Category Archives: Features

A trad New Year

The conductors of Handel’s Messiah in Glasgow and Edinburgh on January 2 talk to Keith Bruce

As young musicians they came to Handel’s masterwork as a trumpet player and a flautist, but this year James MacMillan and Nicholas McGegan are on the podium for the New Year concerts of Messiah in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. For one it is a conducting debut, while the other has been part of the revolution in historically-informed performances of the work for more than four decades.

“I went to performances of it as a boy in Cumnock,” remembers MacMillan. “The local choral union was the Kyle Choral Union and they used to put on performances of Messiah and other oratorios. In fact one of my earliest trumpet memories is of playing third trumpet in a performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in New Cumnock when I was 12 or 13 with the Kyle Choral Union. So they performed Messiah as well, with amateur players from around Ayrshire.”

McGegan recalls playing flute in the Prout orchestration of the work when he was at high school in Nottingham, and then being disappointed to find out that Handel had not written flute parts at all.

He was at the harpsichord when he played it in a seminal performance at Westminster Abbey in 1979, under the baton of Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music.

“It was about zero degrees and I was wearing fingerless Bob Cratchit gloves, and soprano Emma Kirkby had thermal underwear underneath her Laura Ashley dress.”

Understandably, however, McGegan recalls that era as a thrilling time when baroque repertoire was being re-thought.

“I ran intro Chris Hogwood at Cambridge in 1970. He was living at the top of a house owned by Sir Nicholas Shackleton, whose collection of wind instruments is now at Edinburgh University. I was loaned an 18th century flute and I went to the library and got hold of a treatise to learn how to play it, so I ended up playing second flute on the first recording of the Academy of Ancient Music.

“It was an exciting time; Trevor Pinnock was also around and a lot of this music was being done for the first time in many years. I was a slightly junior member of the team: Chris and Trevor and John Eliot Gardiner were all about ten years older than me. I played the harpsichord for them and, when necessary, the flute, and I was part of the project.”

It was in the USA that McGegan graduated to conducting the work, in the middle of the following decade.

“I remember directing my first Messiah absolutely to the day. It was December 1986 with the St Louis Symphony and the soprano, as she was then, was the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it was her first Messiah too. She was a remarkable artist and in 91 I was able to record it with her.”

This year McGegan is once again at the helm of the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, with soloists soprano Mhairi Lawson, counter-tenor William Towers, tenor Jamie MacDougall and bass-baritone Stephen Loges. On the same afternoon, composer James MacMillan conducts the work for the first time for Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, where Catriona Hewitson, Catherine Backhouse, Kieran White and Paul Grant are the soloists.

“I sang bits of it later in my student years,” says MacMillan, “but a lot of the music I sang at school and university was earlier and I never sang the big choral union sort of pieces. So preparing for this performance there has been a lot that felt like seeing and hearing it for the first time.

“Some of the arias I really didn’t know and the breadth that Messiah travels over its three parts is incredible, not just from Christmas to the Crucifixion but as a piece of music drama. It really takes you on a journey with a whole range of emotions and moods. I can see now why it established itself as a deeply loved masterpiece.

“The hinterland now is the difference of approach from the big choral union tradition to what the early music world has brought to it, with smaller choirs and a tighter, more authentic instrumental approach.

“All that has to be taken on board and that might be the reason why I’ve never conducted it before, because there is a specialism and scholarship to Baroque and Pre-Baroque music that puts barriers up for the rest of us. My choral music was earlier, unaccompanied music, but most of the orchestral music I’ve conducted in the last 20-odd years or so is later, so coming to Messiah for the first time is a new thing for me.”

At the same time, MacMillan’s own composing life has moved from smaller, unaccompanied motets toward exactly the shape of work that Handel undertook after his operas.

“In recent times I’ve written a lot of big oratorios – the Christmas Oratorio, the St John Passion and the St Luke Passion – and I suppose they acknowledge the historical hinterland of Handel’s oratorios and Bach’s cantatas and passions – it’s all there in the mix. You grow up with this music and it leaves an indelible mark, sometimes subliminally, on a composer’s mind.”

The Covid pandemic had yet to silence choirs around the world when McGegan last conducted in Glasgow, where he thinks he counts as a local boy because of his years as Principal Guest Conductor at Scottish Opera, and the flat he still has in the city’s west end.

“New Year 2020 was the last time I was with the RSNO, just before the pandemic, so a lot of the same people will be playing in the orchestra and I hope some of the audience will be the same too.

“What I do is bring my own orchestra parts, with my bowings, the dynamics and articulation written in. I’ve worked with nearly all the soloists before, either in Messiah or other projects – people like Jamie MacDougall and I go way back, Will Towers and I have done opera together as well as Messiah – so it is like organising a dinner party for friends.

“I first came to Glasgow in 1991 and did The Magic Flute with Scottish Opera two years running. My father was an Edinburgh boy and I had a clutch of rather terrifying great aunts in Morningside, who were horrified that I wanted to work there!

“I had the best time at Scottish Opera, I always enjoyed it. I’ll be 73 next month, but I hope I’ve still got a few Figaros left in me. I did Figaro, Giovanni and Cosi at Scottish Opera and loved every second of it.”

MacMillan may be making his Messiah debut in Edinburgh next week, but he has other concerts of the work upcoming.

“This time is very experimental for me, but I get to do it again a couple of times in December next year in Australia. I have been asked to conduct it with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the week before my Christmas Oratorio. I think they thought if they were having me for one week they might as well have me for two!

“So it is something that will grow as I get to do it a few times. Keeping the pace lively is important and that is something we have all learned from the early music revolution. I’ve taken a couple of rehearsals now and I’ve been delighted how chorusmaster Michael Bawtree has trained the choir. It is very lithe and very light on its feet.

“I’ll bring a composer’s inside view to the process, and whether that’s valuable is for others to decide! I haven’t had a conducting lesson in my life, but I did have a consultation with Sir Colin Davis, who said that I should keep doing what I do, because there is something about a composer’s perspective that is unique. He thought that a contemporary composer’s view of the music of the past is valuable, and I was always encouraged by that.

“And the more I have lived with Messiah, I think there has to be a sense of through-composed travelling and of drama in the performance. I am wondering about whether some of the stopping and starting is really necessary and I might want to push on, so there’s not much hanging about between arias and choruses, and a non-stop feel to where the music is going.”

It is the non-stop sequence of performances of Messiah that McGegan identifies as one of its unique characteristics.

“It is one of the very few pieces I know that has been in more or less continuous performance since it was written. I know some musicologists would disagree, but I just see the basic story of the prophecies surrounding the birth of Christ, Christ’s life and passion and the resurrection, with the basic tenets of the religion without delving too deeply into the tricky stuff.

“It’s unusual for Handel because nearly all his oratorios have people singing roles. Jesus does not appear as a singing role and in some ways I think that makes it easier for everybody. It is not a portrait of Jesus, it is a portrait of the idea of the religion.

“Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, chose the texts very carefully to find the words that were easiest to sing and Handel sets those words very carefully. Handel is a master of writing for choirs, but the choruses are actually much more difficult than people who don’t sing realise. It is a masterpiece of very varied choral writing. That’s why people love it so.”

MacMillan also notes the way the work appeals as much to those of no faith as to the devout.

“When Messiah was first performed in the 1700s, I wonder what kind of mood there would have been in the hall. Would people want to applaud?

“How secular was it? How sacred was it? It seems to be a hybrid form that brought together the sacred and the secular in the world of music.”

The Edinburgh Royal Choral Union Messiah begins at noon in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on January 2. The RSNO and RSNO Chorus perform the work from 3pmon the same day at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Conversation Pieces

Uniquely-talented cellist Su-a Lee shares the limelight in Dialogues, her debut album. Going solo isn’t really her thing, she tells KEN WALTON

The last time I spoke to Scottish Chamber Orchestra cellist Su-a Lee, she had just videoed herself playing alone in a beautiful Speyside forest, surrounded by birds who flocked to her musical soliloquising like those to Snow White in the animated Disney film. 

The idea was to emulate the famous “nightingale duet” of 1924, when Elgar’s cellist friend Beatrice Harrison achieved a similar avian response in her Surrey garden, in what was to become one of the BBC’s earliest outside broadcasts. Lee loved the idea, which was to be her uniquely moving contribution to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions, a series launched during lockdown to give a much-needed performance platform to Scots-based musicians.

That same creative originality and that same idyllic part of the world (Lee has, post-Covid, married the partner she spent most of lockdown with in Speyside, folk musician Hamish Napier), were instrumental in inspiring her debut solo album, due for release this week on her own Sky Child Records label. Dialogues, as its title suggests, is not actually a solo album at all; nor – and this won’t surprise anyone familiar with Lee’s eclectic musical penchant – is it genre specific.

In terms of the former, going it alone has never appealed to the colourful but unassuming cellist, despite her 30-year prominence among the front ranks of the SCO and her flamboyant presence as a founder member of the quirky Mr McFall’s Chamber, where her expertise famously extends to solo virtuosity on the musical saw, and musical tastes flit between the earthy sensuality of Argentine tango and the experimental genre-mix of King Crimson.

Dialogues is a free-riding collaboration on an intimate scale. Other than the final solo track, Lee shares the limelight with a progression of friends in music that evolved organically during the recording process itself and reflects the various specialisms, mainly folk-rooted, of collaborators that include accordionist Phil Cunningham, singer Julie Fowlis, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, harpist Maeve Gilchrist and even husband Hamish, who played a key role in encouraging the project. 

The solo route was never on the cards, insists the South Korea-born cellist, who’s early studies took her to Manchester’s Chetham’s School as a talented teenager and to the hotbed of New York and its prestigious Julliard School as an undergraduate, before settling in Edinburgh in the early 1990s. 

“It really isn’t a thing I’m interested in doing,” she explains. “One of the very first things I was asked to do in lockdown was a solo concert for Chamber Music Scotland online. At first I thought, I’m not going to do that, that’s really not my thing. But actually a lot of people had been asking in the past few years if I would do village concerts and I thought maybe I should, because it’s easy to go out on your own and you don’t have to arrange for anyone else to do stuff. Then I thought perhaps I could just get Hamish involved. We were locked down together, so maybe we could share the programmes, and that’s how things progressed. 

Su-a Lee with folk musician husband Hamish Napier

“As for the solo album, that was definitely Hamish’s idea. I was dead against it, and certainly had no interest in writing music, no desire to create a band. But after giving it careful thought, I warmed to the idea of something certainly small and intimate, maybe duos or trios. Would it be classical? I was like no, there were already far too many amazing cellists out there recording all that stuff, but maybe folk would work. The next step was to see if anyone was up for playing with me as an equal voice.”

Unsurprisingly they were, and a process of developing individual tracks – “each a project on its own” – eventually grew into the final product. “I remember sneaking in a studio session just as things were opening up with the lovely Pekka – he had been recording with us at the SCO, so we snuck off at the end of one of the SCO recordings to put this together. It was slightly terrifying for me, time being limited and precious, but that in itself made it so instantly creative, like grabbing a moment.”

Each “moment” produced its own challenges. When it came to working with Caithness composer and pianist James Ross for the track Stroma, the creative process was done remotely by email. “James sent me the original melody, then I would do some improvisations and send them back giving him options to choose where the music would go next. He’d send it back again and we’d morph things. It just went back and forth until we were happy with the final results.” 

The same happened with cellist Natalie Haas, who was based in Montreal at the time. “Because we played the same instrument, the main thing was working out how to avoid getting in each other’s way in terms of register,” Lee recalls. “By the time she finally came over to Scotland for a weekend, we clicked instantly, playing together for hours. It felt like a real dialogue.” Thus emerged the hypnotically side-stepping Waltzska for Su-a.

Now that it’s all over, Lee muses on the impact lockdown in Speyside had on nurturing her album. “That environment definitely had a huge effect,” she says. It allowed time and space for ideas to percolate, for me to work in a very different way than before. It felt very new, and gave me me the luxury of not having to be anywhere else, not squeezing things between deadlines. It was a real gift to be surrounded by nature, not ever having really experienced that before. I’d always lived inner city – New York in Manhattan, the centre of Edinburgh. 

The Highlands remain a bolt hole, where she and her equally busy husband spend time together as much as they can. “I do still have my flat in Edinburgh, where most of my playing work is based, but for me personally things have definitely changed. It’s a matter of negotiating how much time we spend with each other. 

“I’m managing to get a bit more of a balance, but it takes thought, preplanning and commitment. You have to say no to a lot more things, and I am in the process of doing exactly that, coming off various boards, so I can find some time just to switch off. Good stuff doesn’t happen, creativity doesn’t happen, when you’re constantly having to catch up with yourself. The mind does a wonderful thing, though, when you are doing nothing. You start to muse, you start to think.

Does she think there might be another album? She offers a definitive no, but only a fool would dismiss the possibility. “I won’t be doing it again … in a hurry,” she adds. That doesn’t sound like the door being completely slammed shut. Does it?

Dialogues is released on 2 December, available on CD and digital download. Full information at www.sualee.com

(Top picture: Elly Lucas)

Opera’s life of Lorca

Polymath David Henry Hwang is the librettist of Osvaldo Golijov’s hit contemporary opera Ainadamar, having its UK staged premiere from Scottish Opera. He talks to KEITH BRUCE.

There are few artists in any field anywhere in the world with quite the diverse, and conspicuously successful, CV of David Henry Hwang. As a creator of original works of his own he is primarily a playwright, but his global fame rests as much on his role as a librettist in the world of opera and musicals.

Scottish audiences were introduced to him in 1989, when his first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, visited Glasgow’s Mayfest in the run up to the city’s profile-changing year as European City of Culture. Fresh from its premier performances in a Vienna aircraft hangar and a Berlin ice-rink, it received mixed reviews, but impressed enough folk to have a local revival by Paragon Ensemble at the Tron Theatre in 2003.

That same year Hwang was working with Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov on a commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer residency. Created in just a few months, Ainadamar explored the life and work of Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, as remembered by his muse, Catalan performer Margarita Zirgu.

It was only after considerable reworking, and the input of director Peter Sellars for a Sante Fe Opera production two years later, that Ainadamar found its finished form and became a success.

“One of the differences between the Boston production and the Santa Fe production was learning more about Lorca’s life,” Hwang remembers now. He also credits the composer with being adaptable in a way that he recognised from the world of theatre but encounters less often in opera.

“On Broadway there may be six weeks of previews during which you can make changes, but that is not the opera composer’s way of working. Osvaldo was very comfortable making changes – we are both very flexible people and made an unusual team.”

The score the Argentinian created was, the librettist contends, years ahead of its time.

“We did get on well, but that doesn’t always mean that a composer’s music speaks to me the way Osvaldo’s does. He was breaking boundaries and doing things that hadn’t been done before.

“Osvaldo integrates other voices seamlessly, drawing from different musical styles and using electronic sounds. At that point it was not something that people were generally doing in opera.

“It’s beautiful and fun to listen to. The arias and the trio at the end are gorgeous and you can kinda dance to it! I still enjoy listening to Ainadamar.”

Ainadamar Rehearsals, Scottish Opera. Picture by Julie Howden.

It is also true that the story chimed with a direction that Hwang’s own work had already embarked on in plays and would go on to explore more thoroughly. His background as an Asian American runs through early work F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), his breakthrough play M Butterfly, which deconstructed Puccini and has had a new incarnation as an opera at Santa Fe this year, and more recent Broadway hits Yellow Face and Soft Power, which mined his own life and included characters called “DHH”.

“There is a parallel in that I have brought different cultural voices into my plays. With Osvaldo I got to play in this other sandbox, with Spanish and Moorish influences and duende and Roma voices, and it was a great world to be in.

“When we first met, we started by kicking around different subjects because we had to create the thing really quickly. One of the things that attracted me, when Osvaldo pitched the Lorca story, was that Lorca to some extent predicted his own demise. As artists you sometimes reach into yourself and pull something out and that thing ends up manifesting itself in your life.

“Writers generally write autobiographical characters, they just don’t often name them after themselves. Ultimately you have to do the thing that you are interested in and believe in and let the chips fall where they may. In general I have had more success with things that are personal and idiosyncratic.”

Hwang is speaking particularly of his own work, and he draws a careful distinction between that and his work with composers.

“I work in a lot of genres, and in each there is someone who is the primary artistic voice driving the project forward and the other artists are supporting that vision.

“If I write a play, I am the primary artist, but in opera it is the composer because the work will rise and fall on how the music is perceived and evaluated. That isn’t to say that the libretto isn’t important, because it affects the perception of the music, but fundamentally it is about the music.

“I am also very economical with words, and that is the discipline for the librettist. There have been a couple of times when I have adapted my plays into operas and you have to lose about 50 to 60 per cents of the words in a play to make an opera.”

The new opera of M Butterfly has music by Huang Ruo, but David Henry Hwang’s most regular composing partner has continued to be Glass, including the New York Metropolitan Opera commission The Voyage, The Sound of a Voice, based on two of Hwang’s plays, and most recently Circus Days and Nights, using the poems of Robert Lax, for Malmo Opera.

“Philip is very easy to work with,” says Hwang. “We come up with an idea together, and I’ll write a story outline – although in the case of The Voyage at the Met the outline was Philip’s – and then he assumes that the librettist’s job is to write the words and his is to write the music.”

An impressive list of other composers clearly find Hwang an agreeable collaborator  too. They range from Unsuk Chin (2007’s Alice in Wonderland) and Howard Shore (2008’s The Fly, based on the film by David Cronenberg, who made a movie of M Butterfly) to Elton John, Phil Collins and Prince – Hwang co-wrote the least salacious song on the late funk musician’s 1994 album, Come.

He still proudly lists that last surprise on his comprehensive and varied CV.

“I’m pretty eclectic and I don’t really make a distinction between high culture and writing a Disney musical,” he says. “The primary distinction is always whether I am in charge or am I helping someone else realise their vision.

“When I was a kid, the two pop stars that meant the most to me were Prince and David Bowie, so the fact that I got to write a song with Prince and it ended up on an album is just the coolest thing!”

Ainadamar has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal from Saturday October 29 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from November 8. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk

A composer’s champions

The piano music of Troon’s Douglas Munn has a showcase at the end of Cumnock Tryst 2022. KEITH BRUCE talks to his widow, Clare.

That Ayrshire man Douglas Munn’s legacy in his professional field of mathematics is secure seems in little doubt. As Dr W D Munn he held professorships at the Universities of Stirling and Glasgow and he was still publishing internationally-admired work in his particular algebraic specialism well beyond retirement.

In his latter years, however, Munn was as concerned with the after-life of the fruits of his skill as a composer of piano music, revising – and in some cases completing – work he had written in his teens and very early twenties.

Since his death in 2008, Munn the musician has been fortunate to be championed by three loyal women: his widow Clare, his sister Lesley, and Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane, whom he and Clare met at the 2001 Scottish International Piano Competition and went on to assist with accommodation and practice facilities through her studies at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire (then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama).

This weekend that work reaches a moment of posthumous celebration, appropriately near to his Troon home, when Arnicane plays Munn’s music in Dumfries House on the final day of Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival. The recital follows the release of an album she recorded at home in Riga which collects his complete catalogue for solo piano, handily clocking in at just under an hour of music and released on Toccata Classics.

Clare still lives in the Munn family home in Troon, and when we spoke earlier this week, I interrupted her playing the piano – “winding down”, she said, from the stress of emptying the couple’s Glasgow flat before it is sold.

“There was never a day went past without us playing the piano, either separately or together. The maths conferences used to have a lot of musicians and we played together at those,” she said.

“We also played at the university club, including many of the most famous pieces in the piano duet repertoire. I especially remember pieces by Debussy and Lutoslawski. I’ve still got my family Steinway, which belonged to my Cambridge grandparents and it still sounds pretty good. It’s been well looked after.”

It was, as is perhaps abundantly clear, music that brought the couple together.

“We were married for nearly 30 years,” Clare explains, “and we met through music in Salzburg, at a summer school organised by Glasgow University’s Extra-Mural Department. I had graduated from the Royal Academy of Music and was a young music teacher in London, and I went there with a flatmate on holiday and met Douglas.

“I think I quite impressed him, because the first time he invited me to Scotland I climbed to the top of Ben Nevis.”

That was in the 1960s, and it was the start of a slow-blooming relationship.

“It was a long distance romance,” laughs Clare. “I lived in Australia for 11 years, where I was teaching, and Douglas came out and lectured there. I think we did surprise everybody when we eventually got married in Sydney in 1980 and Douglas persuaded me to come back to Scotland.”

Portrait of Munn by his mother Elizabeth

“Douglas’s mother was a teacher and had brought up her children after the death of their father at the end of the Second World War. She and her husband were both accomplished artists and members of the Paisley Art Institute.

“My father sang in the King’s College Chapel and my mother trained as a pianist and I had musical siblings – my younger sister was a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.”

Steeped in music as Clare and Douglas Munn were, they were supporters of Scotland’s orchestras and opera company, and of the conservatoire. Douglas was the Glasgow University representative there as well as serving on the board of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh.

“We bought a flat in the West End of Glasgow and used it while my husband was teaching at the university and I was a piano and a violin teacher,” said Clare.

During that time the couple met composer James MacMillan and his wife – a long friendship that links the early years of both marriages to this weekend’s event. They also got to know composer Eddie McGuire.

“It was Eddie who encouraged Douglas to dig out his music and have it stored at the Scottish Music Centre. That spurred Douglas on to start the revisions.

“The first little Prelude was written in 1944 [when Munn was just 15], and he continued to compose and play through his student years until the mathematics took over, although I do remember him finishing off the Sonatina and singing the tunes from it in the mid-80s.”

Given her teaching background, there was also encouragement of young musicians. The Ayrshire String Orchestra that plays in Dumfries House following Arnicane’s recital on Sunday includes a couple of Clare’s former pupils.

It was the commitment to young talent that introduced the couple to the Latvian pianist.

“Arta came to Glasgow to take part in the Scottish Piano Competition, when John Lill was on the panel,” said Clare. “We heard her play a Chopin study quite remarkably well, and Douglas said: ‘That girl is extremely good.’ I invited her to come and play in the flat and then we were able to offer her some accommodation when she was in between competitions.”

The Munns were in time invited to Arnicane’s wedding in Riga to Florian, who is a German cellist. They perform as a duo and now live in Zurich, where they have two sons, and the pianist has not stopped championing the music of Douglas Munn, including it in her solo recitals.

The recording of the complete Munn canon was made in 2019 in the studio of Riga Radio in Latvia, and the Toccata release comes with a fulsome booklet including notes by the pianist herself, a Maths colleague of the composer, David Easdown, and Munn’s sister Lesley Duncan, a journalist at The Herald. Crowning the package is the cover portrait of her son by his mother Elizabeth.

Arta Arnicane (pictured at top) plays Douglas Munn, Debussy and Martinu at Dumfries House, Cumnock at 2pm and 4pm on Sunday October 2 as part of Cumnock Tryst.

The Carnyx Speaks

John Kenny resurrects not one but three iron age Carnyces at this year’s Cumnock Tryst. KEN WALTON finds out more from the man who brought the awesome instrument back to life, and previews the local aspects of a very Ayshire festival.

Ever wondered what the bestial image on the VoxCarnyx masthead is? Those in the know, or inquisitive enough to have looked it up, will recognise it as the topmost section of the carnyx, an instrument dating back to the iron age, fragments of which were first discovered buried under a Banffshire farm in 1816. 

The fearsome bronze head, with hinged jaw and sprung wooden tongue, appeared to be the bell of a 2000-year-old brass instrument. It took till the1990s to put the theory to the test, when trombonist John Kenny, encouraged by Scots composer and music historian John Purser,  joined an archeological project aimed at reconstructing the carnyx both visually and as a functioning musical instrument. 

With support from the National Museum of Scotland and metal craftsman John Creed, the eventual first sight and sound of the reconstructed carnyx – an awesome man-sized construction comprising a lengthy blow tube, imposing boar’s head and named the Deskford Carnyx after the parish in which the original was found – was at the National Museum’s reopening ceremony in 2011. “We didn’t know what we were going to come out with,” Kenny recalls, fearful that such a beautiful object might simply sound like “a rather inert tube”. “It turned out to be magnificent,” he says. 

So much so, that the world now has more magnificent specimens, and for the first time in 2000 years three carnyces will perform together this weekend at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival. Saturday’s programme in St John’s Church, Ancient Voices, features Kenny’s ensemble Dragon Voices and a sequence of works by Kenny himself, 20th century French film composer Francis Chagrin, and a brand new work by Purser, whose poetry also weaves a narrative throughout the entire concert..

“We start with modern brass instruments, then work right back to the earliest proven examples we have of human beings creating musical sounds using lip vibration,” Kenny explains. Besides the trio of carnyces, Dragon Voices – an ensemble also consisting of Kenny’s son Patrick and former pupil Ian Sayer – perform on ancient sea horns. “In the iron age, Celtic craftsmen led the world in the art of making giant horns or trumpets out of beaten bronze and they were of extraordinary quality,” he adds.  

Purser’s new work, Gundestrup Rituals aims to illustrate their uniqueness and is based on images found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, a richly decorated silver vessel discovered in a Danish peat bog and dating from the early iron age. Included among these is a powerful representation of three carnyces being played at once. 

The carnyx players on the Gundestrup Cauldron (National Museum of Denmark)

For those who imagine the sound of the carnyx to echo its warlike appearance, be prepared for a surprise. “They will be amazed at the extraordinary versatility of the instrument,” promises Kenny. “Yes, the traditional idea of it as a war horn is true. It can be very violent and powerful with a massive range of five octaves, depending on the ability of the performer. But it is also capable of a huge dynamic range, coloured by the strange combination of its unique harmonic series and resultant vibrations.” 

The biggest revelation for Kenny in exploring its possibilities was to discover how quietly and uniquely mysterious it could sound. “Using modern brass players’ techniques actually resulted in quite a boring sound,’ he explains. “On modern brass instruments, we try to make uniform sound, and also tend to work in groups dedicated to our ideas of melody and harmony. These are very modern ideas in terms of the organisation of musical sound. 

“So we had to discard those standard techniques in order to explore the natural potential of the instrument. As a musician and composer it was for me a Tabula Rasa moment, working with a blank page, a bit like that sudden moment in the14th century when artists, working also as alchemists, discovered how to make oil paintings. Here, with the carnyx, was another extraordinary moment working with new colours.”

Such possibilities, and the fact the original carnyces appeared to have been “ritually dismembered” before burial, led Kenny to believe the symbolism of the carnyx was just as likely to be as sacral as it was bellicose. “It’s actually much more effective when played gently and quietly.” Ancient Voices sets out to illustrate that infinite diversity.

Dragon Voices with the three carnyx reconstructions by John Creed. Image: Ali Watt

The clash of sounds ancient and modern pervades much of the classical content of this 2022 Cumnock Tryst, which runs Thursday 29 September to Sunday 2 October. The Kings Singers (Fri 30 Sept at Trinity Church) celebrate a vast international lineage of a cappella choral writing that stretches from English Renaissance giant William Byrd to the whimsical Lobster Quadrille of György Ligeti, by way of Vaughan Williams and original Kings Singer, Bob Chilcott. There’s music, too, by MacMillan himself and a lighter-hearted send off of close-harmony Disney numbers.

On Sunday (Dumfries House, 2pm & 4pm) Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane unveils an Ayrshire curiosity, the piano music of Douglas Munn, an eminent Mathematician who lived in Troon until his death in 2008, and whose compositions – recently released on CD – are both skilful and charming.

If imported professional artists represent a smaller proportion of the line up this year, that, says MacMillan, is deliberate.  “That trend has certainly grown over the years. It’s always been part of the Festival’s raison d’être to encourage a sense of ownership and deep involvement by local community groups, and to get them involved with the visiting professionals in different ways.”

Thus the combined involvement of local amateur dramatic group CAMPS and Strings N Things with BBC SSO musicians (Merchant City Brass) in Saturday’s A Musical Celebration of the Coalfields in Cumnock Town Hall; or Friday’s compositional collaboration between Drake Music Scotland, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland singers and local pupils from Hillside School in Blue Sky Counterpoint at the new Barony Campus.

Even the big festival finale on Sunday evening at Dumfries House – billed as the Scott Riddox Memorial Concert in memory of the locally-known singer – is an entirely local showcase with big ambitions. After individual contributions from the Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra under conductor John Wilson, The Festival Chorus and CAMPS, all the ensembles will come together under MacMillan’s baton for a performance of Gavin Bryars’ iconic Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

The 2022 Cumnock Tryst runs 29 Sept to 2 Oct at various venues in Cumnock. Full details at www.thecumnocktryst.com

Top picture: Jane Salmon

Toi, Toi, Tay!

A new opera festival launches this weekend in Dundee. KEN WALTON reveals the plot

Is there really room for another classical music festival in Scotland? The people of Dundee certainly think so. From Thursday to Sunday this weekend (22-25 Sept) the first ever Opera Festival Scotland gets underway in the feisty Tayside city with performances of Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a visit by Scottish Opera’s Highlights Tour, and a supporting programme of lectures, masterclasses and singing competitions.  

Nobody is keener for it to work than locally-born events guru and festival organiser Michael Jamieson, whose brainchild it is, and who has fought against the odds to make this inaugural event happen. “It’s not been without its challenges,” he freely admits. “Firstly we had to be taken seriously, decide on exactly what would happen, then Covid came and we had to move the Festival back a year.”

Even now, he and his organising colleagues have had to deal with the hiatus around national mourning for the late Queen, and the general nervousness of the paying public at a time of economic hardship. “The cost of living crisis is probably our biggest immediate challenge. People are not confident in parting with their money right now,” he says. Nonetheless, optimism is not in short supply.

That’s as much to do with the inclusive nature of a programme designed to involve local opera enthusiasts as it is with the organisers’ prudence and realism in engaging affordable artists, focusing limited funds on where they will make the most impact, and in establishing creative collaborations with key professional bodies. “Those collaborations came remarkably easily,” says Jamieson, who has secured support from Scottish Opera, English National Opera, Perth Festival and the RSNO. 

The centrepiece, Friday’s concert performance of Aida at the Caird Hall, is all about involvement. Yes, the Festival has imported experienced singers to fill the key roles, but to make this the extravaganza Jamieson wants it to be, the hordes of soldiers, priests, prisoners and slaves will be eager and enthusiastic Dundonians. 

“We wanted to involve as many amateur singers as possible from local communities,” Jamieson explains. “Dundee and the surrounding areas are full of small groups who want to do big operas but just don’t have the resources. Different events are forever competing with each other, so we though, let’s do it differently, do something big where they can all join in on neutral ground.” Friday’s performance will be directed by local music teacher and conductor Ralph Jamieson. “Yes, we’re related,” admits Michael.

As for the fully-professional performance activity, Scottish Opera has chosen to open its latest country-wide Opera Highlights Tour in the city’s Marryat Hall. The same venue hosts Opera Bohemia in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday. 

Another highlight has to be the presence of internationally-renowned, Glasgow-born soprano Janis Kelly, once a regular star with Scottish Opera, now chair of vocal performance at the Royal College of Music. 

A number of the Opera Festival Scotland events revolve around her presence. On Sunday morning she conducts a masterclass at Dundee High School, sharing her musical knowledge and experience to two upcoming sopranos, Scots-born Rosha Fitzhowle and London-based Jila Mariko. 

Kelly will also chair the judging panel that afternoon in another key Festival event at the Caird Hall, the Young Artists Singing Competition. She’ll be joined by fellow judges Julia Lagahuzere (founder and general director of Opera for Peace), veteran mezzo-soprano Linda Ormiston, and the heads of casting for Scottish Opera and ENO. “We had over 100 applications from around the UK,” says Jamieson. The winner, chosen from four finalists who will perform with the RSNO, will receive the Opera Festival Scotland Trophy, £1500 career grant, a lunchtime recital promoted by ENO, and a masterclass with Bollywood playback singer Kamal Khan, courtesy of Opera for Peace.

Other Festival events include a Non-professional Singing Competition, and two keynote lectures: one on the History of Opera Performance in Scotland by Fife-based Iain Fraser, co-creator of the website Opera Scotland; and Julia Lagahuzere, focusing on the artist as a world ambassador and their place in society. One further event at Dundee’s V&A, presented by experts Megan Baker and Raymond Uphill-Wood, offers a workshop on Costume and Make-Up Design. The Festival has also been active in local schools in the run up to the inaugural event, introducing opera to children at both primary and secondary level. Pupils have also been offered free admission to Festival events.

Jamieson’s future ambition for Opera Festival Scotland is that it should operate on a two-year cycle. “That depends on what happens this weekend,” he says guardedly. “If it’s something Dundee wants we’ll do everything we can to make it a regular fixture in the Scottish cultural calendar. The first indication it is will be the audience figures and feedback from this event. We’ll see how it goes.”

Opera Festival Scotland runs 22-25 September in Dundee. Full details at www.operafestivalscotland.co.uk

Simply the Best

Choir supremo Christopher Bell tells KEN WALTON about the exciting new NYCOS initiative he’s launching at the Lammermuir Festival 

No sooner has the buzz of the Edinburgh International Festival dissipated than the Lammermuir Festival bursts into action with a programme of equal calibre. From 8-19 September all the big Classical Music action is in East Lothian, opening on Thursday with the compelling pianism of Jeremy Denk in Dunbar, and an operatic rarity – Massenet’s Thérèse – courtesy of Scottish Opera in St Mary’s Church, Haddington.

Elsewhere over the next 12 days regular morning coffee concerts include a series of song recitals by various star vocalists partnered with pianist Malcom Martineau; the chamber music programme ranges from string quartets Quatuor Mosaïques and Quatuor Agate to such invigorating couplings as cellist Laura van der Heijden and pianist Tom Poster; larger scale events extend from Bach cantata performances by the Marian Consort and Spiritato to orchestra programmes by the RSNO, SCO, Royal Northern Sinfonia, and the BBC SSO.

Among this cornucopia of delights, however, there’s one event that deserves special mention. It’s at Loretto School Chapel this Sunday (11 Sep), and it might take a second glance at the billing to appreciate that this isn’t just by any old National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) ensemble, but a brand new initiative that its artistic director Christopher Bell expects will personify excellence. Bell makes no apology for the selectivity of its 24 members. “They have to be at the top of their game to be chosen,” he says.

This is NYCOS’ “First XV”, singers taken from the current flagship National Youth Choir who are deemed the star players. Bell recognises that such a strategy goes against the inclusive brigade who’s view is you shouldn’t be leaving people out. “I’m quite surprised that 25 years on from founding NYCOS I’m still making the argument that to get the vey best results you have to have the very best singers,” he says. 

His methods are tried and tested. The current lead ensembles – which also include the National Girls and National Boys Choirs – have performed at the highest level, from the BBC Proms and Edinburgh Festival to highly-acclaimed appearances in the USA. They have even been the choir of choice for Sir John Eliot Gardner and his Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique. 

To get them to that level, Bell’s preferred model is pyramidal. At its base are the 14 regional choirs that eventually feed the national ones. But there are also parallel strands that address inclusivity. “Everybody at school should experience singing, which is why we run a programme of general access educational work where we’ll do singing days and teach teachers through workshops. Alongside that there’s the progressively-structured choir activity. 

“But it’s like when a school wants a winning football team. Yes, everyone’s done PE, but you want the players that will get the ball in the net. When it comes to choosing a choir, particularly when it’s outside school, you want the best singers.”

One of the express aims of the new Chamber Choir is to tackle some of the most testing and varied repertoire. Sunday’s recital will include Britten’s slightly mad cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Jonathan Dove’s Passing of the Year. “Jonathan’s piece is really brilliant, very thoughtful, but joyful too,” he explains. “It’s about the arc of the year expressing the arc of life in symbolic terms. The funeral march near the end will break your heart.”

For this, Bell has been very specific in the voices he has recruited. They have to suit the repertoire of a given programme. “But it will be horses for courses,” he adds. “”It won’t necessarily be the same 24 people all the time. If we decide to do a more operatic programme, we choose the right voices. For a more churchy programme, a kind of Tenebrae meets Tallis Scholars, again we choose the best voices for the job. I even reserve the right, if there isn’t the right level within the group, to bring some NYCOS alumni back to ensure it’s of a decent level.”

“There’s capacity for the new choir to do really hard music, for us to make recordings of very different repertoire. This concert is the official launch of that idea: an idea we put to the Leverhulme Trust who came up with a very nice amount of money, which means that for the next three years we will be able to do it.”

The Chamber Choir sneaked in a soft launch recently in St Andrews and will do the same in Helensburgh this Saturday. But Sunday is the big moment when Bell introduces his newest choral initiative to a discriminating Lammermuir Festival audience. Thereafter it has a Scottish tour planned and recordings that include one for the BBC. “What we are not looking to do is crash in on already existing ensembles,” Bell stresses. “We’re looking to find maybe a niche, one that gives the really experienced NYCOS singers a chance to do yet more detailed and high level work, and not to stand on anyone’s toes!”. 

The new NYCOS Chamber Choir launches at the Lammermuir Festival on 11 Sep (3pm) in Loretto School Chapel, Musselburgh. The Festival runs in venues around East Lothian from 8-19 Sep. Full details on www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk

Festival favourites return

Conductor Semyon Bychkov and members of the Czech Philharmonic talked to Keith Bruce ahead of their Edinburgh Festival concerts

Between the Philharmonia at its start and the Philadelphia when it ends, the 75th Edinburgh International Festival has another orchestral residency when the Czech Philharmonic plays two concerts under the baton of its Chief conductor and Music Director Semyon Bychkov.

The relationship between the Czech orchestra and the Festival is an important one, with regular visits over the years under many of the great conductors with whom it has been associated. Almost always the concerts have included Czech repertoire by Smetana, Janacek and Dvorak, often alongside the music of Gustav Mahler.

In 1969 the recently-appointed Vaclav Neumann was on the podium, returning in 1983 in partnership with Jiri Belohlavek for a concert featuring the piano duo of Katia and Marielle Labeque. Belohlavek conducted two of the three concerts in 1991, but Janacek’s epic Glagolitic Mass was under the baton of Sir Charles Mackerras. That same team returned at the end of the 1998 festival and in 2000 played two Usher Hall concerts and in the pit at the Playhouse for Jiri Kylian’s Nederlands Dans Theater.

The story actually goes back to the years of the Festival’s founding, when the Czech Phil’s conductor Rafael Kubelik, who had maintained a defiant attitude to the Nazis during the Second World War, decided he could not live under another tyrannical regime following the Communist coup and used the opportunity of conducting a Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the King’s Theatre in 1948 to defect.

The orchestra will this year play the music of their homeland on Saturday, with the Labeque sisters once again the soloists in a programme that also includes the Glagolitic Mass with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. On Sunday we will hear Mahler’s Symphony No 7, a work the orchestra premiered in Prague in 1908, under the baton of the composer. Conducting both concerts this weekend is their Music Director since 2018, Semyon Bychkov, who is married to Marielle Labeque and a Russian who swiftly and eloquently condemned the invasion of Ukraine at a time when others were equivocal.

In common with many public buildings in Prague, the Czech Phil’s concert hall, the Rudolfinum, displays the colours of the Ukraine flag in solidarity with the people there. This is no distant conflict for the people of the Czech Republic, and the orchestra’s Chief Conductor was an important voice at the start of the war, issuing a statement headlined “Silence in the face of evil becomes its accomplice”.

In April of this year, on the morning after a filled Rudolfinum heard a concert of a contemporary symphony by English composer Julian Anderson, Prague Panoramas, a Mozart Piano Concerto played by Vikingur Olafsson and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Bychkov was happy to talk about both the current situation, his relationship with the land of his birth, and the recent history of an orchestra with which he clearly enjoys a fond relationship.

Resident in France, he was settled into a late freelance career and not minded to seek a contractual post with any orchestra when he was approached by the musicians, following the death of Belohlavek. “I couldn’t refuse 124 orphans,” he says, smiling.

“The pandemic took away many of our plans, including an invitation to Edinburgh in 2020, and also a visit to Moscow to perform there. That was before this tragedy started and now there is no discussion of that, either possible or desired.”

Concerts in the Russian capital would have been a major event for the orchestra and for its Chief Conductor, who was a prize-winning young talent in St Petersburg before leaving for a career in the West.

“I left because I wanted to be free to live the way I wanted to live, free to think the way I want, free to express myself the way I want, and free to make music that is important to me, or not to make it because it is not important to me,” he says, before acknowledging another side to his decision.

“Antisemitism exists everywhere, the difference there was that it was institutionalised within the state. I saw my father suffer from that, before I was given opportunities that were amazing and without precedent. But 50 years later my answer, and my decision, hasn’t changed.”

“A country that refuses to recognise the dark pages of its history and accept the necessity to atone for them will never be able to come out of enslavement to those dark pages. Russia lost 27 million people during World War Two, but more in the gulags of Lenin and Stalin – yet people there are nostalgic for Stalin.”

Semyon Bychkov conducts Czech Phil in Prague’s Rudolfinum

Bychkov conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2019 Festival, in a concert that included Mahler 4, and he was on his first big European tour post-pandemic with the Czech orchestra when the Ukrainian invasion happened. It changed the dynamic of the dates, he says, with London’s Barbican and concerts in Berlin and Vienna quickly selling out.

There can be little argument that it is in the company of the orchestras of those cities that the Prague orchestra belongs. Some of the musicians in the Czech Philharmonic are long-served enough to have played under Neumann and under Mackerras in Edinburgh.

Oboist Ivan Sequardt says: “Touring is an essential part of our work. We love the Rudolfinum, but there are halls that are better suited for bigger pieces: Leipzig Gewandhaus, Birmingham Symphony Hall and the halls in Yokohama and Tokyo in Japan. Our home venue has limited space and some compositions need to be played elsewhere.”

Just the same, Sequardt is not entirely delighted to be taking Mahler 7 to the Festival. “Agencies want it because it was premiered here in Prague, which is a shame. It is a great piece up to the last movement, which is too long and full of unnatural and pointless repetitions. Maestro Neumann was right to cross out some of those as a favour to the audience. I like Symphonies 5, 4, and 1 much better.”

The orchestra is getting to know them all again, because it is in the midst of recording the whole cycle for Pentatone, following the success of an acclaimed 7-disc set of the music of Tchaikovsky. Symphony No 4 was released in April and 1, 2, 5 and 9 are already “in the can”.

For Bychkov, Mahler was an obvious choice.

“Mahler is viewed as an Austrian composer because his later years were spent in Vienna, although he was born in this country and his DNA is the DNA of the Czech Phil. During the pandemic, Simon Rattle came to work with the orchestra and described it as ‘the perfect Mahler orchestra’”, he says with pride.

“When I first arrived, the agreement we made was for me to spend 16 weeks of the year with the orchestra, but it has never been less than 20. I am here not because I must but because I want to. Music is existential for the Czech people, as we see in the audience as well as the orchestra.”

“We really appreciate collaboration, and conductors who treat us a partners,” says Sequardt. His colleague Jaroslav Pondelicek from the viola section adds that the orchestra is more flexible than it used to be in its accommodation of the desires of conductors.

“The Czech Phil sound is very tender and transparent,” says Pondelicek, “and Bychkov has added more passion and energy, especially to the strings.”

In the recording studio, he says, the conductor always wants long takes of whole movements but will not hesitate to ask for them again if he is not happy.

“His preparation is fantastic, with great detail. He wants the best result possible and it is great value for us that he will not be satisfied if we play less than our best.”

With a Japanese flautist and a Spanish double bass player, there is evidence of international recruitment within the ranks of the Czech Phil, but it is much less than we are familiar with in the UK.

The players see that as a strength, and so does the conductor.

“All but two are Czech, so there is a continuity in the way the musicians think about phrasing. We want to preserve that because it makes the orchestra unique. And the orchestra is on the young side but very mixed age-wise, which is lucky because it cannot be arranged – it is an natural process of regeneration,” says Bychkov.

70 years old this year, Bychkov has conducted many of the world’s finest orchestras, across North America and Europe and speaks from vast experience.

“If an orchestra is not loved there is nothing you can do about it,” he says. “But this orchestra is loved, first of all by its home audience – and we feel it every time we come onstage by the way they greet us and how they listen – and it is loved elsewhere as well, and that helps. Not everyone has this privilege.”

Czech Philharmonic and Semyon Bychkov are at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on August 20 and 21 as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. eif.co.uk

Boyd is Back in Town

Douglas Boyd makes a rare return to his native Scotland conducting Garsington Opera’s Rusalka at the Edinburgh International Festival. He talks to KEN WALTON

Since turning exclusively to conducting 16 years ago, the former oboist, Glasgow-born Douglas Boyd, has forged a solid reputation among fellow musicians as an out-and-out enthusiast. They warm to his lack of airs and graces, no doubt informed by his first-hand understanding of how orchestral players respond and operate. His own playing career took the now 63-year-old from principal oboe and founding member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe to recitalist in such auspicious venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall.

When he eventually laid down the double reed in favour of a single baton, he had already successfully tested the water as music director of Manchester Camerata. He has since held leading conducting positions with the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Paris Chamber Orchestra, and in the US the St Paul Chamber Orchestra and Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

But it’s in his capacity as artistic director of Garsington Opera, a post he has held for the last ten years, that Boyd will star in the opening few days of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. On Saturday, the Buckingham-based company brings its recent new production of Dvorak’s fairy-tale opera Rusalka to the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, where it plays – with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit, Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw in the title role, and circus artists adding to the spectacle – for three performances.

Boyd is delighted to be returning to Scotland. “It means a lot to be back,” he says. “I hardly ever perform there, but have been recently, working with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra during the pandemic and more recently doing an utterly inspiring project with junior students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.” 

Already, this new Rusalka has attracted rosy comment. Reviewers of last month’s Garsington opening were intrigued by the action-packed staging directed by Jack Furness – who next week will escape Edinburgh to launch his new outdoor production of Bernstein’s Candide in Glasgow for Scottish Opera – and who were especially won over by Boyd’s luxurious realisation of one of Dvorak’s most impressive operatic scores.

“I think it’s one of the great fin de siècle masterpieces,” claims the conductor. “I feel I’m conducting the best music that’s ever been written. We tend to focus on one single aria, the Song to the Moon, but in the broader sense it’s the way Dvorak paints this fantastic text, not only in the vocal line, but throughout the orchestral score.  It’s all very Wagnerian, he adds, “where every emotion and symbol is painted in sound.” 

Rusalka review at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire, composed  by Antonin Dvorak, conducted by Douglas Boyd and starring Natalya Romaniw
Natalya Romaniw in Garsington Opera’s Rusalka

While it’s a fairy tale, it’s very much the adult variety, he argues. “You have to remember that the concept of fairly tales nowadays has been so Disneyfied and made into a children’s genre, whereas if you go back to the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, it’s actually about our deepest fears as people, which starts in childhood and continues through adulthood. Grimms’ tales can be really horrific and scary; there’s an element of that in Rusalka as well.”

Indeed so. Dvorak’s librettist Jaroslav Kvapil fashioned Rusalka on Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Rusalka, a water nymph, wishes to become a human in order to capture the love of a Prince. The witch, Jezibaba, obliges, but with conditions: Rusalka must remain mute and the Prince must remain true to her. A Foreign Princess plots against them, the Prince rejects Rusalka, then repents. But the curse holds and a desperate kiss leads to the Prince’s death. Rusalka disappears into the watery depths.

It’s possible, says Boyd, to sense that foreboding in the orchestral score well before tragedy reveals its hand on stage. “As in Wagner, there are leitmotifs for each character, like the Rusalka theme at the beginning which is so incredibly beautiful, but when it comes back at the very end of Act 3, it does so as a funeral march. The truth is it’s been a funeral march the whole time, but it takes you until then to finally make that realisation.”

The story in this production is expressed in the original Czech, which Boyd and Furness both see as essential in reflecting the perfect symbiosis of Kvapil’s text and Dvorak’s music. “As long as you’ve got the supertitles in front of you, you get the best of both words. With a good translation you’re not excluding the audience, you’re embracing them, bringing them in. However, the stresses of the Czech language are so intrinsic to Dvorak’s music. The danger sometimes of singing it in English is it can get quite eggy, like trying to fit a square into a circle.”

But there’s always plenty to feast the eyes on in a production that aims to highlight the opera’s to-ing and fro-ing between the world of nymphs and the human world. “We’ve got aerialists [drilled by circus choreographer Lina Johansson] and pretty spectacular things going on on stage which is actually true to this halfway house,” says Boyd. Their presence has also enabled the production to fill Dvorak’s extended orchestral passages with additional representational movement.

For Boyd, the experience has cemented his view that Dvorak’s legacy as as opera composer has been unjustly underappreciated. “I think we tend to fixate on his instrumental output, on the last couple of symphonies, the chamber music, the Cello Concerto,” he argues. “But I think Rusalka is the product of a composer absolutely at the peak of his powers.” 

Garsington Opera’s Rusalka is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. 6, 8 & 9 August. http://www.eif.co.uk/events/rusalka

Ready to Rubble

Composer Gareth Williams talks to KEITH BRUCE about his new work for Scottish Opera’s Young Company

There will come a time when new work in the arts does not carry some legacy of the pandemic, but it has not arrived just yet.

For composer Gareth Williams, who – as he puts it himself – “emerged from lockdown with a baby”, it was a time of personal as well as professional challenges. If fatherhood has dictated that he still doesn’t get out as much, the lengthy gestation period of the latest of his stage works for Scottish Opera meant that it has gone through a number of versions on the way to the performances in the company’s Elmbank Crescent HQ at the end of this month.

Rubble is the third collaboration between Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight for Scottish Opera, following The Last One Out in 2012 and Hand for an Opera Highlights tour. The initial proposal to Director of Outreach and Education Jane Davidson came from Williams, drawing on a celebrated Graham Greene story from the middle of the last century, The Destructors.

“I said I wanted to write something with young people and in The Destructors they are fishy characters that don’t conform to society’s rules, and I really liked that about them. I wanted an edge about them, and some bite, and I wanted to work with Johnny. So we handed it over to him and after it had been through his mind the Graham Greene is long gone, and what has emerged is something very dark and menacing as well, but more contemporary.

“We had a libretto reading in February 2020 and I remember it very clearly as on the way home I crashed my car because I was so pre-occupied. It is a really troublesome, challenging story. Johnny is someone who throws the gauntlet down to you and you have to take it somewhere else.”

What McKnight came back with was a scenario of young people who have been let down by the care system picking through the fragments of their lives in the rubble of an abandoned children’s home. Parallels with some harrowing recent court cases and public inquiries may well be self-evident in a black comedy that Scottish Opera is describing as challenging. The performance of the cast of 17-23 year olds is not recommended for those under 14.

Although the creative team was in place, with staff director Roxana Haines and young company artistic director Chris Gray conducting, events conspired to put obstacles on the road to Rubble’s production.

“Rubble is kind of haunted by Covid,” says Williams. “I had to stay away from wind and brass instruments, so it is written for piano, two percussionists, accordion and single strings. But part of my want from the very start was to write for a chorus, about 30 strong, singing together for as much of the opera as possible. That felt quite affirmative with the young people.

“The initial idea was that there would be lots of opportunities for workshops, and because of the pandemic that didn’t happen. So we have all had to live with this opera a lot longer.

“We didn’t know when it was going to happen, so it became a process of eternal tinkering. At one point it might have been an outdoor show so I started to arrange it in that direction, and then it came back to being indoor so that changed it again.”

There were positives about the extra time gifted to the team, however.

“It was the most open casting call. Before we made a final decision on voice types we allowed the young people to go for any of the main characters, so it is very non-gendered. That left it for me to do a bit of sculpting at the end, but it was a good call.

“And because I didn’t have access to the chorus, I wrote as a singer-songwriter at the piano and sang some of the arias and made demos and sent them to the director and conductor. So they already know this piece inside out, because of that extra year.”

Williams had plenty of experience in that singer-songwriter role because of the other project that has occupied a lot of his time recently: Songs From The Last Page.

Working with Chamber Music Scotland, Williams has created an ever-growing suite of new songs that draw their texts from the last pages of books, most of them Scottish and running from classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island through to contemporary writers like Ali Smith and Andrew Greig. Arranged for himself at the keyboard with cello and violin, Williams has brought onboard guest singers to supplement his own vocals. Following a show by the trio at Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival, the next two performances will include Deirdre Graham, at her home in Skye, and Lori Watson, in Portobello.

“We have a run of gigs in the autumn,” says Williams, “including Wigtown, Aberdeen and Blairgowrie, and then we are back in Glasgow, at Partick Bowling Club, in December.”

The set list has its staples, but Williams is constantly adding to the catalogue.

“Somebody asked me to do an Alexander McCall Smith one, so I did that – I am just kind of responding and keeping loose with it. It has become this weird hobby. I just can’t stop doing them and there is an inexhaustible supply of ideas – there are plenty of good last lines!”

Songs From The Last Page has remained mostly based on adult books, despite the composer’s best efforts following the birth of his son.

“There have been a couple of books I was told I couldn’t have; the publisher just said no. I wasn’t allowed the last line of The Gruffalo or Winnie the Pooh – anything with a big corporate image attached was a no-no.

“But many living authors have been really generous, and it is good to have things like Treasure Island in there too – things that are out of copyright. I am going to record some of them this autumn and see if it might make an album, in the hope that we might persuade international book festivals to book us next year.”

Also grabbing a slice of his time are the Grammy Awards, after Williams was proposed as a voting member of The Recording Academy by fellow composer Craig Armstrong, and duly appointed. “The first round of deliberations starts this month and I am really keen to try and become more involved and learn how it works.”

He has other projects in the pipeline, but the final weeks of rehearsal of Rubble – about the full plot of which Williams is very tight-lipped – and the still-new experience of being a father are top of the agenda.

“Parenthood takes up a lot of your blue-sky thinking time, it turns out – I am a slave to this little sleepless god. And writing that piece about vulnerable young people and becoming a dad at the same time weighed on me in a very interesting way.”

Rubble has four performances in Scottish Opera’s Elmbank Crescent home, at 2pm and 7pm on July 30 and 31. For future performances of Songs From The Last Page, see chambermusicscotland.com

Rehearsal pictures of Gareth Williams and Johnny McKnight and the Scottish Opera Young Company by Sally Jubb

Juggling high and low art

Sean Gandini, founder of Gandini Juggling, talks to KEITH BRUCE about his company’s first appearance at the East Neuk Festival

As many have observed, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions played havoc with perceptions of the passage of time, so that memories of events past can seem more distant or more recent than expected.

Five years ago, in the Dreel Halls in Anstruther, two young musicians played the work of composer Steve Reich in a concert that was to prove more the start of a journey for one than the other, although both have maintained a strong connection with the East Neuk Festival and are part of the 2022 programme.

Guitarist Sean Shibe unveiled elements of his softLOUD project that would go on to wow the Edinburgh Fringe and win him the first of a sequence of awards in its recorded form. Clarinettist Julian Bliss, on the other hand, took a different path by forming a jazz septet. The George Gershwin music he subsequently performed at ENF recently won huge acclaim at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the group brings a new programme of show tunes, entitled Hooray for Holywood, to Anstruther Town Hall on Friday July 1.

Shibe returns this year in the company of violinist Benjamin Baker, both of them former beneficiaries of East Neuk Retreats that enabled the focus on new directions in their music. This year Baker and Shibe are working with ENF debutantes Gandini Juggling on Light the Lights, a son et lumiere combination of music and movement that is another new direction for the festival.

While artistic director Svend Brown has built rewarding loyalties with chamber musicians and ensembles that are the heart of the East Neuk Festival, he has included various non-classical ingredients in the recipe over the years. Visual art, from sand sculpture to film-making, has often been present, while a flirtation with literary events came and went, possibly because of the boom in book festivals at other picturesque locations in Scotland.

This year, as well as jazz and movie music, there is choreography, both from the Daniel Martinez Flamenco Company, who are in the Anstruther venue the evening after Bliss, and from the Gandinis, whose back catalogue has paired their juggling skills with contemporary dance – especially the work of the late Pina Bausch – as well as Indian classical dance and ballet.

Five years ago in Gandini Juggling history, Sean Gandini received a Herald Archangel Award from the Glasgow-based newspaper for his decades of contribution to Edinburgh’s August festivities, and the Angel-winning shows he had brought to the capital. At the time, his group had also recently made a ground-breaking contribution to Phelim McDermott’s acclaimed production of the Philip Glass opera Ahknaten which earned it a Grammy award at the Metropolitan Opera and an Olivier award for English National Opera in London.

Sean Gandini receiving Herald Archangel from Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy in 2017

When he and I speak, he has just returned from a revival of Ahknaten in New York, and ENO will re-stage the work at the Coliseum next spring. He is now in France, where Lyon’s Les Nuits de Fourviere festival is presenting both parts of the Bausch-influenced shows, Smashed and Smashed 2, together for the first time.

“That is happening at the same time as the Scottish performance which is a much more musical affair,” says Gandini. “We have split the team in two, because we live in an age of extremes and we are now weirdly busy after the pandemic – and one thing we have learned to do is work remotely!” With German juggler Doreen Grossman in charge of realising the ENF project, after Gandini has edited the shape of it via online rehearsals, Light the Lights will premiere at The Bowhouse near St Monans the day before the Gandinis open in Lyon.

“They have had Pina Bausch’s company many times and we will be performing the shows back-to-back at night in a square in front of the opera house where she used to perform.”

The music of Steve Reich is to the fore once more in the East Neuk show, alongside that of Bach, and Grossman will be programming the illuminated juggling to synchronise with the score.

“Light the Lights is a one-off commission, although we have worked before with these light-emitting clubs that are programmed to change colour in time with the music.” Gandini explains.

“It includes Reich’s work with phasing that accelerates a bit of material so that you end up staggered in timing. That is something that is of great interest to us, especially coming straight after working on the Glass. They are so similar and yet so different, those two composers.

“There was dialogue, but it was the Festival that suggested the choice of music and I hope that the show will have a further life, because that is the way that we work. At least elements of it will certainly return because we are working more with live music, and that is so special.”

Beyond any debate is the way that Gandini Juggling has taken the discipline at the heart of its art out of the world of circus and street performance into more exalted company.

“I’d love to do more opera,” Gandini confirms. “There was some suspicion of our involvement in Ahknaten until people actually saw it. It is a very unusual way of using juggling, but then there is a problem of hierarchy in the arts: juggling is lower in the pecking order than opera. Perhaps if Louis XIV had been obsessed with hula-hoops rather than ballet, things might have turned out differently!”

Light the Lights has its first, and so far sole, performance at The Bowhouse on Friday July 1, as part of the East Neuk Festival, June 29 to July 3. Full details of the whole programme are available at eastneukfestival.com

Debussy to Scale

Byre Opera promises a fresh perspective on Pelleas and Melisande with brand new reduced orchestration and straight-talking translation, writes KEN WALTON  

On the face of it, music director Michael Downes and his Byre Opera team at St Andrews University seem to have set themselves an impossible challenge: to distill one of opera’s most psychologically intense libretti and musical scores down to chamber music dimensions, while also translating its mellifluous French narrative into plain English. 

Yet that’s exactly what they’ve done to Debussy’s symbolist opera Pelleas and Melisande, which the company performs this week in a reduced score specially created by composer Matthew Rooke and to a newly commissioned translation by novelist Janice Galloway. It’s a momentous occasion on several fronts. 

The production, directed by Kally Lloyd-Jones, marks Byre Opera’s first live production since 2019; it’s the first opera to be staged in the university’s new £14m Laidlaw Music Centre, and this new chamber version of Debussy’s landmark opera (first performed in its original form in 1902 with celebrated Aberdeen soprano Mary Garden as Melisande) is also the first ever re-scored version, permitted by its release from copyright in 2019, 70 years after the death of Maurice Maeterlinck, from whose play the libretto was shaped.

It was in a chance conversation in 2015 between Downes and Rooke in Berwick-upon-Tweed, where the latter was director of the border town’s Maltings Theatre, that Downes shared his wish to do a reduced Pelleas, and Rooke revealed that he had already started to make such an arrangement. 

‘We resolved then that we would stage the piece, though we could not have imagined it would take more than seven years to do so. Much of this delay, of course, has been due to Covid-19, which was for this project both immensely frustrating and highly productive, since it gave us the opportunity to test, refine and improve our new version in a way we could not otherwise have done,” Downes writes in an explanatory programme note. “The delay has also allowed us to present our Pelleas in the McPherson Recital Room, ensuring that our singers’ voices and Matthew’s orchestration are heard to best advantage.”

Also key to this production is Jonathan May, head of vocal studies at St Andrews and Byre Opera’s company manager, who has coached the student cast. The biggest challenge, he says, has been “the conversational nature of this piece”. “It’s like an escalator that just keeps moving. There’s very little structure. It’s a very challenging sound world to get used to, especially for such young voices.”

In that respect Rooke’s scaled-down orchestration has been advantageous. “If we accept that Debussy’s full score is like a wraparound blanket, this is more a cushion than a blanket,” May suggests. “But Matthew has done such an extraordinary job in maintaining richness in the texture, helped by the addition of a harmonium within the ensemble. As a result, the singers lose nothing in terms of instrumental support, but actually gain by not always having to cut through a big orchestra.”

Then there was Downes’ belief that the work should be presented in English, no easy task when the linguistic nuances between French and English are so fundamentally different. He approached Janice Galloway, a writer of proven musical sensitivity (she studied music at university, was librettist for Sally Beamish’s opera Monster, and in her novel Clara wrote a highly-acclaimed  fictionalised account of the life of Clara Schumann) whom he says “produced a libretto that is wonderfully fresh and contemporary without ever jarring with Debussy’s music.”

May, who is married to Galloway, offers some further insight. “Janice’s first reaction was ‘I can’t possibly do this, it’s not how I write’.” Persuaded to continue, however, he reckons the outcome actually adds to the power of an opera in which the characters, in French, rarely say what they mean. “Janice has succeeded in making the characters’ intentions clearer; they express more definite opinions, even if that has meant using the odd Scottish-ism to get the point across – at one point a character exclaims, ‘it hurted me’.”

Downes conducts three performances of Pelleas and Melisande this week (15, 17 & 19 June) with a cast consisting mainly of St Andrews students, joined by one outsider, baritone James Berry, who sings the role of Golaud. Sets are by the Scots-based theatre designer and filmmaker Janis Hart. Lucy Russell, lead violinist with the Fitzwilliam Quartet, heads up the 12-piece chamber ensemble.

Further information and tickets available at www.byretheatre.com

Who Are Concerto Budapest?

Violinist-turned-conductor András Keller tells KEN WALTON about the Hungarian orchestra he has reshaped and renamed. 

There’s a force of nature winding its way north this week and due to descend on Edinburgh at the weekend. It’s not a much-needed summer heatwave. Prepare instead for Concerto Budapest. According to at least one review of its first ever UK tour, this relatively unknown orchestra is hot stuff. “Virtuosity was turned to emotional ends,”  wrote the Times critic of last Monday’s tour opener in London’s Cadogan Hall, which has subsequently progressed to Guildford, Basingstoke, Birmingham and Manchester.

It’s a solid, powerful and popular programme that conductor András Keller and his 80-strong band will repeat in their final concert at the Usher Hall this Sunday, amply framed by Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Mozart’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A, K488, and soloist Angela Hewitt, in the middle. But the questions many may be asking are: who exactly are Concerto Budapest; and isn’t Keller that eponymous lead violinist of the Keller Quartet?

The answer to the latter question is yes. After a successful career as a concert violinist and founder of his own string quartet, Keller turned to conducting with the opportunity in 2007 to become artistic director and chief conductor of what was then the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, now destined to become, under his leadership, Concerto Budapest.

Why the name change? It was, says Keller, an essential rebirth brought about by the need to resist artistically damaging commercial pressure. Two years after he joined the orchestra, its former sponsor, Hungarian Telekom, withdrew its support. “They changed their image and began supporting more popular musical styles than classical music,” he explains. “The ensemble was on the verge of collapse, followed by a long period of existential uncertainty – the musicians worked for ten months without pay. Both they and I made enormous sacrifices for our survival.”

Eventually the government stepped in and took over the funding and Keller set about rebuilding the orchestra. “The ensemble wasn’t in particularly good shape, going downhill. I simply started to relearn with them the entire repertoire: in the first two years, Haydn’s symphonies and Mozart’s piano concertos; then we moved on to Beethoven. I am convinced that all symphony orchestras must stand on the foundation of the Classical period. You can only build on that.”

And built on that it has. Well-respected for its refreshed vision of the classics, but armed also with equal recognition for its all-round mastery of the wider repertoire, not least its close championing of the music of Hungary’s foremost contemporary composer György Kurtág, Concerto Budapest is beginning to make waves around the world. The current UK tour follows previously successful visits to East Asia and France.

For Keller, his mission hasn’t just been about repertoire. During his 15 years with the orchestra his prime focus – as you’d expect from a player steeped in the rarefied intimacy of the string quartet world – has been on developing a distinctive sound. “One of my goals is that instrumental music should sound like a single human voice through the many hearts and one unified soul of our musicians. If an eighty-member orchestra can play with one heart and one soul, it will be an extraordinary ‘transfiguration’ of music.”

Transfiguration is a term readily applicable to the two big orchestral works in Sunday’s programme, even one so familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth. “The very fact that it’s maybe the best-known of all compositions ever written makes it an even greater challenge for each and every one of us. It gets at us. I sincerely hope that our performance will contribute something valuable to the piece’s history.”

As for the Bartók, who better than a spunky team of Hungarians to tell it as it is, to put this colossal 20th century figure in pertinent historical context. Every time we play Bartók’s Concerto it is undoubtedly a tremendous musical feast for me,” says Keller. “I regard Bartók as Beethoven’s successor, and the Concerto and its ideal are an equal to Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, as it articulates similar ideas regarding man and the world. 

“Let me quote Bartók himself on this: ‘My main idea, which dominates me entirely, is the brotherhood of man over and above all conflicts… This is why I am open to influence by any fresh and healthy outside sources, be they Slovak, Romanian, Arabic or other’.”  

Angela Hewitt performs Mozart with Concerto Budapest

To have had Angela Hewitt as soloist in the Mozart – Edinburgh audiences know her refined, articulate style well – has, for Keller, been a mutually creative experience. “I particularly enjoy working with soloists with whom I don’t need to have lengthy discussions on the essence of the piece, where we can organically tune into each other and enrich one another in the performance. Angela is one of these artists.”

As one who once exclusively inhabited the performance arena, what was it that drove Keller to pick up the baton instead of the bow? “Most probably, such thoughts had been ripening in me subconsciously for quite some time,” he recalls. 

“As a musician, I felt that I wanted to experience a wider spectrum of music than string quartets, which are wonderful in themselves, but I had always been deeply interested in the symphonic repertoire too. Since I had acted as a soloist, a chamber musician and the concertmaster of various great symphony orchestras, this change had a well-grounded personal musical history.”

While he still performs with his Keller Quartet, conducting is now number one preference for the 61-year-old. “To be frank, or rather I feel that in a certain sense, it is easier to lead a symphony orchestra than a string quartet. One thing is for sure: my past in chamber music greatly influenced my notions of the performance style of a symphony orchestra.”  

Scots, should they venture to the Usher Hall on Sunday, can test for themselves how well he has succeeded.

András Keller conducts Concerto Budapest as part of the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics series on 12 June at 3pm. Details at www.usherhall.co.uk 

Letting The Cracks Show

Jay Capperauld’s new flute concerto is a Japanese repair job, but it represents a positive healing process, he tells KEN WALTON

For Jay Capperauld, Christmas has come early. It’s only a matter of weeks since the RSNO performed the 33-year-old up-and-coming Ayrshire composer’s Fèin-Aithne, written originally for the BBC SSO, alongside Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Last week, the SCO announced that for the next four years he is to succeed Anna Clyne as its associate composer. This weekend, his new flute concerto, Our Gilded Veins, is premiered by the RSNO and its principal flautist, Katherine Bryan.

When we spoke, the SCO announcement was still under wraps, but there was a pent-up excitement in Capperauld’s manner that suggested something big was in the offing. “I can’t say at the moment,” he blurted cautiously, clearly wishing he could.

We’d met to discuss Our Gilded Veins, a work that began life pre-pandemic, was duly postponed from its planned 2020 premiere, underwent subsequent refashioning during lockdown, and will now emerge in its freshly-minted form this week under the baton of RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård and in the exalted company of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. 

Anyone who has followed Capperauld’s upward trajectory since graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland will appreciate to what extent extra-musical inspirations – often surreal, often funny, always potent – are a defining feature of his music. “I generally always write to a concept. I rarely work in absolute abstract terms,” he says. Our Gilded Veins is no exception.

The title refers to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, “a tradition whereby you break a plate or a bowl, then put it back together using gilded lacquer in order to highlight the breakage, as if you are celebrating the history of the object, warts and all,” he explains. “To me that’s just a delicious metaphor for the human condition, especially after what we’ve all been through over the last couple of years.”

“Kintsugi has been a hugely positive influence on me, in the sense it allows you to perceive things you’ve gone through, those bad experiences, in a positive way and not cover things up. The biggest step forward in the past five years or so is that we’re able to talk about mental health. It’s visible in the same way as the ‘gilded veins’ on these objects. It leads to conversations that need to happen.”

The “conversation” explored in Our Gilded Veins had already taken root in a previous piece for solo flute, The Pathos of Broken Things, which itself acted as the prototype for the concerto. Both stemmed from his encounter with Katherine Bryan. Impressed by a work Capperauld had had performed as a participant in the RSNO’s 2015/16 inaugural Composers’ Hub scheme, Bryan had later sought him out and asked if he had written any flute music. The answer was no, but he immediately set about composing one, which led in turn to the concerto commission.

Revisiting a work is not unusual for Capperauld. He did so for last month’s RSNO performance of Fèin-Aithne, rewriting around half of it, and he’s done the same for Our Gilded Veins. “The pandemic played a part in the nature of these revisions. It was, for me compositionally, an opportunity to spring clean. It also made complete sense as both pieces are about self-identity, and my perception of myself had changed significantly during that period.”

That’s reflected  in the altered narrative. “That now starts at a place where trauma has just happened. In the original version, we were seeing it unfold and transpire over the entire narrative. So there’s a fractured sense to the music straightaway, where the lines are unconnected. The whole first half of the piece is now about those lines trying to find each other, gluing themselves together, so we can then explore what that positive aspect of Kintsugi implies. By the end we revisit the trauma material, but in a new and reassuring harmonic context.”

Another key factor in the ongoing evolution of the piece has been Capperauld’s creative dialogue with Bryan. As she herself says, “Jay got to know me well during the process as a player: that I like to tell stories; that I love big-hitting, powerful stuff; that I like the emotional drive behind a piece that I can really talk to an audience with. He must have thought I liked a big challenge. This piece is so hard, but breaking through those challenges really enhances it.”

Katherine Bryan: “I love big-hitting, powerful stuff”

With so much original music excised in the revision process, does it just go in the bin? “No,” insists Capperauld. “I hang on to absolutely everything. I learned that from Harrison Birtwistle, whose advice to young composers was ‘keep everything’. There might be something you’re working on that you don’t have a context for at the time, but years down the line you find one. So who knows, maybe some scraps from the old version will find their way into a new piece of music at some point.”

Meantime, Our Gilded Veins – which Bryan and Capperauld will also be utilising in an outreach project at the Kibble Educational and Care Centre in Paisley – is partnering Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and the Choral Symphony in this week’s close-of-season concert by the RSNO. How daunting is that?

“Hugely,” says Capperauld. “Knowing that was very scary, but all I can do is focus on the matter in hand. I’d be foolish to think that because my piece is being performed alongside Beethoven Nine I must try to express myself to that same level, cos that ain’t gonna happen! I can’t make that judgement call as a composer. That’s for the audience to decide. All I can do is my best work.”

Katherine Bryan and the RSNO premiere Jay Capperauld’s Our Gilded Veins at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (3 March) and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (4 March). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk

Dunedin Discourse

Associate Director of the Dunedin Consort, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, tells Keith Bruce about the group’s upcoming concerts

The 25th anniversary season of Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort is showcasing the work of Nicholas Mulroy in his role as Associate Director, although his fine tenor voice has been a feature of the choir’s sound for most of those 25 years.

One of the foremost Evangelists of his generation, Mulroy also directed the Easter performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Edinburgh and London, and he has his two hats on again next week for the more experimental programme A Lover’s Discourse, before reviving his role as Acis in Handel’s Acis Galatea in June tour of the work under music director John Butt.

“The directing has developed naturally and I do tend to sing and direct,” says Mulroy. “For the Dunedins’ choral stuff I might stand at the front but then the group needs something different when it is a larger group of singers. But, like all things Dunedin, there is an atmosphere of collaboration and openness, because John Butt has never been a directorial director and I hope I am not either.”

That role has also found a balance with the tenor’s other work.

“My guesting with orchestras also tends to be the early stuff, with a bit of Britten thrown in, and that seems to be picking up again, post-pandemic. Easter is always one of my busiest times, and this one was as busy as one would expect, with that combination of whole teams like Dunedin and things like working in Antwerp with Richard Egarr, which was my first time with them and with him. I like that sense of having some long collaborations and new things that keep the ideas nice and fresh.”

That is a description that might particularly apply to A Lover’s Discourse, which was originally planned for February and will be performed at Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy on Tuesday May 31 and Platform in Glasgow on Wednesday June 1, with an online version available for the whole month.

As those unfamiliar venues suggest, the project is a new direction for the Dunedin, and much of the initiative for it came from the group’s former Head of Artistic Planning, David Lee, also a tenor who will be singing in the performances, and a partner in filmmakers Arms & Legs, who are responsible for the video aspect, shot across Edinburgh. Both on film and live, seven Scottish-based actors speak text from French writer Roland Barthes.

Mulroy explains: “A Lover’s Discourse arose from a desire to make late Renaissance madrigals speak more directly to a modern audience.

“Their language can seem a bit remote and a bit mannered, but the emotions they deal with are the nuts and bolts of human existence – love and lust and desire and loss and anger, all these things that we recognise. The idea of bringing in the Roland Barthes was to add a different medium of delivering that language of love; his texts make it feel current and located in a particular place.

The Barthes is about a situation where things are intense and new and unfamiliar – that heightened sense of reality when we are ‘out of our comfort zone’. Both the madrigals and the Barthes text deal with that in a specific way, which I hope marry together.”

Mulroy is full of praise for the way the actors inhabit the words they were given to speak – something he says was very instructive to the singers for their part in the performances – and for composer Pippa Murphy’s electronic soundtrack to the film, tailored to fit harmonically with the older material.

“David and I chose the music based on the Barthes text, different aspects of being in love matched with particular madrigals. There was a real wealth of choice and I think the music is all first rate, from the top drawer of that repertoire.

“Sung a cappella, there should be a real direct line of communication with the audience. It is music that should grab you by the lapels, in the nicest possible way. It is not the sort of programme that would sit well in a church – it is very secular, very sensuous, and wouldn’t feel right in Canongate Kirk!”

Nor would that be a natural home of Handel’s early opera of jealous love, Acis & Galatea, which the Dunedin Consort will perform in Perth Concert Hall and Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on June 22 and 23. Galatea will be sung by Rachel Redmond and Christopher Purves, Anthony Gregory and Nicholas Scott complete a top-notch cast who go on to perform the work at Wigmore Hall and as part of Stour Music Festival and Nevill Holt Opera’s summer season.

The Dunedin version of the work is one of the award-winning albums the group has made on the Linn label.

“That was recorded in 2008, longer ago than we care to think about!” says Mulroy. “It has become a real staple for me, and more importantly for the group. It is one of those programmes that we have been able to tour because it only has five singers and a small band, and it is always nice to come back to.

“It’s ‘young man’ Handel and it feels quite slight in some ways, but it is full of energy and vitality and incredible tenderness toward the end, when everything goes pear-shaped for the characters, as these things tend to.

“It is a lovely work and a lovely audience experience, and John has a real way with it.”

Nicolas Mulroy directs and sings A Lover’s Discourse with Ben McKee, David Lee, Jessica Gillingwater, and Rachel Ambrose Evans at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh on Tuesday and Platform, Glasgow on Wednesday. Available to watch free online for 30 days from May 31. dunedin-consort.org.uk

Scottish Opera fighting fit

Alex Reedijk and Stuart Stratford tell Keith Bruce about the company’s new season

Recognising the nation’s collective slow recovery after Covid, Scottish Opera’s General Director Alex Reedijk emphasised the rude health of his company, in its 60th anniversary year, when he launched its first full season following the pandemic.

His words were peppered with metaphors from the gym, as he talked of “new muscles” built during the health emergency that bring confidence to work presented outside conventional theatres, and of ScotOp being happy to undertake the “heavy lifting” in developing new productions on which other companies are happy to come aboard as co-producers.

The two shows he was referring to are the boldest projects on the new slate of work, which opens with the current revival of Don Giovanni in Sir Thomas Allen’s 2013 production, touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen after the Glasgow performances.

It is followed in August by Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, performed in a specially-constructed tented venue behind the company’s production studios in Glasgow’s Edington Street, on a space now styled “New Rotterdam Wharf”. The production’s precursor in the company’s repertoire is the promenade staging of Pagliacci in Paisley in July 2018 rather than either of the Edington Street car-park operas, La boheme and Falstaff, it mounted while theatres were closed.

“We are using what we’ve learned about the robustness of the art form, on a piece that occupies a really important place in the life of Scottish Opera,” said Reedijk.

The “Scottish Opera version” is regarded as the go-to score of Candide. It was made in the 1980s with the approval of the composer, who was present in Glasgow, by his student John Mauceri, the company’s music director at the time.

“It is about displaced people and we are working with the Maryhill Integration Network to recruit members of the community chorus, which will team 80 volunteers with 20 professional singers,” added current music director Stuart Stratford.

Stratford has plenty of experience in this type of work, having worked with director Graham Vick in Birmingham Opera and with Tete-a-Tete Opera. Freed from the restrictions of Covid regulations, the potential audience for each of Candide’s half-dozen performances will still be limited to 400, that being the number that Vick demonstrated could reasonably be shepherded and stewarded to each of the performing stages without slowing the action.

“I loved working with Graham Vick on those shows,” said Stratford, “and hopefully there are people who will feel able to come to something that is well-ventilated and semi-outdoors who might still have misgivings about visiting a theatre.”

Reedijk has plans to have a performance filmed, although no specific platform is signed up to broadcast it. That was a tactic the company used for the recent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, recently transmitted on BBC Four and watched by over a quarter of a million people around the world.

November sees Scottish Opera back in the Theatre Royal and Festival Theatre with what will be the UK’s first staged production of Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar.

“It premiered in 2003, and is a series of reflections on the life of Federico Garcia Lorca,” said Stratford. “It has been done in static way as an oratorio in London, but the music is unbelievably dramatic.”

With Latin-American percussion in the pit and flamenco dancers on the stage, choreographer Deborah Colker will direct a show that has been developed in partnership with Opera Ventures, who were also involved in Greek in 2017 and Breaking the Waves in 2019.

“Those shows have made possible co-production partnerships with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Detroit Opera as well as with Welsh National Opera,” said Reedijk.

Like much of the season Scottish Opera can now unveil, Ainadamar was in the works before the pandemic.

“The Gondoliers was delayed because of Covid, and the opening for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was stopped because of it. Ainadamar we had been cooking up with Opera Ventures, and Il Trittico we’d been talking about with David McVicar since before the lockdown,” said Reedijk.

The Puccini triple-bill will reach the Scottish stage in March, before which Sir David McVicar’s last two Scottish Opera productions will have opened in Santa Fe (Falstaff) and Los Angeles (Pelleas et Melisande).

Also a co-production with WNO, Il trittico has never been staged in its entirety in Scottish Opera’s 60 years, nor has McVicar previously directed it. Il tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) and the comic Gianni Schicchi are distinct and contrasting stories, but McVicar is adopting an ensemble approach with a cast that includes company stalwarts Roland Wood, Sinead Campbell-Wallace and Karen Cargill and shared elements in the set design by Charles Edwards.

With a dinner-length interval before the concluding tale of the trilogy, Scottish Opera is selling Il trittico as an epic night out, a visual theatrical feast and a big work out for the orchestra. As with all but the last of the staged productions in the new season, Stratford is conducting.

For that final show in May 2023, Australian-Chinese conductor Dane Lam is on the podium for Bizet’s Carmen. Sung in English, it will be directed by John Fulljames, director of the much-lauded 2020 staging of John Adams’ Nixon in China, with that show’s Madame Mao, Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in the cast, and Justina Gringyte in the title role, as well as parts for four of the company’s current Emerging Artists: Zoe Drummond, Lea Shaw, Osian Wyn Bowen, and Colin Murray.

“Coming out of Covid we wanted to demonstrate ambition,” said Reedijk. “So there is work that we know audiences will be interested in like Carmen and Don Giovanni, but also something of the scale of Trittico, the artistic diversity of Ainadamar, and the curiosity of Candide for people to respond to.”

Nor is that the full story of course. Already announced are new dates for the company’s travelling outdoor shows, Pop-Up Opera, and two tours of Opera Highlights to community halls across Scotland. Building on the success of the Puccini Collection concert in Dundee’s Caird Hall, which incorporated long scenes from the composer’s operas in concert, The Verdi Collection will play in Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stratford will direct the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and sections of Otello, Don Carlos and La Forza del Destino will feature.

There will also be a staged concert performance of Massenet rarity Therese at East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival and in Perth Concert Hall in September, directed by Roxana Haines with Estonian Anu Tali conducting. Haines also directs the Scottish Opera Young Company’s summer show, Rubble, composed by Gareth Williams with a libretto by Johnny McKnight, and Young Company Artistic Director Chris Gray conducting. And Gray MDs a touring revival of the Lliam Paterson’s opera for babies, BambinO, with Charlotte Hoather and Samuel Pantcheff.

All of which means that Scottish Opera will more than achieve the aim of its CEO that it visits 60 places in Scotland to mark that anniversary year. “We are in good order, and in good health,” said Reedijk.

General booking for Scottish Opera’s new season opens on Tuesday, May 31. More information is available at scottishopera.org.uk.

Picture: Scottish Opera’s 1988 production of Candide

RSNO In Full Season

As the RSNO launches its first full season in two years, KEN WALTON sounds out the dynamic duo behind its conception

To sit down with RSNO Music Director Thomas Søndergård and Chief Executive Alistair Mackie is to witness first hand the sharp collective minds that are shaping an exciting future for the Orchestra as it emerges from the frustrations of Covid.

Central to their shared vision is ‘trust’. ‘It’s a two-way conversation,’ says Søndergård, who values any opportunity to sit down with his players, listen to their ideas and concerns, and impart his own in return. Mackie, for his part, is fully behind that approach. ‘Every single one of us in this great organisation holds a personal responsibility for shaping its success,’ he believes. ‘Meaningful dialogue is essential in making that happen.’

Such an approach was always in Søndergård’s sights. ‘One of the things I really wanted to do differently, when moving from being Principal Guest Conductor to becoming Music Director, was actually to meet the musicians eye to eye,’ he explains. He initiated these conversations, firstly with individual principal players, but always with a long-term intention of widening that ‘to everyone involved in “the project”.’

‘That’s what happens out there in society. We started doing this here before the pandemic, but when it hit we weren’t even allowed to be in the same room. So we couldn’t continue those talks, which I find so important in terms of actually developing a dialogue about what ensemble playing is, and not just about players coming through the door in the morning, getting through the music, then going back home. The joy of playing comes from the trust that we have together.’

The real test, of course, is how such behind-the-scenes personal development translates into what audiences ultimately witness in live RSNO performances. That’s not a challenge lost on either Søndergård, a former timpanist, or Mackie, himself a former top-ranking orchestral player.

In the forthcoming Season, which marks the midpoint in Søndergård’s second three-year contract as Music Director, the emphasis, he says, will be on moulding the sound of the Orchestra, and the principal vehicle for that will be the symphonies of Brahms, all four of which will feature as a core integral series spread over the latter half of the Season. 

Why this obsession with sound? ‘When I talk to the players we inevitably get round to discussing the things that are really key to the ensemble, and central to that is the quality of the collective sound,’ he explains. ‘For me, Brahms is number one for that, and it so happens that when the pandemic hit, and I realised I was not going to be doing very much conducting, it was to Brahms that I instinctively turned for in-depth study and quiet contemplation.’

Søndergård took the Third and Fourth Symphonies to his seaside home near Copenhagen, where it became clear to him that this was a composer he simply had to revisit. ‘I’d left him aside for a while, but here I was suddenly falling passionately in love with this music. I’d forgotten how beautifully he writes.’

But is there anything new he can bring to a composer that Scottish audiences have plentiful experience of, in a country whose main orchestras have tackled the symphonies from numerous interpretational angles? Views have differed over the years on the appropriate size of orchestra, the quantitative relationship between wind and string numbers, the style of playing (some conductors even prescribing no string vibrato) and such basic defining issues as tempi.

‘This will be no revolution,’ he insists. But it will be a product of serious consideration and informed preparation. ‘I want to present a broader Brahms to our audiences, not necessarily in the way I first conducted these symphonies, which was to adopt a Schumann-like approach with more flow and not so heavy a German tradition. I don’t know if it’s the grey hair, but now I actually want to sink into the music and see if there’s a reason for that luxurious tradition, that expansiveness.’

Søndergård puts Brahms centre stage

If Søndergård’s motives for programming the Brahms are as much about personal choice as about being good for the health of the Orchestra, Mackie is focused on the bigger picture and its strategic justification. ‘I see Brahms as a once-in-a-decade reset for the Orchestra, particularly as a yardstick in recalibrating the rich ensemble sound. The same can be said of Bruckner and Schumann, which also put an orchestra under the microscope in that particular way.’ 

Mackie is also keen to emphasise the excitement and variety of a wider 2022:23 Season where the pre-pandemic scale of performance can be resumed. ‘It’s not just about the Brahms symphonies,’ he says. ‘We open with Thomas conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the world premiere of David Fennessy’s The Riot Act, which didn’t happen last year due to Covid.’ 

He’s also capitalising on the potential celebrity options a piece like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto presents. ‘We have an all-star team of soloists for that,’ Mackie reveals, rhyming off the dream team of violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, two of whom will perform, in the same May programme, a separate piece with the RSNO Youth Chorus. 

Indeed, thinking out of the box is something Mackie believes is essential in ensuring the RSNO maintains its freshness, vitality and edge. And he’s prepared to go beyond traditional orchestral programming patterns and proprietorial grounds to do so. 

It involves capitalising on the investment made last year in adapting the main rehearsal auditorium as a state-of-the-art recording facility for movie soundtracks, and reaching out to smaller, specialist music ensembles in Scotland with offers of creative collaboration, all with a view to increasing the experience, creativeness and versatility of his own players.

When the amazing, multi-talented Jörg Widmann returns in October for the first of two Season appearances, he will perform his own clarinet concerto Echo-Fragmente, postponed from last Season, and written somewhat challengingly for two orchestras: one modern; the other period-instrument Baroque.

‘The intention last year was to make it work by simply dividing the RSNO, but when reprogramming it I thought, why don’t we do this with the real thing? So we’ve brought in the Dunedin Consort to partner us,’ Mackie reveals. ‘That’s given rise to plans for a more extensive three-year partnership we’re now developing with Dunedin.’ 

Other new collaborations are emerging linked to the parallel season of chamber music concerts planned for the new Season, including groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble. Mackie and Søndergård are determined ‘to find a new way’ that will ultimately pay dividends for the RSNO as an artistic powerhouse and for its players.

‘In the long term, we have a vision of a really dynamic group of players, who can do film scores one day, a classical recording the next, while still maintaining top-class live performances at both symphonic and chamber level,’ says Mackie. ‘Then think of the benefits when we take all that quality into schools as part of our educational programme.’

To a great extent the RSNO’s expanding horizons were fuelled, not hampered, by the pandemic. It was well ahead of the game in initiating the online delivery of streamed performances to potentially global audiences. ‘Through Alistair’s insistence, the world now knows so much more about us,’ says Søndergård. ‘We’ve become very proactive at getting things out there, and it’s got to stay that way.’

Again, he turns back to player empowerment, mutual trust, as the fundamental driver of such ambitions, which has played its part in producing so many powerful and moving RSNO performances in recent times. 

‘Often in rehearsals now, I just stop conducting. I don’t need to explain everything anymore. When we played Rachmaninov a few weeks ago I just went into the room and let them play a whole movement without me. That’s when real magic happens.’

(This article is also available in the RSNO 2022-23 Season Brochure. Full concert details for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee available at www.rsno.org.uk )

Bridge To Europe

Hip new Classical festival goes live at the Barrowland Ballroom, writes KEN WALTON

Fancy a night out at the Glasgow Barrowland? To 1930s’ Glaswegians that would have meant a spot of Lindy Hopping to the latest big band sensation. Fast forward to the 1960s and the associated Bible John murders might have made them think twice. Then came The Clash, Bowie, Franz Ferdinand and Texas, et al. So how come Glasgow’s gritty popular music mecca is the venue this week for the posh punters of the Classical music scene?

Yes, we’re talking high-brow string ensembles from across Europe, spearheaded by our very own Scottish Ensemble, with world premieres, snatches of Mahler, Sibelius and Gabrieli, also in other venues spread around the city. But we’re also talking energy, innovation, DJs, mixed-genre and a genuinely hip abandonment of the stuffiness and formality usually associated with Classical performance.

It’s all part of The Bridge Festival, a European-funded initiative that has brought together four like-minded ensembles – Ensemble Resonanz from Germany, the Trondheim Soloists from Norway, the PLMF Music Trust from Estonia, and the UK’s Scottish Ensemble – to “embed” classical music in “everyday spaces” around Glasgow in a series of events happening between 21 and 24 April that are geared at attracting diverse new audiences, not least the young. 

Which is why Thursday’s opening gig, Nachtsmusik, is at the iconic Barrowland. Mahler’s Adagietto (from his Fifth Symphony) is just one of a couple of familiar reference points in a programme otherwise pulsating with challenging new sounds. All four ensembles are involved, launching two world premieres – one by British experimental rock musician and film composer Mica Levi, the other by former frontman of the Estonian progressive rock ensemble In Spe, Erkki-Sven Tüür – and including indie-rock guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia in dialogue with its muse, Penderecki’s original Polymorphia.

“It’s all about diversity and touching different sound worlds,” explains Jenny Jamison, chief executive of the Scottish Ensemble, which is lead player in this inaugural project for the collaborating groups. “Our advantage is that we can share Classical music in ways some of our larger symphonic peers might not. We’re small and flexible, so we can challenge the boundaries and edges of classical music and take it to different physical spaces. 

“Also, a lot of the music featuring in The Bridge is by composers with feet in different genres. That’s again about the openness and porousness of classical music. There are some conventions that are more formal, maybe more difficult for a new listener, but we’re trying to present it in venues and with repertoire that make it easier for any listener to find a way in.”

Not that the SE is new to such genre-bending projects. On Friday evening at the Tramway on Glasgow’s south side they resurrect Anna Meredith’s Anno, first performed there in 2016, for which the composer created her own electro-acoustic response to Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons, performed live with the original and with graphic illustrations by Meredith’s visual artist sister, Eleanor. 

Later on Friday the Ensemble Resonanz presents a “club night” – music ranging from John Cage to Lou Reed – in the informal intimacy of Shawland’s Glad Cafe. For Saturday and Sunday, the locations are former ecclesiastical gems: a more traditional programme in the Mackintosh Church featuring the Trondheim Soloists in Grieg and Sibelius; and a finale by the Ensemble Resonanz, Derya’s Songbook, at the eclectic arts hub St Lukes, performing trans-cultural music inspired by Turkish, Anatolian, Kurdish and Greek songs.

“I guess we’re trying to attract a curious audience,” says Jamison, who sees this first initiative as a welcome panacea to the challenges Brexit has wrought on UK artists in terms of European involvement and interaction. Supported by Creative Europe, The Bridge is a  4-year project enabling its participants to develop new ideas to make Classical music more exciting and inclusive to new audiences. 

Twelve audience development events, a summer academy, a bespoke website, and the Glasgow festival itself, are testament to the wider, sustainable goals of the network. “We’re also talking to groups from Sweden, Switzerland and the Czech Republic,” Jamison reveals. In another of the Glasgow events, the PLMF Music Trust teams some of Estonia’s top professionals with a young string quartet from the Tallinn Music High School. Jameson and her European counterparts have also agreed an exchange initiative that will see the professional players feature in reciprocal performance schemes. 

Beyond this week’s Glasgow festival, though, are we likely to see The Bridge extended to further parts of Scotland? “Logistics and cost place limitations on how far we can go with that,” she believes. “It’s more likely that, as a network, as a ‘string super orchestra’, we would be open to collaborating with existing festivals, here and across Europe.”

This week is a prototype, and future plans will be formulated on the basis of its success, Jameson says. But already new projects are in the pipeline. “As well as the commissions this week, we’ve commissioned a composer to do a digital youth and amateur access piece which we’ll be launching after the festival to try and connect with young players across the cities we all work in.

“We would also expect our Bridge partners to continue as our principal commissioning partners, resulting in us being able to bring more new work into our own activity here in Scotland.”  

The Bridge Festival runs from 21-14 April at venues across Glasgow. Full details at www.bridgestrings.eu or www.scottishensemble.co.uk

Linehan’s EIF Swansong

Fergus Linehan talks to Keith Bruce as he launches the programme for his final Edinburgh International Festival.

When he stood to unveil the line-up for the 75th edition of the Edinburgh International Festival to Scotland’s arts journalists, director Fergus Linehan revealed his personal delight in being able to introduce a full-scale live public event for the first time in three years when he spoke for the whole industry.

Edinburgh, he said, was “the mothership of festivals – and that gathering is something that our whole industry has really missed.”

“While we are obviously concerned about the actual shows that we are putting on, the assembly that takes place every August is incredibly important for an industry that has been through something really difficult.”

“All the signs are that everyone is coming back this August. It will be a big moment for cultural life, not just for Edinburgh but for the whole of performing arts.”

Linehan has made “Welcome” – usually in friendly black capitals on a yellow background – the one-word slogan of Edinburgh. This year, it is both “Welcome back” and “Farewell” from the Irish director, after eight years in post, the last few dealing with the challenges of the health emergency.

He has taken the Festival into areas – particularly popular and alternative experimental music – that it had not visited before, and his legacy will take time to come into focus, but how does he see his own contribution to the EIF’s development as he hands over the reins to his successor, Nicola Benedetti?

He begins by saying he concurs with his predecessor, Sir Jonathan Mills, that Edinburgh “is good at picking Festival Directors for its time.”

“The Edinburgh Festival doesn’t move in fits and starts but it does change, and the question is how do you loosen the Festival and allow it some flexibility – because we are in a slightly more informal world – while maintaining the rigour.

“I think we have managed that. Some people might say: ‘You’ve loosened it too much’, but I like to think that the person coming after has a bit more flexibility to do what they will – and I hope that Nicky feels that.

“After the last two years, most of the team is still in place and we are able to come out with a full programme. What we did last year was limited compared to a normal year, but I am really proud that we did manage it at a time when it was still touch-and-go whether you could do anything.”

It has also meant that Linehan departs with the Festival in respectable financial shape.

“We raised a lot of money over the period of the pandemic so that we could do last year with tiny audience capacities. And we weren’t doing fully-stage opera and theatre, and we weren’t flying in many people to the city, so there were savings. For now the Festival is in reasonable condition; we are not carrying any deficit.”

From Benedetti’s point of view, what Linehan believes about the core concern of the Festival is probably crucial.

“Music is at the very heart of the Festival and you expand out into other genres in a meaningful way. It is not a theatre or a dance festival, and that is important in the balance with Edinburgh’s other festivals. The Traverse will always have significant theatre offerings. The music at the International Festival is sort of non-negotiable.

“But beyond that, there is maybe more flex than I realise, and looking back I now see there’s more flex than I thought. One of the great things about our supporters is that they are not prescriptive, whether its donors or Creative Scotland, it is not a completely blank sheet of paper, but it is never ‘you must do these 10 things.’ There are strategic goals we have to meet, but there is great flexibility.”

Although he says no-one believes him, Linehan is adamant that he has no new job lined-up, despite lots of offers.

“We are moving to Australia, for purely personal reasons because my wife’s family is there, but I have no masterplan.”

That’s because, he insists, he is unconvinced that jobs like the one he is vacating are the way forward for the arts.

“I am not tired, but I do want to have a look around and get a sense of the way things are going to be. There are obviously these big environmental, sustainability questions, and questions about what leadership in the arts should look like, and the future of the producer/director polymath who tells everyone what to do!”

He laughs, but he is making a serious point. “I am not sure that jumping in as the director of a big company with hundreds of employees is what I want to do right now, because I think things are shifting. People will always need support and there is always work to be done, but maybe it is going to be constituted in a different way in terms of leadership.

“It is an interesting time to get a sense of what way the wind is blowing generally. There have been huge changes in terms of the arts, and in particular the subsidised arts, and where they are going.”

And he thinks he owes that recalibration to his family as well.

“On a personal level, this job is all-consuming and a little bit more 50/50 with my wife is sensible. In 2019, I was away from home about 50 times, so that’s every week. I am not saying ‘poor me’, it was amazing to do all that, but there is a personal balancing up that’s important.

“And I have got a lot of the summer to think about it – because I don’t need to be working on the 2023 Festival!”

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from August 5 – 28. General booking opens on April 8.

eif.co.uk

The Comic Opera Man

Composer Jonathan Dove talks to KEITH BRUCE about Flight and a possible Scots premiere for his newest work

Although American Jake Heggie, less than two years his junior, out-scores him internationally, on this side of the Atlantic composer Jonathan Dove is the most produced contemporary opera composer of his generation.

Among performers, and some directors, that status might come with airs and graces, and even diva-like behaviour. Composers? Not so much.

So when the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s head of opera studies Philip White requested a reduced score of one of Dove’s biggest hits, Flight, to meet the strictures of social distancing in the pit of the New Athenaeum Theatre in Glasgow during the pandemic, the composer immediately sat down and re-wrote his work for 19 players.

In the event, further restrictions made it impossible to stage the production at all until earlier this month, when it happened to coincide with the RSNO and theatre company Visible Fictions taking a newer Dove work, Gaspard’s Foxtrot, setting the children’s stories of Zeb Soanes, out on the road to primary schools as well as presenting it on the orchestra’s digital platform.

There, in a nutshell, was the range of Jonathan Dove’s work for the stage, and the main ingredients of his compositional life, if Scots music-lovers were minded to explore it, although his full catalogue stretches into many other areas of orchestral and chamber music, as well as songs.

“I am always happiest if I have an opera project on the go or on the horizon,” he told me on the day James Bonas’s production of Flight at the RCS finally opened. “I describe myself as a musical story-teller, even when it is not an opera, like Gaspard’s Foxtrot with Zeb Soanes and the RSNO.

“The RSNO co-commissioned it and they’ve done a lot with it. Writing songs and choral pieces is also story-telling, but it is a Peter and the Wolf kind of piece – that is very obviously the model.”

As for Flight, it is a work that has been performed all over the world since 1998, with Scottish Opera’s adapting an Opera Holland Park staging in 2018.

Rosalind Dobson as The Controller in Flight at RCS, picture by Robert McFadzean

“There have been two productions this year in the US alone, one in Utah and one in Dallas, and over the years people have asked for a slim down version, so I knew there was some demand for that. But I hadn’t had time and I didn’t want anyone else to do it, because I didn’t trust them to do it well.

“I came to Glasgow specifically to hear if the new orchestration works, and I think it helps that it is a bit leaner for young voices. I am obviously very pleased that Flight is seen in conservatoires. There is something for every voice type in it: a stratospheric soprano, a lyric soprano, a counter tenor and a bass alongside tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano.

“It is quite a good showcase, although that wasn’t what I was thinking when I wrote it. For me the airport was a sort of microcosm of a community. But you get know these people but you also get to hear them singing in quite a lot of states and moods, so you can hear what people can do.”

Lindsay Johnson as Minskwoman in RCS Flight

Making the reduced version of the orchestral score took Dove back to his own beginnings as an opera composer, and to memories of the man who was a mentor in the process, director Graham Vick, who died last summer after contracting Covid-19.

“A very important part of my musical education in my twenties was re-scoring masterpieces of the operatic repertoire for his touring company. I rescored La Cenerentola, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, La boheme and The Ring for orchestras of between 15 and 18 players.

“Graham was a shockingly late victim of the pandemic, just when you thought the world was getting safer. It was really only after he died that I saw clearly how much he had changed my life. Re-scoring masterpieces of the repertoire and seeing him direct them was an amazing education.

“The most important experience was one particular production, an Opera North outreach project with West Side Story in a disused cotton-mill. That production introduced me to so many things. At that point I was assistant chorus-master at Glyndebourne, but the experience of working with 200 people from the community in that production was a revelation – how hungry they were for it.

“That was very different from working with a professional opera chorus – they’ve trained for that, they know that they can do it. That show introduced me to community opera, and to site-specific work and promenade performance. At that moment I never wanted to see another proscenium-arch production, because it was so much more involving.”

If Dove has now rowed back from that position it was not before he had taken the lessons of Vick’s work and applied it to his own practice – a journey that led to his breakthrough opera.

“I wondered what it would be like if the community cast were telling their own story and not a New York story. Around the same time, Glyndebourne was thinking about an opera involving a couple of school and I said: ‘Why not involve a whole town?’ So we did that in Hastings with about 200 people, including any musicians and performers that wanted to be in it. There was the Boys Brigade band, there was a symphony orchestra, there was a yodelling harmonica player and Morris dancers.

“Another one followed in Ashford where there was an accordion club and a guitar orchestra and a rock band, and then one in Peterborough, and I found things for them all to do, and it always felt like the most unquestionably worthwhile thing that I was doing.

“The total experience of everyone in it, and what they learned from it – that was my road to Damascus experience. Those three community operas for Glyndebourne led directly to them commissioning Flight, which is still the work of mine that people most often tell me that they have seen.

“So it was from Graham I got the belief in opera as a medium whose importance should not be restricted to opera houses: that mission that opera is for everyone. He was a unique spirit.”

The relationship with the director continued, notably with 2012’s adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream for Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company. Dove’s other operas have drawn on classic novels (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), the troubled life of Buzz Aldrin (Man on the Moon) and the death of Princess Diana.

Parallel with those have been the works for young people, from Tobias and the Angel in 1999, via The Adventures of Pinocchio in 2007 to 2015’s The Monster in the Maze, based on the classical tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and created in partnership with conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

“It is the opera of mine that was been translated most. It was a co-commission between the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Aix festival, so there were three productions just weeks apart, all conducted by Simon Rattle, in German, English and French.

“It was also done in Taiwan in Cantonese and Taiwanese and I couldn’t get to that, but I have seen it in Swedish, in Portuguese in Lisbon and in Catalan in Barcelona, where it has now been done three times.”

The Dove children’s opera currently on his desk is for Zurich, based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, with Act 1 already completed.

Philip White’s students at the Conservatoire staged 2015’s post-Apocalypse The Day After as a sort of companion piece to the Scottish Opera Flight four years ago, and Dove’s most recent work for an adult audience, Marx in London, was first seen in Bonn and could be destined for a Scottish outing soon.

“Marx in London was the idea of director Jurgen Weber, who had directed an amazing production of an opera of mine, Swanhunter, written for an intended audience of teenagers. His idea was that Marx’s life was like a farce and that it would make a good comic opera.”

With a libretto by Charles Hart, whose past work includes Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, Marx in London premiered at the end of 2018, when it was co-produced by Scottish Opera. At the time there was speculation that the production might be seen in Scotland in 2020, and if it is still on the cards, Dove cannot confirm.

“Scottish Opera have made a financial commitment so it would be natural if they were the first to do it here,” he says. “There are still hopes that it will be staged in the not too distant future.”

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