Interview: Jonathan Morton, artistic director of the Scottish Ensemble
‘It REALLY wasn’t my idea,” says Jonathan Morton, who seems a mite embarrassed at being asked if he really was “taking over”. For that’s the implication of this weekend’s deliciously indulgent musical extravaganza entitled Jonathan Morton Takes Over, which is being run by Glasgow Concert Halls, but has been artistically masterminded by the violinist better known to us as the artistic director of the Scottish Ensemble.
He is, in fact, just one of several key figures in Glasgow’s musical life, Donald Runnicles among them, who have been given their own “weekends” to play with by Svend Brown, director of Glasgow Life.
But for this weekend the focus is on Morton, who gets carte blanche to flood his chosen venues with music that sets his soul on fire. True to form, the music and performers he has signed up are not so much off the wall, though some are approaching it, as typically fresh and eclectic in the sense that they transcend the ordinary and cross stylistic borders with ease.
Performances range from an opening Minimalist concert late on Friday at the Old Fruitmarket – which features Morton with his own Scottish Ensemble and the feisty contemporary combo Icebreaker playing music by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen – through Saturday night’s eccentric cocktail of Romanian ethno-group Taraf da Haidouks, the heavenly Hilliard Ensemble and the spontaneously unpredictable Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, to a Sunday night finale in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum featuring the joint forces of the Medici, Cavaleri, Gildas and Fifth Quadrant Quartets in holy minimalist John Tavener’s theatrical spatial spectacular Towards Silence for four string quartets.
And they include, in equal measure, both the extraordinary – a performance on Sunday of Morimur, in which Kuusisto plays Bach’s D minor Partita superimposed by snatches of Bach chorales sung by the Hilliard Ensemble – and the innovative –a new piece in Saturday’s programme by the highly individualistic Roger Marsh for the same artists, which fuses early madrigals with contemporary flourishes.
“It’s been fun creating such incredible programmes,” says Morton. He has indulged himself by including a personal favourite, Reich’s Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, in the opening concert and will feature centre stage on Saturday afternoon in his own Desert Island Discs chat with halls director Svend Brown, but has been careful not to allow his own unhidden enthusiasm for minimalism to completely take over the weekend.
“The aim has been to offer an eclectic mix of exciting music to as wide an audience mix as possible. Sure, minimalism can encompass genres as diverse as heavy metal and classical, and consequently has a wide draw, but I didn’t want to limit the weekend experience.”
Morimur, with its quirky take on Bach, is a case in point. Morton explains its background, which stems from a theory by Helga Thoene, a German musicologist who has made a career out of spotting hidden references in Bach’s music, that the Partita was effectively a musical epitaph to the composer’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died just before it was written.
“She has spotted numerous references to Bach’s own funeral chorales in this partita, believing that they may have been going round in his head as he wrote it. So what you’ll hear is Pekka Kuusisto playing the Bach, its movements interspersed with fragments of these chorales sung by the Hilliard,” Morton explains.
But it is in the culminating Chaconne that Professor Thoene’s hypothesis is truly put to the test. She herself calls it a “tombeau” for Maria Barbara, reflective of the anguish Bach must have felt after returning from a trip away, only to find that his young wife had not only died the previous week, but had been buried in his absence.
In performance, the Hilliards illustrate how the chorale quotations fit neatly with the solo violin. “The effect should be incredible, as if we are trying to get into Bach’s mind,” says Morton.
He is equally hopeful that his own long-held enthusiasm for the unpredictable Taraf de Haidouks will rub off on Glasgow audiences. The group that first emerged from Romania after the overthrow of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, and counted Yehudi Menuhin among its early admirers.
“I first heard them in Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London when I was a student, and I was blown away by their energy and the way they raised the roof,” he recalls.
Their style, he says, is hard to pin down. “There’s a definite gypsy flavour to their music, but the most amazing thing about them is that they all come from the same village, with ages ranging from the very young to players now in their 70s. They were initially discovered by a Belgian traveller who just happened to stop off in their remote village and hear them.
“Since their Ronnie Scott days, they’ve made it big in venues like London’s Barbican. We actually don’t know how many players will turn up this weekend, but I’m really keen to hear them in the more intimate setting of Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket.”
Whatever they bring, it will be in stark contrast to Sunday’s signing-off performance of Tavener’s Towards Silence, a typically intense and spiritual work – subtitled “A Meditation on the Four States of Atme” – that plays on the kind of spatial tricks that should work a treat within the vaulted architecture and ringing acoustics of Kelvingrove.
The setting seems ideal, when you consider that the work was commissioned by New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, and premiered there in 2009 among its art exhibits.
“Each of the four string quartets should be positioned as far apart as possible and out of sight of the audience,” Morton explains. There is also a part for eight speaking voices and the prominent positioning of a Tibetan singing bowl. “It was suggested that I should play the Tibetan bowl in the performance, but I kindly declined,” he adds.
Modesty, it seems, prevents Morton from taking over completely.
• Jonathan Morton Takes Over opens tomorrow night at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, and ends on 15 April at Kelvingrove art Gallery and Museum. See www.glasgowconcerthalls.com