IT is a freezing Saturday night in Glasgow’s Merchant City in the dark depths of winter, but a warm glow is emanating from the 19th-century Old Fruitmarket building.
An all-standing audience of almost 1,200 is packing out the venue for a concert by Le Vent Du Nord, a French-Canadian group largely unknown in the UK, but with a large and devoted following in Glasgow, though the Quebecois band’s appearance was just one of 16 options in the Celtic Connections programme on Saturday night.
I can only imagine the kind of logistics required not only to stage each concert, but transport musicians to the 24 different venues from far-flung corners at a time of year when transport networks are being tested to the full.
With a string of sell-outs before opening night, the festival seems to have an extra spring in its step, buoyed by the revamp to the Royal Concert Hall, its base for the last 22 years, with the return of several key spaces.
The BBC’s coverage is hugely expanded, with a host of network radio programmes, dedicated highlights shows on both BBC Scotland and BBC Alba, and a landmark broadcast of the festival’s widely acclaimed opening gala.
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The festival has also been able to return to Glasgow School of Art’s refurbished and expanded Vic Bar student union building. The art school is, of course, at the heart of the so-called Glasgow Miracle, which has produced so many successful visual artists in the last couple of decades.
But in many ways, the success of Celtic Connections is equally miraculous, considering the time of year it is held, the level of competition from other music events in the city – including shows at the new Hydro – and the fact that the festival is still being run on a relative shoestring.
The Edinburgh International Festival, the nearest equivalent in terms of its curated nature and scale, benefits from around £5 million a year in funding from the city council and Creative Scotland. But Celtic Connections survives on around a tenth of that from its main public funders.
Frustratingly for artistic director Donald Shaw and the handful of staff who work on the event year-round, their task has actually been made considerably more difficult in the last three years by the lack of a headline sponsor.
Quite why an event of the success and scale of Celtic Connections is unable to attract a backer willing to put up a six-figure sum is a bit of a mystery, considering the city’s regular claims to be the “powerhouse” of Scotland’s economy. Perhaps now is the time for big business to get behind an event which arguably provides the greatest single showcase of Scottish culture.
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