RSNO Celebrates Hallowe’en with Ghosts, Skeletons and Music

RSNO Children’s Classic Concerts: Magic and Monsters: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, RSNO Junior Chorus, Jean-Claude Picard (conductor), Devised and presented by Owen Gunnell and Oliver Cox, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 01.11.2015 (SRT)


This is the first of the RSNO’s Children’s Classic Concerts I’d been to.  Not knowing what to expect, I brought along my two godchildren, aged 7 and 5, and they loved it.  It’s a great audience-building tool, introducing children to the concert-going experience in a safe, noisy and interactive way.  Our irrepressible hosts, Owen and Olly, guided us through a series of tunes, such as the theme from Harry Potter, or Gnomus from Mussorgsky’s Pictures, and, importantly for young audiences, gave us something to do for each number, such as look for the Gnomuses hiding in the orchestra, or spot the Headless Horseman riding across the stage.  We even danced to Thriller in the final number, and the Gruffalo himself put in a special guest appearance.  I especially enjoyed the story of Misterstourworm, the musical tale of a young boy who, with the aid of a Kelpie, slays an enormous sea serpent.  The RSNO Junior Chorus joined in too to provide some of the songs (and to show us how to dance properly at the end!).

Everyone had the opportunity to dress up, and nearly all the kids did, with a few adults too.  (I did my bit as a pretty half-hearted Hogwarts teacher.)  I was really charmed to see how much the orchestra threw themselves into it, too.  The temptation is to put out the B-team for a gig like this, but I recognised most of the regular players on stage and, hearteningly, they all dressed up too.  We had a pirate in the violins, a (prize-winning) zombie doctor and a couple of ghosts and skeletons, to name just a few, and I especially liked the nuns who had taken over the flutes.  Even the conductor, Jean-Claude Picard, had dressed up as a Star Trek character (get it?), and some brass players managed the pretty considerable feat of playing through a mask.  A great concert for its key audience, and played, of course, with typical panache.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder why all orchestras don’t do this.

Simon Thompson


Keith Bruce

The Herald

Composer Savourna Stevenson (pictured) has written a quarter of a new work to be premiered at Temple Church, off London’s Fleet Street, a week tomorrow. Four female composers have each composed a movement celebrating four women in history to complete Tetra, which will be played by female harp quartet, 4 Girls 4 Harps. The concert celebrates the fifteenth birthday of the group, who will then tour the work in the upcoming season.

Stevenson’s movement is inspired by American-born, Paris-based dancer, singer and actress Josephine Baker. She is currently working on a piece for piano and orchestra that also takes its inspiration from that era, documenting an instrument played by Horowitz, Gershwin, Ravel and Louis Armstrong.

Stevenson’s work for young people with writer Stuart Paterson, Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift, will have new performances by the RSNO in Children’s Classic Concerts in Glasgow and Edinburgh this autumn.

The Snow Queen: Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Kelly Apter


Edited down from Hans Christian Anderson’s original by playwright Stuart Paterson, The Snow Queen was read with theatricality and passion by Siobhan Redmond, dressed in her sparkling white finery. But it is at the door of Scottish composer Savourna Stevenson that most plaudits must be laid. Her expansive score captured the essence of Anderson’s tale – the fear, tenderness, loyalty. Each step of the narrative journey was accompanied with just the right musical intent.

Scottish Ensemble with Catrin Finch, Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow

Michael Tumelty

The Herald

The Joy of Savourna Stevenson’s music, I have always found, is that it is direct music, from the heart and to the heart, absolutely open and totally honest in its integrity and expressive qualities…The concerto, full of whole-tone and pentatonic implications, and lovingly played by Finch with expressive delicacy and an alluring sense of elan, is actually a voluptuously Romantic piece, unashamedly gorgeous in its first movement, with more than a hint of tango, a wonderfully touching sense of yearning, perhaps melancholy, in its second, and a darker, striking flavour of Bernard Hermann in the harmonies and mood of its finale.

Scottish Ensemble with Catrin Finch, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Ken Walton


No question about the influence of Debussy and Ravel on Savourna Stevenson’s Concerto for Pedal Harp, which received its first performance as part of last night’s Scottish Ensemble concert, featuring harpist Catrin Finch as soloist. More interestingly, Stevenson has cast her three-movement concerto in unashamedly romantic mode…besides the lush French-style harmonies and pulsating Spanish dance rhythms are luscious Mantovanian string flourishes and cooler, lustier reminiscences of Piazzola…a wonderfully busy piece, served up with extraordinary vitality and singeing warmth by Finch and the thick-set strings of the Ensemble.

OSO with NYCoS Choirs, Edinburgh Usher Hall

Keith Bruce


There were few empty seats in the auditorium and absolutely none on stage for the celebration of the 15th anniversary of the National Youth Choirs of Scotland…as more than 600 young singers joined the Orchestra of Scottish Opera…Savourna Stevenson’s Waiting for the Silver Sailed Moon for the upper voices was again confirmed as the loveliest tune to have been created by the choral organisation’s commissioning work.

Misterstourworm And The Kelpie’s Gift


Orchestra of Scottish Opera performs monster work by Savourna Stevenson and Stuart Paterson
The Times

A new orchestral work with the grand title Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift was always likely to make a name for itself. Add the unusual setting of a large barn in the East Lothian countryside and a narrative by a Hollywood star, and the cheering response of 400 schoolchildren was no surprise.
The one-off performance by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and the actor Billy Boyd at Skateraw farm demonstrated that there may be life yet in classical music.
Misterstourworm is a collaboration between Savourna Stevenson, the harpist and composer, and Stuart Paterson, the Fife-based playwright who, for more than 20 years, has adapted children’s myths and legends for the stage.
The work is the result of what Stevenson called a “life-changing” grant of £25,000 made by Creative Scotland in 2001.
It enabled the couple to create a tale set in a mythical Scotland in which a young hero embarks on a magical quest to free his people from a fearsome, fire-breathing sea monster, Misterstourworm.
Boyd, who played Peregrin “Pippin” Took in Peter Jackson’s feature-film adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel Lord of the Rings, has long been a friend of Paterson. The playwright gave him his big break in Scottish theatre by casting him as Arthur in a Christmas production of The Sword in the Stone. He said that he had been “flattered and delighted” to be asked to narrate the performance.
Stevenson and Paterson said they had been keen to create a work in the mould of Peter and the Wolf, and originally turned to the Greek myths for inspiration. “We wanted a story where we felt there was something underneath – it’s not all surface. But we also felt we had been given a grant to do something Scottish, we need to do something that felt like a real Scottish myth,” Mr Paterson said.
They fell on the tale of the stoorworm, which was said to have been as long as Scotland, and whose humps became the islands off the West Coast after its death. They added Kelpies, alluring and magical but deadly creatures, and set events in the fictitious land of Tiree.
The two had first worked together in 1986 on the writer’s reworking of Beauty and the Beast for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. “I wanted proper music for that, not rink-a-dink panto music, and she was perfect – Savourna is a delightfully talented composer, and she played it live.”
In that production, the music had been less important than the script, Ms Stevenson said. “Stuart always regarded the music as important to the show, but it inevitably gets squeezed out to the edge. In a piece of theatre it is secondary. Stuart and I always thought if I followed the story closely enough, we should be able to take the words away and the music would still hold up,” she added.
The success of the project can be measured by yesterday’s album release of the music, by Circular Records, a company established with assistance from the Scottish government’s Scottish Music Futures Fund, to help to protect musicians’ and composers’ intellectual property rights.
Mr Paterson has recently completed a screenplay entitled Master of Lies for the film director Nic Roeg, and hopes that a film may attract funding. However, before his work finally hits the big screen, Hansel and Gretel, a second orchestral collaboration between Stevenson and Paterson, will be premiered this Christmas.

Mike Wade

Music review: Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift ****

The Scotsman

MORE than 400 excited East Lothian schoolchildren packed the large barn at Skateraw, East Lothian, for a short concert to launch the CD of Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift.

Composed by Savourna Stevenson to a text by playwright Stuart Paterson, this enchanting tale explores the heart of myth and legend as a young boy sets out to kill the terrifying monster, Misterstourworm, with the help of a Kelpie.

The story was told through a potent combination of music, from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera with conductor Derek Clark; lively narration by Lord of the Rings star Billy Boyd – who was cheered to the rafters by the children – and stunning projected illustrations by Martin McKenna.

Stevenson’s musical language is simple but beautifully crafted, as she spins a magical sound world of grisly deep-voiced monsters and tinkling fairies in a dramatic, fast-moving score that could have easily been longer.

Comparisons with the children’s much-loved classic, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, are highly apt given that the youngsters were mesmerised by the performance. The short blast from the finale of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, which opened the concert had them whooping noisily and there were smiles of recognition as the orchestra played John Williams’s suite from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Johnny Watson’s barn at Skateraw proved to be a fabulous venue, with the images of Beuys, Kantor and other artists from Richard Demarco’s archive collection lining the walls to create a vivid backdrop.
Susan Nickalls

No myth. . .Billy Boyd’s in the barn

Evening News

AN EAST Lothian barn was the unlikely venue for a high-profile orchestral concert celebrating a great Scottish myth.

The barn at the Skateraw Foundation, near Dunbar, played host to the Orchestra of the Scottish Opera Production of Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift, which featured Hollywood sensation Billy Boyd as narrator.

The project, played out last night in front of 400 school children, featured the story of the monster as long as Scotland, whose humps created the west coast islands when he died.

Boyd, who starred in the film Lord of the Rings, said: “Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift is a magical and exciting tale for kids of all ages.”

Children to attend music launch
East Lothian News

Dunbar is set for a musical extravaganza on June 9 with the launch of a new classical orchestral work for youngsters
Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift will be presented to an audience of 400 East Lothian schoolchildren free-of-charge at the event, taking place in a huge barn at The Skateraw Foundation near the town.

Lord Of The Rings star Billy Boyd will narrate the 45-minute performance accompanied by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera.

He said: “Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift is a magical and exciting tale for kids of all ages.”

Avril Campbell
30 May 2008


The recording of the Savourna Stevenson/Stuart Paterson composition Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift was given an early sales boost on Saturday thanks to the Edinburgh area choir of the National Youth Choir of Scotland and its director Mark Evans.

As Mary Brennan writes in Herald Arts (Monday June 8), the disc is launched today at Skateraw in East Lothian with Billy Boyd narrating Paterson’s story, which Stevenson has scored. However the disc also features the girls of the Edinburgh NYCoS choir performing the three songs Stevenson wrote as one of ten composers invited to add to the NYCoS book for its tenth anniversary. One of the three, Waiting for the Silver-Sailed Moon, has already assumed classic status in the repertoire of youth choirs the length and breadth of the country, and the Edinburgh girls gave an un-programmed bonus performance of it at Saturday night’s end-of-session concert in St Cuthbert’s Church at the West End of Princes Street.
Although fighting for attention in a superb concert, it did have the bonus of being available for purchase at the interval, where an early supply of the discs joined the fund-raising tasty home-baking for sale. At the end of the concert there was but one solitary copy of Stevenson’s Stourworm disc left on the NYCoS stall.

Keith Bruce (The Herald Arts Blog)

NYCOS : Gold, silver & bronze

Going for gold, silver and bronze New works to mark anniversaries are nothing unusual, but National Youth Choir of Scotland’s artistic director, Christopher Bell, has commissioned an amazing 30 original pieces for its 10th year. Michael Tumelty finds out why

The Herald

Michael Tumelty

IT IS commonplace for a musical organisation wishing to mark a special event or anniversary to commission a new piece for the occasion. It’s a great deal more rare for a group to commission as many as six new works to underline the significance of an occasion, as did the Paragon Ensemble in 1990, marking Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture.

But when an organisation commissions 30 new works from a group of 10 leading composers, then that breaks with all precedent.

That is precisely what the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCoS) has done to celebrate its 10th anniversary this year.

Not to be hyperbolic about it, the 30 works are all songs, not symphonies or operas. Nonetheless, it is a momentous happening in Scotland’s musical life, and a stunningly original piece of thinking on the part of Christopher Bell, founder and artistic director of the youth choir, which has become a young artistic powerhouse on the Scottish scene.

The pedigree of the composers who have agreed to take up the challenge speaks for itself, and they range across the spectrum of musical styles.

The list includes Sally Beamish, Edward McGuire, William Sweeney, Martin Dalby, Alasdair Nicolson, Tommy Fowler and Savourna Stevenson. Less familiar names might be Ken Johnston, many of whose arrangements have been sung by NYCoS, Sheena Phillips, who lives in the States, and, representing the younger generation of Scotland’s composers, Oliver Searle.

The concept and execution of the mass commission is even more original than the sheer volume of work put out to the composers. It will sound like a truism, but conventionally, when a new commission is ordered, it is geared towards a performance. Though it will provoke incredulity (it has already), there is not a single performance of the new pieces for NYCoS yet lined up. However, they will all be published in early September in a book that will be widely distributed. What on Earth is it all about?

“Basically, I have been involved in so many commissions in the past which have proved to be oneoff, “says Bell. “They get their first performance, but they don’t get a second.”

He’s busy organising a series of celebratory events to mark the anniversary of the choir, and, quite simply, he says: “I didn’t want to commission one new work for, say, a gala concert, have all the youngsters spend an age learning a tough new piece that was going to get just a single performance and that would be the end of it.”

Additionally, some of the repertoire he is faced with is no longer exactly fresh. “Lots of the Scots songs we currently sing are aeons old. What we want and need is to build a repertoire.”

So he evolved the ingenious commissioning scheme that intends to build the heart of a new repertoire of Scottish choral music for young singers. And it has been very shrewdly thought out.

Not only have the 10 commissioned composers been asked to write three songs each, but they have been instructed to write them to specific criteria. Each must write three songs for particular age ranges, levels of musicianship and technical ability. In other words, each composer’s miniature triptych of songs must be graded.

And within those parameters, Bell has incorporated further criteria. He’s calling the levels bronze, silver and gold.

Each composer, when writing their first level song (bronze) has to write using a simple pentatonic scale: the group of five notes that is the basis of much of the folk songs written across the world and throughout the ages. For their second level song (silver), the composers must expand the range to a full diatonic scale (an octave of white notes, still basic, but with more possibilities). And for the most advanced level (gold), the writing should be chromatic and it can be in unison or two parts, or with a descant.

“Within that, ” Bell told his platoon of experienced composers (with a typically impish smile), “There are no limits to your creativity.”

It sounds a bit technical and convoluted, but the end product will be a book of 30 songs, graded in their difficulty, all fresh, all new, all by well-known composers and all available to every level of youth choir in the country.

With distribution taking place throughout the huge network of choirs operating under the umbrella of NYCoS – there are eight area choirs dotted throughout the country, a training choir, the National Boys Choir, myriad groups in primary school learning-workshop weekly sessions and NYCoS itself, amounting to some 3000 young singers in all, you could be talking, says Bell, “not about just about one performance, but probably several, and possibly dozens, with the prospect of some of the songs becoming common currency”.

The ambitious project lies at the core of a year of high-profile activities for the organisation, including frontline concerts with the BBC SSO in Glasgow and Aberdeen in April, a spring tour of Northern Ireland for the National Boys Choir, a debut appearance at the London Proms with the SSO in the summer, a televised Songs of Praise and a huge 10th anniversary gala concert in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, in September (which is likely to be with the RSNO).

It is an extraordinary year for the choir, founded in 1996 with just 58 singers and a vision. The full story of NYCoS, with its fascinating origins, its response to and assault upon musical illiteracy, and its rather breathtaking development, is yet to be fully told. But a generation of young people can already testify to its effect..

RSNO with Billy Boyd

The Herald

Keith Bruce

Adventures of Billy the kid Lord of the Rings star Billy Boyd isn’t afraid of new quests. After taking a starring role in the RSNO’s Christmas concerts, he’s contemplating a new musical career and making his own movie.

BILLY Boyd has built up a real relationship with Scotland’s national symphony orchestra in partnership with conductor Christopher Bell.

This weekend in Glasgow he will narrate Raymond Briggs’s perennial Christmas story of The Snowman to Howard Blake’s haunting score – a show that then goes out on the road to Dundee, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. The dates follow two Children’s Classics concerts by Boyd, with the RSNO and Bell: the premiere of Savourna Stevenson’s Creative Scotland Award composition Mister Stourworm in 2003, for which he read Stuart Paterson’s text, and a crooning appearance with the orchestra’s big band at the beginning of last year that proved he is every thinking Scots’ youngster’s winning swing singer.

It is an association that has seemed almost altruistic on Boyd’s part since his role as Peregrin “Pippin”Took in Peter Jackson’s screen version of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings has established him as one of Scotland’s most recognised actors, particularly among young people. The addition of his name to a classical music concert – especially if he is going to tell a good story or contribute a rendition of Mack the Knife that makes that chap from Take That look even less convincing in a tuxedo than usual – is surely a guarantee of a full house.

While that might be true, and the presence of the personable performer in any context is certainly an asset, the fact is that he has chosen successful enterprises with which to align himself. UnderBell, Children’s Classics concerts are regularly packed and the swing gig (which included some of Scotland’s top jazzers alongside RSNO players)was already sold out before Boyd’s addition to the bill was even announced.

“It is great to be involved with the younger generation, ” he said during a break in rehearsals with Bell. “It’s good to get people to see things they wouldn’t normally see and help introduce people to different art forms.”

Hansel And Gretel

Children’s Classic Concert ****
Usher Hall, Edinburgh by Susan Nickalls

THE Children’s Classic Concerts are a fantastic vehicle to introduce young people to the classical repertoire as well as delivering entertainment in large quantities. Christmas Magic was no exception, with an action-packed programme full of sparkle and festive cheer presented and conducted by the irrepressible Christopher Bell.

Hansel and Gretel may well be a familiar fairytale, but it was given a contemporary makeover in an imaginative new CCC commission by composer Savourna Stevenson to a text by Scottish playwright Stuart Paterson. Paterson tells his story simply, with large amounts of wit and humour which blended seamlessly with the music.

Stevenson has clearly inherited her father Ronald’s considerable talents. Given that this piece could easily stand on its own musical merits, I hope this is only the beginning of her contribution to the orchestral repertoire.

Edinburgh’s Manor School of Ballet provided a stunning visual element to the hour-long concert. Performing to four scenes from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, the dancers impressed with their technique, eye-catching costumes, and imaginative choreography, given that they were confined to a small stretch of stage.

Continuing the festive theme the orchestra played Debussy’s The Snow is Dancing from The Children’s Corner collection, as well as the piece that is synonymous with any visual images of sleighs, Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. Bell encouraged the children to jangle their parents’ house and car keys in time to the music, which they did, with many of them also managing to wave their luminous coloured light sticks at the same time…