BLAS: AN AIFREANN GHAIDHLIG / GAELIC MASS (St Andrew’s Cathedral, Inverness, 4 September 2009)

7 Sep 2009 in Festival, Highland, Music

GEORGE MACKAY hears the premiere of Blair Douglas’s new Gaelic Mass.

Blair Douglas

Blair Douglas

ARTHUR CORMACK, the fear an tighe for this opening night concert in the Blas Festival, revealed that fellow Skyeman Blair Douglas had been talking about writing a new Gaelic Mass for years, but had actually started in earnest in 2006, with Highland 2007 as the intended target.

It didn’t quite work out that way, but the imposition of a deadline for Blas finally did the trick, and the composer not only produced the Mass, but four more settings of hymns and three instrumental pieces into the bargain.

One immediate problem, especially for those – as Arthur put it earlier – “not blessed with Gaelic” was that the programme gave no indication of the actual order of performance of the music, leaving us to founder a little until we got our bearings.

Before we reached that stage, though, five young musicians from the Caledonian Canal Ceilidh Trail performed an opening set of tunes and songs. Accordionist and lead musician Cameron Kellow, guitarist Alasdair Taylor, singer, whistle player and piper Rachael MacDonald, and fiddlers Ewan Smillie and Rachel Campbell gave a sparkling account of themselves in the course of four tune sets and two songs.

The youngsters have also recorded a CD, but were unable to sell it at the concert in the Cathedral (although how that differs from taking money for tickets is a theological nicety I won’t get into), but the disc can be bought by calling the sponsors of the Ceilidh Trail, British Waterways, on 01463 725500.

A short interval brought us to the main business of the evening, and what must be the first new setting of the Mass in Gaelic in some time (Irish musician Sean O Riada wrote several in Irish in the late 1960s, but I’d struggle to name the last Scottish one).

While Douglas composed all of the music, he recruited classically-trained pianist Andy Thorburn (of Blazin’ Fiddles fame) to do the orchestration, and also to conduct the performances. The music was written for a seven-piece band featuring violinists Sharleen Clapperton and Feargus Hetherington, viola player Mairi Campbell, cellist Harriet Davidson, Lillias Kinsman-Blake on flute, Patsy Seddon on clarsach and Iain MacDonald on both Highland and small pipes.

The vocal soloists were Maggie MacDonald and Paul MacCallum, and the choir the Inverness Gaelic Choir (Douglas had initially hoped to use different local choirs for the other two performances in Fort William and Portree, but the logistics proved too complex). A few first-night blips aside, the performers all rose to the challenge in fine style, ably directed by Thorburn.

Douglas had set six sections of the traditional Catholic Mass – Introit, Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, omitting the Benedictus – in a style that he likened in the programme note more to the folk masses of Ariel Ramirez than the full-blown classical versions of a Mozart or Faurè. [Blair Douglas tells us that the Benedictus is included with the Sanctus section, but was mistakenly omitted from the programme listing – Ed.]

In fact, he had created a lucid and often very beautiful synthesis of traditional and classical influences, with the former to the fore. They began with a pastoral setting of the hymn ‘Loinn an t-Saoghail’, then played two of the instrumental pieces before launching on the Mass proper, and finishing with the remaining three hymns and instrumental.

It remains to be seen whether Douglas’s hope that the Mass is taken up for devotional rather than concert use is fulfilled, but this was a satisfying launch.

The Blas Festival runs until 12 September.

© George Mackay, 2009