Sabhal Mòr Ostaig 40th Anniversary and Students’ Concert

21 Jan 2013 in Festival, Gaelic, Highland, Music, Showcase

Celtic Connections, City Halls and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, 19 January 2013

AT Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s birthday party the honour of playing the first notes was given to a native of that well-known Gaelic enclave, California: Dr Decker Forrest, director of the Gaelic Music course and winner of many a close-fought piping competition.

HE also plays one of the most sweetly tuned set of pipes you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing. Earlier in the day some of his students had delivered a thoroughly professional second half in the Solas ur Tobar an Dualchais concert at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, full of delightful arrangements, solid musicianship and close-knit vocal harmonies but also notable for their calm assurance and stagecraft. They were a real credit to him and their other tutors.

Julie Fowlis

Julie Fowlis

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig has been tutoring students full-time for some 30 years. By contrast, the first half of the RCS concert featured the first-ever students of the Applied Music B.A at the University of the Highlands and Islands, a degree course which builds on Sabhal Mor Ostaig’s experience of distance learning. Tutorials are usually in person but if no accessible tutor can be found, Skype allows tuition from as far away, this year, as New York.

There is extraordinary potential for cross-fertilisation among musicians studying variously opera, rock, jazz , traditional Scottish music and everything in between. To start the process the students had been set loose in the treasure house of Tobar an Dualchais to research a piece of music, learn it, work in groups to create a work based on it and then perform it – with the added challenge that the collaboration, apart from the final rehearsals the day before, would take place online.

As Julie Fowlis highlighted in her introduction, the recording of these treasured archive works in the 1930s was due to then-new technology, and now today’s technology is allowing today’s students to revisit their ancestors’ heritage. The wheel turns; this fusion of ancient and modern is the power that fuels many of the finest artists working in Scotland today. The students, tentatively at times, drew on that energy with a programme that consistently challenged expectations.

Unaccompanied Gaelic ensemble singing was augmented by whistling, as though some young blackbird had decided to join in. A charmingly indie-fied version of the ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’ showcased some neat fingerstyle guitar. Banjo duetted with bodhran and flute with accordion. Later, immaculate electric guitar had this reviewer idly wondering what would have happened if Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour had gone to Glasgow School of Art … The lack of live rehearsal time showed in occasional rough edges, but did not tarnish the overall glow.

At Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s birthday party later that night, there were many more demonstrations of experimentation rooted strongly in the tradition. Allan Macdonald of Glenuig opened the second half with a bravura demonstration of what freeform piping, loosed from the bonds of strict military meter, can be. Tightly fingered notes and gracenotes cascaded off the stage and took the audience’s collective breath away.

Julie Fowlis is fast becoming the international face of Gaeldom, but is also a former graduate and postgraduate of Sabhal Mor Ostaig and her rendition of ‘Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach’ showed why. Deceptively simple, the simplicity that stems from dedicated professionalism.

The evening was studded with songs from Margaret Stewart (whose pure, silvery voice outshone even the sparkle of her jewels), James Graham, Alasdair Codona, Mary Ann Kennedy, and Christine Primrose, backed by the House Band, itself not short of formidable names including Iain Macdonald of Glenuig, Alasdair White, and Angus Nicholson, plus members of the Henderson family (musical director Allan and his sister Ingrid) without whom no Highland musical festivity is complete. (There is probably a bye-law to this effect in the depths of Highland Council).

On the tune side, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas are never less than impressive but their dynamic, vibrant performance in the City Halls dazzled. Dàimh stepped up to the mark with their laidback, virtuosity while Fergie MacDonald’s brief turn centre stage demonstrated why he has been a legend since before Sabhal Mòr Ostaig began.

Last but not at all least, Michael O’Súilleabháin, Professor at the University of Limerick, conducted the orchestra of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in some bravura jazz-infused works that highlighted the superb soprano sax-playing of Kenneth Edge, before everyone crowded onstage to uplift their voices in one final anthem.

© Jennie Macfie, 2013