Arts review of 2020: David Kettle on the year in classical music
In a year when "normal” concert and opera-going have been decimated, when careers have been threatened (or have simply crumbled), and when the place of classical music within people’s lives has been at least reassessed, if not put in existential jeopardy – it might feel slightly strange (if not downright distasteful) to be picking out highlights.
And yet, despite its challenges and frustrations, 2020 has been a year of astonishing creativity. It’s served as a timely reminder that musicians feel a compulsion to create, to find ways of overcoming obstacles, and of transforming our understanding of our circumstances in the process, even if – as was certainly the case during the first lockdown – it tended to be individual musicians who responded with their own homemade, online offerings, with little promise of income for their efforts.
Though they were initially somewhat blindsided by the pandemic, we should also celebrate the resilience and creativity of Scotland’s bigger classical ensembles. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been offering elaborate, well-shot concerts that are also accessible on iPlayer – Adams’s Shaker Loops and Schumann’s Second Symphony under conductor Jessica Cottis is particularly impressive. The RSNO was quick to announce a full mini-season of online concerts, which currently stretches through to February 2021, with flexible payment options to match. The SCO has been offering concerts for free, with requests for donations, and there have been some real gems – not least their Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with Allan Clayton, Alec Frank-Gemmill, and Pekka Kuusisto directing from the front desk. Scottish Opera has been very active online, too, producing new video productions as well as digging out valuable material from its archive.
Let’s not forget, either, the Dunedin Consort’s dash to Normandy to play live in August, and its more precipitous dash back to Scotland to avoid the sudden reintroduction of quarantine measures. Following that much-covered event, though, the Dunedins have gone on to produce some beautiful and very moving online concerts – their all-choral How Lonely Sits the City stands out for tackling our current tribulations head-on, even if it was conceived well before the pandemic. The Scottish Ensemble took a similar head-on approach with Songs for Life, its collaboration with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill.
Across Scotland’s festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival led the way with its ambitious My Light Shines On offerings, bringing together video performances from Scotland’s top ensembles and individuals. Elsewhere, events from St Andrews Voices to East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival, from freewheeling GIOfest to Aberdeen’s sound festival of new music all found rewarding online incarnations.
Other projects went further, harnessing the internet’s potential for connection. Many kids being homeschooled will have benefited from the RSNO’s Taskmaster-style creative challenges, the results of which can still be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel. The Red Note Ensemble tapped into compositional talent by taking its Noisy Nights online, and the inspirational Nevis Ensemble put together no fewer than four large-scale projects bringing together players from all over the world, as well as commissioning ten young Scottish composers to create new solo works for its Lochan Sketches.
A couple of particular projects, however, have gone further still, turning restrictions and unfamiliar ways of working on their heads, and forcing them to become creative opportunities. The first was a rare example of live performance. Director Roxana Haines’s socially distanced La bohème for Scottish Opera, performed to just a few hundred people outside the company’s Glasgow production studios in September, dared to put a Covid slant on an already notoriously illness-themed opera, with results that were emotionally devastating. The audience were seated at cabaret tables, with the action taking place on lorry trailers around them.
The second surely gives an indication of what the future might hold, as artists engage with online as a creative medium rather than simply a substitute for live experience. these bones, this flesh, this skin is a collaboration between the Scottish Ensemble and Scottish Dance Theatre, bringing together violinist Jonathan Morton, composer Martin Suckling, choreographer Joan Clevillé and film maker Genevieve Reeves, in an interactive experience blending music, dance and film, and offering 21 alternative ways of experiencing the work. It surely points towards more ambitious online experiences in the future – even if, as we all hope, 2021 marks a return to live music.
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