Duncan Chisholm’s Strathglass Suite

28 Jan 2013 in Festival, Highland, Music, Showcase

Celtic Connections, Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow, 26 January 2013

THE elaborately corniced, portico’d and vaulted hall of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery soars high above row upon row of chairs.

SOLD out for months, tonight the Strathglass Suite is the hottest ticket in rainy Glasgow; extra rows of seating have been squeezed in wherever possible and people are crowding on the balconies above. It’s also being filmed for later transmission on BBC Alba.

Duncan Chisholm (photo John Smith)

Duncan Chisholm (photo John Smith)

No pressure, then, on Duncan Chisholm and his band – Matheu Watson (guitar), Martin O’Neill (bodhran), Jarlath Henderson (pipes and whistles), Ross Hamilton (bass) and the statutory member of the Henderson family, Allan (piano and fiddle).

Accompanying them are a string & brass ensemble conducted by Gary Walker and led by Greg Lawson, known to some from Blazin’ in Beauly but here in his capacity as a freelance classical violinist.

One wonders, idly, what Donald Riddell would have thought, sitting in his croft in Abriachan, of the success enjoyed by his pupils who, as well as Chisholm, include Bruce MacGregor, Iain MacFarlane and Adam Sutherland.

In case you hadn’t noticed (and if you hadn’t, don’t worry, you will), this is the Year of Natural Scotland whose logo flashed up on the screen behind the performers. The Strathglass Suite is Chisholm’s musical tribute to the place of his birth and the home of his ancestors, where the valley of the Glass river widens out between Glen Affric and Aigas. It is drawn from a trilogy of CD releases, recorded over six years, Farrar, Canaich and the most recent, Affric.

Written in the thrall of what the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, the deep love of one’s homeland, the Strathglass Suite inhabits an area of music thronged with popular favourites like Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’, Smetana’s ‘Ma Vlast’ and many of the works of Vaughan Williams; on this showing Chisholm’s work is worthy of inclusion in the canon.

The opening notes are played by Jarlath Henderson – is there any sound more wistfully haunting than the Uillean pipes? – before the ensemble join in with some meltingly lovely strings. The suite would be a fine enough piece played only by Chisholm’s selection of traditional musicians, but with the addition of the ensemble’s rich musical textures it becomes a thing of great and lasting beauty.

Scottish Opera’s Stephen Adams has been in charge of the arrangements, which successfully bridge the folk/classical gap, the strings often echoing the cadences of the pipes and not merely framing the folk sections but weaving all the strands together. You can see it’s going well from the grins on the faces of the musicians; even the classical musicians are allowing themselves to tap their feet and nod their heads when the music heads off into the folkosphere.

The audience quickly abandons the stultifying classical convention (only introduced in the Victorian era) of not applauding between sections – to the extent of giving a standing ovation half way through after a fast, furious section driven by the great, lolloping beat of O’Neill’s bodhran.

Yes, the man from Wolfstone can break your heart with a slow air but he also knows how to rock. The barriers between classical and folk have been trampled over and it’s all just music. Things quieten down enough for Allan Macdonald to declaim, in Gaelic, an extract from Neil Munro’s ‘To Exiles’ before the last section, followed by a rapturous repeat of the standing ovation and a final, reprised encore. Magnificent.

Pride of New York, led by Cherish the Ladies’ force of nature, Joanie Madden, had the unenviable position of support band but gradually managed to win the audience over, delivering a knockout blow with an irresistible 400-year old tune on the whistle from Madden. If only the stage had been a little higher, it’d have been possible to see as well as hear them. The sound, too, is against them; Madden’s introductions, like Chisholm’s after her, are almost incomprehensible in the echoing acoustics.

© Jennie Macfie, 2013


Duncan Chisholm

Jennie Macfie