Blas 2011: Hallaig, A Musical Celebration of Sorley MacLean

19 Sep 2011 in Festival, Gaelic, Highland, Music, Showcase

St Andrews Cathedral, Inverness, 16 September 2011

THIS musical celebration of the poetry of Sorley MacLean was originally commissioned by Urras Shomairle (The Sorley MacLean Trust) for a performance at Celtic Connections in 2009.

The decision to revive it with substantially the same cast of performers for this year’s Blas festival proved a worthwhile one. Appropriately enough, the evening began with readings of three of MacLean’s poems in both their original Gaelic and in Derrick McClure’s recently published Scots language translations.

Sorley Maclean at Hallaig, Raasay, c. 1982 (photo Dr Julian Thoms, Sorley Maclean Trust)

Sorley Maclean at Hallaig, Raasay, c. 1982 (photo Dr Julian Thoms, Sorley Maclean Trust)

The Raasay-born bard’s words featured prominently in the musical celebration that followed, topped and tailed by two purely instrumental responses to his poetry. The first of those, fellow Skye man Blair Douglas’s haunting, elegiac instrumental response to Camhanaich (Dawn), was one of the highlights of the show, while Allan Henderson’s Gaoir na h-Eòrpa (The Cry of Europe) closed the evening in satisfying fashion.

The instrumental ensemble featured some well-known faces on the Scottish music scene, with Dougie Pincock on whistle, flutes and soprano saxophone, Gordon Gunn on fiddle, Jack Evans on guitar, Brian McAlpine on accordion and Mary McCarthy on piano. The only changes from the Glasgow line-up were that Su-a Lee replaced Christine Hanson on cello, and Rhona Mackay replaced Mary Ann Kennedy on clarsach.

The band figured in most of what followed, the sole exception being musical director Kenneth Thomson’s unaccompanied setting of Chan e àilleachd (It is not the beauty) for the Dingwall Gaelic Choir, who took on the choral duties filled by the Glasgow Gaelic Choir two years ago.

This traditional-sounding piece was much to their liking, but they were set less conventional challenges in Eilidh MacKenzie’s striking setting of Camhanaich (an intriguing contrast in responses with Blair Douglas’s instrumental piece), and – more dauntingly – Stuart MacRae’s dark-hued contemporary setting of MacLean’s most celebrated work, Hallaig, a very impressive piece couched in a different musical language to the rest of the evening.

In addition to the choir, the concert featured three vocal soloists, Jenna Cumming, Kirsteen MacDonald (who also acted as compère) and Alasdair White, one less than in the original performance.

The latter two were featured on Hallaig, and all three were heard on Tha thusa ‘g ràdh rumsa, thasgaidh, a response to Gaoir na h-Eòrpa by Suzanne Houston, Coralea MacKay, Emma MacInnes and Lauren Weir, all students at the time at the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton High.

Jenna Cumming was outstanding on the vocal setting of Camhanaich and on Thomson’s An Cuilithionn (The Cuillin), while White impressed on Marie-Louise Napier’s setting of Am Mùr Gorm (The Blue Rampart) for voice and clarsach, and MacDonald on Donald Shaw’s An Roghainn (The Choice).

BBC Alba captured proceedings for a broadcast in October.

© Kenny Mathieson, 2011