Usher Hall. (photo: William Ford)

Journey to Edinburgh, part three

Reviews from the Fringe and International Festivals

William Ford | 23 AUG 2019

[Continued from Part Two of Mr. Ford’s travel triptych.]

EDINBURGH, Scotland— The last performance I attended at the International Festival was the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by internationally acclaimed conductor Semyon Bychkov. And if that star-power isn’t enough, the piano soloist was the much-admired Kirill Gerstein.

Conductor Semyon Bychkov. (credit: Chris-Christodoulou)

Conductor Semyon Bychkov. (credit: Chris-Christodoulou)

Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2 in F major started the program at Usher Hall. The work dates from 1957 after Stalin was no longer in the Kremlin and the composer was no longer preoccupied with him. The Piano Concerto is not burdened with ideology and resistance and it may actually give us a glimpse into what Shostakovich’s music might have been like if he did not have to contend in his music with totalitarianism.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein. (credit: Marco Borggreve)

Pianist Kirill Gerstein. (credit: Marco Borggreve)

The composer derided this music as being essentially light-weight; in fact, its second movement is beautiful in a sort of post-romantic style. Its two outer movements also lack a political message, consistent with the government’s desire to have a composer write “uplifting” music. It’s a piece that is easy to listen to and to enjoy.

Gerstein is a major force at the piano and he and Bychkov were ever mindful of each other. It proved a very successful collaboration, where the BBC Orchestra provided just the right support for the soloist.

Soprano Christina Gansch.(credit: Justin-Kim)

The second work was Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major. The soprano soloist was Christina Gansch. For many, this is the pinnacle of symphonic music and when played properly, can be a thrilling emotional experience. Indeed it was played properly here. Maestro Bychkov never lost sight of the thematic arc of the music and kept it moving forward with no softness of hesitancy. Ms. Gansch has a lovely voice, though at times she wasn’t able to be heard above the orchestra.

This music is a lens on the sound of the UK orchestras head in the International Festival. They are not brass-driven, as are so many American orchestras and their woodwinds have a darker tone than their US counterparts. All of the orchestras have wonderful ensemble. They do not have quite the string sheen that we hear in the US, but they certainly do not lack for warmth. These orchestral characteristics made the Mahler symphony even more beautiful and powerful. This was a top-flight concert that was nearly sold-out.

August 14

The Royal Over-Seas League (ROSL) sponsored “Bach for Breakfast” with Jonathan Ferrucci at the piano. The program started with a performance of the Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828. Playing it from memory, Mr. Ferrucci did remarkably well. At one point he had a slight lapse but continued to play as if nothing happened.

Second on the program was Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, which, in its orchestral version is elegant and somewhat formal. The piano version, however, is more percussive because of the nature of the instrument and it loses something of that elegant feel. That aside, this performance was excellent: Mr. Ferrucci is a pianist to watch and congratulations to ROSL for its fine series of recitals.

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In a lecture hall at the University of Edinburgh, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble (PNME) staged its production of The Gray Cat and the Flounder. PNME performances usually involved the melding of the theatrical with cutting-edge music. Its Pittsburgh productions meld music and theater, for example, by the use of creative lighting, staging, or backgrounds.

Grey Cat is a bit of a departure because it is a theatrical piece with music added.

The story is about the life-long love of a pair of Pittsburghers, Joe Newcomer (the Flounder) and his wife Bernadette Callery (the Gray Cat). The libretto was written by Kevin Noe’Rourke, PNME artistic director, and the music was written by Kieren MacMillan. The music incorporates songs of American songwriter Stephen Foster. Mr. Noe’Rourke and Lindsay Kesselman sing the lead roles. Both have beautiful voices.

Kevin Noe’Rourke and Lindsay Kesselman in Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s “The Gray Cat and the Flounder.”

The story itself is kind of a non-linear collection of incidents or events that characterized this couple’s relationship, along with the use of the cartoons that they created for each other. To bring those cartoons to life, the show includes a kind of shadow puppet ballet.

One unique strategy used by PNME is to perform the work while the audience listens through headphones fed by a binaural microphone set up. This not only gives the audience the ability to hear the show without outside aural distractions (e.g., rustling of papers, or coughing, or shifting in seats by patrons), but also supports an incredible sound intimacy with the performers. At times, the effect was eerie, as if an unseen someone was whispering in my ear. But the overall effect was stunning.

The magnificent playing of the PNME international group crew of musicians added to the quality of the performance. Gray Cat is a touching remembrance and memorial of a couples’ devotion, presented in an intriguing way, with wonderful music, including that of one of America’s great songwriters. PNME has created a musical theater event employing cutting edge audio- it is not to be missed.

August 15

ROSL presented “Brahms at Teatime,” featuring the Dolmen Ensemble (but substituting Leo Popplewell on cello for member Edward King). The Ensemble hails from several Commonwealth countries and Popplewell is also from the UK.

The first piece was Poulenc’s 1962 Clarinet Sonata, which another jazz infused work that featured an excellent clarinet performance by Sam Howie.

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Carson Becke (piano) announced that the group would add two trio pieces by Max Bruch. While written in 1910, the pieces could have been written 75 years before. Bruch was an unabashedly backward-looking composer who wrote thick-sounding romantic music in the Brahmsian style. In these two works, Mr. Popplewell was particularly strong, playing with a rich tone, ample emotionality, and precise bowing.

The final work was again Brahms’ Trio in A minor. This performance was stronger than that of the Principals of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (on August 12). It was engaging and the sound was surprisingly rich, even given its room hotel meeting space.

St. Cuthbert's Church as viewed from the Northwest wall of Edinburgh Castle. (attribution: Mactographer, CC BY 3.0)

St. Cuthbert’s Church as viewed from the Northwest wall of Edinburgh Castle. (attribution: Mactographer, CC BY 3.0 )

At St. Cuthberts Church, the Fringe sponsored a performance of the Bach cello suites at lunchtime. There were two suites performed per day by cellist Anne-Isabel Meyer. While the performance began well, it gradually deteriorated with increasing intonation and bowing issues. It was not Bach’s finest hour.

That same evening, again at St. Cuthberts, the Scotland-based Opera Bohemia presented a production of Lehar’s The Merry Widow. Using a small orchestra and a small stage, this small company managed to pull off a large performance that was enthralling.

The operetta is in three parts and is the slight story of a now-rich countess reuniting with the love of her life, who had in fact, left her in the past. Of course, there are plot contrivances that make getting from here to there a bit more complicated.

The performers were all first-rate; the acting and direction were superb, and the staging made the most of the limited stage and scenery.

Soprano Catriona Clark in Opera Bohemia's production of Lehar's "The Merry Widow." (source: Opera Bohemia)

Soprano Catriona Clark in Opera Bohemia’s production of Lehar’s “The Merry Widow.” (source: Opera Bohemia)

Soprano Catriona Clark played lead character Hannah Glawari. Ms. Clark was spectacular. She was comfortable on stage, had a first-rate operetta voice, and she looked stunning. Douglas Nairne played her love interest. He had a bit of seriousness in his performance that lent it some weight, independent of the silliness whirling around him. His voice was also wonderful.

Tyler Clarke played the role of bon vivant Camille with a bright and clear tenor that was a joy to listen to. His love interest was played by soprano Marie Claire Breen, another fine singer, and actor. Oskar McCarthy, who played Kromov, has great comedic talent that is restrained yet hilarious to watch.

The Director, John Wilkie deserves credit for bringing this all together in such a convincing way, as does designer Alisa Kalyanova. Conductor Alistair Digges did a great job meshing the music with the action on stage. This was a great way to end a week at the Festival Fringe!

For a classical music aficionado the Fringe and International Festivals provide ample opportunity to enjoy really great performances in beautiful and historic settings in the lively city of Edinburgh. ■

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William Ford is an avid classical music fan and a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. His reviews and interviews can most frequently be found online at Bachtrack and