Tag Archives: Dunedin Consort

Red Note and Dunedin plans

Scotland’s Dunedin Consort and Red Note Ensemble have both unveiled new seasons of work, starting with their appearances at the Lammermuir Festival this week.

Wednesday September 15 sees Red Note play the music of James Dillon and Tansy Davies at Dunbar Parish Church before the Dunedin Consort performs Monteverdi madrigals at St Mary’s in Haddington.

The RPS award-winning commission Tanz/Haus: triptych 2017, in the Dunbar concert, prefaces a new Dillon work EMBLEMATA: Carnival, which Red Note will play at Perth Concert Hall on September 24, launching a new residency at the venue. This new commission from the Scottish composer will be recorded for Delphian Records and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. That performance will also include a new work from Scotland’s Aileen Sweeney, The Land Under the Wave, and Five Phase Sphere by Luke Styles.

The Styles piece premieres as part of the programme Red Note takes to Aberdeen’s soundfestival in October, where it is joined by the first performance of Ailie Robertson’s Unfurl and Edwin Hillier’s 37  Otago Street.

On November 4 in Perth, the Ensemble premieres a commission to mark COP26, with further performances in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Sub Mari is a multimedia work by Martina Corsini – Red Note’s Weston-Jerwood Creative Fellow – and Chilean bassist, composer and conductor Manuel Figueroa-Bolvarán and will feature contributions from Chilean youth choir Allegro and young singers from Scotland.

Corsini is also involved in Red Note’s outreach work in Methil in Fife and Easterhouse in Glasgow, alongside composers Oliver Searle and Brian Irvine, whose new commission A Child’s Guide to Anarchy will be played at the end of that month.

Dunedin Consort also has a COP26 commission, Yince a Paradise by Drew Hammond and Isobel McArthur, as part of its autumn activity. The work gives its title to an a cappella choral tour visiting Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews in October under the guest direction of Grete Pedersen.

The 21-22 season marks the 25th birthday of the Dunedin and artistic director John Butt will be conducting performances of Messiah in December, and the music of Handel and Scarlatti in a February programme entitled The Trials of Love, with soloists Anna Dennis and Matthew Brook. Birthday concerts in March of next year, entitled Welcome to All the Pleasures, will be followed in June by a UK tour of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.

Associate Director Nicholas Mulroy, who is conducting this week’s Lammermuir concert, will direct Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and sing the Evangelist, in April. He is also in charge of concerts that include a new score by Pippa Murphy and pair the writings of post-modernist Roland Barthes with madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi under the banner A Lover’s Discourse.

The Dunedin Consort’s latest recording, of three Bach cantatas, is released on the Linn label early in October.

Pictured: Ailie Robertson

Dunedin Consort / Bach

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

“It is the old Old Covenant. Man you must die!” These words, set as a grim fugue in Bach’s cantata “Gottes Zeit its die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus)” BWV 1043, have perhaps a natural resonance in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, where the signing of the National Covenant took place in 1638, and where the Dunedin Consort marked the start of its 25th Anniversary celebrations with a welcome return to performance before a live but limited audience. 

There’s an overriding calm about this work which translated into a gorgeous, relaxed warmth in Dunedin’s hands. The scoring for strings and two recorders also cut a tonal picture of softness and serenity, the focused purity of the voices colouring the cantata’s sometimes dismal message with hope and lustre.

It was a vintage Dunedin performance, director John Butt creating a magical cohesive entity out of the constituent sections, yet finding so many moments to let the music breathe, and signing off with a suitably accepting throwaway gesture. Musicality and spirituality combined in the most natural and enchanting ways, simple details such as the delicious woody quality of the chamber organ distinguishing this captivating presentation.

Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins introduced Dunedin regulars to the ensemble’s new leader, Matthew Truscott, who teamed up with Dunedin veteran Huw Daniel for the joint solo roles. Here was another inspired meeting of minds, each playing instinctively off the other, weaving the two-way musical conversation seamlessly, slickly underpinned by minimal ripieno strings. Either side of the central Largo, its artfully spun-out message loaded with unfussy sentiment, the outer movements were stylish, effortless perfection.

Against the funereal reticence of the opening cantata, the Pentecostal “O ewiges Feuer” BWV 34, with heraldic Baroque trumpets, provided a fiery, but ever-polished finish. There were gorgeously tender moments – the sublime central alto aria sung with utterly melting eloquence by Jess Dandy – but this was ultimately a statement of unquenchable optimism, as expressed in the outer choruses. The perfect message for such a heartening occasion.
Ken Walton

Available to view for 30 days at www.dunedin-consort.org.uk

Dunedin Consort: Dido’s Ghost

Barbican, London

This Mahogany Opera collaboration at the Barbican, with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque and Chorale now also onboard as co-commissioners, is a radical step for Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort. Yes, it is built around a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which is in the group’s familiar repertoire range, but composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have gone far beyond the original masque in creating a three-act contemporary opera where the music of Purcell, and the story he told, is just one element.

This is a concert performance, conducted by John Butt and directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, with elements of staging and the orchestra and chorus sharing the platform, and it works well in that form, even if the filming of it for the live stream is not of the high standard we have seen elsewhere during the pandemic. However, it is not difficult to imagine a fully-realised production, and it is desirable beyond argument that Dido’s Ghost becomes a repertoire work.

Wallen’s music ranges far and wide in its material. In what is the score’s best trick, and eventually the coup de theatre of the work, the famous Lament of the Queen of Carthage seems about to appear at many points before we eventually hear it. But the composer is not merely responding to the baroque era – there is jazz and blues in the mix as well, and the instrumentation ranges from Elizabeth Kenny’s lute and theorbo to Fender bass guitar, with a little Caribbean hand-pan tuned drumming in there as well.

Stace’s words are richly poetic, from the early image of a society “confused as bees without a queen”. Those words are sung by Isabelle Peters, who stepped up to the title role from covering it, following the withdrawal of South African soprano Golda Schultz. She is quite superb, in what is surely a career-establishing performance – but she is far from alone in filing a personal best.

Dunedin stalwart Matthew Brook has never been better than he is here, as Aeneas, his acting performance matching the nuance of hers, and his voice finding new areas of upper register gentleness. Nardus Williams as the supportive Belinda is also a powerful presence, and Scots mezzo Allison Cook is fearsome as Lavinia, with a voice to match her disturbingly Aleister Crowley-esque stage business.

The narrative, musically and theatrically, is compelling, and the underlying subject matter – guilt and its status as a feeling without a statute of limitations – could hardly be more appropriate for our times. Towards the end of the work, there is some gorgeous filmic writing for the strings before a virtuosic solo from Peters and then the sucker-punch appearance of that Purcell aria, succeeded by a lovely chorus and instrumental coda.

Structurally – and perhaps not intended at all – there are similarities between this profound new work, now on the road to Buxton and then Edinburgh, and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which will also have a star-studded concert performance at August’s Festival. Despite all that has happened this past year, the EIF’s 2021 opera programme is looking very exciting indeed.

Keith Bruce

Reviving Dido for Dunedin Consort

Errollyn Wallen talks to KEITH BRUCE about writing a sequel to Purcell from her new home on Scotland’s North coast

There is an irresistible irony in the genesis of composer Errollyn Wallen’s new Purcell-resurrecting chamber opera, Dido’s Ghost, tracing back to a Scottish tour of her song-cycle Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?.

It was the suggestion of former co-director of Dunedin Consort soprano Susan Hamilton, who performed that work with McFall’s Chamber in 2015, that a companion piece for Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas might be a useful addition to the repertoire.

“It stayed on the wish-list,” explains the composer, “and in December 2019 Jo Buckley, the current chief executive of the Dunedin Consort, included it on a list of proposals to the Barbican.”

The London venue liked the idea and other partners came onboard with a project that Wallen is delighted has survived the vicissitudes of the pandemic.

“It has been safeguarded through all this, when other things have been cut, but it didn’t give us a huge amount of time to get the libretto and the score ready with little chance of any face-to-face workshops.

“It has been written in lockdown, but on the plus side Wesley Stace and I have had all this thinking time for it, and began with Wesley producing the libretto. We had one little workshop last October which was just enough for me to hear some of the soundworld.”

That McFall’s Chamber tour – with a string quartet joining the singer – had a lasting impact on Wallen in other ways, in particular her residence at Strathy Point lighthouse, bang in the middle of Scotland’s North coast, which is where I have called her.

“I was forging connections before I moved here. I’d been working with [composer and multi-instrumentalist] Mike Vass and I was invited to mentor on the Distil course by Simon Thoumire, with Scottish traditional musicians, as well as working with Mr McFalls Chamber, which toured around Scotland. It was in a break during that that I nipped over to Tiree to see a little house and then ran up here, and found this.

“I’ve been coming here every month, splitting my time between here and London, since 2016 when I got it, but since the pandemic I’ve  pretty much been here all the time, apart from a couple of trips to London. It has become my primary residence and it has everything I need really. It is an incredible location and it is so conducive to work. I am under pressure all the time to produce a lot of music, and here is just the right place.

“I had criteria when I was looking for a place. It had to be right on top of the sea and a place that wasn’t near people. I wanted it to be remote, and where no one could hear me playing. I wasn’t planning on Scotland, or a lighthouse, but it seems we were meant for each other.

“Through personal connections I’ve widened my knowledge of the richness and variety of music-making in Scotland. I’ve worked with the RSNO, the BBC SSO, and the RCS invited me to be a visiting professor of composition. We’ve only managed to have one concert, when I met David Watkins and Oliver Searle, and that was a magical few days. The Scottish music scene seems very friendly and warm. London is a very big city, so although I grew up there, studied there and began my career there, it can be quite daunting.”

Wallen moved to the UK with her family from Belize when she was two years old, and remembers her sister announcing when she was around 4 or 5 that she felt Scottish and was going to say she was from Scotland.

“And I’ve recently learned that during the Second World War loggers from Belize came over and helped with tree-cutting as part of the war effort – and they were based in Ullapool.”

The solitude the composer enjoys at Strathy has been put to particularly productive use since the start of 2021.

“I have written eight or nine works since January. I’m never not writing something, but I have sort of lost track at the moment! I have written an opera for Graeae theatre company that we think will go on next Spring, and immediately I’ve finished with Dido’s Ghost I start an opera for Chicago Opera Theatre. It is set in London in the 18th century, a period drama with a black cast, set in the years just after the American revolution.

“Because opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve had to work fast. There seem to have been so many opportunities recently – but I will have to slow down soon and have a holiday!”

“I also wrote music for [choreographer] Cathy Marston at Joffrey Ballet in Chicago for a short film. It uses violin and handpan, and that instrument will also be used in Dido’s Ghost. The handpan is a beaten metal instrument and I don’t think it has ever been used in classical music, but it has this lovely mellow sound with overtones. And there was a solo viola piece in February, called Lavinia, commissioned by Riot Ensemble, and Lavinia is one of the characters in Dido’s Ghost. So a lot of things have been preparation for writing this.

“I really love composing operas because you get swept away by the world you enter. Everything you do is in the service of drama and atmosphere. Not every composer has an instinct for the stage and I didn’t know I did, but the more I compose these things, the more magical it seems. You are dealing with vision and sound together as you write.”

“I’ve been obsessed by Dido’s story since studying Virgil as a schoolkid aged 13. I wasn’t that good at Latin, but these myths emerged from my bumbling translation and it stayed with me.

“After our initial conversation, Wesley went off and found a story in Ovid’s writing that is the perfect sequel, so we’ve based it on that. Wesley and I want to amplify the characters that are already there in the Purcell, and our opera starts after Aeneus has left Carthage. It is funny how these things evolve: you have an idea and then gradually the work starts to dictate what it should be. You’ll get the sense of a conversation across the centuries.”

That, Wallen intends, will be as true of the score as it is of the drama. And she was not at all daunted by following Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, a work which has influenced composers working in every field of music in the centuries since.

“I don’t think of it in terms of being bold. The more I worked on it, it became this wonderful conversation with music of the past. The Lament is possibly the best aria ever written, and it has been sung by singers of all genres because it is so expressive. I have referred to the Lament in other works of mine, and I feel very comfortable exploring it. 

“Composing this opera has taken me to a world where tonality isn’t the same as we know it now, but there are some things that remain in music that are part of the fabric of our emotional understanding, and the descending bass is one of those.

“The way it has worked out is that the two operas intertwine and started to blend into each other. You’ll hear echoes of Purcell’s music from the beginning. Sometimes they are hidden and sometimes more explicit, but I’d like to think that everything has grown out of dramatic necessity.”

Dido’s Ghost is at London’s Barbican on June 6, and Buxton Opera House on July 11, 14 & 17.

Dunedin Consort / Hebrides Ensemble

Dunedin Consort/Hebrides Ensemble: Passio

St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh

If, as originally planned, this collaborative performance of Arvo Part’s 1982 setting of the Passion from the Gospel of St John had toured Scotland, the opportunity to hear it sung and played in different acoustics would have been very enticing.

Instead, there is just this single outing, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and filmed for streaming from April 17. In lieu of the tour, the radio transmission certainly whets the appetite for the opportunity to watch. How are voices distributed in the vast Cathedral? And how much of the extraordinary depth to the sound is down to clever sound-mixing and microphone placement rather than the natural reverberation?

A liturgical work quite unlike any of the others heard in the Easter season, the Estonian composer asks for a very particular set of forces. The Evangelist is portrayed by a vocal quartet and an instrumental one of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, Christ by bass Matthew Brooke, fresh from the same role in the Dunedin’s Bach St Matthew Passion, and Pilate by tenor Hugo Hymas. The St Mary’s Choir and the Cathedral organ add crucial punctuation to the narrative.

Those last elements are often in the audio foreground when they arrive, while the solo characters, while clear enough, sound some way off, as if speaking from history. The complex narrative voice of singers and instrumentalists sits in the centre, combining in different combinations. It is not clear why Part chooses certain vocal ranges and instrumental timbres to express particular Biblical verses – although emotional impact may be key – but there is a detectable technical method in his use of pitches among the players and singers in the pursuit of his “tintinnabulation” process.

If the first impression is of music that springs from the earliest chants of Part’s adopted Orthodox faith, it swiftly becomes clear that something much more contemporary is going on, even if the complexity of its harmonic structure is well-hidden behind the sometimes glacial pace. This is music that has little in common with the American minimalists with whom the composer is sometimes bracketed, altogether less showy and much more reliant on moments of silence throughout the score. The rests in the notation are as important as the notes, particularly when the role of the church’s acoustic is taken into account.

All this is beautifully measured in this performance, conducted by William Conway of the Hebrides Ensemble. The work asks a great deal of its singers, with some particularly challenging leaps in the lines sung by Hymas’s Pilate, but there is an almost studied lack of drama by comparison with the operatic Passions of Bach, even in choral interjections like the command “Crucify him!”

Part’s style of theatre requires concentration, as he homes in on a very precise definition of what constitutes the Passion story, culminating in the last uttering of Jesus on the cross “It is finished”, after which the choral response is in an altogether changed register and tone, more akin to the Lutheran chorales of Part’s upbringing. It is, however, a very understated moment of catharsis.

Keith Bruce

Dunedin Consort: St Matthew Passion

Perth Concert Hall

It is not only in its three-hour duration that Bach’s St Matthew Passion is an epic undertaking, and the hiatus of last year’s cancellation – the first victim of the coronavirus lockdown at Perth Concert Hall – has had the useful effect of reminding us just how important is the Dunedin Consort’s annual performance. As the choir’s chief executive Jo Buckley points out in her introductory remarks to this “as live” stream to start Perth programmer James Waters’ Easter Festival, it is a work that contains every possible human emotion and there is an added poignancy this Easter to its message of hope and salvation.

More than that though, this concert hall presentation, with all the required social distancing, makes the remarkable ingredients of Bach’s masterwork apparent in ways that could not have been predicted. There is a clarity about the ingenious storytelling, and use of the narrative voices, both musical and in the cast of characters, that is very special indeed.

Most obviously that is in the way the concert looks, with its two choruses, two orchestras and soloists, as well as how it sounds, the Perth hall’s wonderful acoustic beautifully recorded, a full, rich instrumental sound (no period instrument weediness here), and the singers placed in widescreen stereo across the stage. With effective and undistracting lighting, the video work is understated, usually (but not obsessively) matching the voices and instruments to be heard, with the occasional cross-fade as arias are accompanied by soloists or conductor John Butt directs a particular transition.

He has an A-team to conduct: Andrew Tortise is a measured and dramatic Evangelist with immaculate diction, and Matthew Brook a weighty and compelling Christus. However, it is the early outings of the women soloists that really make you sit up, alto Jess Dandy accompanied by the pair of flutes, soprano Jessica Leary stepping out of the second chorus and Anna Dennis just as expressive in partnership with the oboes. The other three solo voices, bass Benedict Nelson, tenor David Lee, and alto Judy Brown are no less impressive when their opportunities come around.

It is the clever matching of the arias, providing the commentary of the faithful on the Passion story with the singers who have been characters in that narrative, that is so spectacularly clear here. This is Butt’s Bach scholarship made flesh in a way that anyone coming to the work for the first time will instantly appreciate.

The conductor takes his time over his tale, with none of the regulation briskness that can blight historically-informed performance, secure in the knowledge that Bach’s version of Matthew’s telling of the Easter story is unique on its own terms. Similarly, there is nothing clinical in the playing of featured instrumentalists like flautist Katy Bircher and first violin Huw Daniel or in any of the singing, with the occasional natural imprecision enhancing the narrative flow.

If the restrictions of social distancing have no negative effect on any of the individual elements, it is also impossible to detect any diminishing in the ensemble instrumental sound, or the varied colours of the continuo – to which Butt adds chamber organ – or those moments when the two choirs combine for the glorious punctuation of Bach’s chorales.

That hymn-tune may be the ear-worm of the work but this Passion could hardly be less austere and presbyterian. It is the operatic quality of this oratorio for which this concert performance decisively argues the case.

Keith Bruce

Image: credit Tommy Slack/0405 Photography

Easter Passion in Perth

The intrepid Dunedin Consort, whose early lockdown adventures provided the only authentic example of the currently much-invoked “Dunkirk Spirit”, will not be permitting the continuing health emergency to cancel this Easter’s performance of Bach’s epic St Matthew Passion.

With Andrew Tortise as the Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Christus, the ensemble will be presenting a streamed performance of the work on the evening of Saturday March 27 to launch Perth Concert Hall’s Easter festival of classical music.

Broadcast via Vimeo, the concert will be directed by John Butt from the organ, and available to view for a month, with tickets priced at £11.50 per receiving device, including booking fee.

The Dunedin Passion precedes four recitals from Perth featuring musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the award winning Maxwell String Quartet. Running at 1pm from Tuesday April 6 to Friday April 9, in partnership with BBC Radio 3, they will also be available to view in the same way and for the same charge.

The series begins with pianist Steven Osborne playing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with soloists from the SCO and continues with clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and pianist Scott Mitchell, the Maxwell Quartet playing Haydn and Beethoven, and pianist Susan Tomes and members of the RSNO with quintets by Mozart and Beethoven.

Full details of the concerts from the Perth Concert Hall website: horsecross.co.uk

Keith Bruce

How Lonely Sits the City

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Newly-appointed Associate Director of Dunedin Consort Nicholas Mulroy and Head of Artistic Planning David Lee have been at great pains to stress that this thoughtful all-vocal programme, which is available to watch until December 19, was dreamed up before the pandemic changed all our lives.

It is not difficult to see why, because although this selection of work, ancient and modern, could hardly be more appropriate for our times, to have conceived it as such might invite accusations of miserabilism.

The early music pillars of the recital are the three-sections of Orlande de Lassus’s five-part setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a two-part motet by William Byrd, also concerned with the allegorical Christian interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament. The 1945 work by Rudolf Mauersberger that found the same textual inspiration, and which gives the concert its title, sits in the middle.

Alongside are two works from 2009, Cecilia McDowell’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth and James MacMillan’s Miserere, and a brand new commission in Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade’s Vigil 1.

Intended to be heard live or not, this is the choir performing together for the first time since March, and the resonance of many of the words they were given to sing must have contributed to the commitment audible from all twelve singers, four of them young new recruits. Superbly recorded by Matthew Swan, with album-release quality balance between solo voices and ensemble in every configuration required across the concert, the Dunedin has never sounded better, and that is a high bar to reach. The blend of the men’s voices in particular on the closing Miserere was beautifully captured.

While the MacMillan is already a contemporary classic and the Byrd a favourite of professional choirs, other memorable moments came in the shorter modern pieces. Although designed to sit alongside Brahms and echo Handel, there are resemblances to the popular contemporary choir staples of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen in the Edinburgh-educated McDowell’s setting of the Messiah-familiar words from the book of Job. In the Mauersberger, composed after the destruction of the chorus-master’s home city of Dresden, the technical attention to detail is particularly noticeable, both in the vocal balance and in the careful selection of camera shots to match the music. The Consort’s video partners, Arms & Legs, do another fine job here.

The Cruttwell-Reade commission will surely quickly find a place in the repertoire. Both intricate and accessible, it too looks back to earlier forms (Lutheran chorales) and has the superb device of using both the original German text of the Rilke poem and an English translation, with the ensemble split into three SATB choirs. The singers’ clarity of diction here, and indeed throughout, was faultless.

The new concert is accompanied by a 20-minute conversation between Nicholas Mulroy and Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade on the Consort’s YouTube channel. It is an exemplary introduction to a new piece of music and well-worth any music-lover’s time.
dunedin-consort.org.uk
Keith Bruce

Image: Nicholas Mulroy and Dunedin Consort at Greyfriars Kirk

Familiar faces with Dunedin Consort

Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort will be broadcasting from Greyfriar’s Kirk again this month with an all-vocal progamme, How Lonely Sits the City, streamed from Thursday November 19. (Those who haven’t yet caught its predecessor, Nature’s Voice, with soprano Rowan Pierce, have until Saturday November 14 to do so.)

The recital, which takes its title from Rudolph Mauersberger’s lament on the destruction of Dresden in 1945, will be conducted by tenor Nicholas Mulroy, who has just been named the ensemble’s first Associate Director. Mulroy’s association with the choir goes back 20 years and he has recently combined the role of soloist with directing.

The concert will also feature the debuts of the Consort’s new Bridging the Gap recruits, young singers making their first steps in the professional arena. They are baritone Tim Edmundson, tenor Sam Leggett, mezzo Hannah Leggatt and soprano Sally Carr. The young women are both alumni of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and the men are currently studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The programme also includes the Lamentations of Lassus, MacMillan’s Miserere, Cecilia McDowell’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth and a new commission from Edinburgh-based Ninfea Crutwell-Reade, Vigil 1, based on a text by Rilke.

www.dunedin-consort.org.uk

Image: Nicholas Mulroy