Nicola Benedetti to open Celtic Connections

AS GLASGOW’S immensely protean Celtic Connections jamboree enters its 21st year with its most ambitious and eclectic programme yet, it is appropriate that tomorrow night’s opening concert should bring together stars from the worlds of classical and traditional music.

Nicola Benedetti is the focal point for a spot of classic/traditional convergence. Picture: Simon Fowler/Decca
Nicola Benedetti is the focal point for a spot of classic/traditional convergence. Picture: Simon Fowler/Decca

Taking centre-stage at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall is Nicola Benedetti, the Ayrshire-born violinist who, in the ten years since she became BBC Young Musician of the Year, has matured into not just an internationally acclaimed virtuoso, far outstripping any associated baggage of hype and glamour, but a very down-to-earth and articulate campaigner for music education.

She will play material from her forthcoming “Scottish themed” album, but will also be joined in “a new collaborative work” by three luminaries from the Scottish traditional music scene – Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, his frequent playing partner, accordionist Phil Cunningham, and Julie Fowlis, whose international success has made her an ambassador for Gaelic song.

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The no-man’s land of folk-classical crossover can be a bit of a minefield with the essential spontaneity of the one not always easily gelling with the score-based interpretive sensibilities of the other, although there have been some notable successes. It certainly won’t be a first-time classical encounter for Bain and Cunningham. Bain’s Follow the Moonstone project with the BT Scottish Ensemble some years ago saw the Shetlander playing luminous settings of Scots, Shetland and Scandinavian traditional music by the Norwegian composer Henning Sommerro, while Cunningham’s CV includes his massive Highlands and Islands Suite, commissioned by Celtic Connections in 1996 and involving some 150 musicians and singers.

Fowlis, her profile boosted by her singing contribution to the Disney-Pixar animated film Brave, has performed (alongside Bain and Cunningham) with the RSNO and, indeed, shared the stage with Benedetti in a closing concert for the 2012 Ryder Cup.

Ever since William Jackson premiered his milestone Wellpark Suite back in 1985, deploying a 13-strong “folk orchestra”, folk musicians have been moved to stretch themselves with compositions for large-scale instrumental forces, with Celtic Connections itself showcasing such ventures. Some of these have been notably successful; others have tended to lack cohesion.

There was a time, of course, during the 18th century, when “art” and traditional music were far more at ease with each other, with fiddler-composers such as Robert Mackintosh, James Oswald and William McGibbon as versed in Scots dance music as in Arcangelo Corelli and the other “art” music of the day.

Since then, the genres have become much more polarised, though recent years have seen a greater rapport which will doubtless inform tomorrow night’s convergence of styles in Glasgow.

• Celtic Connections Opening Concert with Nicola Benedetti and Friends, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, tomorrow, telephone: 0141-353 8000