Tag Archives: SEAN SHIBE

Beacon Series / Shibe

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

There’s no mistaking the boldness with which Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre opened its first classical music series. Anyone expecting world-ranking guitarist Sean Shibe to settle for a populist solo recital of, say, Spanish-style lollipops, Bach transcriptions or Elizabethan airs will have misread Shibe’s fearless evangelism, which placed a major modernist Picasso-inspired work, Harrison Birtwistle’s Beyond the White Hand, at the heart of his hour-plus afternoon programme. 

He acknowledged series curator James Waters’ willingness to go for it, proving in his intense and at times edge-of-the-seat performance that it simply takes a master craftsman to make sense of the seemingly impenetrable. The Beacon’s informal performance space, its floor-to-ceiling window views over a windswept River Clyde changing hue by the minute, seemed remarkably suited to Birtwistle’s angular and experimental virtuosity, his fragmented, to some extent heretical, rhetoric.

The rest of Shibe’s programme was easier to instantly digest. He opened with a pair of works by the 16th century Spanish vihuelist Luis de Narváez, their nimble eloquence like stage whispers enticing us into an intimate world. The accompaniment of trickling rainwater from the roof space above seemed strangely appropriate, like some Zen water feature.

Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy (a habanera drawing on quotes from Debussy), even with its uptempo vibe, maintained that sense of reverie, as did Poulenc’s short, serene Sarabande. 

It was only after the ensuing Birtwistle that Shibe injected a more direct sunlight into his programme, firstly in the soulful radiance of Agustin Barrios Mangoré’s Julia Florida (a point, coincidentally, where the clouds lifted over the Clyde to reveal distant Helensburgh), then in five of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ 12 Guitar Etudes, sprayed with splashes of South American effervescence, and finally in Alberto Ginastera’s catchy Sonata. 

The last – dexterous, multi-coloured and exciting – seemed like a microcosmic précis of the entire recital: the internalised austerity of the opening Escordia giving way to a breezy, sometimes weirdly experimental, Scherzo; and after the searching restfulness of Canto, the manic motor-driven Finale.

Shibe attracted a healthy audience for this inaugural concert. Sitting near the back, however, it was difficult to pick out some of the finest details of his playing. Given the flexibility of the room, there is surely scope to try out different audience layouts, especially when such intimate solo instruments are featured. 

(Photo: Christopher Bowen)

Ken Walton

The Beacon’s first Classical Series continues with the Malamatina Guitar Quartet (26 Feb), saxophonist Dean Walker Garrity (March), accordionist Ryan Corbett (April) and ends in June with harpsichordist John Butt performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Details at www.beaconartscentre.co.uk 

Sean Shibe: Lost & Found


Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe’s second album for Pentatone comes within a whisker of being too cool for school. The label describes it as “an ecstatic journey containing music by outsiders, mystics, visionaries, who often have more than one identity”.

Clocking in at 70 minutes, it would be pushing the envelope for a vinyl release, but is formatted that way, with a clear side one/side two split between Oliver Leith’s Pushing my thumb through a plate (originally written for harp) and Meredith Monk’s Nightfall (composed for voices).

The repertoire runs from Monk’s 12th century forebear Hildegard von Bingen to jazzmen Chick Corea and Bill Evans, by way of mavericks Moondog and Julius Eastman. It’s eclectic certainly, but all in the best possible current hipster taste, perfectly designed to appeal to the audience Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan astutely identified for the strand of “contemporary music” he introduced to the programme.

It’s also electric, Shibe playing two amplified solid-bodied guitars, through an array of effects, most extravagantly deployed on the earliest music. Recorded less than half a mile from the EIF’s Leith Theatre venue in Great Junction Street, it roams the globe and the repertoire, including a world premiere by Daniel Kidane (inspired by lockdown and sitting nicely amidst Corea’s Children’s Songs) and an arrangement of Shiva Feshareki’s 2018 VENUS/ZOHREH (originally for string quartet).

The latter’s graphic score, and the one for Eastman’s Buddha, are reproduced in the booklet of a package that has the guitarist indulging his cos-play enthusiasm. If you are looking for a precedent for the cover art style of Shibe’s recent output, look no further than Icelandic avant-pop pixie Bjork.

All of which suggest a bold level of ambition, and the undeniable fact is that Shibe pulls it off. His playing is immaculate, and the soundscapes he builds flawlessly constructed, never in any danger of straying into prog excess, and beautifully recorded. The disc is also sequenced with great care, so that the more melodious works arrive at exactly the correct time. Admirers of the guitarist’s acoustic classical work will find much to enjoy, as will those fans less likely to take a cottage in Earlsferry to hear Schubert chamber music at the East Neuk Festival each summer.

In record company marketing terms, Lost & Found is probably a “crossover” album, but one that is far too plugged into the zeitgeist and modern taste to deserve the label. It stands a very good chance of knocking some of the more obvious products bearing that label off their perches in the classical charts, but is well worth an attentive listen anyway.

Keith Bruce

Juggling high and low art

Sean Gandini, founder of Gandini Juggling, talks to KEITH BRUCE about his company’s first appearance at the East Neuk Festival

As many have observed, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions played havoc with perceptions of the passage of time, so that memories of events past can seem more distant or more recent than expected.

Five years ago, in the Dreel Halls in Anstruther, two young musicians played the work of composer Steve Reich in a concert that was to prove more the start of a journey for one than the other, although both have maintained a strong connection with the East Neuk Festival and are part of the 2022 programme.

Guitarist Sean Shibe unveiled elements of his softLOUD project that would go on to wow the Edinburgh Fringe and win him the first of a sequence of awards in its recorded form. Clarinettist Julian Bliss, on the other hand, took a different path by forming a jazz septet. The George Gershwin music he subsequently performed at ENF recently won huge acclaim at London’s Wigmore Hall, and the group brings a new programme of show tunes, entitled Hooray for Holywood, to Anstruther Town Hall on Friday July 1.

Shibe returns this year in the company of violinist Benjamin Baker, both of them former beneficiaries of East Neuk Retreats that enabled the focus on new directions in their music. This year Baker and Shibe are working with ENF debutantes Gandini Juggling on Light the Lights, a son et lumiere combination of music and movement that is another new direction for the festival.

While artistic director Svend Brown has built rewarding loyalties with chamber musicians and ensembles that are the heart of the East Neuk Festival, he has included various non-classical ingredients in the recipe over the years. Visual art, from sand sculpture to film-making, has often been present, while a flirtation with literary events came and went, possibly because of the boom in book festivals at other picturesque locations in Scotland.

This year, as well as jazz and movie music, there is choreography, both from the Daniel Martinez Flamenco Company, who are in the Anstruther venue the evening after Bliss, and from the Gandinis, whose back catalogue has paired their juggling skills with contemporary dance – especially the work of the late Pina Bausch – as well as Indian classical dance and ballet.

Five years ago in Gandini Juggling history, Sean Gandini received a Herald Archangel Award from the Glasgow-based newspaper for his decades of contribution to Edinburgh’s August festivities, and the Angel-winning shows he had brought to the capital. At the time, his group had also recently made a ground-breaking contribution to Phelim McDermott’s acclaimed production of the Philip Glass opera Ahknaten which earned it a Grammy award at the Metropolitan Opera and an Olivier award for English National Opera in London.

Sean Gandini receiving Herald Archangel from Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy in 2017

When he and I speak, he has just returned from a revival of Ahknaten in New York, and ENO will re-stage the work at the Coliseum next spring. He is now in France, where Lyon’s Les Nuits de Fourviere festival is presenting both parts of the Bausch-influenced shows, Smashed and Smashed 2, together for the first time.

“That is happening at the same time as the Scottish performance which is a much more musical affair,” says Gandini. “We have split the team in two, because we live in an age of extremes and we are now weirdly busy after the pandemic – and one thing we have learned to do is work remotely!” With German juggler Doreen Grossman in charge of realising the ENF project, after Gandini has edited the shape of it via online rehearsals, Light the Lights will premiere at The Bowhouse near St Monans the day before the Gandinis open in Lyon.

“They have had Pina Bausch’s company many times and we will be performing the shows back-to-back at night in a square in front of the opera house where she used to perform.”

The music of Steve Reich is to the fore once more in the East Neuk show, alongside that of Bach, and Grossman will be programming the illuminated juggling to synchronise with the score.

“Light the Lights is a one-off commission, although we have worked before with these light-emitting clubs that are programmed to change colour in time with the music.” Gandini explains.

“It includes Reich’s work with phasing that accelerates a bit of material so that you end up staggered in timing. That is something that is of great interest to us, especially coming straight after working on the Glass. They are so similar and yet so different, those two composers.

“There was dialogue, but it was the Festival that suggested the choice of music and I hope that the show will have a further life, because that is the way that we work. At least elements of it will certainly return because we are working more with live music, and that is so special.”

Beyond any debate is the way that Gandini Juggling has taken the discipline at the heart of its art out of the world of circus and street performance into more exalted company.

“I’d love to do more opera,” Gandini confirms. “There was some suspicion of our involvement in Ahknaten until people actually saw it. It is a very unusual way of using juggling, but then there is a problem of hierarchy in the arts: juggling is lower in the pecking order than opera. Perhaps if Louis XIV had been obsessed with hula-hoops rather than ballet, things might have turned out differently!”

Light the Lights has its first, and so far sole, performance at The Bowhouse on Friday July 1, as part of the East Neuk Festival, June 29 to July 3. Full details of the whole programme are available at eastneukfestival.com

Shibe wins Bernstein Award

Edinburgh-born Sean Shibe continues to blaze a trail for guitarists with the announcement that he is the 2022 winner of the Leonard Bernstein Award to a young musician from the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany.

The prize, which is worth 10,000 Euros, alongside a showcase concert at this summer’s festival, has never been awarded to a guitarist before. Previous winners include pianists Lang Lang and, last year, Isata Kanneh-Mason. Shibe, who is 29, was also the first guitarist to be chosen as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist and to be awarded a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship, while his albums on the Delphian and Pentatone labels have been garlanded with awards.

His concert, in Lubeck on August 19, will feature the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo with the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach.

The prize is supported by a consortium of German savings banks and is assessed by a panel of judges that includes two of Bernstein’s children: Jaime Bernstein Thomas and Alexander Bernstein. Festival director and fellow jurist Dr Christian Kuhnt said: “Sean Shibe combines different styles and genres. In doing so, he impresses with outstanding musical ability, a rich imagination and the courage to break new ground. He enriches the concert stages with his programmes. We are looking forward to many stimulating ideas from this exceptional talent.”

Shibe said: “This recognition is deeply moving, perhaps particularly so because it is the first time that the Leonard Bernstein Award has been awarded to a guitarist – but mostly because it feels like a ratification of an artistic direction that, while deeply felt by myself, at the time seemed risky and peculiar to many of my colleagues. Thank you, SHMF, for instead encouraging me further!”



Portrait by Iga Gozdowska

Glasgow Cathedral Festival: Sean Shibe

As part of what he called his “Drive to [19]85”, some years before Sean Shibe was born, the King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp used to speak of one of his side projects as “a small, mobile, highly-intelligent unit”. Only oldsters like myself are likely to look at Shibe and see a Fripp de nos jours, but that description fits him rather well.

Of all the many returned festivals and seasons across Scotland this autumn, the live reappearance of the Glasgow Cathedral Festival, with a very diverse programme that crossed genres with style and featured established names alongside the freshest new talents, was a particular achievement by the handful of young people who made it happen. Their resources are slender by comparison with some of the other events you can read about on VoxCarnyx.

Shibe’s one-man international journey was therefore an ideal Saturday night headliner, revisiting his back-catalogue under the title Disjunctions, rather than promoting his new Pentatone recording, Camino. The bulk of the programme was taken from his soft/LOUD project, which became his second Delphian album. The quieter part is taken from lute manuscripts in Scottish collections, which show the pan-European outlook and communications of the country in the 17th century.

The bulk of them were from Wemyss Castle and Balcarres House in Fife, but it is not where the music has been found now but where the tunes originated that speaks of Scotland’s cosmopolitan past. Performing them on a modern classical guitar, Shibe can exploit the full range of melodies, rhythms and tonal colour to be found in the notes.

Before switching to his Fender Stratocaster for louder electric music from living composers, the guitarist included an “intervention” from his third Delphian disc of the music of Bach, his most recent award-winner. The brief suite not only underlined the recital’s international message, it also  set up his encore performance of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Farewell to Stromness, prefaced, as Shibe likes to do, with a reminder about its ecological message.

Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint is a contemporary classic, and Shibe has become one of its foremost performers. The complexities of its rhythms and the technicalities of performing live over several pre-recorded tracks of his own playing now appear second nature. Those whose record collections also include the African-inspired sonic experiments of David Byrne and Brian Eno, with and without the band Talking Heads, will recognise similar sources to those Reich explores, and Shibe’s performance made the most of them in the reverberant acoustic.

That was even more audible in the last work on his programme, LAD by Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe. A memorial work, composed for nine bagpipers and consequently not often performed, Shibe has made this a personal showstopper, using multi-tracking, sustain and slide to adapt it to his electric instrument. Heard in isolation, especially booming in a big space, it might have come from anywhere in the world and any era – and that was possibly exactly the point.

Keith Bruce

Sean Shibe: Camino


Sean Shibe’s mantlepiece must be getting mighty crowded. As his fourth album, and first for Pentatone, is released, its predecessor, of Bach lute suites and his third on Scotland’s Delphian label, has just won the Instrumental category in the Gramophone magazine awards.

Blazing his own trail, and in such clear control of his own career, the Edinburgh guitarist might seem to have made the most obvious album of his career with this new release. There is repertoire indelibly associated with his instrument in the public mind, and tunes by Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel that everyone knows.

We are in the borderlands of France and Spain over its hour duration – guitar country for sure – but there is a freshness about Camino that defies any familiarity. Partly that is due to the most-featured composer being Frederic Mompou, rather than the Frenchmen, or Manuel de Falla or Antonio Jose, whose compositions are also included.

The Catalan composer’s six-movement Suite compostelana gives the set its title, and is a product of Mompou’s close association with Andres Segovia. His Cancio I dansa, two of which are included here, were more often for piano. That those tracks impress in such company more than vindicates Shibe’s championing, but the real achievement of the album is the sequencing of the whole. From the selection from The Three-Cornered Hat that opens the disc to the Poulenc Sarabande that closes it, this is a flowing recital where every detail counts. It demands to be listened to entire – and often.

Keith Bruce

EAST NEUK: Lewis, Shibe/Baker

East Neuk Festival

Paul Lewis

Sean Shibe/Benjamin Baker

The live performances at a briefer East Neuk Festival – for a much-circumscribed audience capacity – may be over for the summer, but other aspects of it can be enjoyed online until August 1 via its website. Short films of very high quality sound and vision include performances by artists who were not part of the live events, like the Tallis Scholars and pianist Llyr Williams, as well as different projects by some of those who were, including violinist Benjamin Baker and guitarist Sean Shibe.

Those two combined forces at the Bowhouse on Saturday morning to play music by Arvo Part, Manuel de Falla and Bela Bartok in a recital that was far-removed from their individual film excursions into solo violin Bach and acoustic and electric guitar quartets.

There was an overlap in that Part’s Summa features in the films of Shibe’s guitar collective and his Fratres began the live concert, with the equally soundtrack-familiar Spiegel im Spiegel mirroring it (appropriately enough) at the end, when Baker was joined by his regular recital partner, Daniel Lebhardt.

Shibe, who had a solo spot playing Mompou from his forthcoming debut collection for the Pentatone label, was slightly the junior partner in the duos, if only because the stylistic switching required of the violinist in tackling the different composers was the more ear-catching. Baker was chill and precise in the minimalist music, with all that work on Bach with the Royal Conservatoire’s Head of Strings David Watkins doubtless bearing more modern fruit, and fruity and sassy in the Seven Spanish Songs and Romanian Dances.

He and Lebhardt also played the biggest work in the programme, the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Highland Scenes. If there were particularly Scottish references in the broad topography of Kaner’s demanding score, which had huge variation of tone, range and dynamics, they escaped me on first listen, but I’ll be keen to re-assess that impression when the recording is broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Pianist Paul Lewis was the big name live attraction at the Bowhouse, with concerts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Making his debut at the festival, the first programme was one that was a product of the pandemic – a single span of an hour and a quarter with only one brief pause for applause after the first work.

It was Mozart’s Sonata in A K331, on which the ringing tone of the Steinway hinted at what was to come, as did the clear impression from the opening bars that Lewis was as concerned with the arc of the whole work as its finer details, beautifully played though they were. That applause break was brief as Lewis sat down quickly, without leaving the stage, to enter the very different sound-world, and mindset, of Scriabin. The condensed expression of the Five Preludes the pianist treated as a preface to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, leaving no space between the last of those and the first Promenade.

This was as dynamic a Pictures as you are likely to hear, and if not to the taste of all, hugely exciting to my ears. Crucially, it at no point brought to mind the work’s later orchestration: this was pianism at full throttle. It was also, when it should be, very loud, the chords bouncing around the reverberant acoustic. The impression was of a musician exploiting the limitations of the venue with all his skills, stomping on the forte pedal of the concert grand like a man possessed. Importantly, though, no detail was lost, even in passages that were played faster than I had ever heard them.

After that, Sunday afternoon’s recital could only be a more sober affair, even if its biggest piece was Schubert’s Sonata in B, which is a bouncy imperious work, full of dances and marches. Mozart’s rather dark Adagio in B minor and five of Mendelssohn’s loveliest Songs Without Words, ending with the gorgeous hymn-like Opus 30 No 3, began the published programme, and Lewis added Schubert’s Allegretto in C Minor as an encore. The whole afternoon was a masterclass of the best piano writing.


Keith Bruce

Sean Shibe rallies the troubadours

During the last weeks of 2020, as negotiations over the UK’s departure from the European Union ran to the wire, and agreement over access to fishing around the coast of these islands was said to be the stumbling block, it was often remarked that the financial value of that industry was dwarfed by the contribution that arts and culture make to the national economy. Despite that, the free movement of artists across borders was being thrown away in the pursuit of ill-defined “sovereignty”.

Within days of the start of 2021, however, it was clear that musicians and fishermen had common cause, alongside hauliers, in opposing a settlement that had produced no benefit to any of them.

When the Independent newspaper revealed that the British negotiators had been offered a deal to ensure soloists, bands, and orchestras could continue to travel without the requirement for visas, work permits and other red tape, only to turn it down, the reaction from the sector was understandably one of fury.

A letter published in The Times stated baldly that “musicians, dancers, actors and their support staff had been shamefully failed by their government” was signed by a  veritable Who’s Who of musicians, including Sir Simon Rattle, Nicola Benedetti, Sir Elton John, Bob Geldof, Robert Plant, Sting, Liam Gallagher and Ed Sheeran.

Which of these names was singled out for highlighting depended very much on the perceived readership of the publication that covered the story – and virtually every newspaper and arts-related journal did.

The role of the ISM (Incorporated Society of Musicians) was often mentioned in the recruiting of many of the signatories. However the genesis of the initiative – so far the most comprehensive and powerful statement of opposition to the way Brexit has affected musicians – lay in a conversation between Edinburgh guitarist Sean Shibe and the wife of LibDem peer Lord Paul Strasberger.

“I’ve been in touch with Evelyn Strasburger since I did a couple of concerts for her in Bath,” explains Shibe. “Although we are not on the same path politically we talk about things a lot, so I drew her attention to the article in the Independent and she was furious about it because of what it would mean to young musicians she works with.”

As far as Shibe was concerned, “It was bemusing to read that the government could have taken an opportunity to save part of an industry, although it is perhaps not surprising that they chose not to.”

It was Lord Strasberger who made the link with the ISM, as well as recruiting other LibDems in the Upper House to the campaign, while Shibe himself was busy contacting colleagues in his own address book.

“We compiled a pretty comprehensive list of names for the letter of protest. Often these things are taken on by classical or non-classical types so it was good to have collegiate support across the board.”

The fact that his own role in the letter was swiftly overtaken by the starrier signatories was inevitable.

“I didn’t care if my name was mentioned or not; I am a very small part of this, sending a couple of texts and getting some good names on the letter. I just want something to happen, there is no glory in this. There has been deliberate obfuscation on the part of the government about what really happened and all the to-and-fro about ‘what they said’ and ‘what we said’ is not actually focussing on what could be solved.”

There was undoubtedly some confusion in the government response, with junior culture minister Caroline Dinenage and her boss Oliver Dowden apparently at odds.

Shibe explains: “On the same day that the letter was published in The Times, Oliver Dowden met with about 30 representatives of the industry on Zoom. The secretary of the Musicians Union, Horace Trubridge, told me that it was stated several times during that meeting that the treaty with the EU had been concluded and the UK was not going to change it.

“Taking that at face value, the MU thinks that the best it is going to get is bilateral agreements with individual EU states about reciprocal arrangements.”

“But Dinenage was blaming the EU, and saying ‘the door is still open’ implying that the EU had to come to them, refuting Dowden saying the deal was concluded. It all suggests there is still work to be done.”

Shibe says that Lord Strasberger and his colleagues are continuing to put pressure on the government behind the scenes.

“One hopes there is still work to be done. There is a lot of room for different sectors to work together, no matter how unlikely the alliance. Hauliers are being let down so badly, and I read that Cheshire Cheese makers are upset.

“To a degree it is now in other people’s hands. Writing to your MP really has more weight than people think it does, so I would encourage people to do that.”

If the political campaigning has kept the guitarist busy recently, he has not been entirely idle during the past year without live concerts. His most recent online recital was as part of Baroque at the Edge at LSO St Luke’s, a beautifully-recorded concert that ranged from the Scottish manuscripts he has recorded for the Delphian label to a flavour of the music that will feature on his first disc under his new contract with Pentatone.

“It will be out in August and is one of their priority releases for next year. It took lockdown for me to discover this repertoire of Federico Mompou, Poulenc, and Ravel.

“Compared to a lot of the stuff that I am interested in, it is on the easier end of the listening scale and outside of lockdown I might not have been enticed to explore it, but it is so comforting to play.

“Mompou’s major work for the guitar repertoire is the Suite Compostelana [composed for Segovia at the start of the 1960s] which traces part of the Camino pilgrim path to Santiago. There are references to the Galician small pipes and other links to the Celtic diaspora, before the sighting of the great church itself.

“So ‘Camino’ made sense as a title for an album of music that I’ve been on a path to get to, and repertoire that I deliberately did not want to explore earlier in my career because the guitar is so inextricably linked to Spanish repertoire. I wanted to be able to come to it with genuine enthusiasm, and this felt like the right time.”

As well as classic guitar repertoire, Shibe has also been adding lute music to his live concerts, most recently for Baroque at the Edge but also for his contribution to the online East Neuk Festival events last year.

“It was another thing that I’ve had time to explore during lockdown. The lute has been in and out of my life since undergraduate studies, which is the best part of ten years now. The technique that you require for the lute is so radically different and the joy of the instrument is its sensuality in playing it. Again it has been something that is very comforting.”

Nonetheless, the global health crisis came just as Sean Shibe’s star was rising and his career moving up a gear, so such consolations have to be set against the business of making a living in the music business.

“When lockdown happened I moved back to stay with my parents and save on rent. I am very grateful that Pentatone took me on when they did and I’ve already seen such substantial support from them, beyond promoting a record. It is much more holistic.”

He is aware that his predicament is no worse than that of many others in the music industry.

“As instrumentalists we always knew it would be hard work to keep going, but my friends in arts admin perhaps saw their jobs as more stable and that has been taken from them. And I really feel for those who are leaving college at the moment as well.

“ I have had two or three new concerti delayed. But delayed and not cancelled, so I am grateful for that. I have probably lost about £50,000 to £60,000 worth of work that was planned – and for that work to be there in the future those institutions will have to survive. Of course there are still things going on, but it is so much harder.”

Keith Bruce

To write to your MP and add your voice to the musicians’ campaign, use this online tool: https://hey-mp.uk/?c=music