Category Archives: Features

Movie Score Draw


RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie tells KEITH BRUCE he is wooing Hollywood to soundtrack the orchestra’s future.

There are few conversations with the man in charge of Scotland’s national orchestra that do not reference his time as a working musician before he moved into management. He may not play his trumpet much these days, but his career as the leader of the trumpet sections of London’s Sinfonietta and Philharmonia orchestra informs every decision he makes.

So he talks of the importance of recording film music, as both a discipline and a well-paid element of his life in London, from first-hand experience. “For London musicians it’s a big part of their life. And it’s an interesting part of life: fast-paced, fast-moving work. I think it’s very creative work.”

As he tells it, when he first stepped into the auditorium of the RSNO’s new home on Glasgow’s Killermont Street, when he was in the city to be interviewed for the post he has held for the last three years, he was immediately struck by its resemblance to Abbey Road’s Studio No 1. Its proportions were very similar, as was its much-admired acoustic.

That is no accident, because the building was designed by Arup with recording as well as rehearsal and performance in mind. Shoehorned into a tiny site between Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the John Lewis department store, the RSNO Centre’s new space is a concrete box within a concrete box entirely isolated from the noisy world around.

As well as having audience seating that can be deployed and stowed in minutes, the room has adjustable walls, sonic baffles and curtains to tailor that acoustic to suit everything from a full symphony orchestra to an intimate chamber ensemble.

What it has lacked until now, or has had to bring in for projects like pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s award-winning Chopin concerto album with the orchestra and conductor Elim Chan, is a state-of-the-art mixing desk to capture the music.

“The two things we couldn’t change were fantastic,” is how Mackie puts it. “The room, it’s fantastic – we’ve had a number of really top engineers from round the world coming to this room and raving about it. And the musicians are really good.”

Mackie’s ambitions for the RSNO’s studio went far beyond making classical albums, and beyond the needs of the orchestra itself. 
Encouraged by the Scottish Government and Screen Scotland, there has been a boom in film and television programme making in Scotland, with the countryside suiting many story-lines and the cities seemingly able to masquerade as others around the globe and in the imagination of writers as well as being themselves.

Mackie recognised a big gap in the attractions the country offered however. “The one thing about Scotland is that you can shoot it, you can do post-production, you can do just about everything, but what you couldn’t do was have a symphony orchestra record the soundtrack. There simply hasn’t been a facility that has the space, the technology, the control room to do that.”

Until now. With the help of a legacy from RSNO patrons Iain and Pamela Sinclair, the orchestra has now kitted out a control room with a 72-track Solid State Logic analogue desk, partnered with all the surround-sound speakers and monitoring, with over 160 top quality microphones to pick up the performance in the room.

The man in charge of all this is the RSNO’s in-house sound engineer, now Digital Manager of the organisation, Hedd Morfett-Jones, who has an audio engineering intern, Sam McErlean, working alongside him. A graduate of the specialist course at the University of Surrey, it is a passing curiosity that his qualification was a side of music education that held no interest for Mackie when he went to the same institution from music school in Scotland.

“We’re trying to gather teams around us,” says Mackie now. “We’ve done it with our camera work. I want the same on the sound side. I don’t want to keep paying London engineers to come up here.”

Mackie’s business plan looks sound. The Glasgow Studio is on the same scale as Air or Abbey Road in London, both of which are booked up years ahead, and can charge top dollar as a result. Because the RSNO owns its facility it can offer a competitive rate to filmmakers who have to pay both the orchestral musicians and for studio time in London.

Of course there is further competition, especially from Eastern Europe, but Mackie is adamant that the musicianship on offer in Scotland gives the RSNO a qualitative advantage.

“British musicians are renowned for the quality of what they do. Our musicians will get paid the same as a London musician. The Union has rates. We will not pay less and we will not charge less than what musicians get in London, but we will be competitive because we own the studio. That’s our pitch to the market.

”There has been some training of the RSNO players in the skills required for film work as well,” he adds. “The other big thing with film is playing to click-track. So we’ve done multiple test sessions here. Our first horn, Chris Gough, did a film course in Valencia, and his final exam was six clips he had to make, to write to picture. He not only had to write the scores, but do the Pro-tools files for the technical side, and we used his final exam as a test session to test the RSNO players with complex clicks, complex sound-to-picture synchronisation.”

At the same time as Gough was studying at Boston’s Berklee College campus in Spain, principal percussionist Simon Lowden was adding a post-graduate qualification in music for film to his CV at Glasgow School of Art, and he now works with the RSNO’s digital team alongside his playing in the orchestra.

All this skills-building and spending on hardware – the SSL desk cost £230,000 and Mackie’s budget for the whole studio project was around half a million pounds – is expected to produce a return, and the chief executive sees that not as a bonus but an essential.

“All the time we’re struggling with standstill funding. I don’t see ticket income growing in Scotland, and I can’t see Government grants growing in Scotland. We simply need a new income stream if we’re going to keep going as an organisation.

“So part of what we’re doing is trying align with the initiatives of the Scottish Government , and part of what we’re doing is something that keeps musicians invigorated. But part of what we’re doing is purely economics, trying to go into a more commercial market – and I am quite taken with the idea of Hollywood subsidising concerts at the Royal Concert Hall.”

The RSNO is not entirely breaking new ground. In recent years it has worked with film composer Danny Elfman on his violin concerto Eleven Eleven under conductor John Mauceri, and on a new recording of Dmitri Tiomkin’s score for Dail M for Murder with William Stromberg. Its back catalogue with Varese Sarabande includes film scores with Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.

The first results of the new studio set-up will be seen and heard on Sky TV in December, with the broadcast of a remake of the 1972 children’s fantasy adventure The Amazing Mr Blunden. The original was scored by Bernstein, and the music for this one has been written by LA-based Scot Blair Mowat.

The composer is the most enthusiastic advocate the orchestra could have wished for. “This whole project has been an utter delight. When I got the gig, I immediately called the RSNO to see if they could record the score for this exciting new remake. Happily, the stars aligned and it was a dream come true to be composing and conducting for an orchestra that meant so much to me growing up in Scotland.

“We were delighted by both the experience we had recording with them and also the sound we achieved on the final recording. It was an honour to be the first film score to record here, of which I’m sure there will be countless more. There are exciting times ahead, and we can’t wait to come back!”

Sky TV will broadcast The Amazing Mr Blunden, featuring Blair Mowat’s new score recorded by the RSNO, at Christmas. www.rsno.org.uk

Hebrides on Film

A bold new film series reveals the inner workings of the Hebrides Ensemble, writes KEN WALTON

We’ve got used to the digital alternative to live concert attendance resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown. Many will agree that the resulting listener experience of concerts streamed to our homes was necessary and welcome, if never quite as vital or participatory as the real thing. But it’s with us now, possibly for keeps, and it has a valid role to play so long as it can be justified in bringing added value. 

It’s not just the big boys – our national orchestras, opera company and festivals – that are making something of it. A strikingly creative example comes from the more diminutive Hebrides Ensemble, which is not even one of Creative Scotland’s current RFOs (Regularly Funded Organisations), though it is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s most ambitious chamber ensembles. 

Its forte is in contemporary music, its workforce small and adaptable. It has been active now for three decades – the 30th anniversary celebrations were stymied by the pandemic – and under artistic director and cellist William Conway, it has established standards of performance that are as exceptional as they are explorative.

Take a look at the Hebrides website and you’ll find a link – surprise, surprise – to “Inner Hebrides”, a project featuring five individual members of the group who each present their own thoughts and performances in an unfolding series of 40-minute films released successively over five weeks. They are beautifully produced (by Glasgow-based Flux Video), each programme is highly personal and often quirky, and the locations – ranging from an East Renfrewshire windfarm to Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat – take us well away from the traditional concert hall.

Already available from the week-by-week releases are spotlights on BBC SSO principal violist Scott Dickinson (released 22 Oct), violinist Zoë Beyers (29 Oct) and BBC SSO principal clarinettist Yann Ghiro (5 Nov). Still to come (12 Nov) are the penultimate film by former BBC SSO principal flautist Charlotte Ashton – she recently shifted her day job to the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle – and a final release by Conway on 19 November. 

Dickinson’s film is set amid the vastness of Whitelee Windfarm on Eaglesham Moor, its endless forest of turbines inhabiting the triangular junction of East Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and East Renfrewshire through which Dickinson is seen cycling and talking between his phenomenal solo performances of Beamish, Britten, Kurtág, Hindemith and Watkins, among others, recorded in the lockdown quiet of the visitor centre.

For this was a project that began life as a Creative Scotland-funded lockdown initiative. “They were filmed back in March and April,” explains Nick Zekulin, who has recently taken up his new position (after leaving the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland earlier this year) as general manager of the Hebrides Ensemble. He’s glad the creators took time to get the final cuts right. “As everyone found out, creating content of this calibre does not happen quickly.” 

Taking time has also served key future aspirations. “One of the questions arising from the growth of online content during the pandemic is how to share that content. We’ve identified the need to develop our website and support its wealth of content by building our social media profile,” says Zekulin. 

“We also see our future as encompassing three key areas of activity: live performance, outreach and education, and digital, and addressing the last of these will be as challenging as it is exciting. Concert films are all very nice, but the opportunity to do much more than that, using media in a much more creative way as we’ve begun to do with Inner Hebrides, will be the real clincher.”

Inner Hebrides reveals the positive action behind the words. From Dickinson’s windswept wilderness idyll, the series then takes us to the utilitarian Coleman Pumping Station in Shrewsbury where Beyer introduces and performs music by Benjamin, Saariaho and more Kurtág. 

Ghiro’s clarinet programme, ranging from the multi-tracked New York Counterpoint of Steve Reich to Messiaen and MacMillan, is reflective of the player’s reputable quirkiness, evident in the gentle humour of his personable delivery, and the clever use of synchronised filming that enables Ghiro’s four colleagues to provide a remotely constructed drone in William Sweeney’s atmospheric Òran-Buidheachas. 

Still to come are Charlotte Ashton’s captivating programme filmed in the historic crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, featuring Debussy’s enchanting Syrinx and Alistair Savage’s wistful St Andrew’s Lament for the victims of the 2013 Clutha Bar disaster. Hebrides director Will Conway completes the set with music by Judith Weir, Fennessy, Britten, MacMillan and even more Kurtág, recorded atop Arthur’s Seat and in Edinburgh’s Institut français d’Écosse 

It’s no accident that the some composers reappear over the course of the series. “That gives us the flexibility to re-package the content from time to time, perhaps with a later focus on Kurtág, or a theme centring on the Scottish composers,” Zekulin explains. 

And he knows there’s an audience for it. “It’s so much easier to get useful analytics from digital activity than from live performance. We know who is enjoying it, how they’re enjoying it and where they’re coming from to engage in it. A quarter of people logging on to these films are staying through to the very end, which is a significant number.”

And let’s not forget that live service from Hebrides has also resumed. The group has already featured at major festivals this year, Lammermuir and Cumnock Tryst among the most recent, and there will, Zekulin promises, be news soon of a 2022 concert season. “We’ll be starting in February with a concert of new music by disabled composers in collaboration with Drake Music Scotland at the Queen’s Hall.” Anything beyond that is still under wraps. Meantime, enjoy the films.

Inner Hebrides films are available to view via www.hebridesensemble.com

Singular Work or Singular Life’s Work?

Performances of Ronald Stevenson singular piano epic are few and far between, so don’t miss James Willshire’s in Peebles, writes KEN WALTON 

1962 was a landmark year for the Edinburgh International Festival. It was to feature, in person, the great Dmitri Shostakovich, given a free pass by the Soviet hierarchy to attend the long-awaited Western premieres of his Fourth and Twelfth Symphonies. 

The Scots composer Ronald Stevenson famously chanced his arm, travelled the few miles from his home near Edinburgh, and presented the Russian with the epic 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH for solo piano he had just completed using Shostakovich’s own musical cryptogram (S is E flat and H is B natural in the German notational system) as the governing four-note motif.

Stevenson’s Passacaglia remains, to some extent, the signature legacy of a composer who cut a maverick and eccentric figure in Scottish musical life up to his death in 2015 at the age of 87. Stevenson, recognisable by his dapper chin puff, moustache and fedora, who lived much of his life in a modest West Linton cottage, and who counted among his friends and muses the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, wrote considerably more in the way of songs, choral and orchestral works. But it is the Passacaglia that tends to resurface mostly in recordings and concert programmes.

He once played bits of it to me on his ageing Steinway piano which he claimed was a gift from an elderly Edinburgh lady who had attended his extramural classes at Edinburgh University. “After one class she asked me what my ideal piano would be. I said a Steinway, of course. She asked me to go to London and pick one,” he recollected. “This is it.” 

Truth be told, Stevenson was by that time celebrating his 75th birthday, and the sheer joy of hearing him reminisce on a colourful life and perform from such an iconic work in his living room offset the noticeable rustiness of a previously flamboyant and assured technique. Another memory from that visit was his revelation that the Passacaglia had undergone continuous revision since its original conception. It was, to some extent, the encapsulation of a life’s work. 

Its latest resurrection is this Tuesday, 2 November, when British pianist James Willshire presents it as the sole entity of a programme that is part of Music in Peebles’ 75th anniversary concert season. Willshire first came across the Passacaglia as a 13-year-old at Chethams School in Manchester, but never attempted to learn it until 2013. “I realised that Ronald would be 85 and that that December would mark the 50th anniversary of its premiere, so everything seemed to fall into place,” Willshire told me in an interview at the time.

His recording on the East Lothian-based Delphian label was duly released that year, notable for the infinite colours and shades Willshire extracted from a score that is as intellectually gruelling as it is physically challenging. His wasn’t the first recording. Those by Stevenson himself and Dundee-born Murray McLachlan offer their own individual solutions, as does the latest by Igor Levit, part of an invigorating 3-CD set just out on Sony Classical that neatly partners the Passacaglia with Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues. 

Make no mistake, Stevenson demands as much input from the listener as from any performer brave enough to tackle what was originally inspired by one of his great musical heroes, pianist-composer Ferrucio Busoni. Stevenson openly referred to his direct inspiration, Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, as a “related work”. The latter is every bit as complex, as hedonistic perhaps, and even utilises a dedicatory four-note motif of its own, that of JS Bach (B-A-C-H). 

The trick in bringing it off, Willshire told me in 2013, is “to understand the logic of the Passacaglia’s three main sections.” The first part represents Stevenson’s sweeping response to the past, with reinterpretations of the Baroque suite, of sonata form, even a nocturne. In the central section Stevenson turns to socio-political references, a turbulent reaction to 20th century historical events from the Second World War and Russian communism to aspects of “emerging Africa”, which he experienced first hand in the 1960s while lecturing at Cape Town University. 

The final section, its gradual sense of repose pointing the way to a sublime and consummate epilogue, is, said Willshire, “like the end of a natural lifecycle”. 

Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH is performed by James Willshire on Tuesday 2 November at Eastgate Theatre, Peebles. Tickets on 01721 725777. Full information at www.musicinpeebles.org.uk

Think Denk

Pianist Jeremy Denk talks words and music with Keith Bruce on the eve of his residency at the Lammermuir Festival.

Pianist Jeremy Denk has just had a negative Covid test and is cleared to fly to Scotland when I connect via Zoom to his New York apartment. He has also survived, unscathed, the storm and flooding that recently hit the city. “I stayed in that night and shut the windows, in a very New Yorker fashion,” he deadpans.

Denk is artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, giving four concerts that cover the range of his musical practice, from solo Bach (The Well-Tempered Clavier) and a more varied solo recital, to chamber music with violinist Maria Wloszczowska and members of the SCO and the festival’s concluding concert with the full orchestra, playing two Mozart concertos.

Like British pianist Stephen Hough, however, Denk’s artistic life also embraces writing, which began as a blog, “Think Denk”, and will soon see the publication of a memoir that expands on a celebrated article about his piano teachers for New Yorker magazine.

That meant he was not idle when the worldwide spread of the coronavirus brought the music industry to a standstill.

“I used it as a work retreat. I had this book that I was supposed to finish, so I used a fair amount of the early pandemic to write and I was lucky to have that outlet, which was all-consuming for a while. 

“I also learned a bunch of newish pieces and I was working on The Well-Tempered Clavier. I did a video version of that earlier this year and it is a piece that is still in that nice honeymoon phase – every day it is different. I played it twice before the pandemic started, both with the music, but this will be the first time I play it from memory.”

The pianist is delighted that his brief for Lammermuir was simply to do things that he enjoys doing. Playing Mozart concertos is one of those, the two that feature in the East Lothian festival coming just days after the release of a different pair on his latest recording for the Nonesuch label.

“Mozart concertos work much better for me when they feel like chamber music and you get to talk to the winds, and sympathise with them, and bring the contact closer.

“One of the problems is often they are sitting way back on the stage, when they are really proxy opera characters, if you think of Mozart himself as at the piano. He often wants to cede the stage to the oboe or the rapscallion bassoon, and when I rehearse with an orchestra I look for the freedom to find that.”

Piano Concerto No 23, which will close Lammermuir at St Mary’s Parish Church in Haddington, has been very much on Denk’s mind. 

“In my book I was writing about that A major K488, which was the first Mozart concerto I learned when I was 12 years old, so it has a Proustian element for me.

“The piece for the New Yorker had lots of gaps and missed out lots of teachers who helped me. I was a clueless kid; I went to college a little young and I had to do a lot of growing up in a very short time. During the pandemic I found I could access those memories more directly than in the past.

“So it goes from my first musical memories with my father and the neighbourhood piano teacher, aged five, through to my New York debut when I was 26.”

What, I wonder, had prompted the urge to commit those memories to publication?

“Piano players spend a lot of time on their own,” he suggests, “so we have a lot of thoughts we have to unburden. I am extremely grateful to my teachers and I often feel regretful that I don’t follow their advice as closely as I should, so it didn’t take any particular prompting.

“And I have always been a looker-backer; even when I was six years old I had a premature nostalgic streak. Books were always my great refuge, along with the piano, so writing is a very natural outlet. Even if I watch more Netflix than I read now, I still wish it wasn’t so!”

Denk writes very eloquently indeed about music, and the new album, recorded with Minnesota’s St Paul Chamber Orchestra, has a fine booklet note, especially on Concerto No 25 in C Major, K503.

“The C Major is one of Mozart’s greatest achievements, it has this weird ecstasy which is unlike any other Mozart piece,” he tells me. “It is a love letter to harmony. Mozart has found two elements of beauty in the world of harmony, the seventh chord and the instability between major and minor, and he explores them in such profusion. I like obsessive pieces and that is an obsessive piece.”

So too, says Denk, is Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111, also in C major, which will conclude the pianist’s third concert in Dunbar Parish Church, and which was on a Nonesuch release in 2012, bracketed, brilliantly, by Ligeti Piano Etudes.

“It takes a rhythmic principle and adds a weird asymmetry. There is an element of chaos theory there that is also obsessive. Beethoven was obsessed by reinventing rhythm by destroying it. Time refuses to settle, and this continuing reinvention of time was what Beethoven was after in his later years.”

That remarkable work ends a recital that begins with a Bach Partita but takes a more modern turn in the works between.

“That suite of pieces was inspired by racial protests of last summer. Mostly, the other pieces talk to the Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which is a very powerful musical translation of an incidence of American injustice. The Blind Tom Wiggins is an account of a Confederate victory during the Civil War, and is extremely violent, while the others are more lyrical.”

If there is a narrative there, then that is only indicative of how Denk’s mind works, both in considering his own life and the music he performs, as the latest chapter of his career plays out.

“Apart from a few scattered things, I have been doing more teaching than playing this summer, and this will be my first trip overseas. My experience of Scotland is very limited so this time I hope to immerse myself, although I am a very cautious person by nature so I will be keeping my distance! But I am so thrilled to be performing for people again.”

Jeremy Denk appears at Dunbar Parish Church on September 10, 14 and 16, and St Mary’s, Haddington on September 20. lammermuirfestival.co.uk

Mozart Piano Concertos by Jeremy Denk and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is released by Nonesuch on September 17.

EIF’s Local Hero

Pianist Malcolm Martineau talks to Keith Bruce ahead of his two Edinburgh International Festival appearances.

In an Edinburgh Festival that has, of necessity, looked to local talent to provide much of the programme, there is really only one home-grown hero whose presence is expected and welcomed every year and it is neither St Mary’s Music School star pianist Steven Osborne nor EIF 2021’s artist-in-residence, the undeniably West Coast Nicola Benedetti.

No, the musician without whom no EIF programme is complete is pianist and accompanist to the world’s finest singers, Malcolm Martineau. Edinburgh’s Martineau is a resident of south-east London,  but he maintains an apartment in the Scottish capital, recently renovated and home to two nine-foot Steinways and a Bach Gesellschaft (the composer’s complete works as published by the Bach Society) that the pianist was left by his grandfather.

“I am hoping to rent it to someone who wouldn’t mind all that. I may live in London but Edinburgh will always be my home – coming in to Waverley Station, my heart just tings!”

At the age of 13, Martineau was a programme-seller in the Usher Hall during the Festival, and remembers concerts conducted by Guilini and Bernstein. Last year’s cancelled Festival was to have included a 60th birthday celebration programme for him with back-to-back Queen’s Hall recitals with mezzo Susan Graham and then a group of virtuoso instrumental friends.

“I love the Queen’s Hall,” he says. “I know the seats are not great, but it is the perfect venue for chamber music and for song. The audience is near enough that they can see the singer’s eyes and be part of the event.”

If he is dismayed that his anniversary passed unmarked, he is not admitting it. “As an accompanist, of course, I can go on forever,” he says, and there, in any case, are two Martineau events this year, relocated down the road to the temporary venue in the Old College Quad.

On Saturday August 14, the completely different group of musical friends, including soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Roderick Williams, join Martineau to mark a different anniversary, part of the Walter Scott 250 celebrations. The pianist has created a programme of music based on texts by Scott, composed by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Sibelius, and with two new songs written by Williams.

Then on August 27 he plays for Fatma Said, an Egyptian soprano on whose debut album he appears and with whom he had recently performed in Barcelona when we spoke. “That’s a very clever CD of Arabic music, from Scheherazade to Arabic pop,” he says. The programme for Edinburgh runs from Mozart to Ravel and de Falla.

EIF Stalwart Malcolm Martineau

Another young singer whose intelligent programming the pianist is eager to praise is contralto Jess Dandy, familiar to music-lovers from her work with Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort and the singer whose Perth Concert Hall recital at the end of May was Scotland’s first post-lockdown event.

“That was the first thing I’d done for an audience. Jess has an extraordinary instrument, she’s a real contralto. I’ve known her for a long time but that was the first time we’ve done a recital together. She was a total joy to work with and that very clever programme was all of her making. She will corner the market for all that contralto stuff that nobody else can sing.”

Like many musicians, Martineau found “positives and negatives” in the experience of lockdown, and he concedes that he was luckier than many, being married to a hospital pharmacist whose income was still coming into the house.

“It gave me time to practise a lot and reaffirm how much I love what I do. I discovered lots of new technical things, even at my grand old age. That was very exciting. Every day I couldn’t wait to get to the piano, which was lovely and slightly surprised me.

“I practised lots of songs but also lots of solo repertoire that I’ll probably never play, and that was very satisfying. I learned a Beethoven Piano Concerto that I had never learned when I was a youngster, and lots of other things. I geeked a bit on the internet with piano technique things, and there was time for all that.”

The pianist also managed to do some recording during the pandemic, although even that was also curtailed. He has many recording projects underway, with his most recent release the fourth and final volume of the complete songs of Gabriel Faure. His French song series for Signum Classics has involved a huge list of singers and he was since recorded those of Duparc “and we’re halfway through Ravel.” For Linn he is working on a complete Brahms set, following the composer’s own opus numbers, with two singers on each CD – a project that also involves Scots mezzo Karen Cargill.

Alongside fellow Scot Iain Burnside, Martineau’s work in the studio is where accompanists are adding fascinating surveys of music to the catalogue.

“The pianist that started these was Graham Johnson and that huge Schubert series he did for Hyperion. He was able to invite all those different singers to do a volume each.

“Like so many things in my profession, it started with Graham. He started a new conception of programming and made it all a little bit more relaxed, not in the standard and the scholarship, but in a different era from one that put the singers on a pedestal.

“There is a perception that French songs all sound the same and I wanted to use a number of singers in order to show the variety in each of these composers, and also the difference between each of these composers. Faure wrote from 1861 to 1921 so his style changed massively in that period, and I think the variety of the singers suits the variety of the music, and the setting of the poetry.

“And also I wanted to make music with all my friends. That’s the way I function best.

“The way singers perform now is different. They sing as if they are telling you a story at a dinner party. It’s more personal and intimate. In conservatoires there is much more awareness of song, and how healthy singing songs is for the voices of young singers. They might in ten years be singing Verdi, but they shouldn’t necessarily be singing Verdi now.”

Although he does so in the most gentle terms, there is no denying the passion Martineau brings to the teaching side of his practice, at least the equal of his performance personality.

“I’ve always loved working with young singers because I love seeing their first response to things that I’ve played for 25 years. I learn as much from them as they do from me.

“It is wonderful that singers now are not as opera-centric as they were 20 years ago. Of course opera will dominate their lives but singing songs, just two people, is great fun, and a completely different world. When opera works it is amazing, but there are so many variables within a production. With two people it is much more likely that you will get something that is immediately satisfying.

“Young singers need to learn an awareness of text and the ability to tell a story and trust their own instincts. I am totally allergic to the question ‘What’s usually done here?’ I don’t care! Just read what’s in the music and work out what you would like to do with it, and I will hopefully enable you to do that.

“And that is just as true for accompanists as for singers. When I am teaching I don’t want to hear clones of me – one of me is plenty!”

Malcolm Martineau and Friends play at Old College Quad on Saturday August 14 at noon and 2.30pm. Fatma Said and Malcolm Martineau are at the same venue, at the same times, on August 27.

eif.co.uk

Shakespeare By Divas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Tomlinson in rehearsal as King Lear. Credit Clive Barda


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IDYLLS AND IDEALS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is an impression confirmed from the inside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating diversity in classical music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviving Dido for Dunedin Consort

Errollyn Wallen talks to KEITH BRUCE about writing a sequel to Purcell from her new home on Scotland’s North coast

There is an irresistible irony in the genesis of composer Errollyn Wallen’s new Purcell-resurrecting chamber opera, Dido’s Ghost, tracing back to a Scottish tour of her song-cycle Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?.

It was the suggestion of former co-director of Dunedin Consort soprano Susan Hamilton, who performed that work with McFall’s Chamber in 2015, that a companion piece for Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas might be a useful addition to the repertoire.

“It stayed on the wish-list,” explains the composer, “and in December 2019 Jo Buckley, the current chief executive of the Dunedin Consort, included it on a list of proposals to the Barbican.”

The London venue liked the idea and other partners came onboard with a project that Wallen is delighted has survived the vicissitudes of the pandemic.

“It has been safeguarded through all this, when other things have been cut, but it didn’t give us a huge amount of time to get the libretto and the score ready with little chance of any face-to-face workshops.

“It has been written in lockdown, but on the plus side Wesley Stace and I have had all this thinking time for it, and began with Wesley producing the libretto. We had one little workshop last October which was just enough for me to hear some of the soundworld.”

That McFall’s Chamber tour – with a string quartet joining the singer – had a lasting impact on Wallen in other ways, in particular her residence at Strathy Point lighthouse, bang in the middle of Scotland’s North coast, which is where I have called her.

“I was forging connections before I moved here. I’d been working with [composer and multi-instrumentalist] Mike Vass and I was invited to mentor on the Distil course by Simon Thoumire, with Scottish traditional musicians, as well as working with Mr McFalls Chamber, which toured around Scotland. It was in a break during that that I nipped over to Tiree to see a little house and then ran up here, and found this.

“I’ve been coming here every month, splitting my time between here and London, since 2016 when I got it, but since the pandemic I’ve  pretty much been here all the time, apart from a couple of trips to London. It has become my primary residence and it has everything I need really. It is an incredible location and it is so conducive to work. I am under pressure all the time to produce a lot of music, and here is just the right place.

“I had criteria when I was looking for a place. It had to be right on top of the sea and a place that wasn’t near people. I wanted it to be remote, and where no one could hear me playing. I wasn’t planning on Scotland, or a lighthouse, but it seems we were meant for each other.

“Through personal connections I’ve widened my knowledge of the richness and variety of music-making in Scotland. I’ve worked with the RSNO, the BBC SSO, and the RCS invited me to be a visiting professor of composition. We’ve only managed to have one concert, when I met David Watkins and Oliver Searle, and that was a magical few days. The Scottish music scene seems very friendly and warm. London is a very big city, so although I grew up there, studied there and began my career there, it can be quite daunting.”

Wallen moved to the UK with her family from Belize when she was two years old, and remembers her sister announcing when she was around 4 or 5 that she felt Scottish and was going to say she was from Scotland.

“And I’ve recently learned that during the Second World War loggers from Belize came over and helped with tree-cutting as part of the war effort – and they were based in Ullapool.”

The solitude the composer enjoys at Strathy has been put to particularly productive use since the start of 2021.

“I have written eight or nine works since January. I’m never not writing something, but I have sort of lost track at the moment! I have written an opera for Graeae theatre company that we think will go on next Spring, and immediately I’ve finished with Dido’s Ghost I start an opera for Chicago Opera Theatre. It is set in London in the 18th century, a period drama with a black cast, set in the years just after the American revolution.

“Because opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve had to work fast. There seem to have been so many opportunities recently – but I will have to slow down soon and have a holiday!”

“I also wrote music for [choreographer] Cathy Marston at Joffrey Ballet in Chicago for a short film. It uses violin and handpan, and that instrument will also be used in Dido’s Ghost. The handpan is a beaten metal instrument and I don’t think it has ever been used in classical music, but it has this lovely mellow sound with overtones. And there was a solo viola piece in February, called Lavinia, commissioned by Riot Ensemble, and Lavinia is one of the characters in Dido’s Ghost. So a lot of things have been preparation for writing this.

“I really love composing operas because you get swept away by the world you enter. Everything you do is in the service of drama and atmosphere. Not every composer has an instinct for the stage and I didn’t know I did, but the more I compose these things, the more magical it seems. You are dealing with vision and sound together as you write.”

“I’ve been obsessed by Dido’s story since studying Virgil as a schoolkid aged 13. I wasn’t that good at Latin, but these myths emerged from my bumbling translation and it stayed with me.

“After our initial conversation, Wesley went off and found a story in Ovid’s writing that is the perfect sequel, so we’ve based it on that. Wesley and I want to amplify the characters that are already there in the Purcell, and our opera starts after Aeneus has left Carthage. It is funny how these things evolve: you have an idea and then gradually the work starts to dictate what it should be. You’ll get the sense of a conversation across the centuries.”

That, Wallen intends, will be as true of the score as it is of the drama. And she was not at all daunted by following Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, a work which has influenced composers working in every field of music in the centuries since.

“I don’t think of it in terms of being bold. The more I worked on it, it became this wonderful conversation with music of the past. The Lament is possibly the best aria ever written, and it has been sung by singers of all genres because it is so expressive. I have referred to the Lament in other works of mine, and I feel very comfortable exploring it. 

“Composing this opera has taken me to a world where tonality isn’t the same as we know it now, but there are some things that remain in music that are part of the fabric of our emotional understanding, and the descending bass is one of those.

“The way it has worked out is that the two operas intertwine and started to blend into each other. You’ll hear echoes of Purcell’s music from the beginning. Sometimes they are hidden and sometimes more explicit, but I’d like to think that everything has grown out of dramatic necessity.”

Dido’s Ghost is at London’s Barbican on June 6, and Buxton Opera House on July 11, 14 & 17.

Tectonics Shifts Online

Violinist Ilya Gringolts talks to KEITH BRUCE about Tectonics and his new commissioning foundation with conductor Ilan Volkov.

From the mouths of some musicians, the assurance to a Scottish journalist that “it is always a joy to come back – Scotland is one of the best places to be at any time of the year” might sound like an audience-pleasing platitude. Not violinist Ilya Gringolts though, who is a man as renowned for his plain-speaking as his virtuosic playing, and varied repertoire.

Lest there be any doubt that he means what he says, however, he adds a codicil: “I am from St Petersburg, so I grew up with bad weather. We take it for granted.”

Of course, at the present time he is not coming back at all, although he is a crucial presence in the upcoming Tectonics weekend of contemporary and experimental music with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, co-curated by its principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and promoter Alasdair Campbell.

Having been cancelled last May, this year Tectonics is an online and on-air event over two days and Gringolts is contributing filmed performances of works that have been commissioned through a new foundation he and Volkov have established. [As previously reported in Vox Carnyx]

In the two decades before the pandemic, Gringolts was a very frequent visitor to Scotland. He was a guest soloist at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival in 2004 and 2008 and until recently the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s International Fellow of Violin. His association with the SSO goes back to appearances under the baton of Osmo Vanska as a teenager. “I have had a relationship with the orchestra for more than 20 years,” he says, “and it has been wonderful every time.”

That Glasgow is still firmly on the violinist’s map should be a matter of civic pride. From his studies in St Petersburg, Gringolts moved to the Juilliard School in New York and the tuition of Itzhak Perlman, before becoming one of the earliest beneficiaries of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists programme. He has been settled in Zurich with his Armenian violinist wife Anahit Kurtikyan, who is a principal in the opera orchestra, Philharmonia Zurich, for 14 years. The couple have three young daughters: two more violinists and a pianist.

Switzerland has been much slower than the UK to vaccinate its population, Gringolts tells me, with only 10 per cent of the population having had both shots when we talk, and his own age group – he’s 38 – not likely to figure in the programme until July at the earliest. This is a matter of more than passing interest to the violinist, who was ill with Covid in January.

“It wasn’t pleasant; I wouldn’t recommend it. And I still have periods when I feel very weak,” he says. Quite recently he checked himself back into hospital, having spent ten days very ill.

As in other cities in Europe, Zurich went through the trauma of opening up too early last autumn and cultural events are only now very slowly resuming. The Tonhalle Orchester is permitting audiences of just 50 and playing its first concerts three times over two days, and the opera house has some small-scale shows scheduled for May.

We are now accustomed to learning of silver linings to the coronavirus crisis, and, before he became ill, there was one for Gringolts and Volkov, in the aftermath of the cancellation of Tectonics 2020.

“I had always admired Ilan’s active engagement with the world of new music and his expertise and fascination with it. A very important part of what I do is working with composers but we have lost the connection with living composers that was common 100 years ago. As performers we have become disengaged with new music and wait for things to be offered to us.

“If we don’t continue to pursue new music as performers, sooner or later it will disappear and I don’t want that to happen. During the first lockdown I had the time to think about all that.”

The upshot of which was the registration, in June 2020, of the Zurich-based I & I Foundation, established by Ilya and Ilan, with some heavyweight support. Verbier Festival founder Martin Engstroem, composer Michael Jarrell and star violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov (who is married to Gringolts’ sister, Olga) are backers, and cultural manager Dorothy Yeung, banker Davide Petrachi and lawyer Anna-Naomi Bandi-Lang serve on the board, the latter as President.

The foundation’s aim, says Gringolts, is simple to describe: linking composers to performers.

“The two are disconnected. We are in the communication business, bringing these people together. Ilan knows young composers who have things to say creatively, and I have colleagues who are too shy or afraid to ask.”

The initial strategy is through “micro-commissions” for solo player or small ensemble, and two of those will be performed by Gringolts as part of Tectonics, filmed in a verdant Budapest location that the violinist intriguingly describes as “a bit Jurassic Park – with palm trees and lots of light and space”.

Young American composer Sky Macklay’s Trrhythms uses short, rhythmic phrases over and over, as its title suggests. Previously commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, her music also includes a chamber opera voicing the doubts of a uterus about the necessity of child-bearing.

Tokyo-based Yu Kuwabara’s Bai and Dharani is based on the composer’s ten-year research into Japanese Buddhist vocal music, Shomyo. “That was a revelation to me,” says Gringolts, “and the violin is not the first instrument you would think of to explore it.”

“We have 12 commissions running, and so far half of them are from me, but that balance will change. It’s not really about me and Ilan. We will come to larger works that require more funding, and work with promoters who are willing to pool resources.”

The key aim of the I & I Foundation is to streamline and simplify the commissioning process and speed up the business of having original music heard, and the swiftness with which the foundation went from being an idea to a reality is emblematic, despite the pandemic prohibiting face-to-face meetings.

“All of this was accomplished on the phone and by Zoom, with Ilan in Tel Aviv, and that didn’t make any difference. Humans can get used to everything. The pandemic gave it urgency, as well as the time to think and realise these projects without other priorities distracting.

“But of course I miss the live experience and it is important that we get back to it – and stay safe and healthy.”

The rest of the year is already shaping up to be busy for Gringolts, with a second volume of Schoenberg’s music recorded by his quartet (which also includes his wife) in March and concerts scheduled for later in the year. In the first lockdown the violinist continued his exploration of baroque violin, discovering more pieces that he wants to play in concert and on record.

“I have new pieces to learn for the autumn as well, and ten students to teach at Zurich University. There are lots of things to do.”

Ilya Gringolts performs at Tectonics 2021 on Saturday and Sunday May 8 & 9. bbc.co.uk/sso

Steven Osborne Hits Half Century

Scots pianist Steven Osborne turns 50 this week. KEN WALTON caught up with him en route to his Wigmore birthday bash

It should surprise no-one to learn that Steven Osborne has chosen to celebrate his 50th birthday this week with a celebratory concert at London’s Wigmore Hall that also features his very closest musical friends and collaborators. 

It’s typical of the award-winning Scots pianist not to be grabbing the sole limelight. Osborne, while utterly consummate as a world-renowned soloist, is thoroughly disarming and unassuming as an individual.

Meet him on an Edinburgh street and, like any normal guy, he’ll chat about the weather. Watch him in the concert hall and his persona is an intoxicating fusion of intellectual intensity and unpretentious charm.

As we speak, he’s in the company of his wife, the clarinettist Jean Johnson, and they’re hurtling south on the M6 towards the London concert. “Having my best friends and people I really enjoy playing with there is very important to me,” he says. “Jean comes under both categories.” 

In a programme of music by Ravel and Schubert, other participants include soprano Ailish Tynan, violinist Alina Ibragimova, cellist Bjørg Lewis and fellow pianist Paul Lewis. “Sadly, due to travel restrictions, [German cellist] Alban Gerhardt couldn’t come. But it’s a great line up,” Osborne promises. 

Another great friend is the Wigmore Hall itself. It’s 40 years since Osborne first played there. Yes, he was only 10 at the time, and the occasion was a pressurised one – competing for a scholarship – but the exhilaration of that moment has remained firmly in his memory. “It was the first time I’d played a great piano in a great hall and was absolutely dumbfounded. At the sound of that very first note I thought ‘what, where have you been all my life?’ I’ve enjoyed every appearance there since. They always have wonderful pianos.”

Also at the age of 10, Osborne transferred from his local Linlithgow primary school to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh. “That was like coming home,” he recalls. “I had friends at Linlithgow, but not ones I could really talk to about music. At St Mary’s the atmosphere was wonderful, a feeling that everyone was on the same wavelength.” Richard Beauchamp was assigned as his piano teacher. “ He was very opened minded, generous with his time, so focussed and never superficial. He sent me in a good direction.”

Not that any prescribed direction was ever been foremost in Osborne’s thoughts. He was in no doubt from an early age that playing the piano was as natural as learning to speak. He started lessons at the age of 4. “My parents listened to classical music, but I was more fascinated by the piano we had in the house. As soon as I woke up I went to play it. The trouble was I slept really badly as a kid and was up at 4.30am. My dad would come and put me back to bed. Eventually he stuck a note on the piano saying not to play it before 7.30. It was like torture!”

So yes, the young Osborne was obsessed, but even at college – the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester – future aspirations were not for him. “It might sound dumb, but I really didn’t have any,” he confesses. “I was lucky to have a teacher [Renna Kellaway] whose focus was on the repertoire, then a manager who was always thinking ahead for me in planning terms. They were never part of my thoughts.” He describes his musical journey as “a series of repertoire moments”.

Proof of that lies in a career structured on monumental composer encounters, captured in a discography – now edging to over 30 albums on the Hyperion label – that has journeyed from Messiaen and Tippett (a comprehensive survey that proved as personally exhausting as it was exhaustive) to Beethoven, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy and Rachmaninov with snatches of Schubert, Prokofiev, Crumb and others to boot. Most are solo releases; others include the very friends he’s teamed up with for the 50th birthday concert.

But like any genuine musician, Osborne lives for the live moment, which is where the true persona, the modestly probing genius, shines through. Few capture the deep-rooted humanity in Beethoven’s last three sonatas the way he does; few can make the piano repertoire’s most finger-twisting challenges appear so effortless. “I’m generally attracted to music that is very difficult,” he says. “I’m not sure why. Tippett, Ravel and Rachmaninov are all extremely hard.” 

Does anything technically tax Osborne? “Rachmaninov has its problems, mainly because I am left handed,” he admits. “My left hand is much stronger than my right, and in Rachmaninov the right hand is always doing so much. All that filigree stuff is not natural to me, so I have to work really hard at it.” 

Such determination and the pursuit of perfection have had their rich rewards. Early in his career Osborne won first prize in the prestigious Clara Haskil International Piano Competition (1991), followed by a similar triumph in the 1997 Naumburg International Competition, and featured among the first ever BBC New Generation Artists. The Royal Philharmonic Society bestowed its Instrumentalist of the Year award on him in 2013. These days, he’s as frequent a presence in Scotland, where he was recently the RSNO’s artist in residence, as in the world’s top concert halls. When lockdown started last March he was about to perform Beethoven’s final sonatas at New York’s Lincoln Center.

“That was disappointing,” he says. Like every other performer during Covid, many engagements have disappeared, though he has busied himself learning repertoire for the two remaining CDs that will complete his Debussy series. But the pandemic has not been his main concern.

“Brexit on top of that has been infuriating, especially with [Boris] Johnson saying musicians would have free access to Europe. He was either lying or didn’t know what he was talking about.” Osborne has already experienced the lengthy process involved in applying for a visa. “I spent more than a week getting one for Spain, morning till night, trying to work it out. Nobody knew what you had to do. 

“My fear is we won’t be able to do things at short notice, as is often required. I got a last-minute call to go to Belgium recently. I won’t be able to do that now, and all this while European musicians can come over visa-free to the UK? We gave up this right for what? No wonder Paul Lewis is moving to Norway.”

Paul Lewis and Steven Osborne: “a match made in heaven”

Lewis, of course, is part of the Wigmore birthday line-up. He and Osborne recently regrouped to issue their latest duo album on Hyperion, French Duets. It’s a match made in heaven, their performances of Debussy, Fauré (the affectionate Dolly Suite), Poulenc, Stravinsky and Ravel’s delicious Mother Goose Suite characterised by irresistible spontaneity, infectious wit and sparkling bonhomie.  

They have known each other for over 20 years. “I first met Paul when we were BBC New Generation Artists,” Osborne explains. “We’re very like-minded.” They also share an indebtedness to the legendary Alfred Brendel. Lewis is well-known for having studied with him, but Osborne also acknowledges the influence Brendel had on his own development.

“I learnt more about characterisation from him than any one; how you make something sound like it’s completely natural. He does it quite a lot by distorting what’s written. It’s so specific; he pulls the rhythm around just to make a particular point. It doesn’t sound self conscious, it just sounds alive. He taught me a lot in that sense: that you can’t just set the metronome going and play in time; that to make music alive you need a lot of ebb and flow. I’ve never heard anyone who does that better.

“I only had one lesson from him,” Osborne recalls. “I think about it quite often, especially in terms of his physical approach to the keyboard. It’s funny, from a distance there’s this very penetrating, singing sound. What he’s doing sounds so crude from very close up, like he’s banging away, yet what he’s doing is going right to the very, very bottom of the keys. I really got a lot from that and it really changed how I played: how you really have to project what you’re saying. It’s easy to underestimate how you need to do that in a concert hall.” 

Now at 50, Osborne is every bit his own man, driven by singularity of purpose and confidence in his own immense capabilities. But what are his ambitions for the future? “My immediate concern is just how long it will take people to get back into halls. I’m confident it will happen, but I reckon it may take a year or more. I don’t expect Covid to change the landscape much. Brexit is more likely to do that.

He’s typically circumspect about this musical future. “Honestly, I don’t have a plan,” he insists. “I’ll finish the Debussy project and I’m learning Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles, which is a pretty massive thing. Beyond that you’ll just have to ask my manager!”

Watch Steven Osborne’s 50th Birthday Concert, available from Friday 12 March 7.30pm for 30 days, on www.wigmore-hall.org.uk

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.

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. 

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

A Christmas Story Still To Tell

A new Christmas Oratorio by James MacMillan looks back to Bach and ahead to cheerier times. KEN WALTON reports


Assuming he is allowed out of the country, Sir James MacMIllan will be a happy chappy. He’s scheduled to conduct the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus on Saturday 16 January in the world premiere of his epic Christmas Oratorio at the world-famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. 

But when we spoke there was no guarantee. “I’m slightly wary about what may happen in the next few days. I’m going for a Coronavirus test on Saturday [9 Jan] at Edinburgh Airport. It’s a special arrangement where I get the results on Sunday night. All being well I fly to Holland on Monday [11th], so it’s quite tight,” he says. “If I can’t get there, there’s a deputy standing by.”

He desperately wants to be make it. The new 90-minute oratorio – co-commissioned by the Dutch orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic – has been a true labour of love, but has already fallen foul of Covid when the originally-intended world premiere in London last month had to be abandoned. 

“I’ve been pestering the Dutch about whether the Amsterdam performance will actually happen. They assure me it will,” says an optimistic MacMillan. “There have been concerts in the Concertgebouw constantly since August, some with socially distanced audiences. But they’re being very strict about this one, and there will be no audience as such. It’s going out on live stream.” 

Being there to conduct will mark the culmination of a major creative process that preoccupied MacMillan’s thoughts throughout 2019 and into the early months of 2020. “A whole year of my life went into this piece but I’ve heard nothing of it, only the thoughts in my head or by plonking the odd few notes on the piano. In my work that represents a big gap at the moment.”

Like the sacred Passions he has written in recent years, the Christmas Oratorio is part of a long-term aspiration by the composer to complete a series of large scale religious compositions that summarise his lifelong interests in Catholicism, theology and spirituality as expressed in worldly contexts through his music. There is also, in these works, the unavoidable ghost of JS Bach, whose own Passions and Christmas Oratorio are totemic within the genre. 

Did Bach’s oratorio – a progressive package of six cantatas – weigh on his mind? “I know the Bach quite well”, he says, having played third trumpet in a Troon church performance as a 17-year-old Ayrshire schoolboy. “I suppose there was a ghostly memory of it, which the four orchestral Sinfonias that top and tail each of Parts 1 and 2 exemplify, but I wanted to present the vocal material in different forms, so the choruses are mostly Latin liturgical text, apart from the last which is an arrangement of a Scottish lullaby.”

What MacMillan presents structurally is a major coupling of complementary palindromes. Both constituent parts open and close with the orchestral movements. At the heart of each is a lengthy tableau setting biblical text, the first from the gospel of St Matthew, the second from that of St John. Each tableau is preceded by a chorus and aria, followed in reverse by an aria and chorus. The composer describes the lead up to each central tableau as three short “hors d’oeuvres”.

Equally personalised is the choice of texts, more comparable to, say, Britten’s 1962 War Requiem than to Bach. Like Britten’s juxtaposition of the sacred and secular, Latin and vernacular, MacMillan includes settings of Christmas poetry from the 16th/17h century by Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton.
 
“I spent a long time sifting and looking, trying to decide what I wanted”, he explains. “I wanted a wide range of different texts so there would be some narrative. But the choice of poetry was important. I eventually closed it down to this wonderful period of English poetry, especially that of Southwell, a Jesuit who was hung, drawn and quartered. That’s an amazing story in itself.”

Another shift from the direct influence of Bach is in the “mood” of the piece, not least the sense of mystery encapsulated in the Christmas Matins text, O magnum mysterium. This is not all joy and gladness. “There are some really dark moments,” he reveals. “Once you get into the Christmas story, especially St Matthew’s account, it’s pretty stark, like the slaughter of the innocents. Some of the moods are quite ambiguous from the start, looking forward to later events in the life of Jesus. But there’s joyousness too, and a kind of childlikeness in a setting of Hodie Christus natus est that has some of the most joyous music I’ve written.” 

Expect, too, a nod to the secular carol tradition, “the same dancing rhythms you find in Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day and The Holly and the Ivy”. At which point, MacMillan confesses to some mischievous thoughts. “Should I have a quote from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney”? I even thought of throwing in some sleigh bells, but took them out.”

Above all, he adds, this is “a very personal” response. “But I think the shared nature of Christmas, whether you’re a believer or not, was a primal motivator in me doing this piece at all. It’s something everyone can share in, in the way we all do before Christmas, which is as much a great secular festival as a religious one.” 

The irony there, by dint of the pandemic, is that the London premiere never happened before Christmas as planned. “That would have been lovely, but in Europe, where they keep their Christmas trees up till early February, the Feast of the Presentation, the timing is perfectly valid. We don’t think that way.”

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic


Certain consequences of Covid have inevitably made their mark on the Amsterdam performance. The normally 80-strong Dutch choir – a professional group attached to the national broadcasting orchestra – will be cut to 38 voices. “There are a lot of a cappella and gently scored sections, so I don’t see that being a problem with these trained voices,” says MacMillan. “There will be moments, though, when we’ll need to be careful with the balance.” Such caution won’t apply to the two colossal soloists, soprano Mary Bevan and baritone Christopher Maltman.

With any luck, the follow-up performances in Melbourne, New York and a rescheduled London premiere, all now planned for November/December 2021, will present the work in its fullest glory.

But MacMillan is no less seized by the significance of next week’s world premiere. “I’ve been obsessed with this piece and preparing it for months. This represents a huge symbolic gesture in trying to bring new music back at a time when there’s a genuine despair in the musical world about what’s going to happen. 

“Yes, it will be strange to perform to an empty hall, but the audience has the potential to be huge as a result of the live streaming. In that sense, it’s really exciting.” And subject, of course, to MacMillan getting on that plane.

James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio can be heard live on NTR Radio – https://www.nporadio4.nl/live – on Saturday 16 January at 1.15pm (GMT)

Making Young Voices Heard

The guy who does Christmas, NYCOS artistic director Christopher Bell, talks to KEITH BRUCE

The artistic director of the National Youth Choir of Scotland is in ebullient mood when I call him.

This is champion, because no-one does ebullience quite like Christopher Bell, as anyone who has attended any of the Christmas Concerts he conducted over the past quarter of a century will know.

Not this year, it’s true, and we’ll come to that.

The cause of Bell’s upbeat mood is not the start of a vaccination programme that should ultimately see the many-tiered organisation he founded and developed operating as intended, with highly trained young-voices impressing audiences, critics and conductors in packed halls across the nation and the world – or at least not the direct cause.

Whether as a result of the new mood of optimism abroad or not, Bell can now start planning for residential courses for his National Boys and National Girls Choirs in April, because one of the schools in Edinburgh that regularly hosts them had just made clear that it is ready to welcome the young musicians through its doors in the Easter holidays again.

This is in stark contrast to the situation a couple of months ago when his attempt to find even an outdoor playing field or sports ground willing to host a gathering of socially-distanced singers was meeting with a frosty response.

NYCOS has far from shut up shop, of course. When the coronavirus struck, just before last year’s Easter courses, the organisation very swiftly moved its work online, and its invaluable education of Scotland’s young folk at a local and national level, and from toddlers to twenty-somethings, continued. It continues still, with a weekend of online singing by the latest recruits to the National Boys Choir just ended and one with the National Girls Choir about to start.

“Suddenly, things seem a lot more hopeful,” says Bell. And fortuitously NYCOS has a Christmas recording poised in the blocks and ready to remind everyone what an essential treat music-making by young voice is at this time of year. (See review by Ken Walton elsewhere on Vox Carnyx)

The lead single from the seven track Signum release is a Paul Mealor original, I Pray, which features the solo voice of tenor Jamie MacDougall and the highlight of a set recorded seven years ago.

“Christmas is the time when you miss people who have gone, and this Christmas we are all going to miss people because we can’t link up with them. This song that Paul Mealor has written is about the people we are missing and the people we’ve lost. I lost my own father on Christmas Day, so that makes I Pray particularly special for me,” says Bell.

“The music is from a book, called Carols for Everyone, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and published by Novello in 2013. The idea was that these arrangements could involve an SATB choir, or a children’s choir, or both. We were contacted by Tern TV to record a few tracks for the Watchnight Service they were filming in Aberdeen. We got a choir together and we recorded all the songs in the book.

“This year I got in touch with Tern TV and asked what we were allowed to do with the tracks, and they were quite happy for us to use them.”

It is the latest in a sequence of releases that has kept NYCOS in the public ear, including a July 4 selection of music by Aaron Copland and Irving Berlin and a St Andrew’s Day double A-side. The sequence started with an album with the RSNO featuring Sir James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados alongside songs by Eric Whitacre, Thea Musgrave and Sir Michael Tippett.

“Cantos Sagrados reached number 13 in the Classical Charts and had brilliant reviews, including one in Gramophone Magazine” says Bell. “The releases have been very important in terms of keeping the NYCOS sound alive in the year that NYCOS can’t sing in public. It is about awareness, and I think I Pray could do well.”

Mr Christmas, Christopher Bell (credit Drew Farrell)

Mischievously, Bell compares that the current situation for choirs to the resourcefulness of Catholics after the Reformation, meeting in secret to sing the Mass in Latin.

“There are people still singing and keeping the flame alive, and we are trying our best to keep Scotland’s young people singing. We are just having to do it online. The NYCOS regional choirs across the country have been rehearsing online since September, and have had online Christmas events.” 

After detailed risk assessments, one choir met outside, in a park. Groups of no more than 20 gathered to a strict timetable for half an hour of singing, and then had to return, by a different route, to the carpark where parents waited.

“At the end, it left us thinking that those choirs working in areas in Tier 1 and 2 could feasibly have outdoor events.”

There has been a positive side to learning to work online as well.

“For NYCOS it has been a huge opportunity. When we did our Kodaly teaching in August, we had 300 participants including people in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, England, Ireland, and Scandinavia. People joined our online courses who wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“The NYCOS philosophy and NYCOS publications have been winging their way to the four corners of the world as a result of being able to do our courses online. We are currently talking about how we can capitalise on that in the new year.”

And there have been more specific practical benefits in learning to operate online.

“Boys’ voices change, and between our auditions in November and course in April is long enough for significant changes in the voices of the boys we’ve chosen. So frequently at the start of the course I have a mad morning listening to 40 or 50 boys to hear whether their voices have changed since I last heard them. Zoom is going to allow me to do that in the days before the course.

“Singing teachers are now able to do consultation online, and share resources. We are going to be able to be better at what we do as a result of Zoom. Nobody wanted to do a singing lesson online prior to March, but this has opened our eyes to the fact that it is possible.”

But the Christmas concerts that were another aspect of Christopher Bell’s career are another matter. 

He has a good story about being recognised at his local petrol station with the question: “Are you the guy that does Christmas?” His interrogator went on to say that a family outing to the RSNO’s Christmas Concert at the Usher Hall always marked the official start to his festive season.

Bell had handed on the mantle of chorusmaster at the RSNO Junior Chorus and his staff link with the orchestra before the current crisis, but the days of conducting as many as 18 Christmas concerts are understandably on his mind at the moment, and technology cannot replicate the thrill of those events.

“It was about engaging with the audience, giving people that warm feeling at Christmas time. I need the orchestra, the choir and the hall; we inspire each other to create a unique experience.

“I did RSNO Christmas concerts for 25 years, and I will need to find something to replace it next year. I’m not sure if Christopher Bell’s Christmas Concerts would have marketing appeal, but maybe we’ll test the market.”

The NYCOS mini album Until We Meet Again and the single I Pray are out now on Signum Classics.

The Delphian Oracle

Twenty years ago Paul Baxter envisaged a bright future for a new Scottish record label.  He wasn’t wrong. KEN WALTON reports

Paul Baxter, founder and managing director of the classical music recording label Delphian, has never been one to hold back his irrepressible enthusiasm for the award-winning East Lothian-based company he established two decades ago. Then, freshly graduated from Edinburgh University, he ignored those in a famously fickle industry who advised him this was not a good idea. “I said I would break even in eight years,” he trumpets. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Another 12 years on, Delphian has done significantly better than break even. Its astute focus on niche market territories – choral and chamber music and an eye for spotting and nurturing nascent young talent – together with Baxter’s sharp production skills and wheeler-dealer persona, have more than paid off. The company now employs twelve professional staff worldwide, production is frenetic and sales are soaring, even during the current pandemic. Its most recent choral release, Christmas in Puebla (see VoxCarnyx reviews) is racking up rave commendations and reviews.

“It’s going to appear in history that we weren’t affected at all by Covid,” insists the bullish Baxter. Really, I ask? Can anyone truly claim that? As he outlines the plain facts they speak for themselves. “In August alone, we did eight new recordings, which was pretty unique for any organisation at that time. Our physical CD sales in the UK alone have gone up by four times.” 

Hits to the Delphian website during peak lockdown increased an eye-watering 243,000 per cent, he claims, 80 percent of which were completely new customers. Baxter admits they do not all translate into purchases, but it’s an interesting indicator of where classical aficionados are turning in the absence of live music. 

“We don’t actually encourage sales from our website, as we are a record label not a store, so we price our CDs above the actual stores. Yet since March we’ve sold 14,000 discs directly through our website. Multiply that by the other websites that sell for us and the figures are mind-blowing.”He admits the international picture is varied, depending on whether customers prefer high street or online purchase.

“The Japanese are massive buyers of western classical music, and they want it on CD. Unfortunately, under lockdown, because they don’t buy their CDs online, the Japanese market was devastated,” says Baxter. “And in a country like Spain, where people still go down to their local record store, we sold no CDs the whole summer, whereas other territories, including the UK, thrived under lockdown in a way that was completely unanticipated.”

To sell, of course, you need to produce the goods. Baxter claims it was foresight and planning that helped maintain lockdown productivity, a policy of “line them up, stack ‘em and rack ‘em”. Social distancing, though, posed inevitable problems. 

“Straightaway it was clear choral recordings weren’t going to happen anytime soon,” he recalls. Given Delphian’s significant ongoing relationships with such choirs as Merton College Oxford and King’s College London, the ramifications were considerable. “Any choral projects we had in the timeline we knew would have to be postponed.”

But Baxter had a plan. “We needed to reach out to venues that were going to be dark, where nothing else was happening for them, where we could bash projects out the moment we are allowed. So we approached the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, told them we had cash and nowhere to spend it, and could we have it for the whole of August at a reduced rate. They agreed, we were delighted to get so much done, and the artists were just as delighted because they were getting paid fees.”

The process was not without its headaches, particularly the logistics of bringing three globally-spread singers and a pianist together for a new album, due out next April, of Erik Chisholm songs. “With four days to go, the original Vienna-based Scots soprano made a last-minute decision not to travel, so we had to find someone available and willing to step in. Mhairi Lawson kindly agreed, but then we had to find a rehearsal venue for her. David Wilde [a regular Delphian artist] very kindly hosted us in his drawing room with a Steinway, pianist Iain Burnside flew up from London, and all was well.” The other two singers were tenor Nicky Spence and bass-baritone Michael Mofidian.

Mhairi Lawson credit Lloyd Smith



All is not well, of course, in a wider recording industry that is currently struggling to come to terms with the advent of streaming, via companies like Spotify, which has blown apart the old industry economics. 
Last week, a Commons culture committee looking into “The Economics of Music Streaming” heard evidence from pop artists like Mercury prize nominee Nadine Shah who have found themselves unable “to keep the wolf from the door” with the pittances they are receiving in royalties, compared to the percentages going to the corporate stakeholders, including some big labels. 

For classical musicians it’s in many ways worse. Scots composer Stuart McRae tested the water by putting one of his own works on repeat for two days on Spotify, generating over 1000 plays and a remuneration of 87p. Explaining this in a Tweet, he had calculated that running the same piece 24/7 for an entire year would have netted him £172.64. Violinist Tasmin Little has claimed that, in return for 5-6 million streams over a six-month period, she received just £12.34.

There’s no question that has to be fixed. But it’s not the only area of change affecting artists and their relationships with the record companies. Smaller independent labels like Delphian have had to work harder and more imaginatively at partnerships with artists in order to fund projects and provide wider planning and support. 

“For twenty years the way recordings are funded and how they are valued has been changing,” Baxter argues. “Artists are absolutely au fait with the fact that they need to bring money to the table, because labels can’t survive otherwise. Now it’s a competition as to which label is going to offer you the best PR, which label is going to make sure that your record is in front of the right reviews editors, and therefore stands the best chance of winning a Gramophone Award. 

“Look how we’ve built a career like Sean Shibe’s,” says Baxter, offering a classic example of his label’s nurturing strategy. The 28-year-old  Edinburgh-born guitarist’s latest Delphian disc, released in May during lockdown and featuring Bach lute suites, hit No 1 in the UK Specialist Classical Charts, and led to a cover feature in Gramophone Magazine’s June edition, in which it was named Editor’s Choice. Shibe previously won a Gramophone Award for his 2019 album softLOUD. “That’s all very carefully considered, very carefully planned out, years in the making,” Baxter insists. 

Spotting talent early, he says, is done increasingly these days through social media. Take the guitarist Alexandra Whittingham. “We had a look at her stats – millions and millions of listens on YouTube – and reached out to her with what we had done for Sean.” She signed up with Delphian in July. Her debut album, My European Journey,  hits the streets in March 2021. Baxter’s latest new signing is Scots percussionist Calum Huggan, who has just recorded his launch CD of 20th century American music for marimba. 

Alexandra Whittingham


To make it work for everyone, Baxter argues that loyalty is a two-way street. “It’s like with authors and book publishers. If an artist shops around and records with six different labels, nobody will invest in you uniquely because I’m not going to pay several thousands of pounds out for a campaign on the basis that other labels are going to benefit from it. But if you can work together and form an exclusive relationship that is mutually beneficial, it’s win, win, win.” 

Not always, it seems. In June, Shibe announced he had signed a multi-album deal with Dutch-based label Pentatone.

Nonetheless, Baxter is comfortable with the kind of deal he puts on the table. “I think for a period things will operate as they currently are, whereby it’s incumbent on artists to find funding for projects. That’s becoming an integral part of their portfolio of work – entertaining patrons, making funding applications. They are now accepting this as a common day occurrence.” For its part, Delphian has established an additional new supportive association with The Young Classical Artists Trust. 

As for the current Commons committee enquiry into streaming, Baxter preference is clearly that an eventual outcome reflects his belief in the key driving role of record labels in benefitting the artist. “If it’s made incumbent on streaming sites to better remunerate record labels, then good record labels will use that money to initiate new projects, not just take it and keep it in a war chest,” he argues. “Good labels are increasing their intellectual property all the time by commissioning projects.”

Even as Covid lingers, Delphian continues to do so. Baxter is anxious, though, to get back to full operation. “I just can’t wait to be working with choirs again. I had no way of anticipating how much I’d miss working with young people in choirs. I’ve missed that so much.”  

And there’s the small matter of a 21st birthday bash to organise for 2021.

Main Image: Paul Baxter

James Dillon @ 70

Glasgow-born James Dillon talks to KEN WALTON about his latest new works and his unorthodox route to becoming a composer 

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has been good to James Dillon. As an unknown 28-year-old in 1978 the Scots-born composer submitted a work that was adjudged the best of the bunch in the first ever annual Festival’s Young Composer Competition. Forty-two years on, Dillon’s 70th birthday is about to be celebrated in an online 2020 Festival programme that culminates with the world premieres of two of his latest works. 

Dillon, it has to be said, is not a household name. Not unless you are a really serious new music buff. First impressions of his uncompromising musical style can often be of bafflement and alienation. His scores are famously esoteric and complex, his visions on a truly epic scale that can tax even the initiated. 

On occasion such scepticism has infected the very musicians charged with playing his music, such as the infamous 2005 UK premiere in Glasgow of his 40-minute Via Sacra, a performance panned by the critics, not for the music itself, but railing against the RSNO and its then conductor who visibly and rudely demonstrated their disinterest. 

Dillon recalls the occasion sanguinely. “The press blew it out of proportion,” he reflects. “But the whole experience got off to a bad start. The Russian conductor [Alexander Lazarev] didn’t even greet me at the rehearsal, cutting me off from the players. But the last thing on my mind was to be critical of the orchestra.”

It was an isolated incident for Dillon, whose music is published by the reputable Peters Edition, who in the course of a singularly non-populist career has picked up seriously prestigious accolades including five Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, and whose reputation as an inspired teacher has taken him to Europe and the United States. All of that from someone who was essentially self-taught. 

Dillon was born in Glasgow in 1950, but his family moved to South Yorkshire when he was ten. “Going through an English high school with a Scottish accent brings out the fighter in you,” he recalls. “I felt I had been dragged to England, which made me want to become more Scots.” As a guitarist he played in teenage bands, teaming up with local boy Billy Currie who went on to play in Ultravox. He was also writing poetry and painting. 

Ironically, this was all happening in Huddersfield. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” says the man who was later to thank the Yorkshire market town for the vital springboard it gave him as a professional composer. Instinct led him back to Scotland and a place on the art and design foundation course at Glasgow School of Art, where his ultimate dream was to enter the School of Architecture.

“Going back to Glasgow was also about reorienting myself,” he reveals. “In terms of my health and everything else, though, it was a disaster. “I hardly turned up for classes because I was hanging around the Glasgow folk clubs, looking for anybody to jam with. I also learnt to drink!” 

A year later, Dillon headed for Cornwall and a hippy commune “where I did take a lot of drugs and was just hanging around”. But it was who he was hanging around with that really made a difference. “I met a guy called Robert Lenkiewicz, an extraordinary painter who was way outside the establishment, who could talk intelligently about contemporary art, yet painted like Velasquez. He wasn’t interested in what was current in terms of style; he was simply interested in making images.”

“And he had this enormous library that covered everything from the occult to contemporary literature. For some reason he liked me and offered me the keys to the library. That in a way helped me focus.”

Dillon moved to London in 1970, and was immediately attracted to the Roundhouse concerts given by Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  “I can’t for the life of me remember why I went along to one of these. I think probably I just saw a poster and was curious,” he recalls.

“But it was a turning point. Not only did I see amazing performances with Boulez conducting in his meticulous way. It threw me into a gloriously wonderful confusion about what I wanted to do musically. I didn’t know anybody in the classical music world, so just began to teach myself the rudiments of music.” In the course of that he met the composer Roger Marsh who suggested he enter the piano work that was to win him the Huddersfield competition. “I wasn’t even there to pick up the prize,” Dillon confesses.

The enduring prize, though, was confidence and recognition, and the start of a canon of substantial works that has defined his unschooled individuality, his penchant for the monumental, his unwillingness to conform to prevalent trends that make his music hard sometimes to appreciate in a single hearing. 
The most epic is Nine Rivers – a three-hour-plus sequence of choral, instrumental and orchestral works composed over two decades – which received its premiere (after many previous cancelled deadlines) in Glasgow 10 years ago in celebration of Dillon’s 60th birthday. 

The Book of Elements for piano, written in five volumes over seven years, is equally exhaustive in illustrating the composer’s obsessiveness in drawing every ounce of musical possibility before he declares a work finished. “I wanted this overarching idea where I take motivic material for different disparate things and gradually conflate them towards the final book, which itself is a single movement that almost becomes like the great Liszt B Minor Sonata,” he explains. 

Noriko Kawai: credit Xavi M. Miró

This weekend’s new Huddersfield premieres are further significant additions to Dillon’s catalogue: the hour-long ensemble work Pharmakeia, performed by the London Sinfonietta under Geoffrey Paterson; and the 30-minute echo the angelus for solo piano, featuring the composer’s partner and dedicated exponent of his keyboard works, Noriko Kawai. 

Pharmakeia started off as a single piece, Circe, a commission from the Köln-based Ensemble Musikfabrik, who stipulated a scoring for 16-piece ensemble including two pianos. Dillon’s initial reaction was, “Oh my God, that’s going to limit the possibilities, practically-speaking, for future performances”. But as ideas formed on how to capitalise on the group dynamic in a spatial sense, so too his mind turned to the inner meaning of the work and a larger vision way beyond Circe, which was eventually to form the centrepiece of a final five-part structure.

Commissioning of the complete Pharmakeia was picked up jointly by the London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Intercontemporain.

“Titles of works are always problematic for me, because my first instinct is not to lead the listener in a certain direction,” he explains. But driving it from the outset was Dillon’s belief in “music as a kind of sorcery”. Pharmakeia, linked to the word pharmacy, literally means sorcery, so became the overall title.

More helpful, he says, is the associated concept of “pharmakon”, as articulated by the 20th century French philosopher Jacques Derrida. “He’s drawing attention to the fact that actually in terms of medicine, often the cure means poisoning the body in the first place, so there’s this strange relationship between being poisoned and being cured. 

“This fascinates me in the sense that thinking about tonalities, the function of dissonance in terms of tension, the way that you can take a drug which is basically a poison to the system but trying to trigger things beneficial to the system, is very relevant today.”

Unlike Pharmakeia, echo the angelus is one of those works Dillon simply felt compelled to write. “I’m often working on things outside the commissioning process, having to re-oxygenate what I am doing away from the pressure of deadlines’” he explains. “So this is just something I was originally footering around with.”

The end result is anything but frippery, more the hard-earned product of the “exhaustibility” that drives Dillon’s creative process. “I find a frustration with the idea of finishing something. That’s why I write these big cycles. Are there beginnings and ends to things? I don’t know.”

In that respect, don’t be surprised if spectres of The Book of Elements surface in echoes the angelus. He suspects there may be subliminal links. “One of the slightly appalling aspects of looking back on a body of work is how you find your fingerprints all over the place. And maybe you’re moving towards gestures that you’re imprisoned within,” says Dillon, alluding in this case to “certain kinds of finger gestures from which I created three basic kinds of material, one quasi-scale, one chordal, another to do with resonance of the piano itself, shooting them around unpredictably until I’m happy with it. That’s basically the piece, which is very challenging for the pianist.”

Beyond the Huddersfield premieres, Dillon is already engaged in his next project, and it’s in Scotland for the Red Note Ensemble. The original commission was for a set of miniatures using some of the players as soloists. “It’s turned into a much larger work,” Dillon confesses. Who’d have thought?

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival’s Dillon@70 concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Sunday 22 Nov, 10pm. Details on the full online Festival programme (20-22 Nov) available on www.hcmf.co.uk

Image: James Dillon: credit Brian Slater

The Soldier’s Return


KEITH BRUCE speaks to Katherine Aitken, who sings The Woman in Opera Sunderland’s film for Remembrance Sunday.

With annual gatherings to mark Armistice Day at War Memorials cancelled because of the pandemic, and the superbly-curated artistic programme marking the centenary of the First World War, 14-18NOW, becoming a memory, Opera Sunderland is filling a major cultural gap on Remembrance Sunday with the premiere of a new opera film, The Soldier’s Return.

Composed by Marcos Fernandez Barrero with a libretto by poet Jacob Polley, the production is directed by Annie Rigby and conducted by Marco Romano. RSAMD-trained artistic director Alison Barton is re-uniting many of the team who produced 2015’s Opera Sunderland community opera Miracle! An Opera of Two Halves.

The Soldier’s Return cast l-r Andri Bjorn Robertsson, Ian Priestley, Austin Gunn and Katherine Aitken



With a chorus of 25, a seven-piece band and principle cast of four, the sole female role in The Soldier’s Return is in the hands of Edinburgh’s Katherine Aitken, her first since returning from Opera de Lyon. From a post-studies place with the French company’s opera studio, she moved on to the small role of Pippetto in Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s Viva La Mama, then Cinderella’s wicked sister Tisbe in Stefan Herheim’s staging of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, which visited the Edinburgh Festival in 2018.

Before the shutters came down on the musical world, however, Aitken had already taken the decision to end that chapter of her life and move home.“Lyon was incredibly good to me, and I learned so much working with people of that calibre, and from all over Europe. I’d moved back to Edinburgh from France last year and on the day lockdown happened I was at Scottish Opera.”

Aitken was covering the role of Hermia in the company’s planned production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I saw the first run by the principal cast before we had our first rehearsal, and then they said, ‘thanks very much, now go home.’ I really felt for the principal cast who had spent five weeks building this beautiful show. It was heart-breaking.”

After understudying in Glasgow, the mezzo-soprano had a tour scheduled with Diva Opera before joining Opera Sunderland’s for The Soldier’s Return. Of all the work in her future diary, only this show has survived the pandemic.

“Originally it was to be a live performance at The Point in Sunderland in June, with rehearsals starting in May. Then they thought they’d reschedule it to be a live performance at this time of year, before taking the wise decision that, as there was no guarantee that anything would go ahead, they’d make it a film.” Barton found new partners for the venture in North East film-makers Meerkat Films and sound engineer Ian Stephenson at Simpson Street Studios in Ryton on Tyneside.

“We recorded the soundtrack in August,” says Aitken, “and then we were ‘on set’ in a dance studio in the middle of Newcastle in September. My involvement lasted for three days, and it was a very novel concept, singing along to ourselves like in a pop video.

“It is a completely different way of working. We are so used to live performance, and we were each working individually for much of the time. You are used to learning the notes on your own and then you go into a room with all your colleagues and you adapt and change and create the project as a team. With this we had to create everything individually, with the conductor talking to us over Zoom. It didn’t evolve into the normal team effort until much further down the line, and that was a difficult thing to do.

“In a way it is a great thing that opera is having to adapt and become much more accessible to a wider potential audience. So it is adding another direction going forward – but it is not quite the same.”
The process meant that Aitken did not even meet her opposite number, The Man, sung by baritone Ian Priestley, until after all the music had been recorded and the four principals were in the one room for filming.

“It is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder essentially, and a man who has come back from being in the services. The stories he tells are of different conflicts throughout history, so he couldn’t have been part of all of them, and the takeaway is the trauma that all soldiers bring back home with them.

“I play his wife and the story is how he and she cope with what has happened to him, and his inability to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not real, and the pain that causes the people around him.
“The music is beautiful and actually quite cinematic, so it works really well as a film. There are lots of lovely themes; it is really melodic. The Opera Sunderland ethos is to create opera for everybody, so the music is very accessible with lots of body percussion, and samples from hymns and pop music – it is a really clever score.”

Ian Priestley and Katherine Aitken



Aitken speculates that it is, nonetheless, a very different entity from anything that might have been created in live performance. “Although we worked on it individually, it is actually quite an ensemble piece, particularly for the other two voices, who often sing in duet. We were coming up with our own ideas about tonal colours or ways of phrasing the lines, and then hoping it would work with the other person.

“The Woman never interacts with the two voices, as they are voices inside his head, so not meeting Ian until we were on set, with the music already pre-recorded, was really interesting – a challenge, but at the same time liberating in that you had the chance to put your own stamp on something completely. Having such autonomy in a role is quite a novel concept.”

The two Voices are sung by tenor Austin Gunn and bass-baritone Andri Bjorn Robertsson, who was the only member of the cast Aitken had worked with previously. “I know Andri because we were both in George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence in Lyon last year, but this time we were only in the same room together for a couple of hours.”

Aitken now lives in Leith and is grateful that she relocated before the Covid disaster struck. “It is good to have a bit of time to learn some roles I’ve wanted to learn for ages, to get into running again and do yoga, as well as seeing my family and friends. Being home for any period of time is a real novelty, but you can’t plan anything because no-one knows what’s going to happen.”

Opera Sunderland’s The Soldier’s Return will premiere on the company’s website immediately after the two minute silence at 11am on Sunday, November 8 and will be available online until Monday 30 November. It is streaming free, but donations to support the company’s work are welcome.

Learning to live digitally

With little or no access to live audiences COVID-19 has forced classical music into the digital age. And there’s no going back, says KEITH BRUCE  

In the way of familiar journalistic overuse, the phrase “the new normal” was very swiftly denuded of any meaning, but it has been clear for a while, even to those most blinkered about the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, that long-term change is upon us.

For those who earn their livings in the arts there was an immediate huge short-term worry, with venues closed and performances cancelled because of the safety restrictions necessitated by the health emergency, and earnings abruptly curtailed.

At the same time, it was impossible not to be heartened by the outpouring of creativity that the situation precipitated. An online performance will never produce the same visceral thrill as the joy of hearing music played in a shared space, but the technology available at relatively little cost enabled talented musicians to produce work that could not be replicated in the recital room, multi-tracking themselves into large one-person groups or becoming a close-harmony ensemble without the help of even other family members.

Working in enforced isolation on opposite sides of the globe, new partnerships were forged as existing ones were maintained and expanded, digitally.

Scots and Scottish organisations have been inspiringly dynamic in much of this. As Nicola Benedetti told VoxCarnyx of her own education foundation: “We were always wanting to move things online, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that.”

At the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recently-arrived chief executive Alastair Mackie had been equally clear that the RSNO needed to embrace the possibilities of the digital future, before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Beginning with fun and games for young people and home-shot party-pieces by players, the RSNO plundered the cache of filmed recordings in its own recent archive to keep the orchestra’s output in the public eye.

Alongside the Benedetti Foundation’s video diet, the National Youth Choir of Scotland was also swiftly out of the blocks with a huge range of music tuition films for all ages and abilities, at the same time as it found ways of allowing its young choirs to meet online rather than cancel their school holiday sessions.

That education work became an early indicator of one of the other upsides of the enforced move to digital – its global reach. The Benedetti Foundation had not had ambitions outside of the UK, and the work of NYCOS, even with its network of area choirs across Scotland, stopped at the border. Now both found they were teaching, and receiving feedback from, young people around the world.

This, of course, raises funding questions as well as opportunities. Scottish Government money, business sponsorship and parental support sustains organisations like NYCOS for the particular benefit of the resident population – is it fair and desirable that parents from elsewhere are able to tap in to that resource?

These are the sort of questions that will have to be asked as the months of living like this stretch on, another acceleration of a process of digital adaptation that sits oddly with the sensation that life has slowed down.

With its current digital subscription season, the RSNO is in the forefront of testing the market. Salvaging some elements of the season it had already announced, as much in the commitment of star soloists as in repertoire, its series of ten concerts, pay per view at £10 each, with a pound-a-gig discount for booking the season, will be easy to do the maths with at the end of the run. Having its own new technology-ready venue to use, where the required space for playing under the current restrictions was available, has been crucial, as will be the loyalty of the orchestra’s live-music-starved fanbase.

Another thing we have learned from the pandemic is that jokes about silver-surfers and inter-generational adaptability to online platforms are so much patronising nonsense.  “Usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged,” Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan told Vox Carnyx in a recent interview.

For the time being the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is still broadcasting its concerts free, with an appeal for donations, which is the model many other organisations have adopted. Scottish Opera, which has also been a pace-setting organisation, has also made its high-quality offerings available for nothing so far.

The opera company was way ahead of the game. By sheer good fortune, it had a brand-new opera film, The Narcissistic Fish, already shot, edited and scheduled to show when that became the only game in town. Swiftly following it with a superb version of Menotti’s The Telephone for the online Edinburgh Festival, it then brought the Lammermuir Festival to a close with a filmed production of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, from the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

Filming of The Telephone, a co-production between Scottish Opera and EIF © James Glossop

When it was briefly possible, the opera company also leapt into the breach with live offerings – three compact Pop-Up touring shows (also free) and a fine La boheme in the car-park of its technical centre, for which the paid-for tickets were probably under-priced, given the demand.

Although the Janacek was free to view – and is still available – Lammermuir was another important Scottish experiment in pay-to-view. Through its partnership with BBC Radio3 about half of its concerts, all from a church in Haddington with no audience, could be heard free, but watching the recitals online required the purchase of a £5 ticket, with a £33 season ticket available for all 12 of them.

A lot of supporters bought the passes, and the box office attracted around half the number of individual bookers the festival would expect, for fewer than half the number of concerts.

What astonished James Waters, who co-directs the festival with Hugh Macdonald, was the spread of the audience, from Switzerland, Bulgaria, Japan, Canada and the USA as well as across the UK. “How did they know about us?” he asks. “We had a vanishingly small marketing budget.”

Echoing Nicola Benedetti’s observation that recent experience has shown the long lead-times in classical scheduling to be non-essential, the Lammermuir online festival was given the go-ahead on August 3 and launched on August 20. Ticketing for the broadcasts proved straight-forward and communication with the online audience went more smoothly than Waters had expected.

The final sums have not been done, but the lessons of the digital experience are clear to him, even if it is possible to return to the previous model of live performance next year. “It would be unacceptable for us not to do something online next year. We’ve learned so much, and it might even pay for itself.”

It will surprise no-one who has experienced this increased digital life in Scotland that Waters reports some issues with establishing a solid, fast broadband connection for the concerts, which effectively dictated that the recitals were filmed and then broadcast “as live”.

That has become the usual model for the orchestras and smaller ensembles too, but there is a huge variation in the amount of lighting and post-production work that comes with digital broadcasting, and for some the nearer the experience remains to the raw live show the better. “If we’d had more time to think about it, we’d have had the chance to cock it up,” notes Waters sagely.

That distinction between “live” and “as live” also explains why the BBC SSO has not been shown to best advantage recently, with genuinely live broadcasting – at which it has so much experience – twice coming embarrassingly unstuck. And the BBC, as if it didn’t have enough problems at present, is the body that faces the biggest, and most pressing questions. Having had a virtual monopoly on live classical music and opera broadcasting in the UK for so long, it now has an obligation to share that playing field with a whole new league of competition.

When organisations need to gain revenue from their music through online broadcasting, can they continue to give the same product away free? Are streamed Wigmore Hall recitals, subsidised by the associated Radio3 broadcast, taking market share from ticketed chamber music? Should the BBC Scottish have delayed its season-opener, when it was clear it was going to hit the ether at the same time as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Quilter Cheviot-sponsored gala with Nicola Benedetti started their programme of concerts?Such questions, or ones very like them, will require answers in the months to come. Whenever the health emergency ends, and even though the return of shared experience in the same space cannot come too soon, there will be no going back to the musical diet as it was before.

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