REVIEW by Ken Walton
Opening Concert/SCO ****
Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall
Ring of Strings ****
Pickaquoy Centre, Kirkwall
In Flanders Fields ***
Stromness Town Hall
Fenella Humphreys *****
St Magnus Cathedral
The St Magnus Festival is a belt and braces job. No change there, then, for the 39-year-old Orkney culture bash. At least not over the opening weekend of this year's 8-day event.
The frequent dashing back and forth between Kirkwall and Stromness for back-to-back concerts - occasionally, as on Saturday, with only twenty minutes to spare for the half-hour journey - can turn the experience into a rollercoaster experience. And that's just the central classical music programme - there's plenty drama, comedy, poetry and traditional music, too - which again held firm to the winning St Magnus formula, a combination of mainstream and contemporary repertoire, with performances that integrated local musicians with the visiting professional groups.
This year's resident band was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, working for the very first time with the 31-year-old Majorcan-born conductor Antonio Méndez. Their opening programme on Friday showed the young Méndez as a name worth watching. Stravinsky's endearingly neoclassical "Pulcinella" (the complete ballet version with three singers), Mendelssohn's effervescent "Italian" Symphony and Mozart's "Horn Concerto No 3" suited his fresh no-nonsense approach.
The Mendelssohn had a rare and vivacious sparkle, fast but not furious, and with a clarity that made every moment precious. Similarly, the Stravinsky was thoroughly refreshing, the three singers - mezzo soprano Catherine Backhouse, tenor Thomas Walker and baritone Andrew Foster - each adding their distinctive fresh colourings to the SCO's sleek interpretation.
Principal horn, Alec Frank-Gemmill played the Mozart with effortless musicality, despite his and Méndez's sudden realisation, on taking the stage, that half the audience hadn't returned from the interval. A strange hiatus ensued.
The only minor disappointment was the programme opener, Edward Harper's "Intrada after Monteverdi", which was robbed of its true resplendence by the brittle Pickaquoy Centre acoustics. Nonetheless, it's an exciting thought that Méndez will be back with the SCO as part of its main season next January. Worth looking out for.
The orchestra were back on stage on Saturday afternoon, but this time augmented by Orkney's own Camerata, Schools' Strings and the Orkney Traditional Music Project, and in a programme called Ring of Strings, all under the efficient baton of Gordon Bragg. There was a tangible sense of eagerness and enjoyment in performances that ranged from Sally Beamish's "The Day Dawn" - it's beautifully meditative string writing offset by practical leanings to a kind of Gebrauchsmusik - and Eddie McGuire's idiosyncratic suite of airs and dances "Ring of Strings, to the haunting simplicity of "An Air for Dr John Rae" by local fiddler and personality Jennifer Wrigley of the Wrigley Sisters.
A mad dash to Stromness Town Hall took us to the World War 1 tribute "In Flanders Fields" by Scots soprano Isobel Buchanan, her actor husband Jonathan Hyde and accompanist Joseph Middleton. How wonderful to see Buchanan back in action after years of absence caused by problems with her voice.
This presentation, a sequence of readings by Hyde from sources as diverse as Wilfred Owen, Vera Brittain and Hans Fallada, interspersed with songs by Poulenc, Schoenberg (his earlier late-Romantic style), Weill, Butterworth, Debussy and more, may have seemed a little long, but The actor's delivery was captivating and thoughtful, even his plaintive singing of Ivor Gurney's simple and poignant "Sleep". It wasn't really until the second half that we truly began to hear some of the old Buchanan magic, especially Poulenc's "Priez pour Paix", which brought this affectionate and reflective programme to a quietly magical end.
Then back to Kirkwall and St Magnus Cathedral for a late night solo violin performance by the amazing Fenella Humphreys. Around one of the great stalwarts of the repertoire, Bach's epic "Chaconne", her programme was an eye-opener to the versatility of the instrument. She gave airy, sensitive response to Sally Beamish's Norwegian-inspired "Intrada e Fuga", imbued Adrian Sutton's mercurial "Arpeggiare Variations" with an amazing lightness of touch, and in Peter Maxwell Davies' "Sonatina for Violin Alone", found a lyrical expressiveness that echoed its compelling narrative quality, rather like a song without words. All three pieces were world premieres.
Humphreys ended with a dazzling 19th century salute to virtuosity, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst's Paganini-like "Grand Caprice on Schubert's Erlkönig".
And that's just the first two days!
This is an expanded version of a review which apperared in today's Scotsman newspaper.