Setting Brings Special Atmosphere to Lammermuir Music Festival

19/09/2016

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Lammermuir Festival [1] 2016 – MacMillan, Whitacre, Vivaldi: National Youth Choir of Scotland /Christopher Bell (conductor),  St Michael’s Church, Inveresk, 17.9.2016

Lammermuir Festival [2] 2016Debussy & Mussorgsky: Steven Osborne (piano), Chalmers Memorial Church, Port Seton, 17.9.2016 (SRT)

St Michael’s Church, Inveresk:
James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrado
Eric Whitacre – Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
Vivaldi – Gloria

Chalmers Memorial Church, Port Seton:
Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition
Debussy – MasquesD’un cashier d’esquissesL’isle joyeuseChildren’s CornerEstampesJardins sous la pluie

The Lammermuir Festival is one of the UK’s youngest classical music festivals, but it has already carved out for itself a pretty special niche in the hearts of the audiences who are in on the secrets of its quality and its very special atmosphere.  Tucked away in the sunny, golf-course-strewn lands of East Lothian, they’ve done a fairly extraordinary job of gathering together some top flight musicians to put on interesting programmes in unusual venues.  Several diary clashes meant that, this year, I could only come to one day, but the relaxed atmosphere, the beautiful surroundings and the top-flight music making made me wish I could have come for much longer.

High on a hill overlooking East Lothian’s county town of Musselburgh, and commanding sweeping views over the Firth of Forth on this balmy September day, St Michael’s Church, Inveresk, provided the venue for a concert from the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) conducted by their founder, Christopher Bell, more often seen recently as the boss of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.  The concert was headlined as “Vivaldi’s Gloria”, and that doubtless helped draw in the crowds.  The Gloria was sung with beauty, clarity and precision, and nary a hint of Choral Society swooping.  However, the most interesting things came in the first half.  James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados fuses conventional Latin religious texts with poetry from South America, all of which deal with themes of political oppression.  On paper it feels as though it shouldn’t work, but in person it’s electrifying.  Ariel Dorfman’s Identity, which centres on finding the corpse of a victim of violence, is full of jagged rhythms and harmonies which befit the subject material, and the young chorus sang them with biting precision before melting into the beautiful, still harmonies of the Latin hymn that follows.  The ladies of the chorus bore most of the work of the melody of Virgin of Guadalupe, as the men tolled like bells underneath, before they joined together to ask why there was a Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico dedicated to the victims of oppression but also one in Spain dedicated to the conquerors.  Best of all, Sun Stone deals with a soldier who asks forgiveness from the prisoner he is about to execute, with the words “Forgive me, compañero” dominating the texture and being reduced to a mere whisper at the end.  It’s an extraordinary work, sung extraordinarily well, both powerfully spiritual and deeply political, and it’s amazing that MacMillan can combine these two worlds with such masterful skill and meditative power.  Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine calls for a more luxurious sound, and the squelchy harmonies are much less austere than MacMillan’s, but NYCOS met them with beautifully rich singing and impressive narrative power.  It’s an exciting piece to hear unfolding, and the ending is good fun as the choir mimics the sound of taking off, with swishing sounds and jingling tambourines.

The NYCOS programme suited the size and shape of St Michael’s perfectly, and one of the great joys of the Lammermuir Festival is that it creates opportunities to hear music in venues that wouldn’t normally be used as concert halls.  “Beautiful music in beautiful places” is their slogan, after all, and my (admittedly limited) experience of the festival suggests they’re very good at it.  It certainly provided for a beautiful synthesis in Steven Osborne’s recital, later that evening, in the little fishing village of Port Seton.  I’d never set foot in the place until this concert, but they have a real Jewel in the Chalmers Memorial Church, a century-old building with a laughing bright Arts and Crafts interior, a riot of primary colours and maritime motifs.

The relatively small space was packed with people and made for a strikingly intimate concert environment, much more so than you’d find even in the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh.  Osborne sat shrouded in meditation on the podium, and a quirk of the lighting meant that, while the keyboard was illuminated, the rest of him seemed to be concealed in shadow, creating a strange effect that seemed to heighten both the intimacy and the concentration.  His recital of Debussy and Mussorgsky seemed to be carried out of the keyboard by some sort of mystical osmosis, and the uniqueness of the venue seemed to bring the music closer to the ear, almost as though cutting out the middle man.

His Pictures at an Exhibition never once made me long for the broader textures of an orchestral palette, with its rattling Gnomus, thunderous Bydlo, spellbinding Old Castle and cavernous Catacombs.  I’ve seldom heard the market place at Limoges sound more chaotic on a keyboard, or Baba Yaga’s hut sound so manic, while the octaves of the Great Gate were thrilling.  Hearing the chromatic wrangling of Baba Yaga makes you realise where Debussy got much of his inspiration from, and the French composer’s trilogy of Masques, D’un cashier d’esquisses and L’isle joyeuse revelled in the daring harmonies, unsettled textures and throbbing lines of his rippling sound world.  After an evocative Children’s Corner, Osborne’s Estampes was very fine, with its intoxicating Pagodes and dashing filigree brightness of Jardins sous la pluie.

You might think that there isn’t much of a need for another festival in East Central Scotland so soon after Edinburgh’s summer jamboree, and if this was in the city I’d probably agree; but the Lammermuir Festival’s appeal is that it’s a bit of a world apart, while remaining within easy shooting distance of the capital.  Travelling from Musselburgh to Port Seton, between these two concerts, you keep getting thrilling glimpses of the long, arching coastline of the Firth of Forth, with its long sandy beaches, green golf courses and, in the distance, the outline of Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat against the skyline.  I was only an hour’s bus ride from home, but it felt as though I might as well have been on the other side of the country, and I chatted in the intervals to several concert goers who had travelled from a long way away because they loved the festival’s special atmosphere every bit as much as they loved the exceptional music-making.  Next year’s festival runs from 15-24 September 2017, and you can sign up for more information on their website.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Simon Thompson

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