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.
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’.”
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.’
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 )
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
Director Dominic Hill tells Keith Bruce about his delayed production of Britten for Scottish Opera
The artistic director of Glasgow Citizens Theatre, Dominic Hill, should not really have been available to open a new production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Scottish Opera this month.
If all had gone according to plan, he would have been moving his company back into their home in the Gorbals after the theatre’s refurbishment. But then, if all had gone according to plan, his new staging of Britten’s take on Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy should have opened two years ago.
The combination of delays in the comprehensive re-modelling of the Citizens and the global pandemic has put Hill’s schedule through the mill – a situation many people will recognise, and appreciate the philosophical attitude the director seems able to bring to it.
“We hope that we’ll have the keys at the end of the year, and the first few months of 2023 will be fitting out before we open the doors late spring or early summer,” he says. “Fingers crossed.”
“Timing-wise it has worked out quite well,” he recognises. “We were meant to be getting into the theatre about now, but that’s been delayed by a year or so. In some ways the pandemic has been a blessing – there are worse times to be doing a refurbishment.”
Hill’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first major casualty of Scottish Opera’s programme when the pandemic struck. The cast and crew were on the final run-in to opening night when Covid closed all theatres that were not already dark as a result of a renovation programme.
“We were in rehearsal as it was all kicking off. We did the floor-run and then we were told it wasn’t going to happen,” Hill remembers. “We did think we’d get into the theatre and at least tech the show, so we all went home saying, ‘See you on Thursday’, and then even that couldn’t happen.
“It was a strange thing because we never got to say goodbye to anybody, it just finished.”
That sense of unfinished business was with the director for two years as the opera company pressed on with an imaginative programme of filmed and outdoor work that was an example of determined response to the crisis. Hill’s production had to wait until conventional presentation was back on the agenda.
“It’s great that it is one of the first shows to come back,” says the director. “We left the rehearsal room and the set was up, and we’ve come back and it looked as if it had just been there for the last two years.
“In some ways it felt like nothing had happened, but at the same time most of the cast are new. So it is a bit like a revival as well as being a continuation of a rehearsal process with different people – a weird hybrid thing. But I guess I’m just thinking about it as if we are doing it from scratch really.”
That does not mean that all the work of two years ago was wasted.
“We are making some changes and tweaks and there are a couple of scenes staged differently, but on the whole it is the same production. I watched a rather blurry video of that floor-run and thought what we’d done was OK, so it is pretty much as envisaged originally. Most of the mechanicals – apart from Starveling and Flute – have come back, and one of the lovers [soprano Charlie Drummond] was in it last time, but everyone else is new, so it feels like a new cast.”
Coming to Britten’s work from his “day job” in the theatre, Hill is acutely aware of the opera’s relationship to the play, and the fact that it is much closer than some other musical versions of Shakespeare.
“Compared to something like Macbeth and Falstaff, where the libretto is filtered through Italian translations of Shakespeare, you’ve got Shakespeare’s text and it needs honouring as something in itself.
“It needs to be approached with the same sort of enquiry and detail that one brings to directing the original text. There are scenes that need directing as pieces of theatre with character motivation and staging issues to be addressed. I hope we have approached it with rigour towards the libretto as well as the music.”
Hill is conscious that such an approach makes particular demands of his cast.
“The singers have what is not always the easiest music, and have to marry that to a dramatic impulse. It is a very physical production, particularly for the lovers, with a lot of rolling around and fighting, and the choreography of that needs learning as well as their brains engaging with the technical demands of the music.”
The director is determined to have the advantages of both the opera and his knowledge of the play available to the production, as well as some reflection of the circumstances of its composition.
“The music of the forest world, the dream world, I find absolutely exquisite, and it has a kind of otherness that can only be created through music. But one thing I have done is taken the structure of the play a little more, so we begin at the end of Act 1 Scene 1 of the play, as it were, and stay in the court for a little bit longer.”
It is the music, however, that dictates the stage world that the production inhabits.
“It is based on Tytania and Oberon’s duet about the state of the world, so it is a ravaged and muddy kind of world. It is a post-war world to which Theseus has returned with his war-bride, and that picks up on the post-war world in which Britten wrote it.”
Scottish Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on February 22, 24 and 26 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on March 1, 3 and 5.
Rehearsal picture by Jane Barlow shows Lea Shaw as Hermia and Jonathan McGovern as Demetrius
Ryan Wigglesworth, newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, talks to Keith Bruce about his multi-disciplinary life and plans for the future.
The man who will take over from Thomas Dausgaard as Chief Conductor of the BBC SSO in September is better acquainted with the orchestra than some will immediately recognise.
“I’ve been working on and off with the orchestra for quite a number of years,” he says. “It is probably ten years since my first concert, which was a Shakespeare-inspired programme with Korngold and Berlioz. Then we did a residency at Aldeburgh with a couple of concerts covering a vast amount of music, I remember.
“And during lockdown we had the chance to work together a few times in the studio doing Mozart and Mendelssohn, and culminating in what was the first concert back in front of a small audience in the Royal Concert Hall when we performed Elgar 1. It was so wonderful to play repertoire on that scale again, even although everyone was distanced.”
It is however the wide range of Wigglesworth’s practice as a musician that makes his appointment more unusual. He has spoken before of his “core business” being as a composer, and he has been a prolific one in recent years, with an acclaimed opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale for ENO, orchestral pieces for the Royal Concertgebouw, Cleveland and BBC Symphony, and songs for some of the UK’s best-loved voices. He is also a virtuoso pianist and accompanist, while his conducting work has included a three-year stint as Principal Guest of the Halle.
Composer/conductors can often be found in Associate orchestral posts, with Matthias Pintscher a notable recent example at the SSO, but rarely occupy the Chief seat.
“I suppose I am a throwback,” he says. “I don’t think this was an issue before the 20th century, when these jobs became, for whatever reason, a bit more specialised.
“Before that you were just a musician, and I suppose that’s how I see it. I can’t separate the different strands really. I’m learning so much about conducting when I compose and vice-versa. If I am learning a new work, I can’t but take it apart with the eyes of a composer – I want to know how it is built.
“It is just the way the world has gone: ever-increasing specialisation has been the trend in pretty much every walk of life.”
And while new music will certainly be part of his plans for the BBC Scottish, Wigglesworth’s musical hinterland goes back to Early Music.
“I am from a non-musical family – my dad was a butcher – but somehow I became a chorister in Sheffield and that was the start of it all. Singing has remained at the core of what I do; I love working in opera and I love working with singers. Renaissance polyphony goes so deep, and it is something I think about a lot. Very quickly, I gravitated towards the organ and I was an organ scholar at university and as a result of that was very involved with period instrument groups, playing continuo.
“I went to the Guildhall after university but then went back to university to do some post-grad. In that period I was performing lots of Bach and Handel and I was very grateful to have had the experience of working with period instruments, even if it something I regretfully don’t get to do much these days. Having had that experience, it naturally informs my approach to music of the classical era that I do get to do with symphony orchestras.
“It is particularly exciting to me that the SSO has such a strong track record in that repertoire having had a relationship with the likes of Andrew Manze. It is an almost uniquely versatile orchestra with the experience of performing so much large scale Wagner and Mahler with Donald Runnicles, and developing a sound in that late Romantic repertoire, as well as their brilliance in performing music that was written yesterday.
“It is a world-class orchestra but an orchestra that is so at home in very different repertoire.”
“Having started with Baroque and been a composer involved with new music, I have come towards the centre. I strongly believe that for the health of an orchestra we must be regularly playing the music of Wagner, Bruckner, Strauss. It is so good to work on sound in that repertoire. That’s when the symphony orchestra became fully defined and it holds epic challenges.
“Late Bruckner, as an interpreter, is still a great challenge because, unlike Mahler, the work isn’t done for you. Mahler was a supreme practical musician, but in Bruckner there are so many decisions to be made, and that’s why it is so endlessly fascinating.
“I am hopeful that we can have a first season that allows myself and the orchestra to dip our toes into lots of different things. It is a period when we will be learning a lot about each other, and I hope there is the opportunity and space to start to develop that identity across a number of areas.
“Initially, when it comes to new music I see my job as identifying those composers that will be interesting for the orchestra and our audiences, and developing long-term relationships with those composers. I want to create a family of composers who feel ‘in residence’ and have more than one project over a certain amount of time.”
There will be an early opportunity to hear Wigglesworth the soloist when he direct a Mozart concerto from the piano in an afternoon concert that also includes the world premiere of a new work by Jorg Widmann and Sibelius Symphony No 4.
“In May, when I come to play and direct some Mozart, it will be wonderful to be able to have a different kind of relationship with the orchestra. It allows us the freedom to simply listen to one another and to begin to develop the telepathy that is so important in the relationship between conductor and orchestra; the more that can be unsaid the better.”
More imminently, the Chief Conductor Designate is on the podium for the SSO’s contribution to Sunday’s celebration of the BBC’s centenary, with his own Five Waltzes sitting alongside music of the 1920s by Weill, Strauss and Berg.
“The opportunity to think about music from the early 20s when so much was going on was a wonderful challenge,” he says. “The Scenes from Wozzeck was so important to the early days of the BBC and it’s music that is dear to my heart.”
His own work in the programme began as a piano piece before become a duo with violist Lawrence Power. Composed to mark the birth of his first child, Five Waltzes has now grown once again.
“It is now orchestrated for winds and lower strings, and slightly expanded from the piano and viola version. I am very excited to do it with Scott Dickinson in such a mixed programme.”
Less than a month later, a song cycle Wigglesworth has written to mark the more recent birth of his daughter, Vignettes de Jules Renard, will have its world premiere at the Barbican, sung by baritone Roderick Williams, alongside works by Faure, Ravel and Judith Weir.
Those pieces come from a time that was fruitful in different ways for Wigglesworth.
“Our first baby was born at the start of lockdown, so I was able to see him every day for the first year of his life. And the second one was born two weeks ago, so in that sense it has been a busy time!
“It was also a time when a lot of creative artists found it extremely difficult to write, or to paint, because it was such an unreal period. Looking back at it now, from this short distance, it did come with huge benefits as well as being such a hard time for so many people.
“For us creative types there was a bit of space to think, and get back to first principles. I played the piano a lot, which is something I hadn’t been able to do – to be able to play the Bach 48 every day was cathartic! And we put on little concerts in our village in Oxfordshire when my wife and I invited musician friends like Stephen Hough and Mark Padmore.”
With his Glasgow appointment, however, Wigglesworth is already thinking in terms of his children getting to know Scotland.
“I want my family to feel at home here, and it not just be a place where I come to rehearse and do a concert.
“I’ve just finished quite a big chorus and orchestra piece which will be premiered by Ed Gardner and his Bergen orchestra in April, and the immediate focus is on the job here. There’s been a series of orchestral projects as a composer going back some years now, and I think I am going to enjoy taking a step back from that, maybe writing a bit of chamber music, but the focus is on creating a home here.
“There’s so much I am interested in learning about – like the orchestra’s work in Campbeltown and those sort of residencies where we can identify a community and bring something to really make a difference. I want to learn about all of the orchestra’s audiences, at the Music Hall in Aberdeen, the Usher Hall and Perth Concert Hall.
“I have worked in many of the halls and I adore the country, but the process is never-ending. That’s a hugely exciting prospect and it is something I’ve been longing for. That sense of belonging and a place where I can focus my energies.”
Ryan Wigglesworth conducts the BBC SSO on Sunday February 13 in Glasgow’s City Halls. The concert, with soloists Katherine Broderick (soprano) and Scott Dickinson (viola) is part of the BBC 100 celebrations and broadcast live on Radio 3.
Portrait of Ryan Wigglesworth copyright BBC and Gordon Burniston
Benjamin Grosvenor talks to KEITH BRUCE about playing Liszt with the SCO
Still six months shy of his 30th birthday, Benjamin Grosvenor has had a very busy career since he was runner-up to Nicola Benedetti in the 2004 BBC Young Musician competition at the age of 11. As he recalls now, with obvious fondness, “the final rounds were held in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and my first real tour was with the Scottish Ensemble, so these cities hold a lot of great memories for me.”
Having formed a rewarding partnership with the RSNO and its principal guest conductor Elim Chan, recording an award-winning album of Chopin’s Concertos in that orchestra’s home studio in Glasgow, the pianist is this year working with Edinburgh’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra as a resident artist.
At the end of April he will play Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the SCO under Joana Carniero, but this week his focus is on the composer who was the subject of his most recent Decca recording, Franz Liszt, and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto, with the SCO’s Principal Conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev.
“Liszt wrote so much music, and there are a lot of wonderful works that don’t get so much attention,” says Grosvenor. “One example would be the second version of the Berceuse that I recorded for my recent Liszt disc, which is such an atmospheric piece.
“In the context of other romantic piano concertos, the Piano Concerto No 1 strikes one as unusual and innovative in form, with this idea – as in the B minor Sonata – of a one movement (though divided into four) work united in its content by certain themes that transform throughout.
“Liszt took things very seriously when it came to these large-form pieces, and he spent 23 years polishing this one off. As one would expect, there is piano writing of great virtuosity, but also some incredibly beautiful lyrical episodes. The climbing melody in the piano solo at the beginning of the Adagio would be worthy of Bellini for sure!
“Interestingly, what was seen as startlingly modern at the time was Liszt’s use of the triangle in this piece – in the scherzo it is there in the forefront – in a way which was (though this seems really odd to us now!) seen as ‘distasteful’, as was the idea of elevating any percussion other than the timpani. It still comes across as a most unusual bit of orchestration in a piano concerto, but a wonderful effect in the context of this impish scherzo.”
There speaks a musician who has ears for much more than the virtuoso piano part, and Grosvenor has, like Benedetti, performed with a chamber orchestra without a conductor. He’s very happy to have Emelyanychev on-board for these concerts however.
“I have enormous admiration for Maxim both as a keyboard player and a conductor, and I thought their Prom last year with Mozart symphonies was thrilling. Even with a conductor involved, working with a chamber orchestra is a much more intimate experience and you can feel a lot more connection with the orchestra than in other settings. It will be my first time with Liszt in this context so I am looking forward to that.
“I have worked as a director before, but without really physically conducting as that is not really a skill I have acquired yet with any finesse.
“In the right repertoire and with a good leader it is not entirely necessary, but one’s role is obviously still quite different, as there is a responsibility to comment on and to mold some of the orchestral playing. I think Liszt could be challenging in that context but perhaps not impossible, but I would probably have to develop a slightly more advanced ability to conduct!”
You get the impression that it is a skill that is not an immediate priority for the pianist. Although he appeared to be working fairly consistently through the recent health emergency, as a solo recitalist and in his established chamber music partnerships as well as with orchestras, Grosvenor says he was profoundly affected by the hiatus.
“Initially I took some time away from the piano, which I hadn’t done for many years. I returned to it again and explored some new repertoire, and found the break to be refreshing, though it was then difficult to work in a focussed way with no concerts to prepare for.
“The pandemic hasn’t necessarily changed my focus now that that things have somewhat normalised, but certainly over the last years it has posed many challenges. I must admit I never really got used to streaming without an audience, and certainly when it came to a piano recital (without any other musicians involved) it was a very strange experience. I am very glad to see audiences back again.
“Coming out of the first lockdown the thing I really wanted to do most of all was play chamber music, and I actually put on some chamber music concerts where I currently live in southeast London. We were some of the first concerts to take place with audiences, and it was a very fulfilling experience and also hugely interesting to see things from the promoter’s side.
“And the situation is still throwing me curved balls. Recently in Pittsburgh a positive case in the orchestra on the day of the first concert meant we had to go from Rachmaninov Second Concerto to Brahms Piano Quintet with just seven hours’ notice!”
Grosvenor may have been a precociously young signing to a major label, Decca, but being a pragmatic musician with the ability to deal with such situations, rather than a glamorous star, seems to be his chosen path.
“I have always had very varied tastes in repertoire, with no real inclination to specialise, and I still feel there is so much to explore. It can be tricky therefore to find a balance between exploring the old and the new, and while I have a great interest in contemporary music I must admit I haven’t played a great deal. As to early music, of course I play Bach, but going even earlier, there is a lot of wonderful 17th century keyboard music that I’d like to explore at some point.”
So, does he envy Liszt the superstar status he enjoyed in his lifetime?
Benjamin Grosvenor plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Thursday February 3, Glasgow’s City Halls on Friday February 4 and Aberdeen Music Hall on Saturday February 5.
RSNO Chief Executive Alistair Mackie tells KEITH BRUCE he is wooing Hollywood to soundtrack the orchestra’s future.
There are few conversations with the man in charge of Scotland’s national orchestra that do not reference his time as a working musician before he moved into management. He may not play his trumpet much these days, but his career as the leader of the trumpet sections of London’s Sinfonietta and Philharmonia orchestra informs every decision he makes.
So he talks of the importance of recording film music, as both a discipline and a well-paid element of his life in London, from first-hand experience. “For London musicians it’s a big part of their life. And it’s an interesting part of life: fast-paced, fast-moving work. I think it’s very creative work.”
As he tells it, when he first stepped into the auditorium of the RSNO’s new home on Glasgow’s Killermont Street, when he was in the city to be interviewed for the post he has held for the last three years, he was immediately struck by its resemblance to Abbey Road’s Studio No 1. Its proportions were very similar, as was its much-admired acoustic.
That is no accident, because the building was designed by Arup with recording as well as rehearsal and performance in mind. Shoehorned into a tiny site between Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the John Lewis department store, the RSNO Centre’s new space is a concrete box within a concrete box entirely isolated from the noisy world around.
As well as having audience seating that can be deployed and stowed in minutes, the room has adjustable walls, sonic baffles and curtains to tailor that acoustic to suit everything from a full symphony orchestra to an intimate chamber ensemble.
What it has lacked until now, or has had to bring in for projects like pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s award-winning Chopin concerto album with the orchestra and conductor Elim Chan, is a state-of-the-art mixing desk to capture the music.
“The two things we couldn’t change were fantastic,” is how Mackie puts it. “The room, it’s fantastic – we’ve had a number of really top engineers from round the world coming to this room and raving about it. And the musicians are really good.”
Mackie’s ambitions for the RSNO’s studio went far beyond making classical albums, and beyond the needs of the orchestra itself. Encouraged by the Scottish Government and Screen Scotland, there has been a boom in film and television programme making in Scotland, with the countryside suiting many story-lines and the cities seemingly able to masquerade as others around the globe and in the imagination of writers as well as being themselves.
Mackie recognised a big gap in the attractions the country offered however. “The one thing about Scotland is that you can shoot it, you can do post-production, you can do just about everything, but what you couldn’t do was have a symphony orchestra record the soundtrack. There simply hasn’t been a facility that has the space, the technology, the control room to do that.”
Until now. With the help of a legacy from RSNO patrons Iain and Pamela Sinclair, the orchestra has now kitted out a control room with a 72-track Solid State Logic analogue desk, partnered with all the surround-sound speakers and monitoring, with over 160 top quality microphones to pick up the performance in the room.
The man in charge of all this is the RSNO’s in-house sound engineer, now Digital Manager of the organisation, Hedd Morfett-Jones, who has an audio engineering intern, Sam McErlean, working alongside him. A graduate of the specialist course at the University of Surrey, it is a passing curiosity that his qualification was a side of music education that held no interest for Mackie when he went to the same institution from music school in Scotland.
“We’re trying to gather teams around us,” says Mackie now. “We’ve done it with our camera work. I want the same on the sound side. I don’t want to keep paying London engineers to come up here.”
Mackie’s business plan looks sound. The Glasgow Studio is on the same scale as Air or Abbey Road in London, both of which are booked up years ahead, and can charge top dollar as a result. Because the RSNO owns its facility it can offer a competitive rate to filmmakers who have to pay both the orchestral musicians and for studio time in London.
Of course there is further competition, especially from Eastern Europe, but Mackie is adamant that the musicianship on offer in Scotland gives the RSNO a qualitative advantage.
“British musicians are renowned for the quality of what they do. Our musicians will get paid the same as a London musician. The Union has rates. We will not pay less and we will not charge less than what musicians get in London, but we will be competitive because we own the studio. That’s our pitch to the market.
”There has been some training of the RSNO players in the skills required for film work as well,” he adds. “The other big thing with film is playing to click-track. So we’ve done multiple test sessions here. Our first horn, Chris Gough, did a film course in Valencia, and his final exam was six clips he had to make, to write to picture. He not only had to write the scores, but do the Pro-tools files for the technical side, and we used his final exam as a test session to test the RSNO players with complex clicks, complex sound-to-picture synchronisation.”
At the same time as Gough was studying at Boston’s Berklee College campus in Spain, principal percussionist Simon Lowden was adding a post-graduate qualification in music for film to his CV at Glasgow School of Art, and he now works with the RSNO’s digital team alongside his playing in the orchestra.
All this skills-building and spending on hardware – the SSL desk cost £230,000 and Mackie’s budget for the whole studio project was around half a million pounds – is expected to produce a return, and the chief executive sees that not as a bonus but an essential.
“All the time we’re struggling with standstill funding. I don’t see ticket income growing in Scotland, and I can’t see Government grants growing in Scotland. We simply need a new income stream if we’re going to keep going as an organisation.
“So part of what we’re doing is trying align with the initiatives of the Scottish Government , and part of what we’re doing is something that keeps musicians invigorated. But part of what we’re doing is purely economics, trying to go into a more commercial market – and I am quite taken with the idea of Hollywood subsidising concerts at the Royal Concert Hall.”
The RSNO is not entirely breaking new ground. In recent years it has worked with film composer Danny Elfman on his violin concerto Eleven Eleven under conductor John Mauceri, and on a new recording of Dmitri Tiomkin’s score for Dail M for Murder with William Stromberg. Its back catalogue with Varese Sarabande includes film scores with Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith.
The first results of the new studio set-up will be seen and heard on Sky TV in December, with the broadcast of a remake of the 1972 children’s fantasy adventure The Amazing Mr Blunden. The original was scored by Bernstein, and the music for this one has been written by LA-based Scot Blair Mowat.
The composer is the most enthusiastic advocate the orchestra could have wished for. “This whole project has been an utter delight. When I got the gig, I immediately called the RSNO to see if they could record the score for this exciting new remake. Happily, the stars aligned and it was a dream come true to be composing and conducting for an orchestra that meant so much to me growing up in Scotland.
“We were delighted by both the experience we had recording with them and also the sound we achieved on the final recording. It was an honour to be the first film score to record here, of which I’m sure there will be countless more. There are exciting times ahead, and we can’t wait to come back!”
Sky TV will broadcast The Amazing Mr Blunden, featuring Blair Mowat’s new score recorded by the RSNO, at Christmas. www.rsno.org.uk
A bold new film series reveals the inner workings of the Hebrides Ensemble, writes KEN WALTON
We’ve got used to the digital alternative to live concert attendance resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown. Many will agree that the resulting listener experience of concerts streamed to our homes was necessary and welcome, if never quite as vital or participatory as the real thing. But it’s with us now, possibly for keeps, and it has a valid role to play so long as it can be justified in bringing added value.
It’s not just the big boys – our national orchestras, opera company and festivals – that are making something of it. A strikingly creative example comes from the more diminutive Hebrides Ensemble, which is not even one of Creative Scotland’s current RFOs (Regularly Funded Organisations), though it is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s most ambitious chamber ensembles.
Its forte is in contemporary music, its workforce small and adaptable. It has been active now for three decades – the 30th anniversary celebrations were stymied by the pandemic – and under artistic director and cellist William Conway, it has established standards of performance that are as exceptional as they are explorative.
Take a look at the Hebrides website and you’ll find a link – surprise, surprise – to “Inner Hebrides”, a project featuring five individual members of the group who each present their own thoughts and performances in an unfolding series of 40-minute films released successively over five weeks. They are beautifully produced (by Glasgow-based Flux Video), each programme is highly personal and often quirky, and the locations – ranging from an East Renfrewshire windfarm to Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat – take us well away from the traditional concert hall.
Already available from the week-by-week releases are spotlights on BBC SSO principal violist Scott Dickinson (released 22 Oct), violinist Zoë Beyers (29 Oct) and BBC SSO principal clarinettist Yann Ghiro (5 Nov). Still to come (12 Nov) are the penultimate film by former BBC SSO principal flautist Charlotte Ashton – she recently shifted her day job to the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle – and a final release by Conway on 19 November.
Dickinson’s film is set amid the vastness of Whitelee Windfarm on Eaglesham Moor, its endless forest of turbines inhabiting the triangular junction of East Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and East Renfrewshire through which Dickinson is seen cycling and talking between his phenomenal solo performances of Beamish, Britten, Kurtág, Hindemith and Watkins, among others, recorded in the lockdown quiet of the visitor centre.
For this was a project that began life as a Creative Scotland-funded lockdown initiative. “They were filmed back in March and April,” explains Nick Zekulin, who has recently taken up his new position (after leaving the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland earlier this year) as general manager of the Hebrides Ensemble. He’s glad the creators took time to get the final cuts right. “As everyone found out, creating content of this calibre does not happen quickly.”
Taking time has also served key future aspirations. “One of the questions arising from the growth of online content during the pandemic is how to share that content. We’ve identified the need to develop our website and support its wealth of content by building our social media profile,” says Zekulin.
“We also see our future as encompassing three key areas of activity: live performance, outreach and education, and digital, and addressing the last of these will be as challenging as it is exciting. Concert films are all very nice, but the opportunity to do much more than that, using media in a much more creative way as we’ve begun to do with Inner Hebrides, will be the real clincher.”
Inner Hebrides reveals the positive action behind the words. From Dickinson’s windswept wilderness idyll, the series then takes us to the utilitarian Coleman Pumping Station in Shrewsbury where Beyer introduces and performs music by Benjamin, Saariaho and more Kurtág.
Ghiro’s clarinet programme, ranging from the multi-tracked New York Counterpoint of Steve Reich to Messiaen and MacMillan, is reflective of the player’s reputable quirkiness, evident in the gentle humour of his personable delivery, and the clever use of synchronised filming that enables Ghiro’s four colleagues to provide a remotely constructed drone in William Sweeney’s atmospheric Òran-Buidheachas.
Still to come are Charlotte Ashton’s captivating programme filmed in the historic crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, featuring Debussy’s enchanting Syrinx and Alistair Savage’s wistful St Andrew’s Lament for the victims of the 2013 Clutha Bar disaster. Hebrides director Will Conway completes the set with music by Judith Weir, Fennessy, Britten, MacMillan and even more Kurtág, recorded atop Arthur’s Seat and in Edinburgh’s Institut français d’Écosse
It’s no accident that the some composers reappear over the course of the series. “That gives us the flexibility to re-package the content from time to time, perhaps with a later focus on Kurtág, or a theme centring on the Scottish composers,” Zekulin explains.
And he knows there’s an audience for it. “It’s so much easier to get useful analytics from digital activity than from live performance. We know who is enjoying it, how they’re enjoying it and where they’re coming from to engage in it. A quarter of people logging on to these films are staying through to the very end, which is a significant number.”
And let’s not forget that live service from Hebrides has also resumed. The group has already featured at major festivals this year, Lammermuir and Cumnock Tryst among the most recent, and there will, Zekulin promises, be news soon of a 2022 concert season. “We’ll be starting in February with a concert of new music by disabled composers in collaboration with Drake Music Scotland at the Queen’s Hall.” Anything beyond that is still under wraps. Meantime, enjoy the films.
Performances of Ronald Stevenson singular piano epic are few and far between, so don’t miss James Willshire’s in Peebles, writes KEN WALTON
1962 was a landmark year for the Edinburgh International Festival. It was to feature, in person, the great Dmitri Shostakovich, given a free pass by the Soviet hierarchy to attend the long-awaited Western premieres of his Fourth and Twelfth Symphonies.
The Scots composer Ronald Stevenson famously chanced his arm, travelled the few miles from his home near Edinburgh, and presented the Russian with the epic 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH for solo piano he had just completed using Shostakovich’s own musical cryptogram (S is E flat and H is B natural in the German notational system) as the governing four-note motif.
Stevenson’s Passacaglia remains, to some extent, the signature legacy of a composer who cut a maverick and eccentric figure in Scottish musical life up to his death in 2015 at the age of 87. Stevenson, recognisable by his dapper chin puff, moustache and fedora, who lived much of his life in a modest West Linton cottage, and who counted among his friends and muses the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, wrote considerably more in the way of songs, choral and orchestral works. But it is the Passacaglia that tends to resurface mostly in recordings and concert programmes.
He once played bits of it to me on his ageing Steinway piano which he claimed was a gift from an elderly Edinburgh lady who had attended his extramural classes at Edinburgh University. “After one class she asked me what my ideal piano would be. I said a Steinway, of course. She asked me to go to London and pick one,” he recollected. “This is it.”
Truth be told, Stevenson was by that time celebrating his 75th birthday, and the sheer joy of hearing him reminisce on a colourful life and perform from such an iconic work in his living room offset the noticeable rustiness of a previously flamboyant and assured technique. Another memory from that visit was his revelation that the Passacaglia had undergone continuous revision since its original conception. It was, to some extent, the encapsulation of a life’s work.
Its latest resurrection is this Tuesday, 2 November, when British pianist James Willshire presents it as the sole entity of a programme that is part of Music in Peebles’ 75th anniversary concert season. Willshire first came across the Passacaglia as a 13-year-old at Chethams School in Manchester, but never attempted to learn it until 2013. “I realised that Ronald would be 85 and that that December would mark the 50th anniversary of its premiere, so everything seemed to fall into place,” Willshire told me in an interview at the time.
His recording on the East Lothian-based Delphian label was duly released that year, notable for the infinite colours and shades Willshire extracted from a score that is as intellectually gruelling as it is physically challenging. His wasn’t the first recording. Those by Stevenson himself and Dundee-born Murray McLachlan offer their own individual solutions, as does the latest by Igor Levit, part of an invigorating 3-CD set just out on Sony Classical that neatly partners the Passacaglia with Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.
Make no mistake, Stevenson demands as much input from the listener as from any performer brave enough to tackle what was originally inspired by one of his great musical heroes, pianist-composer Ferrucio Busoni. Stevenson openly referred to his direct inspiration, Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, as a “related work”. The latter is every bit as complex, as hedonistic perhaps, and even utilises a dedicatory four-note motif of its own, that of JS Bach (B-A-C-H).
The trick in bringing it off, Willshire told me in 2013, is “to understand the logic of the Passacaglia’s three main sections.” The first part represents Stevenson’s sweeping response to the past, with reinterpretations of the Baroque suite, of sonata form, even a nocturne. In the central section Stevenson turns to socio-political references, a turbulent reaction to 20th century historical events from the Second World War and Russian communism to aspects of “emerging Africa”, which he experienced first hand in the 1960s while lecturing at Cape Town University.
The final section, its gradual sense of repose pointing the way to a sublime and consummate epilogue, is, said Willshire, “like the end of a natural lifecycle”.
Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH is performed by James Willshire on Tuesday 2 November at Eastgate Theatre, Peebles. Tickets on 01721 725777. Full information at www.musicinpeebles.org.uk
Pianist Jeremy Denk talks words and music with Keith Bruce on the eve of his residency at the Lammermuir Festival.
Pianist Jeremy Denk has just had a negative Covid test and is cleared to fly to Scotland when I connect via Zoom to his New York apartment. He has also survived, unscathed, the storm and flooding that recently hit the city. “I stayed in that night and shut the windows, in a very New Yorker fashion,” he deadpans.
Denk is artist-in-residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, giving four concerts that cover the range of his musical practice, from solo Bach (The Well-Tempered Clavier) and a more varied solo recital, to chamber music with violinist Maria Wloszczowska and members of the SCO and the festival’s concluding concert with the full orchestra, playing two Mozart concertos.
Like British pianist Stephen Hough, however, Denk’s artistic life also embraces writing, which began as a blog, “Think Denk”, and will soon see the publication of a memoir that expands on a celebrated article about his piano teachers for New Yorker magazine.
That meant he was not idle when the worldwide spread of the coronavirus brought the music industry to a standstill.
“I used it as a work retreat. I had this book that I was supposed to finish, so I used a fair amount of the early pandemic to write and I was lucky to have that outlet, which was all-consuming for a while.
“I also learned a bunch of newish pieces and I was working on The Well-Tempered Clavier. I did a video version of that earlier this year and it is a piece that is still in that nice honeymoon phase – every day it is different. I played it twice before the pandemic started, both with the music, but this will be the first time I play it from memory.”
The pianist is delighted that his brief for Lammermuir was simply to do things that he enjoys doing. Playing Mozart concertos is one of those, the two that feature in the East Lothian festival coming just days after the release of a different pair on his latest recording for the Nonesuch label.
“Mozart concertos work much better for me when they feel like chamber music and you get to talk to the winds, and sympathise with them, and bring the contact closer.
“One of the problems is often they are sitting way back on the stage, when they are really proxy opera characters, if you think of Mozart himself as at the piano. He often wants to cede the stage to the oboe or the rapscallion bassoon, and when I rehearse with an orchestra I look for the freedom to find that.”
Piano Concerto No 23, which will close Lammermuir at St Mary’s Parish Church in Haddington, has been very much on Denk’s mind.
“In my book I was writing about that A major K488, which was the first Mozart concerto I learned when I was 12 years old, so it has a Proustian element for me.
“The piece for the New Yorker had lots of gaps and missed out lots of teachers who helped me. I was a clueless kid; I went to college a little young and I had to do a lot of growing up in a very short time. During the pandemic I found I could access those memories more directly than in the past.
“So it goes from my first musical memories with my father and the neighbourhood piano teacher, aged five, through to my New York debut when I was 26.”
What, I wonder, had prompted the urge to commit those memories to publication?
“Piano players spend a lot of time on their own,” he suggests, “so we have a lot of thoughts we have to unburden. I am extremely grateful to my teachers and I often feel regretful that I don’t follow their advice as closely as I should, so it didn’t take any particular prompting.
“And I have always been a looker-backer; even when I was six years old I had a premature nostalgic streak. Books were always my great refuge, along with the piano, so writing is a very natural outlet. Even if I watch more Netflix than I read now, I still wish it wasn’t so!”
Denk writes very eloquently indeed about music, and the new album, recorded with Minnesota’s St Paul Chamber Orchestra, has a fine booklet note, especially on Concerto No 25 in C Major, K503.
“The C Major is one of Mozart’s greatest achievements, it has this weird ecstasy which is unlike any other Mozart piece,” he tells me. “It is a love letter to harmony. Mozart has found two elements of beauty in the world of harmony, the seventh chord and the instability between major and minor, and he explores them in such profusion. I like obsessive pieces and that is an obsessive piece.”
So too, says Denk, is Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Opus 111, also in C major, which will conclude the pianist’s third concert in Dunbar Parish Church, and which was on a Nonesuch release in 2012, bracketed, brilliantly, by Ligeti Piano Etudes.
“It takes a rhythmic principle and adds a weird asymmetry. There is an element of chaos theory there that is also obsessive. Beethoven was obsessed by reinventing rhythm by destroying it. Time refuses to settle, and this continuing reinvention of time was what Beethoven was after in his later years.”
That remarkable work ends a recital that begins with a Bach Partita but takes a more modern turn in the works between.
“That suite of pieces was inspired by racial protests of last summer. Mostly, the other pieces talk to the Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which is a very powerful musical translation of an incidence of American injustice. The Blind Tom Wiggins is an account of a Confederate victory during the Civil War, and is extremely violent, while the others are more lyrical.”
If there is a narrative there, then that is only indicative of how Denk’s mind works, both in considering his own life and the music he performs, as the latest chapter of his career plays out.
“Apart from a few scattered things, I have been doing more teaching than playing this summer, and this will be my first trip overseas. My experience of Scotland is very limited so this time I hope to immerse myself, although I am a very cautious person by nature so I will be keeping my distance! But I am so thrilled to be performing for people again.”
Jeremy Denk appears at Dunbar Parish Church on September 10, 14 and 16, and St Mary’s, Haddington on September 20. lammermuirfestival.co.uk
Mozart Piano Concertos by Jeremy Denk and the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is released by Nonesuch on September 17.
Pianist Malcolm Martineau talks to Keith Bruce ahead of his two Edinburgh International Festival appearances.
In an Edinburgh Festival that has, of necessity, looked to local talent to provide much of the programme, there is really only one home-grown hero whose presence is expected and welcomed every year and it is neither St Mary’s Music School star pianist Steven Osborne nor EIF 2021’s artist-in-residence, the undeniably West Coast Nicola Benedetti.
No, the musician without whom no EIF programme is complete is pianist and accompanist to the world’s finest singers, Malcolm Martineau. Edinburgh’s Martineau is a resident of south-east London, but he maintains an apartment in the Scottish capital, recently renovated and home to two nine-foot Steinways and a Bach Gesellschaft (the composer’s complete works as published by the Bach Society) that the pianist was left by his grandfather.
“I am hoping to rent it to someone who wouldn’t mind all that. I may live in London but Edinburgh will always be my home – coming in to Waverley Station, my heart just tings!”
At the age of 13, Martineau was a programme-seller in the Usher Hall during the Festival, and remembers concerts conducted by Guilini and Bernstein. Last year’s cancelled Festival was to have included a 60th birthday celebration programme for him with back-to-back Queen’s Hall recitals with mezzo Susan Graham and then a group of virtuoso instrumental friends.
“I love the Queen’s Hall,” he says. “I know the seats are not great, but it is the perfect venue for chamber music and for song. The audience is near enough that they can see the singer’s eyes and be part of the event.”
If he is dismayed that his anniversary passed unmarked, he is not admitting it. “As an accompanist, of course, I can go on forever,” he says, and there, in any case, are two Martineau events this year, relocated down the road to the temporary venue in the Old College Quad.
On Saturday August 14, the completely different group of musical friends, including soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Roderick Williams, join Martineau to mark a different anniversary, part of the Walter Scott 250 celebrations. The pianist has created a programme of music based on texts by Scott, composed by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Sibelius, and with two new songs written by Williams.
Then on August 27 he plays for Fatma Said, an Egyptian soprano on whose debut album he appears and with whom he had recently performed in Barcelona when we spoke. “That’s a very clever CD of Arabic music, from Scheherazade to Arabic pop,” he says. The programme for Edinburgh runs from Mozart to Ravel and de Falla.
Another young singer whose intelligent programming the pianist is eager to praise is contralto Jess Dandy, familiar to music-lovers from her work with Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort and the singer whose Perth Concert Hall recital at the end of May was Scotland’s first post-lockdown event.
“That was the first thing I’d done for an audience. Jess has an extraordinary instrument, she’s a real contralto. I’ve known her for a long time but that was the first time we’ve done a recital together. She was a total joy to work with and that very clever programme was all of her making. She will corner the market for all that contralto stuff that nobody else can sing.”
Like many musicians, Martineau found “positives and negatives” in the experience of lockdown, and he concedes that he was luckier than many, being married to a hospital pharmacist whose income was still coming into the house.
“It gave me time to practise a lot and reaffirm how much I love what I do. I discovered lots of new technical things, even at my grand old age. That was very exciting. Every day I couldn’t wait to get to the piano, which was lovely and slightly surprised me.
“I practised lots of songs but also lots of solo repertoire that I’ll probably never play, and that was very satisfying. I learned a Beethoven Piano Concerto that I had never learned when I was a youngster, and lots of other things. I geeked a bit on the internet with piano technique things, and there was time for all that.”
The pianist also managed to do some recording during the pandemic, although even that was also curtailed. He has many recording projects underway, with his most recent release the fourth and final volume of the complete songs of Gabriel Faure. His French song series for Signum Classics has involved a huge list of singers and he was since recorded those of Duparc “and we’re halfway through Ravel.” For Linn he is working on a complete Brahms set, following the composer’s own opus numbers, with two singers on each CD – a project that also involves Scots mezzo Karen Cargill.
Alongside fellow Scot Iain Burnside, Martineau’s work in the studio is where accompanists are adding fascinating surveys of music to the catalogue.
“The pianist that started these was Graham Johnson and that huge Schubert series he did for Hyperion. He was able to invite all those different singers to do a volume each.
“Like so many things in my profession, it started with Graham. He started a new conception of programming and made it all a little bit more relaxed, not in the standard and the scholarship, but in a different era from one that put the singers on a pedestal.
“There is a perception that French songs all sound the same and I wanted to use a number of singers in order to show the variety in each of these composers, and also the difference between each of these composers. Faure wrote from 1861 to 1921 so his style changed massively in that period, and I think the variety of the singers suits the variety of the music, and the setting of the poetry.
“And also I wanted to make music with all my friends. That’s the way I function best.
“The way singers perform now is different. They sing as if they are telling you a story at a dinner party. It’s more personal and intimate. In conservatoires there is much more awareness of song, and how healthy singing songs is for the voices of young singers. They might in ten years be singing Verdi, but they shouldn’t necessarily be singing Verdi now.”
Although he does so in the most gentle terms, there is no denying the passion Martineau brings to the teaching side of his practice, at least the equal of his performance personality.
“I’ve always loved working with young singers because I love seeing their first response to things that I’ve played for 25 years. I learn as much from them as they do from me.
“It is wonderful that singers now are not as opera-centric as they were 20 years ago. Of course opera will dominate their lives but singing songs, just two people, is great fun, and a completely different world. When opera works it is amazing, but there are so many variables within a production. With two people it is much more likely that you will get something that is immediately satisfying.
“Young singers need to learn an awareness of text and the ability to tell a story and trust their own instincts. I am totally allergic to the question ‘What’s usually done here?’ I don’t care! Just read what’s in the music and work out what you would like to do with it, and I will hopefully enable you to do that.
“And that is just as true for accompanists as for singers. When I am teaching I don’t want to hear clones of me – one of me is plenty!”
Malcolm Martineau and Friends play at Old College Quad on Saturday August 14 at noon and 2.30pm. Fatma Said and Malcolm Martineau are at the same venue, at the same times, on August 27.
Nigel Osborne talks to KEN WALTON about composing the music for a new theatrical production of King Lear with a cast of opera singers
When Shostakovich composed music for a 1940s Soviet stage production of King Lear, audiences may have been surprised to hear Jingle Bells appear as one of its main melodies. Eighty years on, Scots-based composer Nigel Osborne has called on songs he claims he heard as a foetus as inspiration for the music he has written for the same Shakespearean tragedy.
“I’m not being weird,’ insists the retired Edinburgh music professor. “Babies from the third trimester remember music heard in the womb. My mother, from Scots-Irish stock, enjoyed singing, especially those popular songs of the late ‘40s and ‘50s. I know that at that time in her pregnancy she was very worried – my father was suffering a nervous breakdown. She would sing herself to sleep with songs by Doris Day and the likes. I’m sure I emotionally remember that.”
For Osborne, these seemed the perfect model for the Fool’s songs, “so reminiscent of postwar Britain – soggy, funny and nostalgic.” As award-wining opera director Keith Warner intended to set his Grange Festival production of Lear in postwar Britain, why not respond with a corresponding musical style?
Mention of opera is key to understanding the novelty of this production. A quick look at the cast list helps explain why: veteran Wagnerian bass Sir John Tomlinson as Lear; tenor Sir Thomas Allen as Gloucester; soprano Susan Bullock as Goneril; tenor Kim Begley as the Fool; the brilliant upcoming soprano (and Edinburgh graduate) Louise Alder as Cordelia; the list of opera stars goes on. But why stage a theatre production at an opera and dance festival played by a cast of sixteen singers?
“It began with discussions between Keith and singers like John and Kim around the fact that the world doesn’t know opera singers can act,” Osborne explains. “They wanted to create a show that proved they can. King Lear is a great choice, one of the darkest, most emotional pieces you can imagine. This is where a singer’s voice quality is unique. They don’t bellow, but exert extraordinary control over every shade of their voices. They bring something special to Shakespeare.”
As such, this project has given Osborne the opportunity to think way out the box. For a start, there are no instruments involved. “We had these great singers, so I said why aren’t the voices the orchestra, in fact the whole sound design? They um’d and ah’d a bit, then turned round and said ‘great idea’.”
If anyone else had suggested such an approach, they might have been laughed off the set, but Osborne has a proven track record in making people do things out of their comfort zone. He has dedicated much of his life applying his musical energy and creativity to aid work in the worst war-torn areas of the world, on projects to rehabilitate displaced children in the Balkans, India, Middle East and Africa.
Nearer to home – he lives in the Scottish Borders – Osborne is currently engaged in a game-changing music therapy programme with the NHS in England, helping frontline workers to write songs as a means of alleviating their own trauma in the face of Covid. He’s convinced well-known artists to work with him – Sting, K T Tunstall and Eric Clapton among them – creating online technology and providing the musical support needed to help participants achieve extraordinary results.
“We’ve had all sorts of musical styles: jazzy ballads, folk and rock, and stuff that’s on the fringes of Kurt Weill-like music theatre,” he says. “One group of frontline surgeons and GPs wrote of the impossible decisions they were having to make every day, that sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and who’s going to die today?”
Theatre has played its own part in Osborne’s renowned rehabilitation programmes. He’s the house composer for the Ulysses Theatre in Istria, where in 2000, not long after the war in Yugoslavia, he cut his teeth with King Lear. “We invited people from different parts of the former Yugoslavia to work together,” he recalls. “Most of the actors had opposed fascism and genocide and had been exiled or imprisoned. Lear is about a kingdom divided. It was like them telling their own story.”
And it was in Istria that Osborne explored ways of using extended vocal techniques in theatre. “It was through phonetics,” he says. “To be really crude about it, you can ask actors to make the sound of the wind, as they often do, and it’s terrible, because it begins as a mannered parody and ends up falling to bits after a few nights because there’s no discipline underpinning it.”
Fast forward to the Grange Festival today, where Osborne has been working on Lear with opera singers who thrive on discipline. “Singers hate the arbitrary,” he insists, which has allowed him to explore more deeply the possibilities and intricacies of a soundtrack driven by detailed analysis of the phonetics in such phrases as Lear’s “Blow, winds!”.
The end result is a conflict of extreme musical worlds; those “soggy, sentimental post-war songs”, and a mysterious underpinning modernism built on vocalised harmonies etched out of weird scales. Sometimes these worlds collide. “Step by step, a whole-tone chord can become a 1950s George Shearing harmony. The brutal sounds of nature become nostalgic reminiscences.”
With such extensive experience of composing for opera and theatre – he was master of music at London’s Globe Theatre, and his operas have premiered world-wide from Glyndebourne and Scottish Opera to Oslo and Vienna – Osborne has the wit and confidence to allow the cast a certain creative flexibility. Not every aspect of his score is prescriptive. “Most singers have had to follow the detailed instructions of composers their whole lives. At the very moment they don’t, I’m not going to come along and give them instructions. Everything, then, is in their hands.”
Such moments, he says, are simply intended “to insinuate”, and they are liberating for the performers and the play. Is a Shakespeare audience ready for it? “I’m imagining a lot of knee-jerk reactions, but I’m happy with what I’ve done. It doesn’t bother me if some don’t like it. I just hope people will see something profound going on.”
Scottish Opera is showcasing its orchestra in a series of lunchtime concerts alongside its new production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Music director Stuart Stratford speaks to Keith Bruce.
Destined for indoor performances at the Festival Theatre as part of this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Sir David McVicar’s new production of Falstaff is also giving Scottish Opera the focus for its own summer festival at its rehearsal space in Glasgow’s Edington Street. The Citizens Theatre, Scottish Ensemble and Scottish Opera Young Company are also part of a programme that runs to August 1 and sees the revival of concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, the first two of which are between the first two performances of the opera on July 5 and 6, with the third to follow on July 16.
Effectively these have become sectional showcases, offering all the players in the orchestra a chance to hone and display their skills. Falstaff will feature the biggest orchestra the company has been able to field since the start of the pandemic, while the concerts are three programmes of large-scale chamber music.
Music director Stuart Stratford explains: “It is all happening on the stage with the Falstaff set still there.
“We had to keep the numbers of the orchestra down, so the maximum number of players we can have is 15 with social distancing. That was one of the factors in deciding the programme, and we wanted to use as many players in the orchestra as possible over the three concerts. I think we utilised every player in one concert or another except for harp, timpani and percussion.
“It is all about getting us playing again and showing the depth of talent across the orchestra, not just the principal players. So the strings are split into two groups, one led by our assistant leader Katie Hull in the first concert, playing Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and the Three Idylls by Frank Bridge and then leader Tony Moffat leads the other half of the strings in the concert that he is curating with Bach’s Brandenburg 2, Vivaldi, Purcell and Puccini. It is all about a celebration of the orchestra and the repertoire stemmed from that – pieces that showed off our assets.”
The third concert is a showcase for the winds and brass of the orchestra, with music by Dvorak, Stravinsky, and Enrique Crespo.
“I asked for suggestions from everyone. Many of the players suggested the Petite Symphonie by Gounod. Several people suggested the Dvorak Serenade for Winds. I was really keen to do the Stravinsky Octet as it is one of the few chamber pieces that has a bass trombone in it.
“I was delighted that Katie chose to include the Frank Bridge Three Idylls, which is beautiful and not that well known, and makes a nice pairing with the Elgar String Serenade. The Crespo I didn’t know at all. It is a brass quintet that really fitted the brief and it’s a real firework piece to end the brass and wind concert.”
The profile that the orchestra has enjoyed within the company over the recent difficult times looks from the outside to have been in marked contrast to the relationship Scottish Opera had with its musicians in recent years, when the company ceased to have a full-time chorus and put the players on part-time concerts.
That is an impression confirmed from the inside.
A long-term member of the orchestra told VoxCarnyx: “This last year and a half we’ve felt really connected and part of the company for the first time in about a decade. They’ve worked very hard to include us in their future plans. We know we are an integral part of the opera company but it hasn’t always felt like that. We have felt fully supported by Scottish Opera throughout this whole this period. Our artistic value may not have been fully appreciate in the past, but we have done lots of meaningful work during the pandemic.
“These concerts have been thought about very carefully, how to make it work for the size and the space and the players that they have. It’s such a good way to keep everyone’s playing in good form.”
Stratford is clearly proud of the work that the company has done in difficult times, from the film of Menotti’s The Telephone for last year’s Edinburgh Festival through online staged versions of Mozart, Janacek, Humperdinck, and most recently Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore.
“We have tried to keep people going. It is so important not just for their fingers and lips but for people’s mental health as well. We have been able to keep people busy in a meaningful way.”
The Orchestra of Scottish Opera performs as part of the Live at No.40 season on July 5, 6, and 16 at 1pm. Full details and booking information at scottishopera.org.uk
Main Image: Principal oboe Amy Turner with The Orchestra of Scottish Opera. Credit Beth Chalmers.
The founder of Chineke! Orchestra, Chi-chi Nwanoku, speaks to Keith Bruce ahead of its Edinburgh Festival debut.
It is easy to put a kilt on the story of the Chineke! Orchestra, the ensemble of black and ethnically diverse musicians that is “championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music”.
The orchestra was conceived in the catalytic presence of Glaswegian Gillian Moore, Director of Music at London’s Southbank, as founder Chi-chi Nwanoku relates in the well-rehearsed tale of her “lightbulb moment”.
The board of the organisation includes the former chief executive of the RSNO, Krishna Thiagarajan, and one of its most recognisable regular musicians, and social media advocates, is RSNO timpanist Paul Philbert. When it made its live re-appearance at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of May, Jane Atkins of the Scottish Ensemble was leading the violas and RSNO cor anglais Henry Clay was principal oboe. The Munich-based conductor Kevin John Edusei, who has impressed with the BBC SSO, the SCO and the RSNO in recent years, came to UK attention via his Chineke! appearances on the podium.
Now the orchestra, and its associated Chamber Ensemble, will make their Edinburgh Festival debuts, in concerts that include music by Judith Weir, and with mezzo Andrea Baker, who is now based in Scotland, as soloist.
But back to that “lightbulb moment”. Nwanoku had a 30-year career as an orchestral double bassist, notably with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, when she began to be invited to sit on the boards of organisations like the Association of British Orchestras and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain.
“That was where I heard the word ‘diversity’ being used around the table,” she says. “It wasn’t something I’d heard being discussed in the orchestra, but then Ed Vaizey, the culture minister at the time, asked me why he only ever saw me as a person of colour on the concert hall stage.
“And I was often the only person of colour, not just on stage but in the entire auditorium. And that included the composers of the music we played, and the management and the backstage staff.”
Around the same time, Nwanoku attended a Southbank concert by the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra of the Congo and was struck by the absence of black British musicians in the filming of a documentary about the visiting Africans. There was obviously a job of work to be done to raise the profile of players like herself.
“On the Monday I phoned every musical institution and told people what I was going to do. I began contacting all the principals of all the music academies and asking about their alumni. I wrote to soloist friends asking if they had noticed other musicians of colour in the orchestras they’d played with.
“Don’t assume I’ll know them!” I said. “One person would lead me to another, and we began putting a junior orchestra together as well. Exactly a year later that Junior Orchestra performed in the afternoon in the Clore Ballroom in the Royal Festival Hall and you couldn’t move for the number of people who came to hear them. Two hours later the Chineke! Orchestra, the professional orchestra, walked out on the Queen Elizabeth Hall platform to a sold-out audience.”
That was in 2015, and the profile of Chineke! has been growing impressively in the years since. Already an MBE, Nwanoku was awarded the OBE in 2017, the year the Chineke! Orchestra made its debut at the BBC Proms. In 2019 the Royal Philharmonic Society introduced a new category to its prestigious awards, Game-Changer, and Chineke! was the first recipient. In the citation, the Wigmore Hall’s John Gilhooley said: “Chineke! came from nowhere, and it is now almost impossible to imagine a world without it.”
“The energy and the mixture of people on the stage directly affects who is in the audience,” says Nwanoku. “Chineke! is not just for black and ethnically-diverse people, it is for the industry to benefit. Any initiative that is inclusive produces results, across any business and all walks of life.
“Classical music looked like the last bastion where ethnically-diverse people were excluded. When we did our first Prom in 2017, the television broadcast was the most viewed in Prom history. Of the 75 people on the stage that night, seven were white, and 95 per cent of them had never set foot on that platform before.
“In the pre-pandemic days when we could share music stands, there were never two people from the same background sharing a stand in the Chineke! Orchestra. I love that.”
There’s another plaid swatch in the kilted version of the Chineke! story in the pre-Festival life of EIF Head of Music Andrew Moore. He can be glimpsed in a documentary about a pre-Chineke! Chi-chi Nwanoku, being given a double bass lesson at her London home. Some years later he has booked her orchestra to visit Edinburgh for what will be its Scottish debut.
“I think EIF were waiting to see how we were going to do, as a lot of people did. They did want to see that we were worth our salt. But we are pushing against open doors now.”
Significantly, the Festival invitation came with proposals as to the programme the orchestra would play, and with whom. Moore not only suggested the major work in the concert but also its conductor, and soloist. Judith Weir’s woman.life.song was written for Jessye Norman and sets words by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2000, and was reprised by Norman at the London Proms the same year.
“EIF suggested that piece to us,” says Nwanoku. “It’s the first time a Festival or venue has suggested what we play, but I’ve loved the music of Judith Weir since I played a piece by her with the BBC Singers and just the double bass.”
It is, however, Chineke! philosophy to play a work by a composer of relative ethnicity in every programme, so the orchestra has commissioned Ayanna Witter-Johnson to write a short new work to precede the Weir.
“She’s a really talented black British composer. We recently premiered a piece at St Paul’s Cathedral that was a sort of requiem for the climate and she wrote the first movement, the Creation.”
Afro-American conductor William Eddins, conductor emeritus of Canada’s Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 2005 to 2017, is also new to Chineke!.
“It is a great opportunity to meet another conductor, says Nwanoku. Our conductors are as much a part of our musical success as the orchestra.”
As Chineke!’s founder explains, it has been very important “optically and politically” that an ethnically diverse orchestra was not being directed from the podium by a white man. That said, there are advanced plans for a very well-known conductor who fits that description to work with the orchestra on a major work that was scheduled for last year’s cancelled Proms. The huge orchestral and choral forces required mean it is still postponed and Nwanoku has her fingers crossed for 2022.
This year the orchestra is returning to the Royal Albert Hall, on August 24, and will be working with its first woman conductor, Kalena Bovell, who is also American and conducted Chineke! in November. The programme includes composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Florence Price, with Jeneba Kanneh-Mason playing the latter’s Piano Concerto in One Movement.
As part of Edinburgh International Festival 2021, Chineke! Chamber Ensemble is at Old College Quad on August 16 playing Vaughan Williams and Coleridge Taylor. William Eddins conducts Chineke! Orchestra at Edinburgh Academy Junior School on August 17. eif.co.uk