Tag Archives: Beacon Arts Centre

Beacon Series / Shibe

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

There’s no mistaking the boldness with which Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre opened its first classical music series. Anyone expecting world-ranking guitarist Sean Shibe to settle for a populist solo recital of, say, Spanish-style lollipops, Bach transcriptions or Elizabethan airs will have misread Shibe’s fearless evangelism, which placed a major modernist Picasso-inspired work, Harrison Birtwistle’s Beyond the White Hand, at the heart of his hour-plus afternoon programme. 

He acknowledged series curator James Waters’ willingness to go for it, proving in his intense and at times edge-of-the-seat performance that it simply takes a master craftsman to make sense of the seemingly impenetrable. The Beacon’s informal performance space, its floor-to-ceiling window views over a windswept River Clyde changing hue by the minute, seemed remarkably suited to Birtwistle’s angular and experimental virtuosity, his fragmented, to some extent heretical, rhetoric.

The rest of Shibe’s programme was easier to instantly digest. He opened with a pair of works by the 16th century Spanish vihuelist Luis de Narváez, their nimble eloquence like stage whispers enticing us into an intimate world. The accompaniment of trickling rainwater from the roof space above seemed strangely appropriate, like some Zen water feature.

Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy (a habanera drawing on quotes from Debussy), even with its uptempo vibe, maintained that sense of reverie, as did Poulenc’s short, serene Sarabande. 

It was only after the ensuing Birtwistle that Shibe injected a more direct sunlight into his programme, firstly in the soulful radiance of Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s Julia Florida (a point, coincidentally, where the clouds lifted over the Clyde to reveal distant Helensburgh), then in five of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 12 Guitar Etudes, sprayed with splashes of South American effervescence, and finally in Alberto Ginastera’s catchy Sonata. 

The last – dexterous, multi-coloured and exciting – seemed like a microcosmic précis of the entire recital: the internalised austerity of the opening Escordia giving way to a breezy, sometimes weirdly experimental, Scherzo; and after the searching restfulness of Canto, the manic motor-driven Finale.

Shibe attracted a healthy audience for this inaugural concert. Sitting near the back, however, it was difficult to pick out some of the finest details of his playing. Given the flexibility of the room, there is surely scope to try out different audience layouts, especially when such intimate solo instruments are featured. 

(Photo: Christopher Bowen)

Ken Walton

The Beacon’s first Classical Series continues with the Malamatina Guitar Quartet (26 Feb), saxophonist Dean Walker Garrity (March), accordionist Ryan Corbett (April) and ends in June with harpsichordist John Butt performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Details at www.beaconartscentre.co.uk 

Opera Highlights

Scottish Opera

Ah, the “C” word. Is there no escaping it? Surely opera, the most fantastical of all stage forms, could be the magic carpet whisking us to a much-needed alternative fiction; where Covid is perhaps a mythical Roman God rather than this pesky contemporary pestilence. 

Or has Scottish Opera hit the right note by gluing together the pan-century musical potpourri that is its cheery annual Opera Highlights production with pandemic-strewn dialogue, in the same way traditional pantomime might throw in modish one-liners? 

Billed as “a wry look at our socially-distanced times”, you do have to hand it to Scottish Opera. The company has been out in front over the summer with performances, both live and filmed, that say boo to the big “C”. This filmed version of the Highlights Tour, shot in Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre and unveiled on Scottish Opera’s website on Sunday, might not physically be heading for the 30-plus outlying communities it traditionally serves, but ironically and somewhat positively, it could conceivably reach every household in the nation and beyond. 

So yes, for all that its weakest aspect is the aforementioned script, which to its credit is functionally minimalist, the stylistic array of arias and ensemble pieces it links, and the fresh aptitude of the buoyant quartet that deliver them – zestful young talent from Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artist scheme – are what score the real success of this hour-long production stage directed by Rosie Purdie, film directed by Antonia Bain.

From cultured Mozart to sentimental Lehar, Ponchielli to doleful Massenet, upbeat Verdi and soulful Korngold to double servings of Donizetti and Bizet, the playlist is like a box of Milk Tray without the dreaded marzipan sandwich. All infinitely palatable, sweetly sung, and portrayed with credible collegiate interaction despite the onstage adherence to individually squared-off confines.

Singly, there is much to savour from soprano Catriona Hewitson’s coquettish Moi, je m’appelle Ciboulette (Reynaldo Hahn) and the sultriness of Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied from Die tote Stadt; and from mezzo soprano Margo Arsane, whose velvety richness hits the spot in a tearful aria from Massenet’s Werther. 
Baritone Arthur Bruce slips with ease between the artful nonchalance of Mozart’s Guglielmo (Cosi fan tutte) and the quicksilver wit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Roulette Song from their final collaboration, The Grand Duke. It’s left to tenor Shengzhi Ren to reach spine chilling heights in Donizetti and Lehar.

A mixed cocktail of ensemble pieces bring depth and variety to this piano accompanied show (the dextrous Susannah Wapshott), ending officially with Bizet’s famous Pearl Fishers duet, but in response to the telling handful of stage-managed applause, offering one more all-cast delight from the pen of Rossini, complete with – you guessed it – yet another social-distancing message.
Ken Walton

Opera Highlights is available to view at scottishopera.org.uk

Image: Margo Arsane © Colin Hattersley