Category Archives: Features

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.

Thoughts of an Elder Statesman

Ken Walton interviews conductor SIR MARK ELDER who returns to the BBC SSO for the first time in 25 years 

Let’s look on the bright side. While the visceral, spine-chilling sensation of the symphony orchestra at its fullest fortissimo is becoming something of a distant memory, the same COVID restrictions that permit only limited player numbers to perform together has created a perfect outlet for forgotten, reduced-scale repertoire.

When, for instance, was Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony last performed in Scotland? I can’t answer that. But the fact it is scored for 23 solo instruments makes it the perfect vehicle for a cutdown BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra whose live online performance next Thursday (22 October) will feature a conducting figure whose Scottish appearances in recent years have also been few and far between.

He is Sir Mark Elder, currently working wonders as music director of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra – most recently in a highly-rated Vaughan Williams’ album on the Hallé’s own label, reviewed elsewhere on VoxCarnyx – which is one of the reasons he hasn’t been north of the border much lately. 

He last conducted the SSO in 1995, filling in for the late Sir Alexander Gibson who had just died. Since then, fleeting visits have mainly been for Edinburgh International Festival appearances with the Hallé.
“As you know, I’ve been in Manchester for 20 years where we had an undertaking that I wouldn’t conduct any other orchestra outside London, so that my profile was focused on the Hallé,” he explains. “I was happy to agree that at the time, but now I’m freer to take up opportunities like this. So it will be wonderful to come back and work with the SSO again, though it’s unlikely it will be with all the same faces I knew 25 years ago.” There will, I assure him, be a few.

The entire programme, Elder believes, will be “a new experience for everybody listening and almost everybody playing it.” Besides the Schreker, a gorgeously sinuous example of post Romanticism, the concert includes Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 1 and Stravinsky’s abstract neo-classical ballet score Danses concertantes. 

The choice of Schreker was all Elder’s. “It’s a piece I’ve known for years and done quite a few times in different countries. I think it’s a masterpiece, but it takes time to get into his idiom. There’s a richness in the harmony which is different from [Richard] Strauss. It feels to me like somewhere between Strauss and Berg, on the fringes of atonal music, and yet there are noticeable key centres.”

Written during World War 1 for the Vienna Music Academy, where Schreker was teaching, its restless spirit echoes the prevailing zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, a musical world epitomised by the soul-searching radicalism of Berg and Schoenberg, and within which Schreker was popular and well-respected. His reputation waned later under Nazi oppression.

“There’s a sense of peace at the end of the Chamber Symphony,” Elder notes. “But it’s not wholly calm. There’s some unsettled quality which was perhaps there in all his music. I think it’s very inspired, hard to play, but very, very beautiful.”

Hard to play? With orchestras forced into rediscovering such rarefied repertoire, might it be perverse to suggest that COVID could actually present them with positive creative opportunities?  

“I think the repertoire we’ve being forced to go towards is full of great chances,” Elder says. “But we have to divide things up between the members of the orchestra so that every time you do, say, the Schubert Octet it’s not always with your first string players. Everyone needs to benefit from it, to feel a part it.” 

He’d happily do Tchaikovsky’s or Dvorak’s serenades for masses of strings. “I think they sound very good that way. You can then balance that with something like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments or his Symphonies of Wind Instruments so the strings get a rest. I loved the idea my friend Ed Gardner had in London the other day of combining Messiaen’s Et expect resurrectionem mortuorum [for wind orchestra] and Schoenberg’s Varklarte Nacht [for strings] with the LPO. I think that’s exactly the mixture one could do to make sure everyone gets a go.” 

For Elder, now 73, the past seven months have been a time for rich reflection. Without the constant travelling that is a conductor’s typical way of life, he’s been able to enjoy time with his family, including a baby grandchild “who’s a bundle of energy”. Spending springtime in his London home for the first time in his married life was, he says, a precious experience.

“I live at the top of Highgate Hill near Hampstead Heath and I know this area now inside out because I’ve been on so many walks. And to see the spring come to our garden was a real thrill that helped me to think forward, to spend time studying music I’ve never had time to.”

“I’ve really got into Bruckner,” he reveals. “Now I can’t wait to conduct the Eighth Symphony. It’s the most wonderful piece, however unfashionable everybody may say it is. Particularly the marketing people!”
He accepts that won’t be happening any time soon. In Manchester with his Hallé Orchestra, it’s clear the road back to symphonic blockbusters will be slow. The orchestra has been furloughed since lockdown, but the musicians will come off that at the end of this month. “They’ve been very frustrated and hemmed in by this, but we’re now planning a series of streamed concerts in the Bridgewater Hall, which is going to open for us, and that’s terribly exciting,” Elder explains.

“The first consideration in the middle of COVID, however, is persuading the public to have the courage to come back into concert halls.” But the future, he says, lies also in greater flexibility and he’d like to see the Hallé get out of central Manchester more often. “It’s important we seek out unexpected venues in the wider community, to go out and embrace new audiences and show them we have something they could enjoy, especially when they might have a fear of coming to places like the Bridgewater”.

The one thing Elder has avoided over recent months is “crying over spilt milk”. “I’ve concentrated on looking forward to the future as much as you can, in the belief that we’ll all get back to doing some wonderful concerts.” There’s positive thinking.

View Sir Mark Elder conducting the BBC SSO online from Thu 22 Oct, 7.30pm, at bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

Nicola Benedetti’s Solid Foundation

Lockdown has forced violinist NICOLA BENEDETTI to adapt to new ways of working, and it’s not all bad, she tells Keith Bruce

It was just a few days ahead of her return to live work that Nicola Benedetti and I talked on the phone, so a question about how she has coped with lockdown, and a complete halt to her usually hectic concert performance schedule, was really the only way to begin.She pondered for a moment, never a woman to give an off-the-cuff or unconsidered reply.“It’s been mixed, really. I am actually very busy at the moment, with a lot of different stuff going on. But it has been a mix of some quieter times and some much more intense times with all the education stuff that I’ve been doing.”

In fact it was within a few weeks of concert halls shutting their doors that the integration of the violinist’s professional career and the work of the Benedetti Foundation which she established to bolster music education began, as had always been scheduled. As the first step toward the launch of her latest Decca album, Elgar, featuring the Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski, she led her young students, wherever they were, through a party-piece performance of the composer’s Salut d’Amour, one of his best known tunes. Her own version, with pianist Petr Limonov, was released as a promotional single from the album and the sheet music was available for student violinists to download. A series of “Learn with Nicky” YouTube videos completed the package.

At the start of this year the Foundation took its potentially life-changing operation out on the road for the first time, with hundreds of young people galvanised into taking the learning of their instrument seriously by the charismatic presence of Nicky and her hand-picked team of dynamic cohorts. At the same time Benedetti had made it clear that this work was going to be a priority for her, and her availability for orchestral concert engagements and the learning of new repertoire would be adjusted to accommodate that.With her live bookings cancelled to the end of the year because of COVID-19, like those of every other musician, and any online behind-closed-doors work a matter of complete rethink once that even became possible, it turned out to be a back-to-the-drawing-board moment anyway.

As far as the work of the Foundation was concerned, she says, “it sort of solidified what we had wanted to do anyway; it just propelled us to do it quicker.

“We were always wanting to move things online, and have a really significant online presence, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that. The content of what we do has not been changed at all, but the numbers have grown massively and quite quickly. We are very happy about that and surprised by how little compromise there has been on quality – we are just seeing a lot more people.

“The setting up of an online structure that is functional and works well – we had to do all that very quickly. Our whole ethos was of year-round advocacy and communication with all sorts of different charities, individuals, schools, teachers and students, but then we have our workshops. These are explosive events that have the potential to be quite life-changing for people.

“They are very much seen as one-off things, but in the last two months we’ve been running those on almost a daily basis, communicated with almost 12,000 young musicians and taught them directly. But we will be going back to our live workshops, it is just a case of when. There is no question that it will happen.”As far as the album release was concerned, she thinks the coronavirus epidemic made little difference.

“So much of an album release is done remotely anyway. Fewer interviews happen in person, so the feeling of that wasn’t all that different. For the release of an album, especially an orchestral one, it is very rare that you’ll have a ‘launch event’ moment.”Having those legions of young Elgar players can’t have hindered its prospects, and the album went straight to number one on the classical charts on release, at a time of Decca label dominance of the top ten. Benedetti, however, seems a little sceptical about what that means in terms of real listeners, and sales. She had been due to play the concerto often over the summer.

“I was really sad not to play the Elgar in Edinburgh, and at the Proms and in Europe on tour. I always find it difficult to gauge the success of things in terms of numbers of clicks or likes and views. How in-depth are people listening to something? It’s a real shame we are not doing that tour – then it would really be selling!”

When live music began to happen again, Benedetti was, characteristically, in the first wave of players testing the water. She was part of the limited season of live BBC Proms performances at an audience-free Royal Albert Hall, playing baroque music with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and as soloist on a streamed session from the Philharmonia, playing Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. So when Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili was unable to play that virtuoso violin showcase at the Last Night of the Proms through illness, Benedetti stepped in at the last minute and stole the show.

Shortly after that the violinist was in Scotland to work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on a condensed approximation of how that ensemble’s season was supposed to open.The SCO’s barn-storming opener at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and then Glasgow City Halls, backed by investment managers Quilter Cheviot, was to have been Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, preceded by Bruch’s First Violin Concerto and opening with John Adams’s The Chairman Dances. Instead there is an online concert performance of the Bruch, billed as the Quilter Cheviot Benedetti Concert, filmed and recorded behind closed doors at Perth Concert Hall, and first broadcast at the time the Usher Hall concert was due to begin on Thursday September 24.

“Some orchestras and concert halls were very quick just to cancel an entire project and didn’t enter into those secondary discussions about what’s going to be in its place, but that was never the case with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra,” says Benedetti. “They always were looking at what else they could do and how else they could do it. Obviously to have the opportunity to produce a concert is great and I’m sure they’ll do an excellent job of getting it out to all their patrons and supporters, so that even if there is nobody in the room, people will be able to enjoy the concert in another way.”

As it happened, she was the last guest to appear with the orchestra before the shutters came down, playing and directing the Mendelssohn Concerto in a programme of Mendelssohn and Mozart with violist Lawrence Power in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in March.

“We had just done the Mendelssohn Concerto before lockdown, and I played the Sinfonia Concertante for the first time, and I enjoyed that week so much. I feel like I had a bit of a rebirth in my relationship with the Mendelssohn Concerto through my experience with the SCO.”

When we spoke, before the SCO rehearsals and filming, the violinist was anticipating a similar experience with the Bruch, and her first collaboration with Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev did indeed deliver a delightfully fresh and vibrant interpretation of that often-played work.

Readjustment, one way or another, is certainly the order of the day, and like many people, Benedetti sees dangers in the post-COVID landscape as well as opportunities she is keen to exploit.

“There are individuals and smaller organisations – or indeed larger organisations that have been very successful in managing their finances thus far and are therefore not prime candidates for rescue packages from the Arts Council or Creative Scotland – that are at risk. To get through this period without any casualties is highly unlikely, but it is an opportunity for people to refine themselves and double down on their fight for their existence and their worth.

“This has been an eye-opener for everybody, and lots of people have made life adjustments that they won’t give up now. I think for me there’s been a massive appreciation for time spent with family, and it’s a gift for me to see how much it is possible to do from your home.

“It’s also been interesting for me to see that everybody says you have to plan a concert two years in advance and suddenly we’re seeing that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Next year still looks like it did on my schedule, but of course I’ve no idea how much of that will actually stay. Anything I am doing now has been a recent invitation, put together within the last month or so. It’s a whole new way of working.”

Lockdown Life for Fergus Linehan, EIF Director

With a second spike in COVID-19 likely to undermine the return to normal for Scotland’s live concert scene, maybe it’s time to accept that a radical new norm is the only option. EIF director FERGUS LINEHAN is veering in that direction, he tells Ken Walton

Whatever time it takes to quell the presence of COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on the Edinburgh International Festival will be game-changing, says its director Fergus Linehan. But don’t expect it to happen overnight. “2021 will only be the journey back,” Linehan cautiously predicts. “Probably 2022 will be the great celebration.” 

If he’s right, the timing is perfect. 2022 is the year the Festival celebrates its 75th anniversary. What better moment to embrace the catastrophic consequences of the current global dilemma and apply its lessons – and opportunities – to revolutionising the established norm.

We spoke in the wake of this year’s virtualised programme, in which – for classical music – streamed concerts on You Tube from The Hub replaced the traditional daily live Queen’s Hall series, orchestras were reduced to skeletal proportions in works such as Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, and opera became cinema (Scottish Opera’s terrific film version of Menotti’s The Telephone).

According to the EIF, a global audience of around 1.5 million tuned into the entire Festival rescue package, double the number of previous audiences. It didn’t do much for footfall in the city, of course, but it has opened Linehan’s eyes to new priorities, new opportunities, and lessons to be learnt through enforced adversity.

He was particularly surprised, for instance, by the extent to which the virtual audience signed up. “You know, usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged. A lot of people went ‘now I know how to play You Tube only television, or now I know how to hook up my speakers’. So what we started to see was not just us going to them, but those who never looked at culture online suddenly coming to us. That’s a huge change.”

Before Festival fans choke in their soup, be assured that Linehan has no plans to minimise the live experience. It’s a way of enhancing it, he says. “It has put us together with a whole range of people, whether it’s television production companies of filmmakers, who we’ve never really been together with before. I can see ways of really enhancing performances with it, where if you did a particular series, you could then have something online that people could go to before and after, like an extended equivalent to programme notes.”

We missed a few things this time round,” he admits. “I keep thinking of people tuning into Edinburgh for some of the music, say, where we might have had a merging of the performance with a video essay about different parts of the city, like a journey through Hopetoun House to Haydn’s music. It’s another art form and a way we need to start thinking.”

Whatever transpires, future Festival content is likely to reflect the inevitable anxiety over international travel that will be the fallout of COVID. Linehan is convinced the formerly accepted model of artists constantly on planes is going to change. “I do think we’re now going to need more localised culture. The idea of this constant flow of global stars is lovely, but it’s not really sustainable.”

But what Edinburgh really needs in order to bolster its global appeal, he insists, is a commitment by the city to improve its cultural infrastructure. And surely the most immediate priority is to resolve the bureaucratic bickering that is delaying and compromising the completion of the new 1000-seater concert hall of St Andrews Square, which will serve as a home to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and as a much-needed world-class venue for mid-size Festival events.

Linehan is in prime position to influence that, having recently been appointed the project’s interim co-chair in the wake of previous chairman Sir Ewan Brown’s sudden resignation. It won’t be an easy ride – the current squabbles require the plans to be redrawn to lower the building so as not to spoil the views of a new hotel next door, incurring increased costs and inevitable delays – but he is optimistic of a positive outcome. 

“We really need this hall,” he insists. “I think anyone who has been through a major capital development will know it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are always going to be turns in the road. I think it’s up to every generation to leave some great infrastructure behind. We do struggle as a city to build infrastructure at times. Maybe it’s because we have such a beautiful historical legacy that the necessity to add to it never seems so urgent. But as I often say, if someone hadn’t built the Usher Hall, we’d never have had an Edinburgh Festival.”

The enforced rethink, he adds, together with the practical realisation this year that technology has a key role to play in shaping future programming, might even be to the venue’s ultimate advantage. 
“I do think that any infrastructure now needs to think about how it’s going to feed into broadcast. Everyone says how technology has threatened live music, but actually it’s created more. When people listen to more music they go to more live music. The disrupter has never replaced it in any sense. All it really serves is to widen the area of interest. The new hall must recognise that.”

Finally, Linehan’s vision for EIFs-of-the-future is one that looks beyond three weeks in August. “I think what is becoming clear is that the future is not about everything or nothing, but a question of what the 12 months look like, about taking some of the emphasis away from August. That might mean looking at an extended season.”

“We’ve got to think a lot more about what Scotland’s cultural calendar looks like and what’s our collective duty towards that? Earlier in the year do we need to gravitate towards things that are more like public art, or more outdoors, and then to skew things in another way?” 

In short, expect future Edinburgh Festivals to free themselves from time-honoured convention. “It’s going to be a constant testing, a constant moving forward,” he predicts. And maybe it’s a message to all involved in the performing arts, given the COVID wake-up call, to get real with radical change.