Concert in Kirkwall Orkney

Nordic Viola concert at King Street Halls.16/11/18 Tom O'Brien
Anne Bünemann, Katherine Wren and Peter Hunt

Concert day in Kirkwall dawned bright and clear. A morning at Scapa Beach was enjoyed by all before heading down to King Street Halls. It was an absolute pleasure to play in the wonderful acoustic of this beautifully converted building, which works equally well as a church and a concert venue.

The first half of the concert featured music by composers from Orkney (Gemma McGregor, Fiona Driver), Shetland (Margaret Robertson) and the Faroes (Kári Bæk) as well as music about these islands by British composers Lillie Harris, Judith Weir and Adrian Vernon Fish.

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We have so enjoyed playing Gemma’s “Betrayal” (click on the link to listen). It is such passionate music, vividly portraying the conflicting emotions of St. Magnus as he contemplates his betrayal and eventual death. “Yellow Gorse” was a last minute addition but it is such a beautiful tune and suits the viola so well that it had to go in the programme.

It was the perfect foil to Lillie Harris’ tempestuous piece “AND”, which depicts the full force of a Shetland storm. Nice to play this in Orkney exactly two years since it received its premiere in Shetland.

Another Orkney/Shetland connection came in the pairing of “Weird Tune” and “Shaela”. Margaret and Fiona share the same fiddle teacher. Having got to know Margaret well, it was great to finally meet Fiona at the concert. We got to share ome tunes later in the weekend, too.

Meeting people and sharing stories of the North Atlantic is a vital part of the Nordic Viola project and all the musicians enjoyed meeting the audience in the interval, learning more about the region and talking about people we knew (Kristian Blak’s name always crops up). I’ve a lot of stories and music to follow up on now I’m home, particularly regarding the sharing of fiddle tunes on the old whaling trips up to Greenland.

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Greenland and Iceland were the focus for the second half of the concert with                      Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s wonderfully attractive arrangements of Icelandic folk songs, Fiðlufrænkur. We had hoped to premiere the whole of Adrian Vernon Fish’s “Sermitsiaq” Trio, which depicts the eponymous mountain in Greenland. Sadly a late and unavoidable change of cellist meant we only performed the Finale, but it’s given us a real taste for the piece and we will perform the whole work soon!  

Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s joyful depiction of winter in Greenland, “Ukioq”, composed for us in 2017 was the cue for some dance music to end the programme. Both Greenland and Orkney have many polkas, so we played a Greenland set and then ended the concert with the famous  Orkney polka, “Maggie Watson’s Farewell to Blackhammer.”

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Joining me for Nordic Viola in Orkney were Gemma McGregor (flute and piano), Anne Bünemann (violin) and Peter Hunt (cello).

 

 

We are very grateful for the support of the following organisations who enabled us to put on this concert in Orkney:

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Schools workshops and traditional music sessions in Orkney

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I arrived in Orkney on Monday after a very calm crossing of the Pentland Firth. Tuesday morning I was straight into a very full day’s work up at Kirkwall Grammar School. I started off meeting the viola instructors and working through some ABRSM repertoire as well as talking about all things viola-related.

After being well fed and watered in the staff room I hooked up with Gemma McGregor to work with young people ranging from S2 to S6 (so right the way through High School) on a composition workshop based on sounds from the Far North. It was a completely different way of working with music for most of the young people, but they embraced it with enthusiasm, recreating the sounds of creaking glaciers, birdlife, the wind and sea. I was impressed with the imagination they showed. It’s a big ask to create a group improvisation in 20 minutes or so, especially when it’s a new way of working. We asked Gemma how long it would take to write a 5-minute piece which was fully notated and she reckoned about 3 weeks, which helped the young people appreciate what they’d achieved.

Today Gemma and I travelled across Mainland on a dreich morning to work with the music students in Stromness. This time we were working with young people from National 5 and Higher Music classes, so we focused in a bit more on the compositional techniques we were using, especially timbre and structure. We started off by listening to recordings of geese, the sea, an Inuit song and ice and ravens recorded in Greenland. We created 4 very different pieces of music, from atmospheric soundscapes to a piece with guitars and vocalising that focused on the more entertaining aspects of the Inuit “Entertaining Song”!  There was lots of fun and laughter and we all enjoyed exploring instruments in new and different ways.

I finished the morning playing along with the string orchestra. Playing side-by-side is something I always enjoy doing and I’ve done it in most of the countries I’ve visited.

Many thanks to Creative Scotland, the Hinrichsen Foundation, RVW Trust and the Hope Scott Trust for their support, which enabled us to work with Orkney’s young people.

After lunch in the beautiful town of Stromness, I took the bus back to Kirkwall and spent some time in the beautiful 12th Century St. Magnus Cathedral. I find this building especially magical at dusk, with its warm red sandstone. St Magnus’ relics are in the building and there is the tomb of John Rae, the Arctic explorer born in Orkney who found the final portion of the Northwest Passage and reported the fate of Franklin’s lost expedition. It is, of course, just 3 days since the commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice and there were many reminders of Orkney’s part in the two world wars. A display of poppies on the altar was particularly striking against the sandstone.

After tea, Gemma took me down to the Fiddle and Accordion club at the Reel, the wonderful traditional music centre founded by Orkney’s famous Wrigley sisters. The best way to learn traditional music is to sit down and play it. I had a really fun evening and learned lots of new tunes, including some Scandinavian ones. Nice to see young and old playing together and to be made so welcome as a visitor.

Tomorrow, one of our transport sponsors, Loganair, will be carrying my other musicians over to Orkney. I’m looking forward to hooking up with Peter and Anne again and also playing a couple of tunes in the airport!

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Off to Orkney!

After months of planning, at long last I’m on my way to Orkney, exactly two years after my month in Shetland. I’ll be performing with Anne Bünemann, Peter Hunt and Orkney composer and flautist, Gemma McGregor in the King Street Halls, Kirkwall on Friday 16th as well as working in local schools. I thought I’d remembered the beautiful winter light on Scotland’s northerly outposts pretty well, but actually, I’d forgotten exactly how special it is.

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After rolling through my usual stamping grounds of the Central Highlands, it was onto the Far North Line to Scotland’s north coast. I was treated to some golden autumn colours around Lairg and then, after lunch the light faded rapidly. I’d forgotten the pale blue of the northern sky in winter and also the dramatic skies over wide-open seas – fortunately for my evening sailing, looking flat-calm today.

With time to kill, I walked the 2 miles from Thurso to the Scrabster ferry terminal, Hoy, the hilly Orkney isle, sitting tantalisingly on the horizon. I watched the astonishing sunset from the lighthouse. The sky was lit flame-red over the village, with Dunnet Head, Britain’s most northerly point, highlighted in pastel pinks. Overhead a skene of geese was lit up from below by the sinking sun – a reminder of my newest piece, Anna Appleby’s “Hrakningar”. I felt the need to text another composer-friend, Lillie Harris. Two years ago, we shared a week on Shetland – she knows exactly how special the Northern Isles are in winter!