Scotsman Reviews The Story of Magnus Erlendsson (St Magnus Cathedral 17.06.17)

  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

Alan Cooper Reviews: Always By the Shore Thursday, (20 October 2016)


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.

Alan Cooper Reviews: The Locked Door

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!