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Classical Connections

It’s a far cry indeed from those not-so-very long-ago days when traditional musicians were, as a rule, looked down on by their classical counterparts, reflecting a perceived hierarchy of artistic status which all too many in the folk world implicitly accepted and internalised, even as they sniped in return about classical players’ dependency on sheet music, or their supposed sacrifice of individual expression for regimented technique.
 
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous in my whole life,” declared the Ayrshire-born, internationally fêted violinist Nicola Benedetti, as she took the stage with her £10 million Stradivarius, for the live debut of her new collaboration with Aly Bain, Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham and other trad players, which – nervous or not – proved the undisputed highlight of last night’s excellent Opening Concert. The material we heard - including two typically testing Scott Skinner tunes bridged by a brilliant cadenza of Benedetti’s own, a positively celestial duet with Bain on Cunningham’s lovely air The Gentle Light That wakes Me, and an exquisitely anguished violin counterpoint to Fowlis’s sorrowful vocals in an old Gaelic lament – is to feature on Benedetti’s forthcoming Scottish-themed album, which sounds like a major treat in store. The 26-year-old star was overflowing with praise and gratitude for her new folky friends, who unstintingly returned the compliment in conversation after the show, citing in particular her appreciation of traditional tunes’ challenging rhythmic nuances, and the intricacies of bowing they demand, together with the sheer hard graft she put into the project. “The rest of us would be in the bar after each day’s session,” said one member of the line-up, describing the pre-concert week of rehearsals and recording, “but Nicky would be up in her room, practising The Spey in Spate.”
 
More than ever this year – what with Celtic Connections’ Commonwealth elements, including a particular focus on Indian and Australian artists – musicians are travelling from far and wide to take part in the festival, but it’s been a particularly epic homeward journey for native Glaswegian and bones-playing legend Yirdy Machar, a veteran stalwart of the Tønder Festival in his adopted Danish homeland. Booked to lead two come-and-try workshops tomorrow, he set off in his van last Sunday, firstly heading north to nearly the top of Denmark to pick up some new bones from his favoured maker, Flatbush Instruments. His route then took him via Hamburg, to visit a friend en route, and on to Amsterdam to catch the ferry – which unfortunately he missed, necessitating another overnight stay, before the 17-hour crossing to Newcastle the next day, and the final leg of the drive to Glasgow: that’s some trip for anyone, let alone a gentleman approaching 70. It’s his first time back in over 15 years, so here’s wishing him a happy homecoming.
 
It’s started. I don’t mean the festival, obviously (didn’t think you’d have missed that kicking off), but the inevitable, occasionally frictional, culture-clash between the musicians currently occupying most of the Holiday Inn and unwitting ‘civilians’ staying there for non-Celtic reasons. While most of us would have quite enjoyed overhearing someone practising the saxophone in one of the downstairs function rooms, as they were around teatime yesterday, or the dulcet tinkle of a clarsach emanating along one of the bedroom corridors – but not everyone feels the same, as one of the reception staff were reminded when they picked up the phone at some point mid-evening:
“Somebody’s playing an instrument in the room next door.”
“Er, is it disturbing you?”
“Well, I can hear it.”
 
This particular guest seemed to consider that musical instruments should scarcely be allowed in hotel rooms, let alone played there, a rule that would likely kibosh a lot of concerts if enforced at this time of year. Which thankfully it won’t be.