From Stromness to Somerset

It’s been an exceptionally busy month for Nordic Viola which has seen me travel the length of the UK, with Nordic Viola’s most southerly concerts to date!

At the very end of September I renewed my partnership with Icelandic pianist, Arnhildur Valgarđsdóttir, with a programme of music entitled “A Journey Around the North Atlantic” for the Orkney Norway Friendship Association. At the heart of the programme were the two sonatas we performed in Seyđisfjörđur in the summer; Jón Thorarinsson’s Sonata and Adrian Vernon Fish’s Greenland-inspired Qaanaaq. We also included music closely connected to the heritage of Iceland and Orkney; Gemma McGregor’s Raven Banner and Heyr Himna Smiđur (“Hear, smith of the heavens”) a famous hymn tune by þorkell Sigurbjörnsson to words by Kolbeinn Tumason The programme opened with a March by Orkney resident Tom Deyell, which he wrote for the Shetland Folk Society Tune Competition.

We had a fabulous audience, which included travellers from Norway and Canada and we very much enjoyed swapping stories whilst being entertained by the fabulous young musicians from the Stromness Strathspey and Reel Society.

Arnhildur introduced us to some tales from the Sagas. What we forgot to talk about was her ancestral links to Orkney. She can trace her family line back to Rognvald Eysteinsson, also an ancestor of St. Magnus. Arnhildur’s family line traces back to Icelandic chieftain Hrollaug before branching off at Thordis (see below). Arnhildur was excited to visit Orkney and we enjoyed an afternoon exploring history in St. Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.

We had some true Orcadian weather (read 70mph gusts and lashing rain!) so I spent the morning of the concert in Stromness Museum, learning more about Orkney’s exploration and trading in the Arctic – sure that will find its way into a project someday.

Northern Stories Festival- Lyth Arts

I’ve been following the great work done by Charlotte Mountford at Lyth Arts in Caithness for sometime now, so when the opportunity came to take Sagas and Seascapes to the Northern Stories Festival, which was exploring Caithness’ Norse heritage, I absolutely jumped at the chance.

On this occasion I was presenting a screening of the Sagas and Seascapes film as per the original version for Orkney International Science Festival in 2021, but also including live performances of William Heinesen’s Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune, Kári Bæk’s Wogen and The Drummer, the Scottish traditional tune that inspired the Danish Dromer. I also took Orla’s paintings with me.

Lyth Arts is a totally rejuvenating place for an artist to stay – at least for one who needs space around them! It is set in the flatlands of Caithness between Wick and Thurso, backing onto the peatlands of the Flow Country. Set up originally by local artist William Wilson, it has space for exhibitions and workshops as well as a small theatre. Artists are accommodated in the adjacent house and it’s a great place to meet and share ideas.

I was sharing with accordionist Neil Sutcliffe (coincidentally a friend of Orla’s) and Danish Storyteller Svend-Erik Engh as well as Svend’s partner, Alice, also a storyteller. I attended their workshop in the morning where I learned lots about how to tell a story engagingly before I joined the musicians in improvising along to the words.

Back in Thurso I had a couple of days to absorb myself in the landscapes that constantly inspire my music. I’m more used to seeing the Caithness coast from the Orkney boat but I think a new love affair has begun. The perilous coastline is riddled with hidden geos (rocky inlets), caves and blowholes. I also got to see an upwards waterfall (blown upwards by the wind)! You need your wits about you exploring those cliffs but the yield is a wealth of exciting colours, shapes and sounds. This was all topped off by the sight of a full moon reflecting on the water across Thurso Bay after an earlier golden sunset.

More museum time was had at the North Coast Visitor Centre. The expected displays on Norse and Pictish culture were there, but also absorbing panels on the ecology of the Flow Country. Every time I travel through that area it draws me in with its isolated peaks, saturated ground that now and again breaks out into a small lochan. On the surface of it, it looks barren, but it’s teeming with birdlife and, at ground level, the delicate sphagnum mosses are full of colour with their intricate little leaves. Autumn is one of the most beautiful times to see it with the russet-red dying bracken set against gunmetal skies, laden with heavy downpours.

Somerset

Into late October and a change of pianist on the stool as I joined Kevin Duggan for three concerts down in the south-west of England. We started with two concerts in Glastonbury and Midsomer Norton performing much of the programme I’d played with Arnhildur, but adding in Rebecca Clarke’s characterful and varied Shorter Pieces and a new piece by Kevin based on Icelandic hymn tune, Almáttigur Guð.

Kevin is a native of Somerset and proved a wonderful guide, taking us out into the Mendips and introducing us to some of the prehistoric archaeological sites of Wiltshire. There is a connection to Orkney here, as it has been mooted that the ancient Orcadians may have travelled south and passed on their architectural skills gleaned from building edifices such as the Ring of Brodgar and Skara Brae to those constructing the likes of Stonehenge and West Kennet Longbarrow. In the dark warmth out of a hefty downpour, it felt right to get the viola out for a quick improvisation to these ancient peoples.

Dunsden, Reading

Our final performance was at Dunsden Church  near Reading at the behest of composer Adrian Vernon Fish, who wrote Qaanaaq.

Being with people who know, love and have connections in Greenland is always a special experience for me as there are not so many people in this country that I can talk to and who I know have experienced what it is to spend time there living and working with Greenlanders. I felt a real responsibility to communicate the emotions and tell the stories that Adrian crafted so well in his Qaanaaq Sonata: the intense outpouring of the Aria and the helter-skelter chaos of the dogsled ride, Qimmusseq before the final Piseq or drum dance, which for me exemplifies the slower pace of life and patience of Greenlanders.

Before Qaanaaq and as a tribute both to Greenland and to Adrian who shares a love of that country with me, I played a short improvisation on an East Greenland Entertaining Song.

It was a wonderful, moving occasion and a concert that’ll stay in my mind for a long time.

Sagas and Seascapes at Northern Stories Festival 11th October

Sagas and Seascapes will be part of the Northern Stories Festival at Lyth Arts in Caithness on Tuesday 18th October at 8pm. Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

Nordic Viola will screen Craig Sinclair’s Sagas and Seascapes film alongside live performance by Katherine Wren on viola of Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune by William Heinesen, Wogen by Kári Bæk and The Drummer, a traditional Scottish Tune that inspired the Danish tune arr. by the Danish String Quartet The Dromer, which features at the end of the film.

Norse stories form the inspiration for this programme. Award-winning Irish composer Linda Buckley’s Aud draws on the Icelandic Sagas. Lillie Harris’ Elsewhen seeks to capture the strangeness, wonder, and melancholy of Orkney’s ancient sites, whilst in Carry His Relics, Orkney composer Gemma McGregor describes a journey along the St Magnus Way.

Orla Stevens‘ art from the project, inspired by music from Gemma McGregor, Lillie Harris and Linda Buckley, will also be on display at Lyth Arts.

Northern Stories Festival 2022 is a spectacular celebration of the stories of the Far North of Scotland, taking place across Caithness this October. 

‘Sharing the stories of the Far North of Scotland.’

Celebrating our ancient Nordic connections and our close ties to North America, the festival will connect the lochs and coastline of the North Highlands, the fjords of Norway and the Great Lakes of Canada. 

An exciting programme of online and in-person events will include an international line-up of performers and story-tellers from the Highlands, Scandinavia and Canada. With talks, workshops, films and exhibitions, there will be something for all the family to get involved in. 

You can view the full festival programme at https://lytharts.org.uk/events/category/northern-stories-festival/list/

Don’t forget, too, that Katherine and Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir (piano) will be performing for the Orkney-Norway Friendship Association in Stromness Town Hall on 30th September at 7:30pm. More information on that here.

We look forward to seeing you at one or both of these events.

Isle of Coll Music Group September 2019

Invigorated after sharing ideas of cultural practice in the rural economy at Shoormal Conference in Shetland, I travelled straight to Coll, one of Scotland’s smaller island communities, to perform with Helen Brew (flute), David Hubbard (bassoon) and David Martin (viola).

It was never going to be a straightforward journey, but after two days of precious little sleep and several hours of, at times, frustrating travel, we were richly rewarded by Coll at it’s Mediterranean best! I love the ruggedness of the Far North, but who’s going to complain about azure seas and autumn temperatures nudging the 20c mark in the west of Scotland? Great, too, to finally take this particular group of musicians, who’ve been there with me since Nordic Viola was formed, off the mainland to enjoy some time together in the sort of place that inspires our music-making.

What a beautiful hall to make music in, too! An Cridhe is a modern facility with a beautiful acoustic. It’s also the hub of community life: you can buy local crafts and produce, meet friends, have a cup of tea and shelter from the weather – necessary on day 2!!

Our programme was a mixture of music we know well and some new pieces, such as the Danish String Quartet’s beautiful arrangement of the “Unst Boat Song” (click on link for short video) from Shetland, given a slightly different flavour in this colourful combination of flute, 2 violas and bassoon. Also Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds from Whales at Night.” I’m playing this piece a lot this year – it’s very moving to duet with a whale and audiences love listening to it, too.

We also played a new set of Icelandic folk songs, originally arranged for piano by Snorri Sigfús Birgisson which I have scored for our group of four. These tunes encompass a wonderfully wide range of emotions from a playful, pizzicato duo for two violas through two melancholy tunes, so typically Icelandic in their harmonic language, through to the rumbustuous Skuli Fogeti.

From the Faroes we had William Heinesen’s “Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune” and Kári Bæk’s lively “Fragment.”

It was a particular pleasure to welcome a group of anthropology students on a field trip from Durham University to our concert and I think they enjoyed hearing about Greenlandic life and listening to Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s piece commissioned by us, “Ukioq.” (Lovely, too, to see the Durham students giving something back to the community that hosted them for 10 days with a free ceilidh.)

David and I were camping and woke up to a flame red sunrise. Beautiful, but you know what they say about red sky in the morning…. Buoyed up by a communal fry-up, we split up to explore the island, by bike, running and even wild swimming! Out on the massive sand dunes we gazed over at neighbouring Tiree and over the sea to Staffa. Meanwhile, Helen was swimming with seals. The Shepherd’s Warning caught up with us on the way back to Arinagour as we got a good soaking, but it had dried up by the time we got the ferry back to Oban. Not the beautiful sunny crossing we got on the way over, but with atmospheric cloudscapes and shafts of weak sun spotlighting the grey water.

Many thanks to Janet and Alison from Isle of Coll Music Group for looking after us so well, even taking the Hubbard family on a sightseeing tour of the island. Also to Enterprise Music Scotland and Creative Scotland for supporting the concert. Without them it would be impossible for small rural communities to experience professional music-making.

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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A Whirlwind 36 hours!

Yes, I mean that quite literally, but more on the wind later!

dscn3089In view of the impending storm I set my alarm for 6am yesterday so I could enjoy the sunshine on the island of Nolsoy. If you know Lerwick, then Nolsoy is to Torshavn what Bressay is to Lerwick.

 

 

I met Norwegians Frode and Annette who were out for a speedy run and Paige from California. The two of us decided to hook up for a walk across the island and had a great morning swapping outdoorsy stories.

So, just like in Kinbuck, I put the bad weather jinx on them all so that they had to come to my concert today instead of walking! Seriously, it was lovely to share music with them.

I didn’t exactly have the best preparation for the concert in terms of sleep. One almighty storm hit overnight. At midnight I decided discretion was the better part of valour, packed up the tent and slept inside the campers’ lounge on the very comfy sofa! Comfy or not, no-one was sleeping with that racket, as winds hit up to 90mph! During the night a caravan actually blew over. Winds have now dropped to a sedate 35mph(!) and I’m back outdoors, where I like to be!

14285034_10210413969130252_623386341_oThe concert in the Havnar Kirkja went well. I had a lovely friendly audience and the acoustics were perfect. I played my new piece, “Tvisongur”, some Shetland tunes, Poul Ruders’ “Autumn Collection” and Kristian Blak’s “…  tad heilur gongur av lagi.” Afterwards I was treated to lunch at organist Gudmund’s beautiful house up the hill. People are so kind here.

Excitement of the day was finally getting my hands on William Heinesen’s variations on a Faroese theme. This is a really iconic piece in Faroese music history and I’ve desperately been trying to track it down.

In the afternoon I did some masterclasses with pupils at the music school. There are some very talented young musicians there. Hopefully I’ll get more sleep tonight as there’s a lot I want to do on my last day and there’s more teaching, too. I don’t think I’m really ready to leave these islands, but I’m sure there’ll be more stimulating experiences to have in Iceland.