Tag Archives: Andrea Baker

Lammermuir: Catriona and the Dragon

Dunbar Parish Church

The fact that Lammermuir Festival kept faith with its latest community opera project for four years, through all the prohibitions of the pandemic, makes celebrating it something that overrides any conflict of interest I may have in doing that for VoxCarnyx.

My son, baritone Arthur Bruce, was one of three professional singers involved, alongside mezzo Andrea Baker and – in a demanding multiplicity of roles – soprano Catriona Hewitson. They would concede that the show was not about them, however, as they voiced the story-telling alongside a huge cast of local people, from adults to young primary schoolchildren, singing, acting and playing most of the orchestral instruments.

Conducted by Sian Edwards, who marshalled their varying skill-levels with impressive aplomb, the orchestra was led by Katie Hull. It was in itself a fascinating development of the McOpera ensemble established by Scottish Opera players when their staff contracts became part-time, with musicians from the SCO, Maxwell Quartet, National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and elsewhere as principals.

Composer Lliam Paterson and librettist Laura Attridge had risen to the challenge of giving everyone in this diverse company an important part to play in a narrative that used local folklore and had a lucid, and unpatronising environmental message. Not only were all the young participants on board for the anthemic chorus at the end, but a child of no more than one in front of me was engrossed by it all.

Leading the community cast in the role of Queen Catriona, Nora Trew-Rae not only revealed a fine voice as the show evolved, but also put in a good number of laps of the auditorium in an energetic performance. That physicality ran through the project and the directors – Attridge, Moira Morrison (Chorus Director), and Ian West (Movement) – achieved wonders of co-ordination. It was Hewitson who often provided the icing on the cake, especially in her soaring singing of the Dragon, but also with some startlingly fast changes of costume.

The climactic confrontation between the Queen and the beast happens off-stage, reported and enacted by her courtiers, Carruthers and Colquhoun (Baker and Bruce). That is a device that can be traced back to ancient tales like Beowulf, but it perhaps lacked a little dramaturgical – rather than performative – style to be a complete success here, solely because it was the only time there were so few people onstage.

It hardly mattered, though, as the chorus quickly returned for that moving Anthem for East Lothian. The county, and Lammermuir Festival, can be justly proud of its talented people, making such a vibrant show in this terrific wee venue.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Catriona Hewitson in rehearsal with the cast by Rob McDougall

EIF / Fringe: Philadelphia Orchestra | Baker | Cordes en Ciel

Usher Hall | Pianodrome | St John’s, Edinburgh

The second Usher Hall appearance by The Philadelphia Orchestra at this year’s Festival includes the First Symphony of rediscovered black American composer Florence Price. At the other side of the Old Town, mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker concluded the Fringe run of a show that celebrates Price’s contemporary Shirley Graham Du Bois, whose opera Tom Tom was premiered the same year (1932) and, although praised, similarly then sunk without trace.

Baker’s show, the latest in her Sing Sister Sing! project and entitled Tales of Transatlantic Freedom, does much more than that, however. Tracing her own lineage to an enslaved great-grandfather (who, like Du Bois, became a very successful student, she at Oberlin, he at Yale), Baker’s operatic training is apparent in her selection from Du Bois’ work, but elsewhere she ranges from gospel and blues to the songs of Robert Burns, her argument being that diversity has always existed in music, it has merely been lost in  the present age.

Directed by John Paul McGroarty, the show made best use of a unique Fringe venue, housed within the Old Royal High School, once ear-marked for the Scottish Parliament and now destined to be the new home of St Mary’s Music School. At first prowling around the perimeter of the amphitheatre (which is partly constructed of old pianos) singing field hollers, the mezzo made her case with powerful performances of Ca’ the Yowes and A Slave’s Lament as well as spiritual Steal Away and lascivious dance moves, and some challenging eye-contact with members of the in-the-round audience.

Her essential partner in all this was pianist and arranger Howard Moody, just as versatile as she on two working pianos – “prepared” and otherwise – melodica and assorted percussion (often also the piano). It’s a show sure to have another life.

Cordes en Ciel: Kristiina Watt and Heloise Bernard

A duo of younger female musicians brought a run of lunchtime recitals at the Just Festival in St John’s at the West End of Princes Street to a close earlier on Thursday. Under new manager Miranda Heggie, the music, art and discussion programme concludes with Messiaen’s Quartet for End of Time this evening.

Cordes en Ciel was formed by two international students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Estonian lutenist Kristiina Watt and French/American soprano Heloise Bernard. Specialising in music heard at the courts of Louis XIV in France and Charles I & II in England, they are a charming partnership, and the period of their music nevertheless demanded considerable versatility. From Watt that was a range of accompanying techniques on theorbo and guitar as well as lute, and from Bernard singing in French and English and of emotional love songs as well as wry narrative. The music of Lully and Purcell were understandably to the fore, but we ended in the Franco-Iberian territory popularly explored by Jordi Savall.

The Philadelphia’s first Usher Hall concert, originally to have been Beethoven 9 with the Festival Chorus, began with an unbilled “present” to the Edinburgh audience – as conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin announced it – of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. Although a problematic addition for the Festival, as the previous “resident” orchestra at this year’s event, the Czech Phil, had begun with the same work a few days previously, it helped shaped Thursday evening’s programme by getting things off with a fast and furious bang.

The first work in the agreed revised programme was Rachmaninov’s less-often-heard Isle of the Dead. Inspired by a black and white print of an already sombre painting, its is nonetheless far from colourless even if many of those colours are dark ones: eight basses, tuba, bass trombone, contrabassoon and bass clarinet. Mostly about huge ensemble sound, tempi and dynamics controlled with a tight rein by Nezet-Seguin, it nevertheless featured some fine solo playing from leader David Kim and first clarinet Ricardo Morales.

The orchestra’s star principal clarinet was also among the prominent voices in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but it was all about the conductor’s shaping of the old warhorse – without reference to any score. Out of the blocks like a whippet, this was a vigorous Five that shifted through the gears of pace and volume, showing The Philadelphia to be a highly responsive machine. Nezet-Seguin took long-ish pauses between the first and second and second and third movements, perhaps to prepare ears for the perfection of the segue from Scherzo to Finale – the make-or-break point of any performance.

Regardless of the bolt-on bonus at the front end of the evening, there was an encore, although we have, of course, heard the poignant Prayer for Ukraine from other orchestras too.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Yannick Nezet-Seguin by Hans van der Woerd

Nevis Ensemble picks its carols

Nevis Ensemble has selected the professional and student composers winning its fleet-footed 2020 carol competition, whose works will be recorded by the travelling orchestra and mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker for broadcast online on Christmas Day.

Balfron High School’s Harry Baines, who also studies at the Junior Conservatoire of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with Nicholas Olsen, is the under-18 winner. Mentored by composer Stuart MacRae, he will set a new Scots language text by poet Stuart Paterson, A Blythe Yule.

The parallel open call to established composers has selected Ailie Robertson, harpist and composer-in-residence at Glyndebourne Opera and Aberdeenshire’s sound festival. She will set a new Gaelic text by Marcus Mas an Tuairneir, An Dubhlachd.

Both new carols will be recorded alongside a new commission from British-Chinese composer Alex Ho at Adelaide Place Baptist Church in Glasgow for the December 25 broadcast. In the run up to the event, Nevis Ensemble will share snippets from its musical history in an Advent Calendar, accessible through its website.nevisensemble.org

Image: Composer and harpist Ailie Robertson