Tag Archives: Cumnock Tryst

Cumnock Tryst

Various venues, Cumnock

It’s hard to believe The Cumnock Tryst is approaching the significant landmark of its first decade. Nine years ago, local boy, now globally-celebrated composer, Sir James MacMillan founded the event, modelled on the likes of Orkney’s St Magnus Festival, in the hope it would play its part in accelerating the cultural and economic revival of the former mining-dependent Ayrshire town. 

It has certainly proved sustainable. MacMillan’s contacts book may have been essential in enticing celebrity names from the classical world and beyond, but just as imperative has been the Festival’s catalysing effect on generating projects involving local people that impact so positively on their social and cultural well-being. 

The 4-day 2023 Festival was no exception, witnessing on the one hand the magnetic persona of Australian-American opera star Danielle de Niese, the electrifying a cappella vocal ensemble Tenebrae and leading Scots folk singer Findlay Napier; while on the other, such big-hearted community events as BIG Saturday!, back-to-back concerts in the new Barony Hall of Robert Burns Academy, a central hub in the sprawling multi-school Barony Campus newly built on the edge of the town.

Both hour-long concerts – “In the Stars” and “Darkness into Darkness” – were the culmination of a three-year project celebrating the legacy of the local coalfields, in which schools and older community groups (including the now well-established Festival Chorus) engaged with composers and songwriters to create their own musical responses. These were performed by the participating groups with professional support from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under MacMillan’s direction.

I witnessed Saturday’s earlier event, “In the Stars”, notable for its slickness of presentation and stylistic variety the challenge produced: from Doon Academy, an attitudinal percussion number with narration by singer-songwriter Karine Polwart; from Netherthird Primary Choir the catchy Elder of the Woods; from Logan Primary the whimsical Crow from Crow Wood; and finally Robert Burns Academy’s vocal pop number, The Colour Room, its title borrowed from an actual Cumnock hairdressing salon.

Dalmellington Brass Academy had set the mood with brass band composer Andrew Duncan’s Knockshinnoch 1950, a robust tribute to an historic local mining accident. Further short orchestral links written by Duncan, Electra Perivolaris, Michael Murray, Gillan Walker and Jay Capperauld, and ranging in temperament from Murray’s brooding and mysterious Visions of the A-Frame to the minimalist lustre of Capperauld’s Zenith, secured a vital continuity, and a vehicle to offset the successive performers’ comings and goings. With MacMillan’s riotous football tribute, Eleven, a pugnacious BBC SSO blew the final whistle. 

Friday evening offered a stimulating juxtaposition between the sacred and the secular. The former was delivered by Nigel Short’s excellent a cappella vocal ensemble Tenebrae in a programme entitled I Saw Eternity, referring to the Scottish premiere of MacMillan’s eponymous anthem, a work written specifically to partner Bach’s motets.

Which is precisely what Tenebrae did, coupling that and more by MacMillan’s choral settings with two of Bach’s loveliest cantatas, Komm, Jesu Komm and Jesu Meine Freude. The Bach interpretations were supreme, drawing an uplifting combination of homogenous perfection and nuanced elasticity from the singers. The choral partita format of Jesu Meine Freude, while immense, even symphonic in scope, maintained its intimacy throughout. Intonation was electrifyingly spot-on.

MacMillan’s music provided freer scope for Tenebrae’s expressive war chest. The three Tenebrae Responsories, reminiscent in many ways of Bruckner’s motets and driven by the same spiritual potency and molten ecstasy, gave rise to some of the programme’s most heightened thrills, some reaching a level of intensity so penetrating that this modest venue – St John’s Church – almost strained to contain it.

After the liquid density and visionary warmth of I Saw Eternity, the programme ended with his Miserere, a pertinent endpoint, and a hugely transformative one as MacMillan’s famous “Tryst” melody – a recurrent feature in many of his works – appeared in its original completeness like an awakening sunburst. Something of a Götterdämmerung moment.

Along the road at the Dumfries Arms Hotel, Friday’s late-night slot was given over to folk musician Findlay Napier, his affable repartee and earthy lyricism like beer and crisps to the earlier sacred sustenance at St John’s. From Hamish Imlach’s Cod Liver Oil and Orange Juice to his own The Blue Lagoon (a sardonic response to the famous Glasgow chippy’s claim of having served Justin Bieber a haggis supper), Napier, through smiling charm and gentle ribbing, gradually reeled in an slow-burning audience. A more liberating cabaret-style setting might have loosened inhibitions quicker.

Danielle de Niese struck gold immediately with her audience in Thursday’s Festival opening recital in Old Cumnock Church, which featured two brand new songs written for her by MacMillan, their emotionally introspective core perfect as a preface to Poulenc’s highly-charged operatic one-acter, La Voix Humaine.

If the Poulenc – in which a fraught woman’s telephone call to her unseen lover confirms his wish to end their relationship – was the natural outlet for de Niese’s red-hot theatricals, so too MacMillan’s songs, setting words by Michael Symmons Roberts, played directly to this versatile soprano’s hot-blooded instincts. 

The unfettered spirit defining both MacMillan songs – the questioningly enigmatic Soul Song and the sparkling abandon of The Vows – was charismatically captured by de Niese and pianist Matthew Fletcher, whose mutual response to the music’s crystalline sparkle never missed a trick. MacMillan and Symmons Roberts intend to add further songs to the collection.

The most intriguing aspect of the Poulenc was to witness it in this version for piano-only accompaniment. Again, Fletcher’s own dramatic instinct multiplied its effectiveness, attuned perfectly to the breathtaking, at times breathless, spontaneity of de Niese’s solo portrayal. It was a mesmerising performance, de Niese piercing the character’s rawest emotions, minimal props throwing the spotlight wholly on the feverish restlessness of a truly intoxicating score.

Ken Walton

Photos: Stuart Armitt

Cumnock Tryst: Arta Arnicane

Dumfries House

From its first announcement, back in October 2013, Sir James MacMillan’s intention for The Cumnock Tryst has been that it serves and reflects the community where he was raised. Inevitably there have been times, however, when the programme of music performed by professional visitors and the inclusion of contributions from local amateurs have seemed some distance apart.

On the last day of this year’s programme, in the august surroundings of the restored splendour of Dumfries House, that was emphatically not the case.

On Sunday afternoon, in the lovely recital room in the house itself, Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane fulfilled a promise to herself and to an amateur composer from nearby Troon when she played a recital that featured the music of Douglas Munn alongside that of Debussy and Martinu. Munn, who died in 2008, and his wife Clare, who was present, had supported Arnicane as a student and now she is returning the favour in championing his compositions, which also feature on a recently-released recording.

She opened with Martinu’s Butterflies and Birds of Paradise, a trio of pieces that would also be unfamiliar to many listeners, but a glorious discovery. Akin to French Impressionism at the start, the final work also had hints of Mussorgsky’s Pictures and segued beautifully into a Nocturne by Munn from 1944, written when he was just 15 years old.

Unlike some of the other pieces on the Toccata Classics album, it was not revised by Munn after his retiral from a stellar career as a mathematician, so any minor corrections to the score were the pianist’s own. The teenage composer was clearly modelling his work on Chopin, but his own talents were considerable.

Following three of Debussy’s Estampes – La soiree dans Grenade played with special finesse and the Ayrshire rain returning to the grounds of Dumfries House for Jardins sous la pluie – Arnicane played three of Munn’s Preludes. The most substantial of these, in D major, could, as the pianist said, equally have been entitled “Ballade” and dates from the end of his years composing, before the maths took over, when he was still just 18. It and its predecessors are the work of a young man with a remarkable gift for melody who must have been a pianist of considerable technical prowess himself.

Sir James MacMillan and Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra

The “Pavilion” at Dumfries House is a semi-permanent structure so far from being a marquee that gilt-framed mirrors and pictures hang on two of its walls. Alongside the function suite at Cumnock’s Dumfries Arms Hotel, where the Tryst’s closing ceilidh would happen, it gives the festival a fine new space, large enough to accommodate the amateur Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra and the Cumnock Tryst Festival Chorus.

They were joined by a second choir of members of the Cumnock Area Musical Production Society – a music-theatre group with the best acronym ever – for the Scott Riddex Memorial Concert, celebrating one of their members. Sir James shared conducting duties with the orchestra’s conductor John Wilson in a programme that was as diverse and entertaining as it was deeply moving, beginning with a movement from Greig’s Holberg Suite and concluding with a 28-minute version of Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet that included all the singers and players.

With principal oboe Joanna Senior the soloist in Ennio Morricone’s music from The Mission soundtrack, the orchestra’s first violin was a crucial instrumental voice in the two new songs by MacMillan that the chorus premiered. Part of the Tryst’s evolving celebration of the area’s mining heritage, Blackcraig Hill and A Fire of Ages set poetry by a soprano, Maggie Broadley, and a bass, Allan McMillan, from within their ranks. Those, and the Bryars that followed, were the sound of the Tryst making its own precise, individual and remarkable mark – and a nonsense of any distinctions between music-makers of all ages and commitment.

Keith Bruce

Pictures by Stuart Armitt

Cumnock Tryst: Ancient Voices

St John’s Church, Cumnock

Journalists are frequently minded to avoid the temptation not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. There’s no doubt that the tale of the ancient carnyx is a story worth telling. This 2000-year-old Celtic instrument, with the fearsome head of a boar and wavering tongue, was originally discovered as buried fragments two centuries ago in Scotland by archaeologists. In more recent years a multi-disciplined team of enthusiasts has reconstructed the carnyx, not once, but several times. The question is, does the reality of its musical quality equate to the sexiness of its origins and its striking, physical beauty?

There have been previous opportunities to test that on single examples, but on Saturday at the Cumnock Tryst festival we heard for the first time three of these instruments played simultaneously in a new work by John Purser, the composer, historian, playwright and poet whose mammoth radio and book project of the 1990s, Scotland’s Music, gave birth to the carnyx project.

Gundustrup Rituals was the final destination in this hour-long presentation, Ancient Voices, performed by the man whose expertise as a trombonist enabled him to join forces with Purser and metal craftsman John Creed and conceive the all-important performance techniques that would bring the recreated carnyx to life. 

He was joined in Cumnock by two other trombonists and carnyx acolytes, Patrick Kenny and Ian Sankey – the trio collectively known as Dragon Voices – in a quasi-dramatic show-and-tell that extended the instrumental armoury to giant conch shells, cow horns and Irish bronze age horns. The music running up to the grand finale was largely by Kenny himself, with a fanfare by the eccentric French film composer Francis Chagrin incorporated within an opening, initially antiphonal, sequence for modern trombones. Well, that’s why that the printed programme told us; it was hard to distinguish it if you didn’t know it.

Then Kenny’s attention turned to the primal menagerie of ancient blown instruments, a series of short pieces designed to demonstrate the awesome potential of their primitivism, performed with the younger players constantly shifting up and down the aisles, each segment prefaced with punchy verses from Purser’s poetic pen. Largely improvisational in style, with call and response in abundance, and the odd shock of a sudden piercing fortissimo, this quasi-dramatic part of the concert was like a teasing, preparatory warm-up to the main event.

When it came, Purser’s new work was a vision and sound to behold, three gleaming carnyces (with a fourth alongside looking like a sub on the bench) issuing a sonic repertoire that extended from subterranean gargles and sombre, low-lying pre-Brucknerian close-harmonies, to high-pitched triumphalism and those hair-raising moments where cacophony gave way to the golden perfection of a major triad.

Again, words played their part in translating the images that inspired this piece – one of these depicts three figures playing carnyces simultaneously – into such a spunky, ritualistic performance. “We are three”, chanted the players, a kind of post-Dumas declaration of unity. I, for one, enjoyed the spectacle; and yes, the facts spoke for themselves.

Ken Walton

Picture: Stuart Armitt

Cumnock Tryst: King’s Singers

Trinity Church, Cumnock

For 55 years The King’s Singers have remained a popular, stable and self-regenerating national musical treasure. Bursting onto our telly screens in the sixties – notably on peak-time Saturday night variety shows – the posh boys from the poshest Cambridge college charmed the nation’s ears with a smooth spread of bespoke a cappella originals and arrangements, anything from hifalutin’ Byrd to down-to-earth Beatles. Now, like a collective Doctor Who, in their umpteenth reincarnation, the group are held with great affection as widely as ever.

It was easy to see why in this easy-flowing, classy Cumnock Tryst programme they presented on Friday night. It was a loosely-assembled sequence of “celebrations”, but with each King’s Singer contributing personably to the intertwining spoken narrative and its various nods to the centenary years of Hungarian modernist composer György Ligeti and Walt Disney, Byrd and Weelkes’ quatercentenaries, Vaughan Williams 150th, among others, what looked thinnish on paper materialised as an absorbing hour-plus feast of first-class entertainment.

What also contributed to the freshness of the presentation was the interpretational signing for the hard of hearing by Paul Whittaker. Even for those of us unfamiliar with this language, Whittaker’s expressive physicality was a fascinating, added dimension that enhanced the presentation meaningfully and beautifully, all the more helpful when the complexity of some of the music occasionally obscured the clarity of the texts.

The musical journey was smooth but adventurous. Days from Even Such is Time by Bob Chilcott (a former King’s Singer) offered a crisp and contemporary call to action, before the silvery perfection of Renaissance anthems and motets by Byrd and Weelkes. The joy in these earlier works was to witness that six-part group’s instant switching between moments of luxurious homogeneity and pertinent internal combat. 

The programme featured two of Ligeti’s whimsical Lewis Carroll settings from Nonsense Madrigals, as much theatrical as musical delights, the preamble to which – notably the Lobster Quadrille – causing considerable mirth with the evening’s other signer as he attempted to translate the near impossible and implausible.

A brief whiff of Vaughan Williams – his willowy Shakespearean setting of Over Hill, Over Dale – gave way to two short pastoral works by Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén, the calm simplicity of In Our Meadow and bucolic spring of And The Maiden Joins The Ring. But with a sudden change of tack, the multi-ethnic background of American-born Gabriella Lena Frank made its mercurial mark in the animated obstinacy and wit of Hechicera (The Sorceress), brilliantly captured in an effervescent performance.

James MacMillan may not be celebrating a significant birthday of his own this year, but who was to deny The King’s Singers the indulgence of simply celebrating his presence at the festival he founded, and the fact he has written so much over the years for the ensemble? 

They opened their short set with the iridescent unpredictability of In The Blue Lobster Cafe, a spicy setting of poet Michael Symmons Roberts, before enchanting this Cumnock audience with the composer’s easeful arrangement of John Cameron’s O, chi, chì mi na mòrbheanna, and of his famously melting melody to William Soutar’s poem, The Tryst.

The transition to Disney songs was swift, the singers dispensing with their music stands and formalised stance to regroup in close-harmony huddle, a cosy engagement that charmed the heart-warming lyricism of Toy Story 2’s When She Loved Me, and inflamed the raucousness of Dumbo’s When I See An Elephant Fly.

But it was to The Beatles that this immaculate ensemble turned for a couple of non-negotiable encores: Chilcott’s silken arrangement of Yesterday, the melody mostly entrusted to Patrick Dunachie’s light and airy countertenor;  and the lesser-known Honey Pie, Jonathan Howard’s sudden razzy Louis Armstrong interjection sealing his reputation as the King’s Singers jester-in-residence.

With perfection at every turn, not least in the unshakeably purity of their intonation, the King’s Singers brand seems assured for another half-century at least.

Ken Walton 

A composer’s champions

The piano music of Troon’s Douglas Munn has a showcase at the end of Cumnock Tryst 2022. KEITH BRUCE talks to his widow, Clare.

That Ayrshire man Douglas Munn’s legacy in his professional field of mathematics is secure seems in little doubt. As Dr W D Munn he held professorships at the Universities of Stirling and Glasgow and he was still publishing internationally-admired work in his particular algebraic specialism well beyond retirement.

In his latter years, however, Munn was as concerned with the after-life of the fruits of his skill as a composer of piano music, revising – and in some cases completing – work he had written in his teens and very early twenties.

Since his death in 2008, Munn the musician has been fortunate to be championed by three loyal women: his widow Clare, his sister Lesley, and Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane, whom he and Clare met at the 2001 Scottish International Piano Competition and went on to assist with accommodation and practice facilities through her studies at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire (then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama).

This weekend that work reaches a moment of posthumous celebration, appropriately near to his Troon home, when Arnicane plays Munn’s music in Dumfries House on the final day of Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival. The recital follows the release of an album she recorded at home in Riga which collects his complete catalogue for solo piano, handily clocking in at just under an hour of music and released on Toccata Classics.

Clare still lives in the Munn family home in Troon, and when we spoke earlier this week, I interrupted her playing the piano – “winding down”, she said, from the stress of emptying the couple’s Glasgow flat before it is sold.

“There was never a day went past without us playing the piano, either separately or together. The maths conferences used to have a lot of musicians and we played together at those,” she said.

“We also played at the university club, including many of the most famous pieces in the piano duet repertoire. I especially remember pieces by Debussy and Lutoslawski. I’ve still got my family Steinway, which belonged to my Cambridge grandparents and it still sounds pretty good. It’s been well looked after.”

It was, as is perhaps abundantly clear, music that brought the couple together.

“We were married for nearly 30 years,” Clare explains, “and we met through music in Salzburg, at a summer school organised by Glasgow University’s Extra-Mural Department. I had graduated from the Royal Academy of Music and was a young music teacher in London, and I went there with a flatmate on holiday and met Douglas.

“I think I quite impressed him, because the first time he invited me to Scotland I climbed to the top of Ben Nevis.”

That was in the 1960s, and it was the start of a slow-blooming relationship.

“It was a long distance romance,” laughs Clare. “I lived in Australia for 11 years, where I was teaching, and Douglas came out and lectured there. I think we did surprise everybody when we eventually got married in Sydney in 1980 and Douglas persuaded me to come back to Scotland.”

Portrait of Munn by his mother Elizabeth

“Douglas’s mother was a teacher and had brought up her children after the death of their father at the end of the Second World War. She and her husband were both accomplished artists and members of the Paisley Art Institute.

“My father sang in the King’s College Chapel and my mother trained as a pianist and I had musical siblings – my younger sister was a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.”

Steeped in music as Clare and Douglas Munn were, they were supporters of Scotland’s orchestras and opera company, and of the conservatoire. Douglas was the Glasgow University representative there as well as serving on the board of St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh.

“We bought a flat in the West End of Glasgow and used it while my husband was teaching at the university and I was a piano and a violin teacher,” said Clare.

During that time the couple met composer James MacMillan and his wife – a long friendship that links the early years of both marriages to this weekend’s event. They also got to know composer Eddie McGuire.

“It was Eddie who encouraged Douglas to dig out his music and have it stored at the Scottish Music Centre. That spurred Douglas on to start the revisions.

“The first little Prelude was written in 1944 [when Munn was just 15], and he continued to compose and play through his student years until the mathematics took over, although I do remember him finishing off the Sonatina and singing the tunes from it in the mid-80s.”

Given her teaching background, there was also encouragement of young musicians. The Ayrshire String Orchestra that plays in Dumfries House following Arnicane’s recital on Sunday includes a couple of Clare’s former pupils.

It was the commitment to young talent that introduced the couple to the Latvian pianist.

“Arta came to Glasgow to take part in the Scottish Piano Competition, when John Lill was on the panel,” said Clare. “We heard her play a Chopin study quite remarkably well, and Douglas said: ‘That girl is extremely good.’ I invited her to come and play in the flat and then we were able to offer her some accommodation when she was in between competitions.”

The Munns were in time invited to Arnicane’s wedding in Riga to Florian, who is a German cellist. They perform as a duo and now live in Zurich, where they have two sons, and the pianist has not stopped championing the music of Douglas Munn, including it in her solo recitals.

The recording of the complete Munn canon was made in 2019 in the studio of Riga Radio in Latvia, and the Toccata release comes with a fulsome booklet including notes by the pianist herself, a Maths colleague of the composer, David Easdown, and Munn’s sister Lesley Duncan, a journalist at The Herald. Crowning the package is the cover portrait of her son by his mother Elizabeth.

Arta Arnicane (pictured at top) plays Douglas Munn, Debussy and Martinu at Dumfries House, Cumnock at 2pm and 4pm on Sunday October 2 as part of Cumnock Tryst.

The Carnyx Speaks

John Kenny resurrects not one but three iron age Carnyces at this year’s Cumnock Tryst. KEN WALTON finds out more from the man who brought the awesome instrument back to life, and previews the local aspects of a very Ayshire festival.

Ever wondered what the bestial image on the VoxCarnyx masthead is? Those in the know, or inquisitive enough to have looked it up, will recognise it as the topmost section of the carnyx, an instrument dating back to the iron age, fragments of which were first discovered buried under a Banffshire farm in 1816. 

The fearsome bronze head, with hinged jaw and sprung wooden tongue, appeared to be the bell of a 2000-year-old brass instrument. It took till the1990s to put the theory to the test, when trombonist John Kenny, encouraged by Scots composer and music historian John Purser,  joined an archeological project aimed at reconstructing the carnyx both visually and as a functioning musical instrument. 

With support from the National Museum of Scotland and metal craftsman John Creed, the eventual first sight and sound of the reconstructed carnyx – an awesome man-sized construction comprising a lengthy blow tube, imposing boar’s head and named the Deskford Carnyx after the parish in which the original was found – was at the National Museum’s reopening ceremony in 2011. “We didn’t know what we were going to come out with,” Kenny recalls, fearful that such a beautiful object might simply sound like “a rather inert tube”. “It turned out to be magnificent,” he says. 

So much so, that the world now has more magnificent specimens, and for the first time in 2000 years three carnyces will perform together this weekend at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival. Saturday’s programme in St John’s Church, Ancient Voices, features Kenny’s ensemble Dragon Voices and a sequence of works by Kenny himself, 20th century French film composer Francis Chagrin, and a brand new work by Purser, whose poetry also weaves a narrative throughout the entire concert..

“We start with modern brass instruments, then work right back to the earliest proven examples we have of human beings creating musical sounds using lip vibration,” Kenny explains. Besides the trio of carnyces, Dragon Voices – an ensemble also consisting of Kenny’s son Patrick and former pupil Ian Sayer – perform on ancient sea horns. “In the iron age, Celtic craftsmen led the world in the art of making giant horns or trumpets out of beaten bronze and they were of extraordinary quality,” he adds.  

Purser’s new work, Gundestrup Rituals aims to illustrate their uniqueness and is based on images found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, a richly decorated silver vessel discovered in a Danish peat bog and dating from the early iron age. Included among these is a powerful representation of three carnyces being played at once. 

The carnyx players on the Gundestrup Cauldron (National Museum of Denmark)

For those who imagine the sound of the carnyx to echo its warlike appearance, be prepared for a surprise. “They will be amazed at the extraordinary versatility of the instrument,” promises Kenny. “Yes, the traditional idea of it as a war horn is true. It can be very violent and powerful with a massive range of five octaves, depending on the ability of the performer. But it is also capable of a huge dynamic range, coloured by the strange combination of its unique harmonic series and resultant vibrations.” 

The biggest revelation for Kenny in exploring its possibilities was to discover how quietly and uniquely mysterious it could sound. “Using modern brass players’ techniques actually resulted in quite a boring sound,’ he explains. “On modern brass instruments, we try to make uniform sound, and also tend to work in groups dedicated to our ideas of melody and harmony. These are very modern ideas in terms of the organisation of musical sound. 

“So we had to discard those standard techniques in order to explore the natural potential of the instrument. As a musician and composer it was for me a Tabula Rasa moment, working with a blank page, a bit like that sudden moment in the14th century when artists, working also as alchemists, discovered how to make oil paintings. Here, with the carnyx, was another extraordinary moment working with new colours.”

Such possibilities, and the fact the original carnyces appeared to have been “ritually dismembered” before burial, led Kenny to believe the symbolism of the carnyx was just as likely to be as sacral as it was bellicose. “It’s actually much more effective when played gently and quietly.” Ancient Voices sets out to illustrate that infinite diversity.

Dragon Voices with the three carnyx reconstructions by John Creed. Image: Ali Watt

The clash of sounds ancient and modern pervades much of the classical content of this 2022 Cumnock Tryst, which runs Thursday 29 September to Sunday 2 October. The Kings Singers (Fri 30 Sept at Trinity Church) celebrate a vast international lineage of a cappella choral writing that stretches from English Renaissance giant William Byrd to the whimsical Lobster Quadrille of György Ligeti, by way of Vaughan Williams and original Kings Singer, Bob Chilcott. There’s music, too, by MacMillan himself and a lighter-hearted send off of close-harmony Disney numbers.

On Sunday (Dumfries House, 2pm & 4pm) Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane unveils an Ayrshire curiosity, the piano music of Douglas Munn, an eminent Mathematician who lived in Troon until his death in 2008, and whose compositions – recently released on CD – are both skilful and charming.

If imported professional artists represent a smaller proportion of the line up this year, that, says MacMillan, is deliberate.  “That trend has certainly grown over the years. It’s always been part of the Festival’s raison d’être to encourage a sense of ownership and deep involvement by local community groups, and to get them involved with the visiting professionals in different ways.”

Thus the combined involvement of local amateur dramatic group CAMPS and Strings N Things with BBC SSO musicians (Merchant City Brass) in Saturday’s A Musical Celebration of the Coalfields in Cumnock Town Hall; or Friday’s compositional collaboration between Drake Music Scotland, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland singers and local pupils from Hillside School in Blue Sky Counterpoint at the new Barony Campus.

Even the big festival finale on Sunday evening at Dumfries House – billed as the Scott Riddox Memorial Concert in memory of the locally-known singer – is an entirely local showcase with big ambitions. After individual contributions from the Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra under conductor John Wilson, The Festival Chorus and CAMPS, all the ensembles will come together under MacMillan’s baton for a performance of Gavin Bryars’ iconic Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

The 2022 Cumnock Tryst runs 29 Sept to 2 Oct at various venues in Cumnock. Full details at www.thecumnocktryst.com

Top picture: Jane Salmon

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.