Lacking in Culture?

20 May 2011 in General, Robert Livingston Blog

Back in 2003, when controversy was raging about the proposed transfer of the HQ of Scottish Natural Heritage from Edinburgh to Inverness, it was said that some SNH employees were objecting to the move on the grounds of the lack of culture in Scotland’s newest city. Well, that’s a charge that would be hard to maintain nowadays, as any edition of the Inverness City Advertiser can testify.

This past week, I’ve had a good demonstration of the riches on offer in Inverness, and of the variety of venues in which this cultural fare can be enjoyed. It all began on Sunday evening with the MIDAS Songwriters Showcase at the Ironworks.  Now, it’s not for me to praise one of our own events, so I’ll just say that there was a great array of Highland talent on display, and take the opportunity instead to praise the Ironworks team for the excellent setting they provided for the event, which showed the musicians off to best advantage. When HI~Arts started working on music industry development 15 years ago, I doubt if any of us involved then could have imagined that the biggest custom-built music venue to be created by the private sector in Scotland would be in Inverness, but that’s the Ironworks and we’re lucky to have it.


Two evenings later, Eden Court’s Empire Theatre was the venue for Jasmin Vardimon’s dance theatre piece 7734 As it happened, I didn’t enjoy the performance: for me it was too unremittingly bleak, with no sense of catharsis or release. But I’ll back to the hilt Eden Court’s decision to programme such demanding work, and enable audiences to make up their own minds. And there was no denying the superb skill and commitment of the performers. Again we’re fortunate to have Scotland’s largest single-site arts centre here in Inverness, making it possible to see such international work on our doorstep.

Of course, there’s no hard and fast boundary between Inverness and its hinterland. So when we travelled over the hill to Glenurquhart Village Hall on Thursday night, we found quite a few Invernessians had also made the journey out. The draw was the Budapest Café Orchestra,  on their first Highland tour. The name’s deceptive—they hail from Harringay, and none of them is Hungarian—but the music was thoroughly authentic: just what you’d expect to hear from a MittelEurop café orchestra, if the members happened to be four of the best musicians you could find anywhere, and decidedly off the wall to boot. Now, by Highland standards Glenurquhart can’t be described as ‘remote’ (no matter how remote it seems from Harringay!), but there is a special frisson to hearing this kind of music in this kind of intimate setting, especially when promoter extraordinaire (and Northings contributor) Jennie Macfie provides such an exceptional welcome, this time even extending to a goulash supper before the music started.

Then, as if it hadn’t been a rich enough week already, on Friday I caught the lunchtime recital at the Inverness Town House. This was presented under the auspices of At One with Music, which is something of a one-man-band effort by James Munro, who programmes these monthly concerts right through the year, mostly focusing on young artists, and with a judicious mix of classical and traditional content. This time the guest was a young Estonian pianist, Kristi Kapten, one of a number of rising stars whom James has brought up from the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow  She proved to be an exceptional virtuoso, presenting a demanding and largely unfamiliar programme that was well beyond the kind of light ‘Classic FM’ fare that the idea of a ‘lunchtime concert’ might conjure up. After dispatching Berg, Liszt and Prokofiev with strength and clarity and barely a pause for breath (and all from memory), for her encore she scaled new heights with the 10th of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. How much confidence do you need to keep your most impressive performance for your encore?

I have to admit that the Town House is not a favourite venue of mine—too much visual clutter and external noise—though there’s no denying its architectural splendour and fine acoustic. But if the curiously disguised busking piper out on the High Street had started playing five minutes earlier than he did, I fear murder might have been done.

So, to paraphrase the great Garrison Keillor, it’s been a quiet week in Inversnecky, where all the venues are active, all the artists are intriguing, and all the audiences have a terrific menu of opportunities to choose from.

© Robert Livingston 2011