in rehearsal, the quiet streets and summer evening glow gave Govan the aura of a leafy suburban sanctuary. Reputations can be misleading.

Ken Walton

Glasgow Orchestral Society

Caird Hall, Dundee

“It’s all about the organ” was the phrase quoted before each concert in Glasgow Orchestral Society’s 150th anniversary tour.  That’s partly right, as the organs in the four venues – Inverness, St Andrews, Dundee and Dunblane – were featured in all their glory in Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony. However, it was also all about an orchestra that proved every bit as good, if not better, than many amateur ensembles I’ve had the pleasure to hear. 

Suffice to say it was a successful if gruelling tour, yet in the penultimate concert in Dundee’s Caird Hall there were no signs of fatigue. The performance was fresh, enthusiastic and a credit to all concerned.

The organ crept into the proceedings slowly by surely, opening the concert with the reverberating pedal bass that announces Richard Strauss’ Sunrise from his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, made universally famous, of course, through Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

Less familiar, but intriguing in its own way, was English suffragette composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s overture to her third opera The Wreckers, a work first staged in Leipzig in 1906. Is it worthy of greater exposure? This performance certainly highlighted its imaginative contrasts of sound and texture, incorporating the organ to symbolic effect in a hymn-like centrepiece.

Given that Smyth’s opera is based in Cornwall, the journey to Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, itself centred on Cornish legend, was minimal, the atmosphere just as moving and dramatic. This orchestra, under Chris Swaffer’s direction, brought out every drop of passion with perfection. The Dundee audience were given a treat that the other tour venues missed out on with the subsequent inclusion of the opera’s magical Liebestod, in which soprano Shuna Scott Sendall conjured up ten minutes of Wagnerian magic. 

Finally, the Saint-Saëns justified its star billing. To have compared all four organs used in the tour would have been an especial luxury, but it was suffice to experience here the mighty punch of the fine Caird Hall instrument, organist Stuart Muir bringing panache to the symphony’s most electrifying moments, while recognising too its more submissive subtleties. The orchestra was in excellent form.

All in all, this was a pretty successful programme for Scotland’s oldest non-professional orchestra to celebrate its century-and-a-half  of music making.

Garry Fraser

East Neuk Festival 2

Various venues, Fife

What’s the connection between strings, guitar, accordion, church organ and saw? Yes, I said saw – not an implement you expect to see in any normal musical line-up. But then, the music and diversity offered by the East Neuk Festival always has an air of mystique and innovation that sets it apart.

Sunday saw the close of this year’s musical journey, a trip from St Monans to St Andrews via Anstruther that was an utter delight. Duets, ensembles, solo work – whatever the combination and whatever the style of music, from Scarlatti to Philip Glass, it was delivered with the Festival’s customary class.

Classical music can be a serious business, so sometimes needs a lighter touch to break the routine. SCO cellist Su a Lee did just that when she and her long-standing friends – Mr McFall’s Chamber – brought an informal but still strictly professional touch to their Anstruther Town Hall programme. There was tango, both South American and European, North American swing and Elizabethan grace. Su a Lee, on musical saw, gave the performance an unusual but marvellous touch, yet it was one of the more sedate works that took top billing, Piazzolla’s Solitad, which was undeniably beautiful.

Prior to that, in St Monans Kirk, Sofia Ros (accordion) and Morgan Szymanski (guitar) embarked on a tour of Latin American music. Szymanski took the edge in terms of virtuosity – his programme seemed more challenging in that respect – but Ros’ brilliant dexterity shone in two Scarlatti sonatas, the first taken at breakneck speed.

The Festival was rounded off in customary fashion by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, a final concert with a difference as it used the organ in St Andrews’ Holy Trinity Church. It inspired some novel programming, with mixed success. Tom Wilkinson’s performance of Bach’s massive Fantasia and Fugue was impressive and magisterial, but the organ work that complemented it, Philip Glass’ Mad Rush, predictably repetitive, rather outstayed its welcome.

That was a mere blip in an otherwise triumphant programme in which more interesting Glass featured – his  American Seasons – with violinist/director Isabelle van Keulen as soloist. The work was fantastic, a take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, van Keulen’s solo performance capturing its fervent spirit. It was brilliance personified.

If Glass’ music took prominence, that’s not to say that Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations and Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten were lacking significant presence, superbly performed as one would expect from an orchestra firmly imbedded in the life of this fine Festival.

Garry Fraser

Photo by Neil Hanna

East Neuk Festival 1

Kilkenny Church / Crail Church

Maybe it was too much to ask of the Scottish weather that the scorcher we’d enjoyed throughout June remain firmly  in place for the 2023 East Neuk Festival. In the event, the close of the month, coinciding with the first two days of the Festival, offered more typical climatic variables – a sizzling Thursday followed by a cool, showery Friday – and so did the music.

Thursday’s performances felt like a congenial warm-up: two really interesting programmes delivered with just a suspicion of settling in – not exactly unexpected after the impact and hangover of Covid. 

First up was a return ENF visit by French-Canadian cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, a solo recital in the amiable ambience of Kilrenny Church that began in the 20th century – a selection of Geörgy Kurtág’s étude-like aphorisms – and ended with the sanguine Bach Cello Suite in C minor. It was in the former – incendiary miniatures scattered among the progressive Hungarian composer’s output like personal journal entries – that Queyras realised the most positive impact, incisive and colourful interpretations that nailed the ballistic concentration of the music.

Beyond that, Queyras’ playing was probing and eloquent, emotive in its realisation of the inner musings expressed by Turkish composer Ahmet Annan Saygun in his Bach-like Partita for Cello, yet as a consequence, too free in its rhythmic definition, which tended to rob the ensuing Bach Suite, and two other short Baroque pieces, of their natural energy.

There was no lack of oomph in that evening’s Crail Church programme by the Belcea Quartet and Friends, which saw the familiar core ensemble augmented with Queyras and feisty Berlin Philharmonic violist Diyang Mei for a gritty performance of Brahms’ String Sextet No 1 in B flat, prefaced by a bombastic solo performance of movements from Liszt’s Les Années de Pèlerinage Book II by pianist Bertrand Chamanyou.

Chamanyou’s Liszt was epic, power-driven at times to the point of near-destruction, yet shot through with plentiful moments of deep sensitivity and flowing virtuosity to counter its viciousness. The closing Dante-inspired work was a case in point, thrillingly apocalyptic, but edging towards tonal distortion. If the Brahms adopted something of that bravado mentality, it was to mostly positive ends and a performance attuned fittingly to both the music’s homogenous richness and internal strife.

Friday held its own fascination, a thrilling late morning Kilrenny programme by the Castalian Quartet, followed late afternoon by an individualistic solo recital from South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son

Previous visits by the Castalian Quartet have been notable for the naturalness with which they strike a classy balance between the individual and the body corporate. Such was the magical essence of a Mozart Quartet in D minor that divulged, through a combination of smiling interaction and devious self opinion, its awakening drama and characterful grace. Fuller passions emerged in the Dvorak, yet enlivened by that same flexible discipline and measured effusion.

Like the Castalians, Yeol Eum Son will be back in Scotland later this summer for the Edinburgh International Festival, which on this evidence will be a starry twin attraction. Son, whose recent recordings of the complete Mozart piano sonatas were singularly impressive, played two of these works in her Crail programme. In the C Minor Fantasy her total immersion in the music was fascinating, at the same time unnerving. She seemed to agonise over the opining of the Fantasy, as if deliberately deconstructing its flow. One the other hand, the C minor Sonata took its natural course, a little short on lyrical inevitability perhaps, but genuinely spirited.

Impetuousness had its place in Janacek’s Sonata No 1 (From the Street), with its disturbing transformations – quite Jekyll and Hyde in character and style – and wild excursions between achingly suspended time and crashing climaxes. Son signed off with exuberant flair in the Sonata No 2 by Ukrainian composer Nikolay Kapustin. It is unadulterated jazz, frenzied improvisation writ large, played here with breathtaking virtuosity and physical abandon. It had its tender moments – a bluesy Largo with super-heated harmonies – but the emphasis was on showmanship, which Son applied full on. She leapt from her stool in the final flurry of madcap glissandi; we all but jumped from our own seats in instant response.

Ken Walton 

St Mary’s 50th

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Some end-of-term concerts are grander than others, and this one, in terms of its participants and musical content, was certainly top of the class. Featuring an orchestra that teamed the current cohort of students with alumni whose schooldays ended as long ago as the early 1980s, under the baton of cellist, teacher and leader of the Hebrides Ensemble Will Conway, and a choir that involved the entire school singing a new work by Sir James MacMillan, the star soloists included a trio for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto of violinist Colin Scobie, cellist Philip Higham and pianist Steven Osborne, all former pupils.

Yet there was a sense that the event needed to be grander than it turned out. It felt constrained by the dimensions of the venue, both physically and aurally, and the occasion – the Golden Jubilee of the establishment of St Mary’s as a proper academic establishment for the training of young musicians – seemed worthy of a bigger bash. The long saga of the school’s ambition to move from its present cramped accommodation in Edinburgh’s West End to a redeveloped Old Royal High School on Calton Hill, has perhaps taken its toll. Although that development is now on track, it is probably unlikely that even the youngest of the present pupils will still be around to see the move.

Nonetheless, St Mary’s cannot be accused of losing sight of the music in the course of embracing its bold building scheme. That campaign has been soundtracked by The Seven Hills Project, which commissioned seven composers to write a diversity of pieces, the common thread being new verses, themed on Edinburgh’s seven hills, written by Alexander McCall Smith. The 50th birthday commission was the new MacMillan piece, setting George Mackay Brown’s calendar poem The Flute in the Garden.

It is a challenging sing for a youth chorus, in which the orchestra is very much an equal partner, and the flute of the title a crucial voice. The loveliest moments occur, appropriately, in the summer months, with instantly recognisable evocations of the sounds of nature. It is not a long work, but surely one that other ensembles, vocal and instrumental, will be keen to get their teeth into.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise was a well-chosen work to follow the new piece, although also a tall order for young players, who rose splendidly to its challenges and enthusiastically added the required vocal punctuation. The concluding bagpipes appeared from the back of the hall in the hands of Brighde Chaimbeul, more usually a virtuoso on the bellows-powered smallpipes, and rarely seen playing standing up, never mind making a pacing entrance.

The concert ended with another world premiere in Judith Weir’s 50 Happy Bars, a measured fanfare/coda that revealed itself as an orchestration of the world’s best known birthday melody.

The first half of the programme had begun with the only piece that really suited the scale of the Queen’s Hall – Aaron Copland’s Quiet City. Conway’s small string ensemble was flanked by the two guest soloists – trumpeter Aaron Akugbo and the cor anglais of Katherine Bryer. As a piece it may have outgrown its theatrical origins, but it was the precision of this performance by all involved that made it such a good place to start.

The Triple Concerto, on the other hand, did seem a squeezed into the space, an impression amplified by an orchestral sound that was initially more (late) ‘Beethoveney’ than the work really wants. What was fascinating, so soon after hearing Benedetti, Kanneh-Mason and Grosvenor play it with the RSNO, was the very different approach of Scobie, Higham and Osborne. They were no less communicative as a trio, but there was no question that Higham had the leading role.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Brighde Chaimbeul by Steve Bliss

Dunedin: Out Of Her Mouth

Platform Glasgow

Few would argue that the Dunedin Consort, an ensemble that not long ago faced financial oblivion and likely extinction, is now considered one of Scotland’s most creative and imaginative musical groups. Among its many achievements, it has found ingenious ways to contemporise the historical performance ethos in such a way as to preserve the early music movement’s fundamental integrity, often through daring collaborations with contemporary composers or similarly-minded collaborators.

Take this season finale, an opera-styled presentation called Out Of Her Mouth, which manufactures a continuous dramatic entity out of three early 18th century Cantates Bibliques by the Versailles-based composer Elizabeth Jaquet de la Guerre. Each centres on a separate biblical heroine – Susanne, Rachel and Judith – whose stories speak of sexual oppression and their inner strength in managing or conquering it.

To enable this, Dunedin has joined forces with Mahogany Opera and We Are Hera. Hera’s joint artistic director Toria Banks – her company focuses on presenting inclusive opera for women and gender minority artists – has translated and adapted the original texts to formulate a bullish, streamlined English libretto. Cardiff-based stage director Mathilde Lopez and designer Will Monks create a restless, visual menagerie unified by the constant onstage presence of all three singers. Dunedin’s four-piece period band is also a permanent fixture on a crowded stage.

The onus is on the singers to define their respective characters: Anna Dennis as a defiant Susanne; Alys Mererid Roberts as the duped but compliant Rachel; Carolyn Sampson taking the juiciest of roles as the bloodthirsty Judith. They do so with ballsy intent, Sampson ultimately stealing the show with consummate magnetism and the intoxicating power to endear and shock at the flick of a switch.

It helps that this final cantata is the strongest musically, its opening aria gilded with Purcellian polish and exuberance, its momentum sustained by both de la Guerre’s enlivened invention and Sampson’s engaging vocal and theatrical nuances. Where she contemplates her murderous act  – the beheading of the sleeping sex-pest Holofernes – the sentiment is vile, the music strangely enchanting, the dramatic irony hideously apparent.

If the boyishly-attired Dennis and Wellingtons-clad Roberts have less persistently inspired music to contend with, they take the lead from the animated ensemble, using force of personality to overcome the more prosaic conventionalism they are dealt. 

Where this often accident-prone production did struggle was in meeting the challenge of an unsuitable venue. Glasgow’s Platform, formerly The Arches, is essentially a cavernous brick-lined crypt beneath the railway lines serving Glasgow Central Station. Time and again, Out Of Her Mouth played counter to the enveloping roar of overhead trains. 

That was insurmountable, but there were other aspects of this show that suffered from issues either implicit within director Mathilde Lopez’s overheated production style or determined by a low-slung stage area that facilitated technical mishaps. 

Coordination between the sung/spoken word and projected text frequently went askew, even obliterated at times by the singers’ shadows or the towering theorbo. For such a compact space, Lopez chose unadvisedly to forfeit clarity for overcomplexity. Symbolic props ranged from a series of kitchen paper towels – unrolled to criss-cross the stage and at one point wrap around the cellist’s music – to water melons variously disembowelled or beaten to pulp, whose purpose was clearest when representing Holofernes’ head, mercilessly minced by Judith with a baseball bat. There was too much going on, with confusing consequences. 

Other venues in this tour may provide the production with the space it needs. After Glasgow, it heads for Edinburgh, York Early Music Festival and Spitalfields Festival in London.

Ken Walton 

Photo: Carolyn Sampson

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