St Blane Commemorated in New Work By Suzanne Parry

26/09/2016

Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild: 40th Anniversary Concert – Lutoslawski, Duncan, Gabrieli, Parry, MacMillan, Purcell, Maxwell Davies:  Scottish Brass, Kevin Duggan (organ), Dunblane Cathedral Choir, Michael Bawtree (director), Dunblane Cathedral, 24.9.2016. (SRT)

Lutoslawski: Mini Overture
Duncan: Quintet for Brass
Gabrieli: Three canzone
Suzanne Parry: Adrift, Alight, Alive: Three Portraits of St.Blane (world premiere)
MacMillan: Exultet
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas, Overture
Maxwell Davies:Three Organ Voluntaries: 1.Psalm (after David Peebles); 2.O God Abufe (after John Fethy); 3.All Sons of Adam (after an anon. 16th century motet)
Maxwell Davies: Farewell to Stromness
Trad.: Amazing Grace, Londonderry Air

Nestled on the southern edge of the Scottish Highlands, the town of Dunblane is nowadays best known as the home of Andy Murray, and as the site of the dreadful school shooting of 1996. However, it also houses one of Scotland’s finest medieval church buildings and, for a town with a villagey feel to it, the 13th century Cathedral rather stands out, with its soaring Gothic arches and cavernous interior.

I was there this evening as the guests of the Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild, an enterprising local music association who celebrate their 40th anniversary this year. The Guild was founded to organise concerts in the cathedral’s acoustically welcoming space and for such a local organisation to last for four decades is quite an achievement, especially as they admit that their audiences are regularly on the small side.

To commemorate the anniversary, they have commissioned the young Cornish-born-but-Edinburgh-based composer Suzanne Parry to write a work based on the town’s and the Cathedral’s past, so Parry has gone right back to the beginning and created a three-movement work for choir, organ and brass quintet based on the legend of St Blane himself, the seventh century monk who is thought to have founded the original monastery in the town back in 602AD (the title refers to three separate incidents in his life). Parry uses her forces well, creating a multi-layered sound that fits the Cathedral’s space rather well even if, from where I was sitting towards the back, the voices came close to being lost at times. The first movement, depicting Blane and his mother cast out on a boat, resonated for Parry with the experience of refugees in the modern migrant crisis, and there is poignancy to the opening, helped by the wordless melismas that introduce the work. It’s hymn-like in places, particularly towards the climaxes which speak of Divine Will guiding the boat. The second movement, representing Blane’s miraculous ability to conjure fire from his fingertips, has a sparky brass line that becomes more energetic as the movement progresses, with the choir clicking their fingers and whispering to reinforce the story; but for me the third movement was the most successful, representing Blane’s resurrection of a dead boy (a feat he had to perform three times!).  Opening with the gentle keening of the mourners, the undulating minor turns to quietly affirmative major as the child is raised, the purposeful hymn of the final lines resonating with the quiet affirmation of faith.

When introducing the work, Parry reminded us that these were lean times for the arts, and she paid heartfelt tribute to the Guild for having the courage to commission her.  This is the first time they’ve ever commissioned a new work, and they’ve gone out of their way to involve the wider community in the adventure: Parry did a workshop with a local primary school, there is an exhibition of related local art in the cathedral and the Forth Valley College have helped record the work.  I found the whole thing rather inspiring and, in fact, it was heartening to be in the heart of a local music society that was daring to dream big and take risks.

The five musicians of Scottish Brass did the lion’s share of the work in the rest of the programme, be it in the sparky overture by Lutoslawski or the soaring textures of Gabrieli, whose overlapping lines of polyphony suited the space very well indeed.  Andrew Duncan, tuba player with the ensemble, did a very effective arrangement of Purcell’s Dido overture, and we also heard his own Quintet, full of zany energy in the faster movements, and featuring a beautifully harmonised, singing slow movement.  MacMillan’s Exultet cheekily began without announcement as the audience was still chatting at the end of the interval, and it worked extremely well, the five players spread around the four corners of the cathedral, and serving as a great crescendo to call us all to attention.

I loved the organ voluntaries from Max, sounding magnificent in the space, each of them beginning with a simple church tune and built into something much more harmonically complex, and it was a treat to hear Farewell to Stromness, surely his most popular piece, in its rich arrangement for brass quintet, even if it made the piece sound rather more complex than it really is.  Amazing Grace had the feel of a New Orleans jazz band, and the bright, open chords of the Londonderry Air swelled big and beautiful in this lovely space.  I stepped out into the drab, autumnal evening feeling rather pleased to have been witness to some ambitious community music making that was making the most of the glorious space they’d been given and had big ambitions for what they were going to do with it.  If only we could see more of that elsewhere…

Simon Thompson

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