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Seen and Heard Festival Review


29th St. Magnus Festival, Orkney, 17 – 22 June 2005 by John Warnaby



The 2005 St. Magnus Festival was directed by Ian Ritchie, who took over from Glenys Hughes for a year, enabling her to pursue various music education projects in Malawi. The programme undoubtedly bore the stamp of his personality, but he avoided sacrificing the particular identity the Festival has established over many years.


One area where Ian Ritchie’s emphasis differed slightly from Glenys Hughes concerned the balance between standard repertoire and new or recent music. Local audiences tend to appreciate standard repertoire, as there are few opportunities to experience live music, particularly by orchestras, throughout the year. On the other hand, visitors travelling to Orkney at considerable expense, especially if they arrive by air, usually favour less familiar works which they have not heard elsewhere. This year, there was a tendency to favour the latter, though, ironically, several regular visitors had decided to forego the Festival before the full programme was announced.


Together with the sea, the principal theme of this year’s Festival was war: its ultimate futility, and its aftermath. The sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War was commemorated, while more recent conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq, etc. were the subject of the main community project.


Notes in Time of War, directed by Chris Giles, with music arranged by Gemma McGregor, revealed the diversity of local music-making. It was a promenade performance, involving instrumental and vocal soloists, bagpipers, a flute band, Kirkwall Town Band, and Royal Scottish Academy Brass. Beginning in the open air, it proceeded to the Pickaquoy Centre, where the audience was confronted by four groups of mainly primary school children. The groups were then presented in turn, accompanied by instrumentalists, having created their own songs, based on both children’s diaries and the music of the countries concerned. The whole event was carefully organised, though there were occasional elements of confusion, possibly reflecting the inevitable confusion of a war zone.


One of the featured composers was Nigel Osborne, who has collaborated with Ian Ritchie on many occasions, and whose involvement with the resurgence of cultural life in Bosnia was reflected in the Festival. Osborne was represented by several chamber compositions during the Festival: Balkan Dances and Laments with the Hebrides Ensemble, 18 June; Piano Trio: The Piano Tuner, also Hebrides Ensemble, and Forest-River-Ocean, for carnyx, string quartet and electronics – John Kenny, Nash Quartet – both 20 June; and Sarajevo – Paragon Ensemble – 22 June. However, it was particularly instructive to be reminded of Osborne’s Flute Concerto of 1980, which displayed a degree of vitality he is only just beginning to recapture in his recent works. Osborne’s Concerts was heard on 19 June, in the Pickaquoy Centre, in the second of three concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Garry Walker. It was preceded by Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Fall of the Leafe, for strings, a brief meditation on an organ piece with the same title by the late renaissance organist and composer, Martin Peerson.


The second half was devoted to Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, or Paukenmesse, featuring the St. Magnus Festival Chorus’ main contribution to this year’s programme. Trained by Ian Campbell, they proved as committed as in previous years and clearly relished Haydn’s choral writing. They were joined by an unusually cohesive quartet of soloists – Susan Hamilton, Alexandra Gibson, Paul Rendall and Matthew Brook, drawn from the Dunedin Consort.


The previous evening, the SCO’s first concert was given in St. Magnus Cathedral. The Cathedral’s acoustic certainly favoured them, giving them an impressive sonority in Beethoven’s First Symphony. The other work was Sofia Gubaidulina’s Seven Words, for accordion, cello and string orchestra. This was undoubtedly a challenging score for anyone unfamiliar with Gubaidulina’s music.


Sofia Gubaidulina was another featured composer, especially during the first three days, and her compositions revealed an intriguing personality, already evident in In Croce, which the two soloists had included in their joint recital on 17 June. On the one hand, she is drawn to tradition, particularly JS Bach – hence Bohórquez also played Bach’s Third cello Suite. At the same time, her frequent use of dissonant clusters is redolent of modernist tendencies, while the ritual aspect of the music stems from a post-modern sensibility.


Besides Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango and traditional Bosnian Sevdah, Claudio Bohórquez and Merima Ključo also performed Takes Two, by Sally Beamish – the third of this year’s featured composers. Her main contribution was The Day Dawn, for string orchestra, which appeared in the SCO’s final concert; but this was the least convincing of their three programmes. The trouble was that only a small portion of Stravinsky’s Apollon Musagète was included. On the other hand, Britten’s Young Apollo, for piano, string quartet and string orchestra, could have been omitted. While Stephen Osborne and the orchestra extracted as much humour from the piece as possible, they could not conceal its inherent weakness, nor compensate for the rest of Stravinsky’s ballet. Furthermore, Sally Beamish’s The Day Dawn was not one of her strongest pieces. What remained was a crisp interpretation of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, and a lively account of Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 1, for piano, trumpet and strings, in which Peter Franks joined Stephen Osborne as soloists.


The various chamber music events provided some of the most rewarding experiences of this year’s Festival. The two concerts by the Hebrides Ensemble, in Stromness and Kirkwall, respectively, encompassed an impressive range of styles. In the first, Douglas Boyd was the outstanding soloist in Britten’s Fantasy Quartet, Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, as well as a rather conventional Duo, for oboe and cello, by the Scottish composer, John Bevan Baker. Besides the Osborne, the programme included Distance and Enchantment by Judith Weir and Piobaireachd – influenced by Scottish bag piping – by Sally Beamish.


Their second programme was framed by a selection of folksong arrangements by Haydn and Beethoven, for which they were joined by members of the Dunedin Consort. The main item was Sally Beamish’s The Seafarer: a setting, for narrator and piano trio, of an Anglo-Saxon poem, translated by Charles Harrison Wallace. The speaker was Gwyneth Lewis, this year’s Festival Poet, and the first National Poet of Wales.


There were two string quartet recitals, featuring quartets from contrasting backgrounds. The Nash Quartet is an off-shoot of the Nash Ensemble, but they proved as adept with string quartets as with their usual repertoire for mixed ensemble. They presented an idiomatic account of Haydn’s Quartet Op. 76 No. 4, and were equally confident with Nigel Osborne’s brand of modernism in Forest-River-Ocean. The carnyx – which featured in several events during the Festival – is an ancient Celtic war trumpet originally unearthed in northern Scotland, and its inclusion in Osborne’s score was intended as a counterpart to the timeless character of the natural sounds; but its primitive sonorities blended less successfully with the string quartet than with the electronically generated sounds of the environment. Ultimately, the highlight was the Nash Quartet’s performance of Grieg’s G minor String Quartet, revealing a work comparable in stature to any string quartet of the second half of the 19th century.


The lunchtime recital on 21 June featured the Pavel Haas String Quartet, who were making their UK debut following their victory in the Paolo Borciani International String Quartet competition. They were also prize winners for the best interpretation of A Sad Paven for These Distracted Tymes – the test piece written by Peter Maxwell Davies, who was also a member of the jury.


On this evidence, the Pavel Haas Quartet are a formidable ensemble. They fully realised the expressive aspect of Maxwell Davies’ piece, which, in many respects, can be considered a companion to The Fall of the Leafe; moreover, they negotiated its changes of style with complete authority. They were even more impressive in Beethoven’s Third Razumovsky Quartet, but, unfortunately, there was only time for two movements of Janacek’s Second Quartet.


The final lunchtime concert, on 22 June, given by the Paragon Ensemble, conducted by Garry Walker, and devoted to living composers, was the most adventurous of this year’s offerings. Nevertheless, it attracted a good audience, who responded with genuine enthusiasm. The only disappointing item was Gorecki’s Little Music No. 4, which showed him already lapsing into a repetitive style by 1970.


Nigel Osborne’s Sarajevo was based on an earlier Adagio, for solo cello, as well as Bosnian folk music; but the most rewarding items were Salvatore Sciarrino’s Le Voci Sottovetro and Maxwell Davies’ Missa Super L’Homme Armé. In the former, Sciarrino transformed four madrigals by Gesualdo, yet preserved the essential of the original harmonic language. Missa super L’Homme Armé, is one of Max’s finest creations, with its unique blend of humour and anger that he achieved in the late 1960’s.


Stephen Osborne’s piano recital in Stromness Town Hall on 19 June was possibly even more memorable. He presented a challenging programme to a capacity audience who listened with the utmost concentration. Ravel’s Sonatine provided an ideal introduction to Tippett’s Fourth Piano Sonata in the first half, and Debussy’s first book of Preludes, in the second. Debussy’s Preludes are among the finest French piano music of the 20th century, and Osborne’s performance realised their subtlety, as well as their cumulative impact. His interpretation of Tippett’s Sonata was equally imposing, suggesting that it occupies a similar status with regard to 20th century British piano music.


Orchestral concerts have invariably provided the most satisfactory conclusions to St. Magnus Festivals. However, they have not always been possible, and various alternatives have been tried. This year the final programme revolved around Royal Scottish Academy Brass, who had already given a successful recital at Birsay Church on 18 June. Under their conductor, Brian Allen, they were joined by various soloists, together with the Kirkwall Town Band and Orkney Schools Brass Band. Under the title ‘Fanfare and Final Flourish’, the programme covered a wide range of pieces for solo instruments as well as ensemble.


There was also an excursion into the latest electronic technology, in John Kenny’s HeadSpace, whose title was inspired by Rolf Gehlhaar’s specially designed electronic instrument. It was created for Clarence Adoo, whose career as a professional trumpeter was cut short by a car accident which left him paralysed. By means of subtle head movements, Gehlhaar’s instrument enabled him to participate alongside trumpet, trombone and sound projectionist, and though the piece was rather long, it demonstrated the potential of the new instrument for anyone whose movements are severely restricted.


HeadSpace was probably the most ambitious event of the evening, but for the members of Kirkwall Town Band, or the Orkney Schools Brass Band, the most ambitious item was almost certain the conflation of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and Water Music, enabling them to perform alongside their professional colleagues. Thus the Festival ended as it had begun – with local musicians playing an active role.


However, the St. Magnus Festival has never been confined to music, and in recent years, considerable efforts have been made to tour events to the smaller islands, as well as to smaller communities on Orkney itself. A good example of the latter was the first of Gwyneth Lewis’ poetry readings at St. Peter’s Church, Sandwick, on 18 June. She read from Ted Hughes’ translation of Ovid, alongside her own poetry and that of George Mackay Brown. These were interspersed with a performance of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid by the Oboist, Douglas Boyd.


This year’s Johnsmas Foy was devoted to George Mackay Brown, culminating with the launch of his impressive Collected Poems, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray, and published by John Murray. The main theatre production was Zlata’s Diary, adapted by Gerry Mulgrew from the diary of Zlata Filopović, performed by the Communicado Theatre Company. There were also films and documentaries, some of which also concentrated on Bosnia.


Festival on Tour involved wind players from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Scottish Academy Brass and Thistle Brass – a professional brass quintet – who gave concerts on some of the smaller islands, and again encouraged local music groups.


The Conductor’s Course, directed by Martyn Brabbins, completed the three years for which it was originally funded. Yet its popularity is such that it will continue next summer, and so will the Festival. Originally, there was wonderment that a small, widely dispersed community could mount such an ambitious event; now with plans for the 30th St. Magnus Festival well in hand, it is taken for granted that Orkney will do it all again next June.



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)