Cottier Chamber Project full of surprises

WITH determination, dreams happen. No one proves this better than Andy Saunders and the astonishing Cottier Chamber Project (CCP) he has built up on the back of Glasgow’s annual West End Festival and his own flexible ensemble, Daniel’s Beard.

Mr McFall's Chamber. Picture: Contributed
Mr McFall's Chamber. Picture: Contributed

Now in its third year, and based at the Cottier’s Theatre, it will comprise a remarkable 41 events taking place between 6 and 20 June, ranging from top-notch chamber recitals to opera, jazz, world music, film and, for the first time, dance.

The theme is identity: “an obvious choice”, says Saunders in view of this year’s Commonwealth Games, the Referendum and the major anniversaries of the First World War and Bannockburn. The theme has enabled him to programme some fascinating music by composers in whose lives “national, racial, religious or cultural identity played a major role”.

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Some of the choices are obvious, such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – written and first performed while he and other musicians were in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz – and this year’s festival marks the start of a three-year project in which a variety of ensembles will perform all 15 of Shostakovich’s string quartets. But there are more obscure selections too, such as an evening of Polish tango performed by Mr McFall’s Chamber.

Tango in Poland from the 1930s? “Apparently so,” says Saunders, explaining that a flourishing nightclub scene in Warsaw and Krakow was rife with tango composers like Artur Gold and Wiktor Krupinski, who created an identifiable Polish tango style. “Most of the composers there were Jewish and, as a result, later written out of history,” says Saunders.

And who, these days, knows of Veniamin Fleishman, a student of Shostakovich, who was killed fighting for the Russians on the front line in 1941? His unfinished chamber opera Rothschild’s Violin, based on a Chekhov play, was completed by Shostakovich, and forms part of Music Co-OPERAtive’s programme on 8 June.

Of course, everything is of a smallish scale, as any chamber series should be. But where it holds back on size – a simple necessity for venues that include Cottier’s Theatre itself, St Silas Church and the Hunterian Art Gallery at Glasgow University – the CCP makes up in boldness, ambition and imagination.

Take the new dance thread that features within the regular Family Concert on 14 June. This is a whole new adventure for Saunders, whose friendship with composer Lenny Sayers has led to the creation of a choreographed work based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Victorian ballad The Lady of Shallott. “It could so easily have been opera or music theatre,” says Saunders. “But Lenny has come up with a work that is effectively contemporary ballet.” The story, involving Lancelot, Guinevere and Galahad, is danced by Freya Jeffs and Miranda Sheehy of Glasgow-based High Heart Dance and narrated by radio presenter Jamie MacDougall.

It all came together a month ago, when the composer and instrumentalists of the experimental Red Note Ensemble holed themselves up in the remote Crear rehearsal studios in Argyll, along with MacDougall and the dancers, to create the final performance piece. The key creative element, says Saunders, was the choreography. “It’s unusual for dancers to self-choreograph, but that is what made this a really interesting situation. There we were, with six musicians, a narrator, two dancers and a video recorder, trying things out, discarding some, and ultimately creating the piece we will perform.”

It’s that sense of adventure that gives the Cottier series its special place in the chamber music calendar. Surprises leap from every page of the packed brochure, whether it be Concerto Caledonia’s celebration of the eccentric 17th-century Scots soldier and composer Tobias Hume – “he was as mad as box of frogs”, says Saunders – or the Da Vinci Trio’s performance of a Piano Trio by Marcel Tyberg, a virtually unknown Austrian composer from the early 20th century who died in Auschwitz.

There is standard fare, too, though presented in unique venues, like the new solo Bach lunchtime series at the Hunterian Art Gallery, featuring Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin and suites for cello. “I thought it would be interesting to look at one composer through the eyes of different performers,” Saunders explains. Different playing styles range from the straight approaches of RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi and former SCO leader Alexander Janiczek, to period instrument specialists Alison McGillivray and Hague-based leader of the Dunedin Consort, Cecilia Bernardini.

There’s familiarity, too, in the Scots traditional music of the Alastair Savage Trio, the east European ethnicity of Moishe’s Bagel, jazz from the Martin Kershaw Quartet, fusion from the James Brothers and a whole tapestry of great classical chamber music from the resident Daniel’s Beard and guest soloists and ensembles.

And will Red Note create another opera from scratch? “Absolutely”, Saunders says. “Just like last year, the audience will be asked to suggest a setting, a theme, the main characters and an outline of the plot. Then it’s down to us to make it up as we go. It’s a bit like Whose Line is it Anyway? meets Puccini.”

“Quite a lot of the audience turned up last year thinking, ‘it’s only seven quid, we’ll see what happens,’” he recalls. “And some came because they thought it was such a bad idea they wanted to be proved wrong. In the event, folk were weeping with laughter. This year’s improvised opera is rather ominously on Friday the 13th, but we’re not letting that worry us.”

What of that other gimmick: letting anyone who turns up to any CCP concert with an authentic “beard like Brahms” in for nothing? “Yes, that offer stands, says Saunders. “But we have a new one for the Shostakovich series. If you have ‘Dmitri Eyes’ – thick round specs like Shostakovich – entry is free for that series.”

• The Cottier Chamber Project runs from 6-20 June as part of Glasgow’s West End Festival,