OF ALL the magical moments in the opening gala at Celtic Connections, there was one spell-binding highlight that it is impossible to shake from my mind.
No matter how many times I have heard Phil Cunningham’s startlingly moving tune The Gentle Light That Wakes Me it always seems to pack a powerful emotional punch. Written many years ago and inspired by his habit of leaving the curtains open in his room while touring in Spain, it is a simple but soaring slow air that he still performs with regular sparring partner on fiddle, Aly Bain.
And if it was no surprise to find it among the selection of newly-arranged pieces he performed with Nicola Benedetti on Thursday night, then it was a delight to hear how she and Bain were able to propel it into a different musical stratosphere.
The capacity audience roared their approval at Benedetti’s performance in a Glasgow Royal Concert Hall packed to capacity. This in a normally pretty staid venue which has not always been full for the festival’s big opening night.
Benedetti, who also appears to have struck up a winning rapport with Gaelic songstress Julie Fowlis, another of Thursday night’s performers, left the stage to a hero’s reception, rather than that of a nervous interloper – as she had given the impression of being before deploying the musical sorcery that has thrilled audiences worldwie since being crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year a decade ago.
And in that moment of triumph on Thursday night it struck me that the organisers of the Commonwealth Games could do a lot worse than make Benedetti, Cunningham, Bain, Fowlis & co the bedrock of their opening ceremony.
It seems highly unlikely that the Celtic Connections concert is the last we will see of them performing together. If anyone could pull off a dramatic musical performance capable of lighting up the vast arena at Celtic Park, at the same time transfixing television viewers around the world, it is these musicians.
Precious little has been confirmed for the opening concert at the Commonwealth Games other than the hefty price tag for the most expensive seats, and although anyone could dream up a wish-list of performers for the occasion, I can’t think of a star performer in Scotland more fitting than Benedetti, whose Scottish-themed album is due for release in the summer.
And there are likely to be several other chances for her to revive her Celtic Connections collaboration this year – during the vast cultural programme for the Commonwealth Games, which will see a number of major concerts staged across Glasgow, and at earlier celebrations to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in June.
There is also the huge opening ceremony for the Ryder Cup, to be staged at the new Hydro arena in Glasgow in September, the line-up of which is as under wraps as the Commonwealth Games curtain-raiser. The official “handover” ceremony in Chicago, back in September 2012, saw Benedetti and Fowlis join forces for their first major appearance together.
It is significant that Celtic Connections supremo Donald Shaw – who offered Benedetti the chance to open the festival – is overseeing a number of key elements of the cultural programme for the Commonwealth Games.
And I hope it could also mean a major starring role for the undisputed supergroup of Celtic Connections, The Treacherous Orchestra, who provided the big band pyrotechnics at a sold-out Old Fruitmarket on Friday to light up the opening weekend.
It must be around a decade since the final night shenanigans at Celtic Connections’ festival club were first rounded off by what appeared to be an unholy rabble of young musicians – but actually sounded like the ultimate party band, who had more in common with the clubbing, rather than ceilidh, scene in Glasgow.
Several founder members have long since knocked the band into proper shape, to the extent they are now one of the hottest tickets at Celtic Connections, headliners at music festivals around Scotland and a go-to band for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay party.
Their ecstatic welcome to home turf in Glasgow came months after their biggest breakthrough yet when they shared the bill on a Radio 2 event at London’s Hyde Park with Simple Minds, Jessie J and the Manic Street Preachers. What an achievement it would be to complete the long journey from the festival club to a plum slot at the Commonwealth Games.