Sean Shibe on premiering Cassandra Miller’s new guitar concerto, Chanter

As he prepares to team up with the Dunedin Consort for the world premiere a new guitar concerto by Canadian-born composer Cassandra Miller, inspired by the sound of bagpipes, Sean Shibe tells David Kettle that audiences should prepare to hear something “spectacularly beautiful and unusual”

Edinburgh-born guitarist Sean Shibe has a clutch of high-profile Scottish concerts scheduled for the coming weeks. First up is a decidedly Spanish-themed concert with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on 28 March, the centrepiece of which is surely the most iconic guitar concerto of them all – Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. “It’s a hit piece, and it has incredibly satisfying melodies and a kind of sensationalism to it that I suppose very few other works for the classical guitar have,” says Shibe. “It’s the most famous work for our instrument, and it has a sort of pastiche approach to composition that I think some people could find hackneyed as well.”

He pairs Rodrigo’s Concerto with a far more recent work by contemporary, Valencia-born composer Francisco Coll, Turia. “I think they’re pretty much as different as you can find for concertos by Spanish composers for the guitar,” Shibe continues. “This is not the same Spain. The way Francisco thinks of the guitar is not as a classical instrument. Here, it is violent and pregnant with darker associations. This is not a work that has singable tunes, but it’s also undeniably Spanish. It’s a piece that I think when he wrote it, he said he was embracing his shamelessness. It’s a really tough piece, but it is, as far as I see it, the best guitar concerto in the 21st century so far.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Nonetheless, and perhaps inevitably, Shibe has had a continuing relationship with the Rodrigo Concerto. How does he maintain a freshness in the way he approaches the music? “The relationship that interpreters have with these pieces of music that have very strong cultural associations,” he says, “is very different to the way that audience members or journalists think of these works. I think there are considerations that people might think you have to make, but that you don’t have to make at the end of the day. It is a piece of art that we are there to work on with the interpretative system that we have individually built. So I don’t really play a major part, through my interpretation, of stripping away other people’s cultural associations. I can play a part in that by programming it in an interesting way, one that contextualises it, or grappling with new or interesting technologies to help try to strip away the cloud or aura of reputation. But I have played the piece a lot and I am happy with what I do with it when it’s played well.”

Looking further ahead into April, Shibe premieres a brand new guitar concerto by Canadian-born composer Cassandra Miller with the Dunedin Consort, first in London and Saffron Walden, before concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh. “We’ve worked together a lot over the past year or so, putting it together,” he says. It’s a situation that’s not unusual. “The guitar is an idiosyncratic instrument, and it needs a lot of workshopping to get people to understand what it does. Obviously, figures like Cassandra and Thomas Adès – who I was working a lot with last summer – these are good composers, and they are very able to adapt and learn what the instrument is doing rapidly. But sometimes when you’re working with slightly younger composers, getting people to understand that it’s not a piano was a core part of what I had to do in initial meetings. But Cassandra has come up with something spectacularly beautiful and unusual in what it does with the guitar. It’s a very gentle piece in some ways, but also very beautiful.”

The new piece is called Chanter, and Shibe confirms that there’s a bagpipe connection. How have he and Miller gone about linking the two sound worlds? Aren’t they very different? “It depends how much bagpipe music you listen to. I think if you’ve listened to some specific recordings or specific pieces, or specific branches of certain kinds of pipe playing, it will seem familiar. I think there might be some people who would read an article and think: okay, it sounds like background music that has been arranged for the classical guitar. This is not that. She’s a proper composer.”

Sean Shibe performs Rodrigo and Coll with the BBC SSO at the City Halls, Glasgow, on 28 March, and premieres Cassandra Miller’s Chanter with the Dunedin Consort at Milton Court, London, 11 April; the RSNO New Auditorium, Glasgow, 13 April and at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 14 April. See

Related topics: