Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh
THIS packed Edinburgh International Harp Festival concert proved to be not just, as someone suggested, a game of two halves, but of two distinct hemispheres.
The Southern was represented by Alfredo Ortiz’s glittering excursion through the rich Spanish-Afro-Indian melting pot of Latin-American harping traditions. A meticulous yet wonderfully easeful player, he ranged through some irresistibly unfolding rhythms, strutting or meandering through luxuriant stuff that verged on Latino-baroque, or rippling with nocturne-like enchantment.
From the Andes to Tinto Hill, and some characteristically state-of-the-art Scottish harping from Savourna Stevenson, whose opening number was an exuberant flight of sitar-style cascading and funky syncopation, but who quickly returned to her Borders roots with The Source, from her suite Tweed Journey, with its spellbinding murmurs and distant chimes.
Her formidable technique encompassed the manic hoedown of Silverado Squatters, a lazy blues which erupted into bright little harmonics, African kora chirruping and a new, sweet little piece inspired by ballerina orchids which suggested the ambulatory delicacy of Erik Satie.
Then, just to underline her northern credentials, she played us The Ballad of Grey Weather – a different climatic scenario from Ortiz’s hot tropical nights, but with a beguiling languor of its own.
Sharp harpist Savourna shows herself mother of invention
Edinburgh International Harp Festival
THERE is a special kind of wit and energy behind Savourna Stevenson’s music for solo harp. The construction of her instrument, known as the clarsach or Celtic harp, works against harmonic flamboyance, contrapuntal melody and timbral colouration, but she still finds a seemingly limitless resource in the instrument’s supposed deficiencies.
Stevenson’s approach is to impose a style, genre or rhythmic pattern and experiment with extended instrumental techniques to find the most enjoyable realisation of her vision. Although her playing was of first-rate, virtuoso quality, some of her pieces were blurred around the edges, as if she was not certain if they belonged in the concert hall or supermarket. Fortunately, however, these saccharine moments were few and there was much to remember.
Her homage to Kermit the Frog, Silverado Squatters, impressively converted the harp into a one-woman, bluegrass banjo ensemble and her final piece, Fording the Tweed, shone with harmonic twists and turns that might ordinarily be impossible. Stevenson’s programme represented a forward-looking illustration of just how far the harp can go in the right hands.
TO all but the most dedicated traditional music fan, a concert by a solo harp player is of restricted appeal, no matter the level of technical expertise on display.
There is no doubting Stevenson’s musical gifts, but Thursday night’s show was a resounding affirmation of the work she has done in the past 16 years to bring this most maligned and marginalised instrument into a more popular arena. Indeed, Stevenson even goes as far as to admit that she aims at times to make her harp “not sound like a harp”.
By the time the show ends and all her special guests are assembled together, it is self-evident how highly regarded she is amid the British Isles’ foremost folk musicians of the past 30 years. On stage are Danny Thompson ( double bass ), Capercaillie’s Charlie McKerron on fiddle, Davy Spillane on whistle and uillean pipes, Phamie Gow on second harp, and singers June Tabor and Eddi Reader.
Each is used sparingly, but to good effect, Thompson and McKerron underpinning the often maudlin music, their natural empathy all the more surprising considering the hastily assembled nature of such a performance. Spillane complements her Iona My Heart, and has a short solo slot, while Gow, the winner of last year’s Danny Kyle award, enters for a rare airing of Cutting The Chord.
Tabor and Reader sing beautifully – the mournful The Baker, and the marginally more upbeat Touch Me Like The Sun, respectively. The Former is heart breaking, the later reassuringly soulful, Stevenson’s unaccompanied pieces, Emily’s Calling and Blue Orchid, are evocative and beautiful.
With its sheer depth of talent and breadth of styles embraced, this show came closer than any other did this year to epitomising the aims and strengths of Celtic Connections….
Savourna Stevenson / Anuna, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
It’ll no’ a’ be as refined as this, the 20 days and nights of music, song, and dance frae a’ the airts that is the seventh Celtic Connections. Yet while this opening concert presented something of a restrained overture, in its own way it also gave a fair taste of where what we are about to hear and see comes from and where it’s going.
With the lightest of compositional touches, versatile harper Savourna Stevenson led her string quartet on an odyssey inspired by Scottish song, subtly integrating jazz figures and blues voicings with north-east ballad and Gaelic waulking melody.
An impressive and interestingly conceived composition which was both attractive and easily digested, Stevenson’s new three-part work set an apt scene for the bite-size works that the 17-piece Irish choir, Anuna, presented with support from a chamber orchestra comprised of members of Scottish Opera’s orchestra and a well-marshalled Irish dance troupe.
Introduced with roguish wit by founder Michael McGlynn and sung with carefulness and charm, Anuna’s repertoire is a time-travelling mini-Celtic Connections-and-beyond in itself, taking in the works of eighth-century Irish bishops, traditional songs from Ireland, Finland, and Spain, a tribute to the late Jeff Buckley, and even an Elvis Costello adaptation.
Widely found though all this is, it all fits together remarkably seamlessly, and while this latest visit didn’t have quite the dramatic impact as their candle-lit presentation of a year or two back and at times flirted precariously with tweeness, there’s a haunting quality to the sound of these voices which can make even the overexposed She Moved Thro’ The Fair sound fresh.
Trio whips up stormy delight.
Superb – June Tabor and Danny Thompson joined Savourna Stevenson for their final London performance at Union Chapel by Graham Gurrin
This was the final performance by this trio of Singing the Storm, a set of new and traditional border ballads set to music by Savourna Stevenson, having been commissioned for the Borders Festival in October 1995 and taken on occasional tour since then. It is hard to see how the evening could have gone better.
You take one of the finest double bass players in the land, Danny Thompson, as quietly unassuming as he is totally in control, gently easing along the rhythm one minute, the harmonic progression the next. You add June Tabor, a very fine singer and collector of traditional songs. And you put Savourna Stevenson in charge, master of the Scottish harp and an extraordinarily intuitive composer, who has the bardic aim of storytelling well in mind in her settings of lyrics by playwright Liz Lochhead, songwriter Michael Marra and poets Val Gillies and Les Barker.
Tabor’s unaccompanied singing on Willie’s Drowned in Yarrow was superb – if you have not heard her sing in a church you have not lived. By contrast, the arrangement of Twa Corbies was complex – all bowed chords from Thompson and high-pitched tinkling from the harp – and spinetingling in a different sense.
All three musicians are noted for their desire to move on to different projects and different styles. This no doubt has some bearing on their ability to remain so fresh and exciting…
The Glasgow Herald
Savourna Stevenson, June
Tabor and Danny Thompson
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
SHEER class was writ large over both halves of this spellbinding concert, perfectly complementing performances representing the cream of contemporary tradition.
Longtime vanguard marches on the English and Scottish scenes, Stevenson, Tabor and Thompson make up an impressive sum of parts – whether the whole is greater is hard to say, given their individual potency as performers, but it certainly proved a richly rewarding collaboration. Each has such an array of tones and effects to draw on – the calm, distant sorrow of Tabor’s singing by turns stern and tender, overlaid with bewitchingly delicate expressive detail, Stevenson’s harp equally at home evoking the atmosphere of Mexico or Mali ( in duets of her own compositions with Thompson ) or tracing gently frisky figures behind The Bonnie Bonnie Broom.
Double bass magician Thompson, meanwhile, sounded as though he had at least a trombone and keyboards up there as well, with all his bendings, stretching and blending of plucked notes. A formidable collective weight of accomplishment, combined and articulated with an engagingly light touch.
Savourna Stevenson, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
IT’s a truism, or at least an inversion of one, but you have to be self-effacing to be valued as a national treasure in Scotland – which is why the self-made career of harper Savourna Stevenson is still under-appreciated.
Showcasing the album of music derived from her soundtrack to BBC television’s tribute to Robert Louis Stevenson ( no relation ), she proved that she is, taking her place in a band she has drawn from the Cauld Blast Orchestra, including the superb Anne Wood on Violin, Steve Kettley on Saxophones & flute and Mike Travis on drums, plus Brian Shiels on Bass and Dave Tullock ( Clan Alba, Five Hand Reel ) on Marimba.
Her melodic imagination combined with her absorbtion of styles and use of traditional musical forms from around the world is mesmerising.
This is ambience with both meaning and feeling. Across the Plains dovetails a native American corn dance with the Skye Boat Song and Silverado Squatters has her harp playing bluegrass banjo to a slap bass accompaniment.
The last number had the entire ensemble doing an impersonation of a mariachi band, while La Solitude is, in her own words, an amalgamation of French impressionist classicism and jazz – all done in a traditional music style. If you don’t get the picture, you aren’t listening
Savourna Stevenson & Aly Bain
Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham
HOISTED UP ON HER HIGH STOOL, precariously perched beside her Celtic Harp, Stevenson begins her quipping, informative talk-through, adopting just the right balance between concert formality and pisstake. She’s at the forefront of the current harping revival, playing with the expected Swarbrick, Carthy and Tabor as well as the unexpected Toumani Diabate and The Bhundu Boys, displaying a keenness for fusing worldwide ethnic traditions. Playing solo at first, Stevenson shows off her dextrous technique, flipping and tweaking the semitone levers on her amplified harp, changing key and making mystery alterations to her impressive sound.
She’s joined by double bassist Brian Shiels and drummer Mike Travis, effectively becoming a jazz harp trio, their sensitive backing sympathetic to the ethereal quality of Stevenson’s compositions, Shiels lyrically bowing or velvet-thumbing precise lines, Travis having a subtle touch, playing quietly when needed, but hinting at reserve power when tunes reach a climax. Stevenson’s verbal confidence is matched by her assured playing: detailed, shimmering and glacial, she always seems to know exactly what’s going to happen next, never straying off too far into the more improvisational reaches of jazz.
So, along comes Aly Bain … A Boy from the Lough for 20 years, he’s become soothing of an authority on world fiddling styles, as well as being a master proponent. Bain peeks out from stage right and scampers on to his seat, immediately disrupting any attempts at order: fine-tuning has fiddle, bantering with Stevenson, forgetting the names of tunes and concluding: what the hell, what do names matter anyway? Frazzling under the relentless stage lighting, his electric fan proceeds to underpin the rest of the set with intermittent speedboat noises. This stick-through-the-spokes approach lends a more informal bearing, but doesn’t detract from the rich complexity of the compositions or their spirited execution.
In celebration of the Robert Louis Stevenson centenary, the duo have been working on Clyde to California, a suite of pieces that corral bluegrass and Cherokee elements into an already diverse palette. This is the piece with which they seem most familiar, during which the more disparate elements of folk fiddle plus jazz harp trio achieve their most satisfying and exhilarating blend..
The Sunday Times
Glasgow Jazz Festival
At the Society of Musician’s Club, harpist Savourna Stevenson once more demonstrated a talent which deserves to be shouted from the rooftops.
Stevenson Draws together strands of ragtime, funk, Scots folk traditions, blues and even African influence with invention, virtuosity and joy. Solo she can fully underscore a melody with her own bass and chord accompaniment. In trio she makes such effective use of the harp as an ensemble instrument that you wonder there is not a legion of jazz harpists taking over the world.
Here is one of the rare few talents to be charting new ground in the 1990’s, and we must hope her gifts as a composer enable her to fulfil its rich promise.
By Neil Hedgeland
THE SAVOURNA STEVENSON BAND
Assembly Rooms Edinburgh Festival Fringe
On first reading in the programme for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe that Savourna Stevenson, one of the most prominent of today’s harp players in Scotland, was playing with a bunch of rock and jazz musicians, I was uncertain what to expect, although the Harp Nouveau concerts were listed under “Folk/Ceilidh/Scottish”, and the Scotsman described Harp Nouveau as “exploding your preconceptions and pulsating with jazzy, rocky, funky music you never imagined possible from a harp”.
Harp Nouveau’s music did turn out to be very far removed from the traditional material generally associated with the harp, and although, being myself a lover of traditional Celtic harp music, I found the strong jazzy flavour of the performance I attended highly enjoyable, stimulating and quite unique. Savourna’s harp blended perfectly with the percussion of Dave Hasswell, the fretless bass of Neil Hay, and the keyboards of Rab Handleigh to provide an extraordinarily rich mixture of melodies, harmonies and rhythms which proved so mesmerising that the concert was alas too soon over.
This was only their forth gig together, so there was no encore prepared, though the reception would certainly have merited on – however it was apparent that confidence was growing with each performance. The material consisted mostly of material composed by Savourna, the opening number being an interpretation by the complete band of Tickled Pink, the title track of Savourna’s solo album. This was followed by a new composition, Soapy Water, and then her only solo performance, a piece called Borders On The Insane. Various other striking new compositions followed, such as Nadir, a spine-tinglingly beautiful slow melody, then the aptly named Caught in the Web, an intricate and complex piece involving remarkably dextrous harp playing, along with another track from the Tickled Pink album with the mysteriously titled Djalan. The final number was named after the group, or could it have been the other way round – anyway, it was called Harp Nouveau and was a fitting end to an extremely interesting and innovative mixture of music.
Apparently, although the band is at an early stage of existence as yet, they have already attracted the attentions of a record company, and they hope to tour more widely eventually. Certainly if they do come to your part of the world, Harp Nouveau is well worth checking out if you’re interested in modern forms of music. Alongside Sileas’s experiments with syncopation and the electroharp in a more traditional folk idiom, Savourna Stevenson’s playing of the harp within a jazz/rock context underlines the healthy prospects for the harp in today’s musical climate.