Tag Archives: Cumnock Tryst

Cumnock Tryst: Historical Fiction

St John’s Church, Cumnock

Saxophonist Christian Forshaw describes his approach to his latest album, Historical Fiction, as being “the same kind of process authors of the genre use, where they’ll take a skeletal framework of history and then weave their own narrative around that.” 

The result, on disc, is mesmerising, the crystalline purity of Grace Davidson’s soprano performance in music ranging from the medieval Hildegard of Bingen to Baroque masters Handel and Purcell working hand on glove with Forshaw’s improvisatory dialogues and the composed links that give seamless continuity to the entire performance.

Presenting it live as part of last weekend’s Cumnock Tryst Festival, with Libby Burgess on organ instead of the original Alex Mason, proved more of a challenge. The venue, the Ayrshire town’s modest St John’s Church, seemed a tad too claustrophobic for a concept that cried out for both physical and acoustical opulence. 

There was still ravishment and a quintessential purity in Davidson’s pitch-perfect singing of Purcell’s Fairest Isle and Gibbons’ beautifully evocative The Silver Swan among others, around which Forshaw’s responsive commentary cast an illuminating halo. But all of that, even Forshaw’s own set pieces, seemed locked firmly within the apsidal chancel of the church, confining the resonating glow that the nave-seated audience would love to have fully shared.

That same containment went against the ritualised nature of the performance. The idea was sound, from Davidson’s solitary plainsong entrance to the chess-like shifting of positions by her and Forshaw, dependant on where the spotlight should focus, that animated the flow. They simply required more room and fewer obstacles to negotiate. The killer blow was a power cut minutes from the end, leaving the organ impotent, and sabotaging the final idyllic Dowland song, Come Heavy Sleep.

In the right place, a cathedral perhaps, this would have been a much more moving experience. Historical Fiction, it seems to me, belongs to a more mystical, ethereal setting. And a more reliable power supply.

Ken Walton

Cumnock Tryst: Lewis/Osborne

Trinity Church, Cumnock

When a couple of ace pianists get together and sound indistinguishably as one, the outcome is pure magic. Not that we needed Saturday’s keynote recital at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst Festival by Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis to discover that. Their recent Hyperion recording, French Duets, is already a testament to their unique symbiosis as duettists. Hearing the same music in the flesh, however, took us to another level.

Osborne and Lewis are serious-minded musicians, Lewis especially, whose brooding stage persona generally conveys an intellectual intensity void of whimsy or idle chit-chat. It fell to Osborne – more comfortable perhaps with audience repartee – to sweeten the load through introductory thoughts and anecdotes, and the odd jokey interchange with the unexpectedly mischievous Lewis.

All of which set a suitably relaxed context for music that variously sang sweetly, touched on the sensuous and exotic, bristled with biting irony, even evoked the subtlest perfumes. Both took it in turns to handle the upper part, not that it made much difference to the outcome. When it comes to music, Osborne and Lewis share the same intuitive sensitivity of touch, melodic shaping and rhythmic nuance.

Applying it to Fauré’s tuneful Dolly Suite they turned this favourite of fumbling amateurs into a masterclass in lyrical ingenuity. Simple on the surface, there are treasures within, melodies that defy expectation, inner thoughts that deserve to be heard just enough to make their presence felt. What a joy to hear these so effortlessly revealed and yet so meaningfully contained within the broadest frameworks.

Poulenc’s belligerent Sonata for Piano Duet signalled a sudden change in delivery, the emphasis now on terse detachment and pounding dissonance, yet mindful of the bittersweet charm that pervades its calmer moments, and balanced neatly by a later performance of Stravinsky’s Trois Pièces faciles, just as edgy and acerbic, but with leaner, sharper textures. 

It would hardly have been a representative French programme without Debussy and Ravel, and it was here that Osborne and Lewis really took our breaths away. The sense of mystery and potency of colour conveyed in Debussy’s Six Epigraphes antiques was spellbinding, the contrasting piquancy of the Petite Suite illuminating and jewel-like. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite seemed the perfect finale, its fairy-tale imagery captured magnificently in a performance that summed up in one the previous triumphs of a great evening.  

Ken Walton 

Available to stream via the Festival website, www.thecumnocktryst.com, until 8 October

Cumnock Tryst: Tenebrae / Forshaw

Cumnock Old Church

Before a simple, effective – and almost unbearably moving – arrangement of the hymn Abide With Me was performed as an encore by the six singers of Tenebrae and saxophonist Christian Forshaw, the choir’s director Nigel Short acknowledged the inspiration of the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek in this combination of talents.

Much though I love the ECM recordings Garbarek and the Hilliards made – and Officium is now closing in on 30 years old – there was more warmth, and a quite distinctive sound, to the world premiere of this sequence by Tenebrae and Forshaw, under the title of the Orlando Gibbons hymn Drop, drop slow tears.

This was the choir’s debut at Cumnock Tryst – 2021’s alternative to the absence of Harry Christophers and The Sixteen perhaps – and part of Forshaw’s residency at the festival. James MacMillan has helped foster a collaboration that sounds very much as if it has legs, not least because the arrangements the saxophonist and Short brought to the project seemed very much cut from the same cloth.

Not all the music was presented in an altered state. The hour or so began with the Gibbons sung “straight” and ended with a Short arrangement that sounded close kin to Forshaw’s earlier treatment of Thomas Tallis’s O nata lux. Short also brought some creative use of the acoustic of the space, a high soprano delivering Hildegard von Bingen from “off-stage” and he himself instigating a semi-processional Incipit Lamentatio Gregorian chant.

Forshaw, who mostly performed from the pulpit but joined the singers to replace the contralto with alto sax on later Tallis, added compositions of his own to the mix. The modern language of Renouncement was nicely answered with Victoria’s Reproaches and In paradisum gave a rare showcase to the bass-baritone of the group.

In Garbarek fashion, Forshaw often favoured the soprano instrument, sometimes in dialogue with the choir’s soprano, but as well as alto he also added some subtle bass clarinet to the mix. Yes, Tenebrae and Forshaw owe a debt of recognition to the musicians who sold so many albums of sax and early vocal music, but Drop, Drop Slow Tears takes the recipe in a direction that is all their own.

The sound on the streamed version of this concert, which is available until Friday October 8, is superb, and the camerawork limited and unshowy, so not distracting. It is possible, however, that the Tryst may wish it had been able to devote more budget to the filming when the programme becomes more widely appreciated.

Keith Bruce

Cumnock Tryst: Karen Cargill

Trinity Church, Cumnock

In an earlier era – one without, perhaps, the baleful influence of Richard Wagner – it is intriguing to wonder if Robert Schumann might have composed more than one opera. Certainly, in her performance of his song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, international opera star Karen Cargill suggested a sensibility to create something less epic than the big German Romantic projects he contemplated.

For Cargill, Clara Schumann’s Sechs Lieder, Opus 13 and Robert’s Opus 42 set of eight are both the work of the couple together. This was something of a change to the pre-announced programme to open Sir James MacMillan’s returned long weekend of performances in East Ayrshire. The published brochure lists a showcase for female composers, with Clara followed by Fanny Mendelssohn, Pauline Viardot and Amy Beach.

Only Beach’s Three Browning Songs survived of the others, following the Schumanns with big Broadway renditions that rounded off the recital in grand style. The major loss was of five of Viardot’s Russian songs, in their German translations, which might have been something of a bridge to Cargill’s new Linn disc of French repertoire, Fleur de mon ame, none of which she sang here.

Her partner on the recording, Simon Lepper, was also her foil in Cumnock, the familiar foundation for her first performance in front of an audience in 18 months, something she clearly found an emotional experience.

In that time, as well as releasing that acclaimed recording of Debussy, Duparc and Chausson, the mezzo has been appointed interim head of vocal studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Schumann songs are, as she pointed out, bedrock repertoire for young students. Cargill gave a masterclass in their performance here, alternating power with tenderness, communicating both sequences as narrative arcs of the rewards and pain of love, and persuasively presenting the settings of Chamisso’s popular verse cycle as the answer to the questioning note on which Clara Schumann’s Die stille Lotosblume ends.

This was, beyond argument, a superb way for the Cumnock Tryst to open its return, with Scotland’s major opera star making her debut at the event in an intimate recital a million miles from her high-profile life at the New York Met and elsewhere. If those Beach songs are as new to her as she said, she gave a definitive performance of them just the same, and then encored with a nod to her host in a William Soutar setting by MacMillan. Live-streamed from its first performances, the concert is available via the Tryst website for seven days.

Keith Bruce

Tryst Spreads Its Wings

Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival is expanding into new venues as well as embracing digital streaming over its four days at the end of September and start of October.

Alongside the usual range of church and other venues – and there are performances at Trinity, St John’s and Cumnock Old Churches as well as in the Town Hall and Dumfries Arms Hotel – the Tryst will this year use the new Barony Campus Hall in the Ayrshire town and the Morphy Richards Engineering Centre on Dumfries House Estate.

The festival runs from September 30 to October 3 and opens on the Thursday evening with the first appearance at the Tryst by Scotland’s star mezzo, Karen Cargill. With Simon Lepper at the piano, she will perform two concerts back-to-back, at 6.45pm and 8.30pm, to allow for maximum audience in a safely-managed environment. Her performance will also be live-streamed and available to watch for seven days.

Pianist Steven Osborne returns to the festival, this time in the company of Paul Lewis, to perform a programme of 20thcentury piano duets, mainly by French composers.

The festival’s artist-in-residence is saxophonist Christian Forshaw. He will be joining the singers of Tenebrae in a programme of early music for Passiontide and in a trio with singer Grace Davidson and Libby Burgess at the keyboard, as well as appearing with Sir James MacMillan and the Robert Burns Academy Concert Band in a public workshop entitled Improvise!

That is only one facet of an education programme that also includes the launch, at the Barony Hall, of a new book by MacMillan and Tryst chief executive Jennifer Martin, Creative Composition for the Classroom.

The new venue at Dumfries House Estate will welcome the returning Hebrides Ensemble. Like Cargill and Tenebrae, they are also performing twice, in their case at 2pm and 4.30pm on the Sunday.General booking for this year’s programme opens on Monday August 9. www.thecumnocktryst.com

New Cumnock Partnership

News that Sir James MacMillan has launched a major new initiative to establish Cumnock as a global centre of excellence in the learning and teaching of composition should come as no surprise. 

MacMillan’s preeminent worldwide reputation as a composer, allied to his establishment of the annual Cumnock Tryst Festival, with its formidable record in fostering new compositional talent and associated schools and community initiatives, positions this latest initiative as a bold and natural advancement in the widening impact and influence of his expanding East Ayrshire project.

The new scheme, a partnership between The Cumnock Tryst and Trinity College London, aims to support composers at crucial stages in their development: those just embarking on a career; those teaching composition in schools; and those studying composition either at school or in higher education. 

“It has long been an ambition of mine to take all the experience and learnings we have built over many years of teaching composition in the schools around Cumnock and East Ayrshire and make those available to teachers and students further afield,” said MacMillan, who will be assisted on the ground by fellow composer Jennifer Martin.

The new Tryst-Trinity partnership will kick off this year with a project for Advanced Higher music students at the new Robert Burns Academy in Cumnock, and the launch of a supporting publication for music teachers and young composers, written by MacMillan and Martin, timed to coincide with the 2021 Cumnock Tryst festival in October.

MacMillan, whose new hard-hitting Christmas Oratorio is reviewed this week in VoxCarnyx, added: “The resources we create will not just be focused on teachers, but also support students studying composition at a higher education level or even self-taught. As part of our work to date we have mentored many emerging composers and supported some incredible talent nurtured here in Cumnock, such as Jay Capperauld and Electra Perivolaris, through commissions for our festival.” 

“I really believe that here we have the skills and resources to create an internationally recognised centre of excellence which will benefit the potential composers in the area, but also those around the world.” 

Future Cumnock Trysts are also set to benefit from a substantial new auditorium in the Robert Burns Academy that can seat upwards of 500 people. MacMillan is confident it will become an important venue, not just for the festival, but for performing groups in the community, in schools and from further afield. 

A gala opening was planned for last year’s Cumnock Tryst, featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but had to be abandoned due to Covid-19. “It is our intention to mark the new space with a celebratory event as soon as we are allowed,” MacMillan promised.