Tag Archives: Gavin Bryars

RCS / Opera Double Bill

Alexander Gibson Opera School, RCS, Glasgow

This wasn’t an evening of rip-roaring thrills and spills, as opera so often is. Instead, a small student cast and instrumental ensemble from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, in the flexible intimacy of the Alexander Gibson Opera School, took on the audacious challenge of a double bill of introspective chamber operas by Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars in which darkness and subdued intensity are the connecting thread.

Neither work – Nyman’s pseudo-Freudian The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Bryars’ melancholic Marilyn Forever – is over-concerned with narrative, musical highs and lows, or even time-stopping vocal showpieces. Instead, the focus, driven by Nyman’s trademark minimalism and Bryars’ smoky jazz-standard proclivities respectively, is mostly on the moment, a pertinent thought or turn of phrase phrase turning in on itself musically, and all the more potent for it.

Nyman’s work deals with the strange case of Dr P, a singer suffering from visual agnosis, which makes it impossible for him to recognise everyday objects, unable even to recognise his own wife, yet he can still sing and play chess. His devoted wife joins him in consultation with Dr S (the opera’s title comes from a book of the same name by neurologist Oliver Sachs in which he describes many such cases). Caroline Clegg’s production, with stage designs by Finlay McLay and lighting by Davy Cunningham, places the action simply and unpretentiously in an elegant domestic drawing room, the six-piece ensemble visibly raised side-stage.

Scots baritone Ross Cumming brings curiosity and humour to the role of the patient, whimsically unaware of the worry he loads on the doting Mrs P (sung with charming resilience by French soprano Marie Cayeux). There’s a suspicion at times that he might just be playing the doctor, which bounces pertinently off tenor Sam Marston’s lean, self-satisfied Dr S.

It’s not the easiest score to keep sizzling for a full hour, being typically Nyman with its fundamentally lugubrious demeanour, slow-shifting sections and imprisoned cellular detail. Yet conductor William Cole sculpts a performance that carries plenty cut and thrust by dint of meticulous discipline and sensitively-balanced dynamics.  

In contrast, the sultriness of Bryars’ Marilyn Forever – imaginary scenes based on the last night of Marilyn Monroe’s life to a libretto by Marilyn Bowering – opens the door to more decadent, expressive vistas. There’s an alluringly seedy quality to it, the tragic actress (sung with pouting conviction by mezzo-soprano Megan Baker) sprawled on her bed, men grubbing around, the humid strains of a jazz trio within the larger wraparound ensemble painting a louche musical backdrop.

It’s all about Marilyn, such is the symbolism of this production’s ubiquitous face masks and the actress’s mirror obsession; and Baker’s performance, demurely sung, lives up to the self-imposing fragility of the troubled American icon. Cumming, this time, excels in a constant state of metamorphosis as “The Men”, at one point as her incompatible husband Arthur Miller, at another tempestuously suggestive of previous partner Joe DiMaggio, but mostly he’s a shifting cipher of the species. 

Clegg couches the action in postwar movie terms, the tragic and predominant central focus on Marilyn offset by the pseudo-vaudeville presence of The Tritones, two agile sharp-suited misfits (tenor James McIntyre and bass-baritone Ryan Garnham) with more than a hint of the sinister, who might easily be mistaken for the comedic gangsters in Kiss Me Kate.

It would be charitable to say that Bryars’ score is anything beyond the ordinary. He’s at his best in jazz territory, which is where these RCS players, again tight-knit under Cole’s cool-headed direction, effect a sumptuous, atmospheric response, and where this opera really finds its niche.

You don’t often get to hear this repertoire. Well done the RCS for providing such a slick opportunity.

Ken Walton

Further performances on Wed 2 & Fri 4 Nov

Picture credit: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland / Robbie McFadzean

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


Tramway, Glasgow

Amid the myriad events of a stimulating Sonica Glasgow 2022 festival, composer Gavin Bryars’ expected presence to conduct the RSNO in his own works (and one of Arvo Pärt’s) held a certain cult status. The substantial bustling audience was testament to that, the late start simply heightening the anticipation. All that was missing was Bryars himself.

It was given over to Cathie Boyd, artistic director of the festival organising body Cryptic, to explain that Bryars couldn’t be with us in person, due to testing positive for Covid, but that he would speak to us virtually from his Glasgow hotel room. The asymptomatic icon, writ large on a massive rear screen, duly engaged between performances. All was not lost.

His place on the rostrum was taken last-minute by Robert Baxter, a frequent trumpeter within the ranks of Scotland’s orchestras, whose crisp and authoritative baton technique saved the day. 

He wasn’t needed for the opening work, the most iconic of Bryars’ ruminative output, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Written 51 years ago, it is memorable for its looped recording of a homeless old man incanting, with haunting simplicity, a religious song, around which the orchestra  weaves a harmonic wrap of increasing density. Saturday’s performance was self-generated by the orchestra. 

That, in itself, generated a fragile intensity to match the old man’s voice, a solo string ensemble creeping in with tentative delicacy before growing gradually in number and amplitude to the point where the harmonic riff took on a life of its own. If some of the ensemble’s cohesion teetered on the brink – the angelic valedictory chorus of high strings, for instance – its accidental potency was weirdly moving.

Baxter’s presence was welcomed when it came to Pärt’s more complex 1970s’ curiosity If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper. Originally composed for harpsichord, small ensemble and tape, and ironically (for the then Soviet subjugated Estonian) subtitled Portrait of a Musicologist Against the Background of a Wasp Nest, it has since undergone several adaptations, including this last on in 2019 for larger ensemble. 

Not only did this performance embrace the textural busyness of the score, in which adapted Bach motifs and quotations vie with buzzing string effects and volatile piano incursions, but its meaning was usefully amplified by the first of digital artist Alba G Corral’s live visual projections, a restlessly mercurial landscape, vividly detailed yet unobtrusive.

The concert ended with the UK premiere of Bryars’ Viola Concerto, subtitled A Hut in Toyama and inspired by the long, dark Australian nights of the southern winter solstice during which he composed it. Completed in 2020, it was premiered the following year in Tasmania by its dedicatee Morgan Goff, a long-standing violist in Bryars’ own ensemble, who also starred in this Glasgow performance.

Its writing is typical of Bryars, faintly morose in character, but with a carefree composure that plays to both its advantage and its disadvantage. Yes, there’s a lugubrious charm to a concept that pits the warm-hearted viola against predominantly low-set orchestral textures, but when the lyrical momentum and character is constantly subdued by the flatness of the compositional contours, the task is all the greater. 

That may have been why Goff’s performance seemed so frustratingly laid back, in extreme cases awkward and uneasy. Baxter also faced his own challenge in addressing a work that probably needed more time to bring fully to life than he was given. Nor was it all down to Corrall that her added visual illumination, for all its crafted eloquence, seemed less purposeful than in the Pärt.

Ken Walton