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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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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Concerto Grotto

Two years ago I visited the Faroe Islands for the first time. Just like last time, I hit the ground running. No sooner had I landed than I was in Tórshavn Music School (before I’d even seen my digs!) carrying on where I left off: working with Jóna Jacobsen and her students. (You’ll find out more about that in my next post.) On an evening stroll through town, we bumped into Kristian Blak and popped in for a quick chat. It really felt like I’d never been away.

I woke up the next morning buzzing with excitement. Ever since I’d heard Dávur Juul Magnussen’s CD Cesurae, I’ve been desperate to do a Concerto Grotto.  Usually these concerts take place in Klæmintsgjógv in the island of Hestur, but due to sea conditions we were off to the east side of Nólsoy. Notwithstanding that, we had bright blue skies and a calm sea as we set off on the schooner Nordlusið, feeling dwarfed by the massive bulk of Cunard’s Queen Victoria. For all her luxury, I’d never have swapped her for the journey we were on.

As we rounded the north coast of Nólsoy, my eyes were peeled for our cave. Dressed in life jackets, Dávur, Emily and I carefully transferred viola, trombone, amp and battery into a small dinghy – a delicate operation!

Dávur received a quick driving lesson and we were off! Shivers ran down my spine as I started playing. It was magical watching the audience float towards us in their dinghies as I played Tvisöngur, the piece I wrote in Iceland and the Faroes 2 years ago, inspired by Seyðisfjörður’s eponymous sound sculpture. I’d been dreaming of doing this for ages. Dávur joined me as I played “Soay”, a beautiful tune from Scotland’s St. Kilda islands and we moved into some free improvisation. The concert finished with Dávur’s rendition of the Faroese national anthem.

It takes a little bit of time to get accustomed to using the cave as a musical partner. There are the natural sounds of waves and water splashing on the boats as well as the echo, but the moving soundboard of the sea’s surface also adds to the music. Gradually I found what sounds were most effective. Glissandi are particularly good, eerily evoking whale song, perhaps. It was fun playing with merging the timbres of trombone and viola. On the face of it they’re unlikely partners, but both instruments have a wide range of colour and a big overlap in pitch range and it’s interesting to explore how their sounds complement and contrast with each other.

The cave was visually beautiful, too. The water was aquamarine and I kept finding myself focusing on a thin band of red rock just on the waterline, formed from volcanic ash I learned later. The eroded roof had flashes of vivid green moss or algae contrasting with the black basalt.

Concerts over we scrabbled back into the big boat – people and instruments all present and correct. Phew! Birgir the skipper then treated us to a circumnavigation of the island. We watched the birds busily feeding their young on the cliffs and saw several seals sunbathing on a tightly-packed rock.

As we rounded the southern end of the island I saw the lighthouse I’d hiked to with Paige Klugherz on my last visit and the famous eye of the needle through the island. And then we had the sails up, Dávur showing his sailing credentials and helping to hoist them.

DSCN5082A bit of banter on the ships horn with the Queen Victoria, off on her way to her next port and suddenly we were back in the harbour. I’m not going to rest now until I’ve done it all on the bigger stage of Klæmintsgjógv. I’ve played in the Albert Hall, London and the Musikverein in Vienna, but never on a platform so beautiful as that sea cave!

If you’re in the Faroes in the next month or so, there are more Concerti Grotti (if that’s the plural) so do give it a go – it’s special. http://www.nordlysid.com/trips If you’re not lucky enough to experience it for yourself, then have a look at the video Emily Nenniger kindly made for us. https://www.facebook.com/royalscottishnationalorchestra/videos/10157008796601323/

 

Summartónar in the Faroe Islands

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(Poster designed by Chris Wesley)

The Faroe Islands were my first port of call on my sabbatical and they will also be the first place that I return to to perform (I visited Shetland on holiday last summer). I can’t believe that that was nearly two years ago.

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I am particularly excited to be playing in the cave “Klæmintsgjógv” in Hestur with my Faroese friend and RSNO colleague, Dávur Juul Magnussen. I have wanted to do this ever since I first heard Dávur’s fabulous CD, Cesurae. Buy it – you’ll be blown away by it!

Music from the Faroes…

I’m also really proud to take my Nordic Viola group, this time composed of Janet Larssen (Flute), Joost Bosdijk (Bassoon) and David Martin and me (Violas).

Summartónar exists primarily to promote the rich and varied music of the Faroes and Faroese composers will be at the heart of our programme. We start with my arrangement of William Heinesen’s “Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune”.

20e159_a0f122b6a9ba4ae487460b54c71ed21e~mv2Back in September 2016 I spent a lot of time working with Kristian Blak on his solo viola piece “Tístram” and I’m excited to be performing this in Tórshavn and Rituvík. Kári Bæk’s “Vár Trio” has been with us since our very first concert and we’ve added his “Fragment” to our programme as well.

 

 

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…and Greenland

When I was in Greenland, I askedArnannguaq Gerstrøm to write a piece about winter inspired by, and to complement, Bæk’s “Vár Trio”. “Ukioq” shares the first piece’s energy and joie de vivre and it’ll be interesting to perform the two pieces side-by-side in these two concerts, especially as Summartónar this year is also shining the spotlight on the music of other countries that straddle the 62-63 latitude. Listen out for Arnannguaq’s wonderfully effective ice sounds!

Music from the Northern Isles

We’re also bringing some music from our home country of Scotland, or more specifically, from the Faroes’ neighbours, the Northern Isles of Scotland. David and I will play Judith Weir’s Orkney-inspired “Sleep Sound ida Mornin'” from “Atlantic Drift”. We’ll send the audience away dancing with some Scottish tunes inspired by the Faroes and Greenland, written by the fishermen who plied their trade in the North Atlantic.

I’m so looking forward to seeing my Faroese friends again and to sharing music from their homeland and ours. I also can’t wait to see a bit more of the islands  and to take home some more inspirations for our future work. If you’re travelling in the Faroes, please do come and listen to us. We’d love to meet you and share musical tales of our travels!

Kinbuck Concert 25th March

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Once again it seems the weather gods are setting the scene for the next Nordic Viola concert, which will take place in the Kinbuck Centre on Sunday 25th March at 4pm. As I write, it is still snowing in Dunblane and I’m all set to take a little more Nordic inspiration cross-country skiing in the woods.

Kinbuck holds a special place in my heart as it’s where Helen, David, Dave and I performed the first ever Nordic Viola concert, just before I set off for Iceland in 2016. I have experienced so much since then and met so many wonderful people as well as seeing many wonderful sights, and so I thought that I’d make this concert a very personal journey through North Atlantic music.

We will be performing 3 pieces that I wrote myself whilst travelling:

“Tvisöngur” for solo viola, which was inspired by a set of acoustic caves above Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland.

“Sikusimanerani” for flute, 2 violas, bassoon and recorded sound from Greenland. This piece represents the time of ice. It incorporates real sound and conveys the brittleness and space of the icy landscapes around Nuuk.

“Mjørkaflókar” for flute, 2 violins and 2 violas. The title means “Foggy Banks” and is a reflection from Shetland (it was written in conjunction with pupils at Anderson High School in Shetland) of the Faroe Islands (the theme comes from a Faroese folk song).

We’ll also perform pieces by some of the wonderful composers I met whilst travelling:

There is a commission from Greenlandic composer Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, “Ukioq”, which is a playful description of Greenland in winter and music from Margaret Robertson, one of Shetland’s best fiddlers.

No concert with Faroese music would be complete without something from Kristian Blak and I’ll be playing  “…tað heila gongur av lagi”. This uses the same tune as “Mjørkaflókar” and means “everything has gone awry”. Some strange things happen in this humorous piece!

There’s inspiration from the music of old from the Northern Isles and Iceland and we’ll finish with a good old knees up from the Shetland whalers of the nineteenth century and their Greenlandic hosts.

Tickets

It’s been a real joy to us that children have enjoyed our concerts so much, so, as it’s an afternoon concert, we’ve decided to offer U16s free entry. Tickets will be available on the door, or you can reserve them through messaging me on Facebook or via the contact form on the blog.

We look forward to playing for you.

 

RSNO Chamber Series

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Helen Brew, Katherine Wren, Lillie Harris, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, David Martin, David Hubbard

Well, we certainly got the weather for Nordic Viola’s Glasgow concert! It was snowing hard – so hard that unfortunately several people couldn’t make it, which was a real shame. Still, it was atmospheric.

Sunday’s concert was special in so many ways. It was my chance to say thank you to the RSNO for allowing me a sabbatical in the first place. I really wanted to be able to share the music I discovered during my travels, as well as my experiences, with the RSNO audience.

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It was great to bring together the musicians I’ve worked with the most and who have supported me throughout my journey with the two composers who I commissioned works from: Lillie Harris and Arnannguaq Gerstrøm. It was a real privilege to perform their music for them.

Perthshire in Winter!

After my many great experiences in Greenland and Shetland with Arnannguaq and Lillie, I enjoyed sharing my own beautiful surroundings in Perthshire and I have to say, generally speaking, the weather came up trumps. It’s good to be reminded that your own home is a beautiful place, too!

Future Concerts

Sunday’s concert was an important stage in Nordic Viola’s journey, but there’s much more to come. We have a concert in Kinbuck in Perthshire on 25th March, which I’ll post about soon.

In the summer we travel to the Faroe islands to perform music by Faroese composers and music inspired by the Faroe Islands in the Sumartónar Festival.

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Beyond that, I’d like to work with Gemma McGregor in Orkney, take “Ukioq”, Arnannguaq’s piece, back to Greenland, work with Charles Ross in Iceland again and perform Adrian Vernon Fish’s Sermitsiaq in full. I also need to find a clarinettist to join us for Angela Slater’s “Flickering Airs”. There’s so much more exciting work to do, so please stay in touch!!

Nordic Viola in RSNO Chamber Series, Glasgow

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When it comes to music, the North speaks its own language. Led by Katherine Wren, 4 players from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra take an extraordinary journey: contemporary tales of the Faroes, Shetland, Iceland and the Arctic sit side by side with music from the father of Faroese classical music (Heinesen) and new reflections by Katherine Wren and Composers’ Hub alumni Lillie Harris. Folk roots, personal testimonies, melodies shaped by the elements and new sounds from vast landscapes: it all adds up to something that’s simultaneously timeless, modern and utterly compelling.
Sun 21 Jan 2018, 2.30PM
New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Box Office:
Book Online Now!
http://www.rsno.org.uk/concert-listing/concert-information/?c_id=744&action=Read%20More

£14 in advance / £16 on the day

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Sounding the North Conference

Sounding the North

Is there a sound of the North? This was the question we spent the weekend exploring at the Sound Festival in Aberdeen back in October.

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Talks from composers Bent Sørensen and Gunnar Karel Másson explored the essence of Nordic music. The sense of melancholy and longing, of freedom and space. Music inspired by big, open landscapes and life on the periphery. Set against these huge canvases is an obsession with detail: the use of microtones, small gestures, short, evolving motifs.

Yet many composers resist being stereotyped as “Nordic Composers” – understandably so – those of us from further south in the world are perhaps too quick to pigeonhole them and to assume that everything they write is drawn from their experience of living in a northern clime. This is, of course, far from the case. Like composers from any other part of the world, they are drawing from many and varied influences, writing music for its own sake. Equally, writing music inspired by a Nordic landscape does not necessarily mean the depiction of some idealistic view of the Far North. There are many “gritty” issues to explore: mankind’s relationship with his environment and the politics of the region amongst others.

Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson, too, spoke about the connection between Icelandic music gunnar-andreas-professional-portraitand nature and the landscape, as well as the contrast between light and darkness. Norse and Germanic literature also exerts its influence over composers. However, he also pointed out that the lack of a long music history has led to a wide variety of styles in contemporary Icelandic music.

 

 

 

Gemma-McGregor-portrait-SMC-squareGemma McGregor’s talk gave me much food for thought, as I’m yet to delve fully into the music of Orkney. I’m particularly fascinated to lean more of what we know of the music of the Vikings. I’ve heard the bells of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall many a time and assumed the bells sounded “out of tune” because they were so old. Gemma explained how they’re tuned in equidistant intervals of G quarter-sharp – B flat – C quarter-sharp. These notes pretty much fit in with the pentatonic scale used to sing the sagas: G, B flat, C, D, F. Gemma also pointed out the shared heritage of the North Atlantic due to the shipping routes – something I’ve been very aware of in my own research.

Concerts

During the Festival we were treated to some fascinating concerts by the Quatuor Bozzini and Edinburgh Quartet. It was a pleasure to meet young composer Sarah Lianne Lewis, whose music I’d encountered through the RSNO and also to hear Gunnar Andreas Kristinsson’s beautiful new piece “Moonbow”. I’m also looking forward to learning Gunnar’s piece for Viola and Organ, “Der Unvollendete”.  Scottish-based composers Alasdair Nicholson and Geoff Palmer’s pieces were also stimulating and inspiring.

If you’re interested in reading my own contribution to “Sounding the North”, you can find it on a Dropbox link here:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/su8z3z2jbjdypdi/sounding%20the%20north-2.doc?dl=0