Tag Archives: St Mary's Music School

St Mary’s 50th

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Some end-of-term concerts are grander than others, and this one, in terms of its participants and musical content, was certainly top of the class. Featuring an orchestra that teamed the current cohort of students with alumni whose schooldays ended as long ago as the early 1980s, under the baton of cellist, teacher and leader of the Hebrides Ensemble Will Conway, and a choir that involved the entire school singing a new work by Sir James MacMillan, the star soloists included a trio for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto of violinist Colin Scobie, cellist Philip Higham and pianist Steven Osborne, all former pupils.

Yet there was a sense that the event needed to be grander than it turned out. It felt constrained by the dimensions of the venue, both physically and aurally, and the occasion – the Golden Jubilee of the establishment of St Mary’s as a proper academic establishment for the training of young musicians – seemed worthy of a bigger bash. The long saga of the school’s ambition to move from its present cramped accommodation in Edinburgh’s West End to a redeveloped Old Royal High School on Calton Hill, has perhaps taken its toll. Although that development is now on track, it is probably unlikely that even the youngest of the present pupils will still be around to see the move.

Nonetheless, St Mary’s cannot be accused of losing sight of the music in the course of embracing its bold building scheme. That campaign has been soundtracked by The Seven Hills Project, which commissioned seven composers to write a diversity of pieces, the common thread being new verses, themed on Edinburgh’s seven hills, written by Alexander McCall Smith. The 50th birthday commission was the new MacMillan piece, setting George Mackay Brown’s calendar poem The Flute in the Garden.

It is a challenging sing for a youth chorus, in which the orchestra is very much an equal partner, and the flute of the title a crucial voice. The loveliest moments occur, appropriately, in the summer months, with instantly recognisable evocations of the sounds of nature. It is not a long work, but surely one that other ensembles, vocal and instrumental, will be keen to get their teeth into.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise was a well-chosen work to follow the new piece, although also a tall order for young players, who rose splendidly to its challenges and enthusiastically added the required vocal punctuation. The concluding bagpipes appeared from the back of the hall in the hands of Brighde Chaimbeul, more usually a virtuoso on the bellows-powered smallpipes, and rarely seen playing standing up, never mind making a pacing entrance.

The concert ended with another world premiere in Judith Weir’s 50 Happy Bars, a measured fanfare/coda that revealed itself as an orchestration of the world’s best known birthday melody.

The first half of the programme had begun with the only piece that really suited the scale of the Queen’s Hall – Aaron Copland’s Quiet City. Conway’s small string ensemble was flanked by the two guest soloists – trumpeter Aaron Akugbo and the cor anglais of Katherine Bryer. As a piece it may have outgrown its theatrical origins, but it was the precision of this performance by all involved that made it such a good place to start.

The Triple Concerto, on the other hand, did seem a squeezed into the space, an impression amplified by an orchestral sound that was initially more (late) ‘Beethoveney’ than the work really wants. What was fascinating, so soon after hearing Benedetti, Kanneh-Mason and Grosvenor play it with the RSNO, was the very different approach of Scobie, Higham and Osborne. They were no less communicative as a trio, but there was no question that Higham had the leading role.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Brighde Chaimbeul by Steve Bliss

RSNO / New

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Whatever the full house in Edinburgh’s big hall came for on Friday evening, they surely got it in spades. It may have ended at a very respectable half past nine in the evening, but the music began at 6pm, with the RSNO providing a showcase for young musicians from St Mary’s Music School as it marks its 50th birthday.

The pre-concert concert stole a march on the symphony orchestra by having an opening just as sonically bold as the Ligeti we would hear an hour-and-a-half later, as sixth former Carlo Massimo let loose the might of the Usher Hall organ on Olivier Messiaen.

That was a precursor to a varied bill of chamber music that included a senior string quartet playing a movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, but shone in the duos. Those nearing the end of their studies at the school gave us Rautavarra (violinist Anias Kroeger and pianist Alexander Kwon) and Sorensen (fiddler Hester Parkin and Kirsty Grant on accordion), but the star turn was a Tchaikovsky Nocturne by first year cellist Paul Oggier and his attentive S3 piano partner Michelle Huang.

The RSNO’s opening salvo was the Prelude and Intermezzo from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, a rather grand title for the madcap fun of three members of the percussion section employing hands and feet to parp a dozen old-school bulb horns for a fanfare that, apparently, parodies Monteverdi.

It was a skilled, if bonkers, start, and the best joke was that it preceded Gershwin’s An American in Paris which famously features the same “instrument” to soundtrack the bustling traffic of the city.

There are fewer car horns required for that work, but they are as crucial as the trumpets, trombones and tuba in the overall sound of the work. This was an evening in which the brass section shone throughout the programme, first trumpet Chris Hart the most obvious soloist, but tuba player John Whitener, and trombonist Davur Juul Magnussen, doubling on euphonium, not far behind.

Making her debut as conductor, New Zealander Gemma New, whose grandmother was once an RSNO violinist, was the other crucial ingredient in the vibrancy of the music. A musician who clearly delights in the power and majesty of the symphony orchestra – and especially one garnished with extra instruments like saxophones – she drew superb work from everyone on stage.

Also making her RSNO debut was the night’s soloist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, and a dynamic duo the two certainly were on Gillam’s pair of pieces. Those came from the 1930s, in an exclusively 20thcentury programme: Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings and Milhaud’s Scaramouche, which has given Gillam the theme music for her award-winning Radio 3 show, This Classical Life.

The sax may have been in its early years as a soloist in classical music, but both are splendid virtuoso pieces, the Milhaud arguably having the edge in its application of the possibilities of the instrument.

Colourful though Gillam and her music were, there was even more to come in this busy night. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a popular work in any of its incarnations and the RSNO enhanced the Ravel orchestration with actual picture-making by artist James Mayhew.

If there was a suspicion that all this might become a bit much, all credit goes to conductor, musicians and to Mayhew, who made the whole thing work so well. The work was as varied, big and bold as it can be, and the artistic skill with which it was illustrated, in time with the score, was quite remarkable.

Using the titles from Viktor Hartmann’s works that the composer deployed in tribute to his friend, Mayhew created ten swift, literal, images of as much vibrancy and colour as the music. It was a multi-media triumph every bit as old-school as those car horns.

Keith Bruce

St Mary’s Christmas Concert

St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh

At the start of 2022, VoxCarnyx was a partner in the campaign by St Mary’s Music School to inform the wider public, particularly in Edinburgh, of plans to transform the historic Royal High School at Calton Hill into a new home for itself and a public concert venue.

As the year comes to a close, approval for the development is in place and work will begin on the site next year. It is likely to be 2026 before the school has relocated from its current home in the west end of the city, but there was nonetheless a real sense of celebration at the school’s year-end concert that the 50th anniversary of St Mary’s starting instrumental teaching in Edinburgh has been marked by such a decisive step forward.

The younger pupils who performed on Monday evening – and the Junior Strings included a trio of girls from P5 – will see and soundtrack that move. Here they opened the instrumental programme with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, a work paralleled by the Handel of the older players in the Early Music Group, directed by the Dunedin Consort’s Hilary Michael and featuring some round-toned oboe from Alasdair Cottee.

A violinist in that group, India Reilly, would lead the senior orchestra in the concluding performance of Haydn’s Symphony No 56, while Sixth Form viola player Daisy Richards was the soloist and director of a nonet of strings for Hindemith’s Trauermusik. There was an admirable autonomy in that bold decision, but the lack of a steering hand from a conductor was audible in both cases. The inclusion of a pair of alto saxophones in the orchestra would have surprised the composer, but I’d suggest probably please him too.

The first half of the concert was bracketed with singing, from the St Mary’s Cathedral Choristers at the start and the school’s Senior and Junior Choirs at its end. Californian composer Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song was a highlight of the latter, while Manhattan-domiciled Norwegian Ola Gjeilo’s very traditional Sanctus showcased the pure tone of the young sopranos.

The premiere of the night was by school alumnus Simon David Smith, and the latest in St Mary’s Seven Hills Project. Working with a collection of poems written by Alexander McCall Smith, who read his “Corstorphine Hill” before the performance, the project celebrates the capital’s topography with seven composers commissioned to write music in response to the words.

Smith’s work had prominent roles for John Hall’s soprano saxophone, Daisy Richards and her viola in the pulpit and Carlo Massimo on St Cuthbert’s fine organ. Although its title, A Shared Mystery, came from the last line of McCall Smith’s poem, in fact the writer was musing on the hill’s supposed links with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, while the composition seemed more interested in the process of creation, and the freedom its structure gave to the players.

Fascinating stuff, and possibly more than idly reflective of the long journey St Mary’s has embarked on during its 50th anniversary.

Keith Bruce

Go-ahead for music school

Councillors on the Finance and Resources Committee of the City of Edinburgh Council have given the go-ahead for the development of the Old Royal High School on Regent Road as a new home for St Mary’s Music School and a public performance venue.

With the decision to grant the Royal School Preservation Trust a long lease on the historic building, the city council has signalled its approval of the plans to develop it as a national centre for music education.
The bid is backed by an expanded gift from philanthropist Carol Colburn Grigor and Dunard Fund totalling £55 million to cover the capital costs and support the future maintenance of the Thomas Hamilton building.

Announcing the decision, committee convener Councillor Rob Munn said: “It’s great news that this iconic building, set in the heart of our World Heritage Site, will now be restored and put to good use again, making it accessible for many generations to come.”

William Gray Muir, Chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, said: “We are thrilled that our shared vision for a new world-class centre for music education and public performance can move forward at last.  

“The project has brought together an unprecedented range of partners, all of whom recognise collaboration as the key to realising Scotland’s potential as a world leader in music education, and creating an entirely new way for the nation to engage with and enjoy classical music.”

Dr Kenneth Taylor, Headteacher at St Mary’s Music School, added: “This is a truly exciting day for St Mary’s Music School. Not only does it bring us a huge step closer to having a new home for the school; it also places us at the centre of a project that will deliver and enhance world-class music education for people from all backgrounds across Scotland in a setting that will be second to none.

“We are also enormously grateful for the ongoing support of our stakeholders in the world of arts and education, as well as the people of Edinburgh who have backed us warmly over the past five years.”

Supporters of the plan include Impact Scotland, which is developing the new Dunard Centre in the city, which will be a home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Nicola Benedetti’s Benedetti Foundation which has done so much to boost music education in recent years.

The violinist said: “The National Centre for Music presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to enrich the cultural life of Scotland and to serve as a beacon of true 21st century music education for the world to see.”

Picture: Students of St Mary’s Music School in front of the Old Royal High School, credit Mike Wilkinson

SEVEN HILLS: St Mary’s / Capperauld

Stockbridge Church, Edinburgh

More than most schools in Scotland, the pressure last term was on St Mary’s Music School to get its music performance function back on track at the earliest opportunity. That’s primarily what the specialist Edinburgh music establishment exists for, so Covid restrictions were an especial concern. 

Resilience, determination, ingenuity and ambition paid off, and this end of session concert, now online, is a glorious musical achievement in the harshest of times. Central to it is the premiere of Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld’s Theory of the Earth, the first of seven unfolding commissions by the school designed to celebrate its upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023.

The number seven is key. In hatching the project the school’s director of music Paul Stubbings sought to connect the school to the community by taking Edinburgh’s seven hills and poems by Alexander McCall Smith as the inspiration for the new chamber works, and for related activity that would align with St Mary’s expanding outreach initiatives. Besides the seven commissions, Sir James MacMillan will write a major celebratory work for orchestra and choir.

Meanwhile, Capperauld’s latest premiere marks the start of the process from a public perspective, and a highly impressive achievement it is. Written for string quartet, piano and percussion, Theory of the Earth is performed by mostly students under the direction of head of strings, Valerie Pearson. The inspiration is McCall Smith’s poem Arthur’s Seat and Geology, who reads it prior to the performance.

As for the resulting music, Capperauld has latched on to the poet’s reference to James Hutton, the 18th century founder of modern geology, who confirmed, especially through his analysis of Arthur’s Seat, that the earth’s geological evolution was a constant process of renewal and decay over millions of years – “no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end”. In doing so he debunked traditional religious notions. 

Capperauld responds with a piece that seems as timeless as it is contained. From a single, insistent note on piano vying motifs emerge, some nostalgically modal, others more abstract and ethereal. The combined result is almost statuesque, an invigorating minimalist mix of movement and stasis. 

It’s a language these young players easily understand and are technically on top of. They negotiate its variable aleatoric elements with unflinching confidence, and are persuasive in shaping the big picture, with its gradual build to biting climax and ultimate evaporation. If this is the bench mark for the ensuing commissions, it will be quite a collection.
Ken Walton

Available to view at https://vimeo.com/577725596/4d207a3f83

A Classical Solution…?


Is the future of Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School reaching a musical conclusion? A series of “cultural conversations” aims to state the case. KEITH BRUCE explains.

He may have been born in Glasgow, and designed buildings and monuments all over Scotland, but neo-classical architect Thomas Hamilton is most especially associated with Edinburgh, and there with two public buildings whose recent fortunes have been very different.

The Dean Orphanage, which sits above the Water of Leith in the West End of the capital, is now styled SNGMA2, an extension, across Belford Road, of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, previously simply the Dean Gallery and before that for many years a teacher training facility.

Beyond the East End of Princes Street, on Regent Road opposite the monolithic Scottish Office building, St Andrew’s House, is “The Old Royal High School”, as it has been identified ever since the school moved to Barnton, far out the Queensferry Road, in 1968.

Some recent media coverage of plans for its future has insisted that the building has been “unoccupied” in the half century and more that has passed, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the years after the school pupils for whom it was designed and built moved out, it has seen a great variety of tenants, and often occupied a very prominent place in the discourse about the future of Scotland.

What is beyond debate is the quality of the building itself. Built in the 1820s, it was greatly admired in its own century by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, and more recent architectural historians have called it “the architect’s supreme masterpiece and the finest monument of the Greek revival in Scotland”. With a commanding position on the side of Calton Hill in “the Athens of the North”, it is unsurprising that it was considered in the 1970s to be the natural home for a Scottish Parliament in the run-up to the 1979 referendum, which failed to clear the hurdle to establish such a body.

Nonetheless the debating chamber that had been created inside was pressed into service as the meeting place for the “Scottish Grand Committee” – as distinct from the Scottish Select Committee – a gathering of all of Scotland’s Westminster MPs. By the time Scotland did vote to have its own parliament, the old school building was judged to be inadequate to the purpose, and had, perhaps, become too closely associated with the campaign for more than devolution.

Pending the construction of a new parliament building at Holyrood on the site of a demolished brewery, the devolved administration set up temporary camp at the other end of the Royal Mile and Thomas Hamilton’s neo-classical masterpiece began a longer and more uncertain phase of its existence, but one which may at last be approaching a conclusion.

What is notable during that time, when responsibility for the building returned to Edinburgh City Council, is that the arts have often enlivened it, and been at the heart of plans for its future.

In 1998, Fringe impresario Richard Demarco moved in with a programme of performances and masterclasses during the Edinburgh Festival in a partnership with the European Youth Parliament.

In 2004 the Edinburgh-resident former press secretary to Her Majesty the Queen, Michael Shea, was the main spokesman for a multi-million pound proposal to convert it into a national museum of photography, an artform in which Scotland had produced a good number of pioneers, but which still lacks a major gallery. The plans failed to find the necessary Heritage Lottery backing.

Ten years later the Old Royal High School was pressed into service as a venue for the Edinburgh Art Festival, then in its own tenth year, with film installations in the main chamber and neon artwork on the façade.

Since 2014 speculation about the future of the building has centred around controversial hotel plans, while a proposal by St Mary’s Music School, currently housed in buildings not far from Hamilton’s Dean building, to return it to the realm of education, for which it was designed, has steadily gained ground.

With planning consent for the hotel proposal now lapsed, and the council open to offers for the site, the Royal High School Preservation Trust and St Mary’s have joined forces on the Perfect Harmony Development Board to drive forward the plan for a national music centre and national music school, with substantial backing promised from Carol Grigor’s Dunard Fund.

Part of that public awareness campaign will be a series of monthly Cultural Conversations online, informing people about the plans for the redevelopment of the building and the work of the school.

Vox Carnyx is delighted to be involved in these, with Keith Bruce and Ken Walton putting questions to key people involved in the project before open question and answer sessions. Architects and engineers, teachers and alumni will be taking part in the webinars running from March to August.

The first of these is on Friday March 5 from noon, when Keith Bruce will be speaking with William Gray Muir of the Royal High School Preservation Trust and Carol Nimmo of the Perfect Harmony Development Board.

Readers who wish to watch should visit https://stmarysmusic.ptly.uk/event/culturalconversations01 to receive an access code.

Image: Students of St Mary’s Music School in front of the Old Royal High School (credit Mike Wilkinson)