SCO / Stout & McKay
City Halls, Glasgow
While the SCO’s mission on Friday was fundamentally to operate as a backing band for folk duo Chris Stout (violin) and Catriona McKay (Scottish harp), the whistling and cheering from this Celtic Connections audience must surely have compensated. Rarely does a regular SCO City Halls audience mark its presence with anything beyond polite applause or a stifled cough. In truth, classical music could do with more of this unrestrained encouragement.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The real focus for Friday’s uninhibited following was Stout and McKay, and a brand of music, rooted in progressive folk and embraced by an unpretentious sophistication that engenders its wide appeal.
They opened with Seavaigers, written for them ten years ago by Sally Beamish, and ended with the duo’s own musical reverie, Glenshee. In between were equally substantial works based on poetry by Shetland-born Christie Williamson, himself present and involved, plus songs by Irishman Liam Ó Maonlaí that acted more inconsequentially as miscellaneous stocking fillers.
Otherwise the concert bore unified purpose under the overarching title Möder Dy, how Shetlanders describe the ocean’s mysterious undercurrents. There was instant reference to that in Seavaigers, a powerfully expressive scene-setter in which Beamish threads traditional influences through her trademark modernism. Stout and McKay brought it thrillingly to life in a wide-ranging performance that shifted inexorably from whispered mystique to mountainous swells of foot-stamping exuberance.
More substantial were the three lengthy musical responses to Williamson’s poetry that were, on paper, the meat of the programme. Williamson’s own vocal presence, pre-empting each musical moment with the relevant lines from his watery allegory, Waves Whisper, was one of slightly dishevelled informality. Maybe that’s the way of poets, but he should have stuck to the readings and left the casual asides to the more charismatic Stout.
All three performances were predominantly showpieces for the front line and, to some extent, guest percussionist James Mackintosh, whose feathery brushstrokes on kit were more visually than audibly stimulating. As for Stout (alternating between violin and ruminative viola) and McKay, they commanded exclusive attention through their breathtaking chemistry, each knowing instinctively what nuance or dramatic change of gear the other was implying.
There wasn’t that much for the SCO to do in the Williamson-inspired pieces other than act as wallpaper, albeit peppered with momentary flourishes, but they did so with unstinting professionalism under the alert baton of James Lowe. More refreshing, perhaps, was that eventual escape to what Stout described as “a sonic postcard from Glenshee”, a sequence of contrasting tableaux touched up with rich Highland imagery and plenty of “wish you were here” sentiment.
Stout and McKay had no intention of leaving things there. Anticipating a call for a valedictory “set of reels”, they obliged, now very much in boisterous home territory. They are a dynamic duo, with a stage presence that plays to their distinctive personae: Stout’s rock-fuelled stomp and bad boy cool versus McKay’s matronly insouciance and smouldering sensuality. Maybe they should rebrand as Nigel and Nigella – Kennedy and Lawson, that is, just to be absolutely clear!.