Tag Archives: Caroline Shaw

Scottish Ensemble: Breathe

Engine Works, Glasgow

The way in which the presentation of music – and specifically “classical” chamber music – has evolved to present practice (now taught in many a conservatoire) might make an interesting research topic, but the main takeaway is that it works. This 75-minute serving of contemporary music, with a side-order of Beethoven and a little garnish of La Monte Young, attempts to do something different and, regardless of the high quality of the performance of some excellent music, is less successful.

The inspiration for the recital, we are told, is the work that the Scottish Ensemble has been doing with patients in Maggie’s cancer care support centres, but we learn little of what that involves, or the relationship between those visits and the music that Ensemble and BBC SSO viola player Andrew Berridge has chosen for the Breathe programme. Music is a multi-faceted experience, and if there is surely a crossover between its therapeutic value and a concert performance, this evening doesn’t really get to the nub of it.

More seriously, the Glasgow date’s audience seemed a little discombobulated by Breathe, and unsure what was expected of them. Not only was there no applause when the musicians appeared, everyone sat on their hands until, inevitably, after the Finale of the last of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets, the antepenultimate piece. Along the way Berridge offered gentle guidance on how we should be listening to the music he has selected, but when asked to describe their reaction to the pieces, individuals reached for comfortable, ambient, relaxing words rather than expressing engagement or concentration on the compositions. Put an audience on the spot, unrehearsed, and this is what you should probably expect.

For most, I suspect, these opportunities for interaction were a distracting interruption to the music, which began with the folk-influenced Solbonn by Norwegian Gjermund Larsen and ended in a similar vein with a trio playing Taladh (Lullaby) by Donald Grant of the Elias String Quartet, which Berridge has recorded with another ensemble, Perpetuo.

Apart from the Beethoven, the meat of the sequence came from three composers around 40 years old who are hip names to drop: Daniel Kidane, Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw. Kidane, the only Brit, provides the title piece, which borrows heavily from early music in its longer central section, and leans on the 20th century examples of Vaughan Williams and Maxwell Davies in that.

Muhly and Shaw are both in the business of interrogating the form of the string quartet in his Diacritical Marks and her Ritornello 2.sq2.j.a. As with the Beethoven, the most impressive ingredient of the evening was how these were arranged and performed by the larger ensemble. The unity of the performance of the conclusion of the Razumovsky produced wide smiles in performers and listeners alike, while the eight short movements in the Muhly – some richly melodic – were batted back and forth by two quartets, opposite each other but not at all oppositional.

At a little over a quarter of an hour in duration, Shaw’s Ritornello was the biggest work, and the showstopper. Expanding it for the dozen musicians only underlines the technical challenges in its pass-the-parcel pizzicato passages, overlapping bowings, delicious glissandos and a mid-way peak of an accelerating seven-note rising figure. The ensemble richness of the performance was every bit as exciting as the more familiar Beethoven.

In the end it is the fascinating way the composers and performers deal with the possibilities of music written for the string quartet that makes Breathe worth the ticket, rather than the more vague, and highly personal, question of how the audience listens to it.

Keith Bruce

Repeated at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms tonight, Thursday, October 27, and Steeple Church Dundee on Friday, October 28.

Picture: composer Caroline Shaw

Lammermuir: NYCoS Chamber Choir

Loretto School Chapel

Featuring a full complement of the Scottish orchestras, the presence of Scottish Opera, quality string quartets and more top drawer pianists than is quite decent, one of the few things the 2022 Lammermuir Festival is not about is debuts. Or perhaps it is.

With The Marian Consort, Sansara, The Orlando Consort and Dunedin Consort still to come in the chamber choir line-up, that strand began with the first public concert by the newest ensemble under the capacious umbrella of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

Long in the planning, or at least in the aspirations of NYCoS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the NYCoS Chamber Choir takes his example of the pursuit of excellence with the young musicians of Scotland to another level. If the full forces of the senior choir have already impressed some of the world’s top conductors in performances in Edinburgh, London, Europe and the United States, this elite unit of between 20 and 30 young voices is a refinement of that success.

What Bell has done with the formation of the Chamber Choir is select the finest voices within the current cohort – and possibly recent graduates who are beyond the stipulated age-range in future incarnations – and created a group that can tackle specific repertoire. Who knows what that might be in the future, but this first concert set bold, contemporary parameters – putting, perhaps quite deliberately, clear distance between the NYCoS Chamber Choir and the other vocal groups at this year’s Lammermuir.

With Michael Bawtree at the organ for Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the recital, and the piano for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, which concluded it, the other two works were a cappella – James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow.

Only the Dove, which dates from 2000, could be described as a secular work, although some of the poetry he sets – Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson among the texts – is faith-inspired. It was an especially appropriate work, not just for an unintended allusion to the death of the Queen, but also because the setting of Dickinson’s Answer July seemed to be a mature version of the sort of songs NYCoS has commissioned as part of its invaluable training of young musicians over its 25 years.

That coming to maturity of the organisation is perfectly celebrated in the birth of this choir. If Britten’s fascinating 1943 work – commissioned by the same clergyman responsible for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and setting texts by troubled 18th century poet Christopher Smart – is not heard very often, it is because it is far from easy. Here too, though, step-outs from soprano Emily Kemp and alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith take the listener into a child-like world of cat and mouse, while tenor Alexander Roland and bass Christopher Brighty each made powerful solo contributions.

Kemp then supported fellow soprano Lorna Murray in the exquisite close harmony passages of the MacMillan, while all the female voices provided an ethereal underscore to solo tenor Lewis Gilchrist. With alto Morven McIntyre and tenor Jack Mowbray the solo voices in the Dove, this was a chance for individuals to shine, but mainly about the meticulous performance of the ensemble of young men and women whose musical abilities far transcend any “youth choir” or “non-professional” categorisation.

The group also gives Bell access to a whole realm of repertoire, including the newest piece in this programme, the setting of verses from Psalm 84 by America’s composer-of-the-moment, Caroline Shaw. And the swallow is a gorgeous piece which seems to take the sound-world of Whitacre or Lauridsen into a more sophisticated sphere, not least in the imaginative and specific vocal techniques it demands.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Stuart Armitt

SCO / Ticciati

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

It is not to diminish the role of violinist Hugo Ticciati, brother of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s former principal conductor Robin, who stepped in to the breach when a tragic combination of bereavement and family illness prevented Pekka Kuusisto from fulfilling his residency, to say that Sunday afternoon’s first concert of the three would have been a very different event with the Finn in charge.

Entitled New York Counterpoint after the seminal Steve Reich work from 1985 that closed the concert, the focus on the sound of the US, never mind its Eastern seaboard, was diminished, although there was still plenty of music from there.

Few were likely to complain about the oldest addition in the new programme. Dating from 1931, the violin duos by Bela Bartok are playful delights and were charmingly performed by Ticciati and the Italian violinist leading the orchestra in the previous week’s concerts, Cecilia Ziano. Following those with Berio’s contemplative Aldo duet was Ticciati’s ingenious way of incorporating a moment of silence to think of the war in Ukraine.

By contrast, the violinist’s duo with SCO first cello Philip Higham was full of ferocious duelling, as well as some singing and chord strumming. Finnish composer Sauli Zinovjev’s Double Trouble followed Swede Albert Schnelzer’s violin solo Solitude and completed a quartet of works by musicians with connections to the world of pop and rock.

The other two were Bryce Dessner of The National, and Nico Muhly, whose collaborators include Bjork and Anohni. Dessner’s string quartet Aheym was composed for the Kronos, and its full-on opening and frantic folk-hued finish bracket some very Glass-influenced minimalism. In the palindromic pattern of the programme, it was mirrored by the penultimate work, Ziano again leading a quartet of SCO front-deskers in Entr’acte by Caroline Shaw, already a modern classic by one of the most celebrated contemporary composers, and a writer whose music has broad appeal.

Much of that description of course also applies to Steve Reich. In some performances of his New York Counterpoint it can be hard to identify the live lead line from the other eleven clarinet and bass clarinet parts on tape. Using an existing multi-track by English National Opera’s first clarinet Barnaby Robson, SCO principal Maximiliano Martin soared majestically over the backing in an interpretation that was marvellously climactic and cheered to the rafters.

Martin’s mastery of his instrument, on repertoire a long way from his new Delphian album of French sonatas with Scott Mitchell, also launched the afternoon, playing Nico Muhly’s It Goes Without Saying. Obviously owing a substantial debt to the Reich of two decades earlier, Muhly’s backing track involves an array of other intriguing percussive sounds, as well as clarinets, and is another work of ample charm.

If Kuusisto’s personality would have made for a different afternoon, the shared focus on familiar SCO players and their guests was a different sort of success. With DJs from eh-fm before the live music and during the interval, it owed much to the trail blazed by SCO spin-off ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber. When considered alongside Matthew Whiteside’s The Night With . . . events, it is clear that Robert McFall’s group did much to pave the way for colleagues.

Keith Bruce