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2019 festival is go!

​The waiting is over, the countdown at zero hour, and excitement among Scotland’s music community has hit fever-pitch: Celtic Connections 2019 is upon us - ready or not: Ceud Mìle Fàilte to one and all.
 
Even before the official start, new records have already been broken, including the fact that this year’s festival shows will take place across 35 stages around Glasgow – the highest number in Celtic Connections history – and that this Saturday’s programme alone features no fewer than 37 different events (out of over 300 in total, accounting for more than 2000 hotel-room bookings throughout the city). And to think that the opening weekend used to be the relatively quiet one. . .
 
And in another first, 2019’s programme has been boosted by a £100,000 award from the Scottish Government Festivals Expo fund, resulting in the six-concert series titled ‘Above the Surface’. Shows ranging from Karine Polwart and Kris Drever with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba with SIAN will highlight and celebrate contemporary Scottish musicians’ cross-genre and internationalist artistry, exploring folk music’s potency as a universal language.
 
Marking a suitably celebratory coda to Scotland’s Year of Young People in 2018, today’s focus is firmly on upcoming generations. As is traditional, the festival’s very first show was this morning’s Schools Concert, which saw the main auditorium packed out with kids revelling in performances by acts from the Opening Concert – the first 1800 of over 11,000 youngsters who’ll be introduced to traditional music, via both concerts and workshops, by this year’s Education Programme.
 
The noisily delighted response of this morning’s crowd further amplified the buzz of youthful high spirits that’s been filling the Concert Hall all week, during rehearsals for tonight’s opening concert, Syne of the Times. Reprising the concert of 2004’s inaugural show Harvest – Donald Shaw’s brainchild before he became artistic director – a small army of budding musicians from Orkney, Inverness, Oban, Lochaber, the Hebrides and beyond have been working with leading Scottish professionals including Duncan Chisholm, Aidan O’Rourke and Shaw himself on new orchestral-sized arrangements of the grown-ups’ compositions.
 
While initially 60-70 young players and singers were announced, numbers have now swelled to well over 100, including a full 50 from Galician folk orchestra SonDeSeu – heralding the region’s international partnership at this year’s Showcase Scotland event – and half a dozen from Orkney youth music project Hadhirgaan (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year) together with students from Scotland’s 45 Fèisean. Between them, they’ll have travelled a total of 52,800 miles - hats off to whoever tallied up that particular statistic.
 
As well as extracts from the original Harvest material (many of whose tunes have subsequently entered the session repertoire, and been recorded by the show’s participants; testimony - if it were needed - to the quality of Shaw’s writing), tonight’s programme also features part of Black Isle fiddler Lauren MacColl’s The Seer, commissioned for Fèis Rois’s 30th anniversary in 2016. With MacColl having been among the young performers in Harvest’s 2004 première, before attaining her current eminence in the contemporary folk world, the piece’s inclusion, played by a new generation, is a beautifully full-circle/forward-moving encapsulation of Scottish music’s past, present and future vitality.
 
A taste of the experience for this year’s participants can be gleaned from the memories of MacColl’s peers from 2004, many of whom now rank among Scotland’s top folk artists. Even well before the show itself, Blazin’ Fiddles’ Rua MacMillan – then aged 16 – fondly recalls the bus trips to early rehearsals in Fort William, and the train ride down to Glasgow: “We just played tunes all the way there and all the way back,” he says. “On the train there was an entire carriage full of us: it was absolutely wonderful. And then to be onstage with all these people who were my musical heroes – it was like having the best front-row seat at the best gig ever, and then actually playing in it as well. The whole thing was just incredibly inspiring.”
 
As with most of the young players, Harvest was fiddler/guitarist Innes Watson’s first direct experience of Celtic Connections. “It was a brilliant introduction to the festival and the scene as whole – it made me feel part of it right from the start, which carried on from that show into the years after. A lot of the relationships formed from doing Harvest, both among us young ones and with the older musicians, have carried on, too: an awful lot of stuff, all of us starting to form different bands and so on, just flowed naturally from that show. Though it was also partly to do with the fact that they put us all up in the Central Hotel, where the Festival Club was back then, so there was all sorts of debauchery going on.”
 
“Oh, yes,” MacMillan affirms. “I remember getting up to all sorts of mischief. Well, I kind of remember. . .”
 
“My main memory is how kind the older musicians were to us,” says singer and harpist Rachel Newton. “They really made us feel it was just as much our gig as theirs. I’d pretty much decided on music as a career by that point, but doing Harvest really solidified that - I had amazing sense of ‘wow, this is what it’s going to be like’: it was a really special thing to be involved with. But yes, the Central Hotel was just carnage.”
 
It was a similarly affirmative experience for multi-instrumentalist Anna Massie (who was recently found her original Harvest T-shirt while moving house), then at the end of her year’s reign as Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year. “Donald asked me to be part of the main frontline band,” she recalls, “and it was just a total dream to be sitting alongside all these people I looked up to, being treated as an equal. The whole process was really important to me, all the preparation and rehearsal as well as the actual night. Obviously I’d had an amazing year, but even so this was a real pinnacle: I remember thinking, almost mentally pinching myself, ‘this is what I do now – this is my job.’ And the gig itself was just stupendously exciting.”
 
And so to all those taking part tonight – enjoy. We in the audience certainly plan to.