Scottish Awards for New Music 2019

I’m delighted to announce that Nordic Viola has been shortlisted for the The RCS Award for Making it Happen in the Scottish Awards for New Music 2019. More details here and you can find the full list of awards here

Many very interesting works and musicians in this list. I’m honoured to be included in the list but also honoured to have worked with so many fabulous performers and composers with Nordic Viola to date.

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2 Violas – Concert at Mengi, Reykjavik

Charles Ross

Back in September 2016 I met Charles Ross at Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. I confess to feeling a little nervous. We’d never met, let alone played together, and we were about to do a free improvisation gig! Luckily, we really clicked musically and that concert still ranks as one of the real highlights during my six-month sabbatical.

I’m therefore really excited about performing with Charles again, this time in the capital city on 27th March 8pm at Mengi.  Mengi is an operation created and managed by artists in Reykjavik. It hosts diverse art events, releases music by some of the nation’s most ambitious musicians and operates an art and record store.

We’ll be playing violas, a few percussion instruments and using electronics. Inspired by landscapes and sounds of the Far North, we’ll be performing a mixture of improvised and semi-improvised pieces, featuring Canadian composer Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds of Whales at Night” (you can hear it on this link in the version for oboe d’amore), Faroese composer Kristian Blak’s “Drrrunnn” for viola and recorded seabirds as well as original compositions by Katherine and Charles.

Recital in Iceland with Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir

Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir, who comes from Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland, is a freelance organist, choirmaster and pianist working in Reykavik. She studied at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS) alongside a mutual friend of ours, Paul Medd, who works with me in the RSNO. We first met in Reykjavik in September 2016 and we’re really excited about performing together for the first time.

The centre-piece of our programme will be the sonata for viola and piano “Qaanaaq” by Adrian Vernon Fish, composed in 2000. Adrian describes his sonata as follows:

“The sonata was composed in late 1999 and early 2000 for Sarah-Jane Bradley and Jonathan Ayerst. The inspiration for the work is drawn from the immense vastnesses of the Qaanaaq area of Northwest Greenland, a municipality as large as Texas, yet sustaining a population of just 650.

Looking out from the hills behind the village of Qaanaaq, the vistas open up to Inglefield Sound, an enormous geological gash in the coastline. Numerous glaciers tumble down to the sea, and the location gives one a feeling of utter insignificance.”

It is a work brimming with melody, drama and a jaunty scherzo. I’m really excited about performing this piece live for the first time.

We will also play two works connected with Orkney, the previous stop on Nordic Viola’s journey. First of all, “Joy”, a piece for solo viola by Gemma McGregor and then Peter Maxwell Davies’ famous piece “Farewell to Stromness”. These are followed by “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt. Whilst Pärt is a Baltic composer, his music is reminiscent for me of the space and stillness of the Far North.

Our final piece celebrates the heritage of Iceland, our host country on this stop. It is “Kvinnan Fróma” by Oliver Kentish. Oliver Kentish was born in London and studied the cello at The Royal Academy of Music where his teacher was Vivian Joseph. In 1977 he came to Iceland to play in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. From 1978-1986 he taught at the Akureyri Music School and so he forms a nice link between my home country and Arnhildur’s home town! He now teaches at Nyja Tónlistarskólinn in Reykjavík and is also active as a choral and orchestral conductor. “Kvinnan Fróma” is based on an Icelandic folk melody and is a theme and variations by turn reflective, wistful and vivacious.

Sibelius In Focus with the RSNO

For anyone working in the sphere of Nordic music, Sibelius is an unavoidable influence. Always one of my favourite composers, my Nordic music journey really began in 2015 with an RSNO performance of the mighty “Kullervo” Symphony with Ed Gardner at the Edinburgh Festival in 2015. I’d just returned from my first visit to Greenland and this piece, which I’d never encountered before, struck a real chord with me. Its power, energy and sense of melancholic longing was an outlet for my emotions and made me realise that I had to travel to the Far North again, and soon! One year later and I was travelling to Iceland at the start of a project that has become very dear to my heart: Nordic Viola.

A wonderful coincidence, then, that I will present the RSNO’s “Sibelius in Focus” event on 23rd March in Glasgow, the day before I return to Iceland for a series of concerts in Reykjavik and the East Fjords. The workshop will be repeated in Edinburgh on 11th May.

Sibelius the violinist

The afternoon’s workshop will focus first on the Violin Concerto, with special guests RSNO leaders Maya Iwabuchi in Glasgow and Sharon Roffman in Edinburgh, who will offer us an insight into how Sibelius writes for the violin. (Sibelius actually aspired to become a virtuoso violinist himself!)  

We will look at how Sibelius became a defining figure for emerging Finnish Nationalism with “Finlandia” and his dynamic orchestral works based on the “Kalevala”. Music filled with a longing for freedom, a pride in Finnish nature and literature with a gift for displaying the duality of light and dark in Finnish art and culture.

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After the break, we’ll be joined by Thomas Søndergård as we look at Sibelius the symphonist. We will follow the composer’s journey towards the incredible Seventh Symphony, which the RSNO will perform the same night in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with Thomas. We’ll explore how Sibelius explored the possibilities of expressing symphonic material in the most concise way imaginable by minimising gesture, optimising musical motifs and focusing on minute details in his music. Sibelius never completed his Eighth Symphony and what he had written was consigned to flames in his home, “Ainola”. Was there any more left for him to say after condensing symphonic form in the way he did in the Seventh Symphony?

And yet this sense of melancholy and longing, the starkness of the northern landscape in music and the obsession with tiny detail lives on in modern Nordic music with composers such as rising star from Iceland, Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, Danes Per Nørgård and Bent Sørensen as well as Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen. Closer to home, Anna Appleby, alumnus of the RSNO Composer’s Hub, wrote “Hrakningar” for my own Nordic Viola ensemble, a piece that reflects on the migration of geese between Iceland and Scotland and our attitudes to human migration – not so far removed from Sibelius’ famous swans and cranes!

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!

Nordic Viola plays Orkney, November 2018

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Supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland

Following our successful tour of the Faroe Islands in July Nordic Viola is excited to announce that we will be travelling to Orkney in November.

Concert King Street Halls, Kirkwall 7:30pm

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The main event of the week will be a concert for string trio in which we will be joined by Orkney composer and flautist, Gemma McGregor.

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Our programme will feature Gemma’s intensely passionate string trio, “Betrayal”, drawn from her opera “The Story of Magnus Erlendsson”, which was premiered at the St. Magnus Festival in 2017.

We will also play traditional music by Orkney fiddler Fiona Driver alongside that of her friend and colleague Margaret Robertson from Shetland. A few other traditional Orkney tunes will creep into our programme, alongside folk music from Greenland.

Lillie Harris’ piece AND shows us Shetland in stormy mood, with Adrian Vernon Fish’s Uyeasound Nocturne depicting the calm after the storm.

 

Iceland and Greenland

cropped-dscn3777.jpgThe second half of our concert features music from and about Iceland and Greenland. We start with Sigurbjörnsson’s delightful arrangements of Icelandic folk tunes, “Fiðlufrænkur.”

This is followed by the Finale from Adrian Vernon Fish’s string trio, “Sermitsiaq”, which describes the iconic mountain of the same name that towers over Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. I know from my own long stay in Nuuk that this mountain’s moods are many and varied: by turns a benign guardian of the city or an imposing monolithic presence. Adrian depicts this perfectly with a lively fugue before the piece ends in quiet, reflective tones.

We end the programme with Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s engagingly beautiful description of winter in the Far North, “Ukioq”. We were lucky enough to have Arnannguaq join us in Glasgow earlier this year when the piece was premiered in the RSNO Chamber Series and she shared many stories with the musicians about life in Greenland which helped us bring this beautiful music, which so vividly depicts the joy of a crisp, snowy landscape, to life.

 

Workshops

Following on from my previous trips north, I will once again be working with young people in Orkney’s schools on creative projects and in school orchestras. Hopefully we’ll be able to show you some of our work after the trip.

I’ll also be learning more about Orkney’s music with Gemma McGregor and Fiona Driver. Gemma sparked my interest in the ancient musi of Orkney when I first met her at Sound Festival in Aberdeen last year and Fiona and I share an interest in the sounds of nature and how we can use that in our music. Again, I hope these ideas will feed into future programmes, not least when I travel up to Iceland in March!

Sponsorship

The project is generously supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland.

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as well as the Hinrichsen Foundation.

We are also grateful for help towards our transport costs from Loganair and Northlink.

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Anna Appleby – Hrakningar

Autumn has always a special time for me. The summer heat gives way to a softness with autumn mists and the first of the frosts. The nights lengthen and I enjoy that feeling of hygge, curled up with a book. The sound I associate more than any other with autumn here in Scotland is the geese arriving. In fact, I saw my first skein of geese of the year yesterday.

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All these sensory experiences are more poignant since my sabbatical and none more so than the sound of migrating geese. I was staying in Fellabaer located  across the Lagarfljót lake near Egilsstaðir in East Iceland, right where the geese were collecting to migrate south. Every morning I was woken in my tent by their noisy disputes. I found myself wondering who’d arrive back in Scotland first – them or me. Back home in early October, I remember stopping whilst I was on my bike to watch them land in a field near Flanders Moss, Stirlingshire. In my mind it was the Egilsstaðir geese following me home.

On the second anniversary of this wonderful experience we’ve just started rehearsing our latest commission, Anna Appleby‘s “Hrakningar”, which is a joint commission with Sound Festival  in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Like Lillie Harris, from whom I commissioned “AND” for solo viola, I first met Anna on the RSNO’s “Composers’ Hub.” The new piece grew out of a half joke: Anna was in Reykjavik and posted a clip of geese honking away on Lake Tjörnin. Somebody challenged her to write a piece including them – to which I responded with something along the lines of “go on then – I’ll pay you”.

“Hrakningar” is composed for flute/viola/bassoon with an electronic soundtrack and Anna describes it like this:

Hrakningar is an Icelandic word used to describe being buffeted by a storm or wind, blown somewhere against your will, and is also used to refer to dangerous events that happen to a person.

Hrakningar juxtaposes the freedom of migrating birds with the prejudice that refugees face when seeking a better life. The piece incorporates calls from the species of geese that travel between Iceland and Scotland as part of their yearly cycle, including Pink-Footed Geese, Brant (or Brent) Geese and Greylag Geese. They arrive in Scotland in Autumn and leave for Iceland in Spring each year. Geese face harsh conditions when travelling but their journeys are accepted and often celebrated while humans are expected to conform to imposed boundaries and borders.

I don’t want to give the game away too much before the premiere but I am absolutely blown away by the way Anna integrates the geese in the introductory soundtrack with some really delicate timbres from the instruments, picking up on the harmonics in the birdsong. I can’t really do it justice in words, so why don’t you come and hear it for yourself if you’re anywhere near Aberdeen on 26th October? We’re in St Machar’s Cathedral at 1:10 and you can get further info and buy your tickets here. 

In a concert exploring seasonality in the Far North, we’ll also be performing our other commissions, “AND” by Lillie Harris, which depicts a Shetland storm and “Ukioq” by Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, describing a Greenlandic Winter.