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 look at Sibelius the symphonist, as we follow his journey towards the incredible Seventh Symphony, which the RSNO will perform the same night in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall with Thomas Søndergård. 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!

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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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Dunblane School Workshops

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Working with young people has been an important part of Nordic Viola right from the outset. In the run-up to our Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild concert on Sunday 1st Octobert, flautist Helen Brew and I spent yesterday up at Dunblane High School.

First up was a composition workshop with Advanced Higher Music students. We introduced them to ways of depicting northern landscapes in music. We talked about incorporating recorded sounds from nature into music, either by using the soundtrack itself in the music, or by imitating sounds of nature on our instruments. We also looked at some traditional melodies and talked about how we could draw motifs from these and use techniques such as imitation and canon to develop them.

In the short time we had available, we improvised as a group, setting up a texture to mimic the sounds of ice and wind. We then started laying on top of that fragments of an Inuit entertaining song.

We were just getting into a groove when, unfortunately, the bell went. Hopefully we opened the students’ eyes to new ways of creating music, discovering sounds they never new they had in their instruments!

After school we gathered in the school hall with the orchestra. I was astonished, first of all, at the number of musicians in the school and, secondly, at their sight-reading abilities. We spent an enjoyable hour playing through tunes from Shetland, Orkney and Iceland, all of which my own ensemble will be playing on Sunday.

Thanks go to Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild for setting up the visit and to Dunblane High School for hosting us. We look forward to entertaining some of the young people and their parents on Sunday afternoon. As well as a wide range of music from the North Atlantic, there will be tales from mine and others’ travels as well as some images of the region to accompany tea and coffee in the interval.

Nordic Viola – 1 year on

One year ago I was about halfway through the first phase of my sabbatical. After two wonderful weeks in the Faroes, I’d just returned to Iceland and was preparing for a concert in the beautiful Bláa Kirkja in Seðisfjörður.

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It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the coming month is going to be one of the busiest yet for Nordic Viola.

Composing the North!

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Things kick off on 25th September in Dunblane High School. Flautist Helen Brew and I will be spending the morning working with four Higher Music students on a composition workshop. Using sounds recorded in Greenland, the Faroes and perhaps even Dunblane, we’ll be exploring how we can use sounds from the natural world to inspire our music making. Maybe we’ll use live sounds in our pieces, or maybe we’ll try imitating them on our own instruments – it’ll be up to the students. We’ll also look at incorporating elements of traditional music into compositions.

Dunblane School Orchestra

After school, Helen and I will work on some music from Iceland, Orkney and Shetland with the school orchestra. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of fun playing together and hopefully whet the students’ appetites for our concert the following Sunday.

 Dunblane Cathedral Concert

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The concert is in Dunblane Cathedral at 3pm on 1st October and is promoted by the Cathedral Arts Guild. We have a brand new piece by Greenlandic composer, Arnannguaq Gerstrøm. It’s called “Ukioq”, which is Greenlandic for “Winter”. Arnannguaq has created some wonderful “icy” effects from flute, viola and bassoon. I love the way that, as well as the sterner aspects of winter, there is a lot of playfulness in the piece. Alongside this lively new piece there’ll be traditional tunes from the North Atlantic and possibly even a mystery guest!

Aberdeen Sound Festival

Later in October I’ll be at the Sound Festival in October, exploring whether we can pin down a “sound of the north.” More on that nearer the time.

Workshops in Lerwick

I’m in my last week in Shetland now and on my own again. It’s been a busy few days, though. First of all I shifted base to Gulberwick. It might be just 3 miles from town, but dragging all that luggage and a viola over the hill that separates the two bays on a bike was far from easy!

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My afternoons have been spent at Anderson High School in Lerwick with some of Margaret Robertson’s fiddle pupils. My aim was to introduce them to a range of music from the North Atlantic and to put pieces together in a range of ways. We learned 3 Icelandic Folk Tunes in a duet version. We then looked at the St Kilda tune “Soay”. We started with just treble and bass parts and the students worked out their own accompanying parts.

Our most ambitious task was improvising on a Faroese children’s song. This was a new way of working for many, so we took a quick recording that we could discuss and work from on day 2. I think everyone (including me!) was amazed at what a beautiful, haunting sound we managed to create – reminiscent of the mistiness that can envelop both Torshavn and Lerwick!

On day 3 we polished up all the pieces and recorded them. Here’s our improvisation on the Faroese tune, which I think is just gorgeous.

I have to say, it was an absolute delight to work with the staff of what is obviously a thriving music department and Margaret, your pupils are a credit to you!