St Magnus Festival: The Story of Magnus Erlendsson | Edinbugh Quartet Colourful costumes brought historical figures to life Colourful costumes brought historical figures to life AT THE core of the St Magnus Festival, founded by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, is its reputation for commissioning new work and championing local projects. The world premiere of The Story of Magnus Erlendsson, written by Gemma McGregor to a libretto by Ron Ferguson, ticks both boxes. St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall *** Edinburgh Quartet **** Celebrating the 900th anniversary of the death of the Norwegian saint, the two-act opera’s premiere performance featured local soloists, the St Magnus Cathedral Choir and a boys chorus from Kirkwall Grammar School. Alasdair Nicolson conducted musicians from the Assembly Project whilst the cathedral’s organ and church bells added authenticity. McGregor used these forces well in the space, having the boys chorus promenade around the cathedral’s dramatically-lit pink-coloured columns, and placing the choir behind the soloists. Colourful costumes helped bring these historical figures to life, especially Magnus; a pacifist and Christian who tells his wife of his faith and vow of chastity on their wedding night and is later murdered by his cousin. A personal portrait of Maxwell Davies is threaded through Geoff Palmer’s new work Sonata, Fugue, Chorale Quartet No.6, which pays homage to both the late composer and Scotland’s northern landscapes. In stunning form, the Edinburgh Quartet revelled in the dissonant harmonics of the sonata and grounding chords of the chorale in a dazzling account. But it was the unusual five-beat fugue, with its swooping and diving glissandi and offbeat pizzicato, that most neatly captured Max’s puckish personality and spoke with Palmer’s distinctive voice. SUSAN NICKALLS 24th June 2017
The twelfth soundfestival opened on Thursday with a fearless plunge straight in at the deep end. It offered an exploration of the piano music of Peter Maxwell Davies including at least two of the most fascinating and challenging piano works of the twentieth century. However, since the Festival’s raison d’être is to support and celebrate the very newest in music, Thursday’s opening programme also included four new works co-commissioned by soundfestival and the University of Aberdeen. Three of the composers of these works, every one of them dedicated to the memory of Maxwell Davies, were present in the Elphinstone Hall to introduce their pieces. For most of them “Max” was a well-loved friend as well as an admired composer. Sally Beamish was unable to be present on Thursday but she sent a short introduction to her piece entitled Mavis. It was read out before his performance of her piece by our star pianist Rolf Hind. Hind was last in the Elphinstone Hall in November of 2012 for a hugely successful soundfestival concert celebrating the music of contemporary English composers in orbit round a central core of music by John Cage.
I will begin by discussing the four wonderfully colourful pieces dedicated to the memory of Maxwell Davies. The first of these by Gemma McGregor, entitled Always by the Shore, was commissioned with the support of soundbytes investors Margaret Carlaw and Derek Ogston. Gemma told us that her piece was inspired by fond memories of her attendance at the funeral of Maxwell Davies. “Max” did not want the traditional observances of a religious funeral. Instead the journey to his burial became a happy celebration of his life and of the Orcadian surroundings which he loved. In some ways a sad occasion is remembered fondly by Gemma and her music reflected just that. Many of Gemma’s compositions have ideas of place at their heart and Always by the Shore was no exception. There were ripples, wisps of melody and above all the special sensation of Orcadian light in her piece delivered on the upper register of the piano by Rolf Hind.
BUTCHART RECREATION HALL
Friday, 30 October 2015
The Locked Door, a short opera by composer Gemma McGregor and ace librettist Peter Davidson tells the story of the fraught relationship between the famous English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, his first wife Adeline and the poetess Ursula Wood who worked as his librettist, became a carer for Adeline who was crippled with arthritis, was his mistress and eventually became his second wife and biographer. The action of the opera takes place one winter’s night during the Second World War in 1942 when Vaughan Williams would have been over seventy years old. At that time, the composer was helping the war effort by serving as an air raid warden.
From these few details it will be obvious that this is a very complicated story. We have the relationship between the composer and the two women, the relationship between the women, the war, and the writers block which was afflicting the composer depressed by the war and the deaths of so many people that he knew. What was absolutely amazing in this production was the way in which all these details were put across so clearly and cogently to the audience. The stage decor with props like the warden’s tin hat on the desk, the crumpled sheets of music manuscript all over the floor, Adeline’s wheelchair, her shawls and her medicines and a couple of times the air raid siren – all these things explained so much detail of the story and its background almost instantly to us in the audience. The setting was splendidly atmospheric; I felt we were there with the characters in 1942 sharing the composer’s grief over the war, his concern for Adeline and his guilt about his irresistible feelings for Ursula. The libretto by Peter Davidson was sparse but absolutely to the point and believable. Short utterances of spoken dialogue carried so much weight in moving the action onwards. The three performers gave us a wonderful tour de force of acting – there was the composer’s discomfiture at his position, Matthew Burns showing genuine concern for Adeline yet being drawn to Ursula. Adeline played by Megan Cormack displaying rage and despair over her condition and the threat of losing her husband and then Kathleen Cronie vamping it up in her attitude to Vaughan Williams and her jealousy to begin with directed against his first wife. The three performers sang clearly too and Gemma McGregor’s music was brilliant. As carefully condensed and melodically cogent as her libretto, it lent its wonderfully expressive power to the atmosphere of the piece as well as highlighting the emotional turmoil of the characters.
The orchestra consisted of only five players conducted by Chris Gray whose presence on the podium is a guarantee of a first class performance. The instrumental quintet boasted some of the University’s most accomplished musicians, violinist Jack Christie, Kirsty Thompson on clarinet, Peter Davis on cello, Jesse Harte on flute and John Fredrick Hudson on piano – all well known names with a top reputation.
I have heard nothing but praise for this production from the many people who attended. On the opening night so many people wanted to see the opera that many had to be turned away for lack of seats. Unfortunate, yes, but nevertheless isn’t that just what we like to hear about musical performances these days? Congratulations to all concerned!