Persian Knight Celtic Dawn preview

The Herald

Glasgow (UK)
Rob Adams

Arches, 253 Argyle Street, Glasgow

When Savourna Stevenson forsook classical piano studies for the Scottish harp in a fit of teenage rebellion, even she couldn’t have imagined that the instrument, almost forgotten at the time, would be the key to such varied musical adventures.

Whatever music she’s since heard in her head – be it jazz, blues, bluegrass banjo, African kora or Mexican mariachi band – Stevenson has translated it onto the harp without hint of novelty value or gimmickry. The result has been a body of work as individually expressive as it is unpredictably eclectic and that retains her Scottish roots while considering the next horizon.

Although not always the most visible of performers, she invariably breaks out of her Borders retreat with renewed passion and her latest work, settings of Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran’s texts for harp and Iranian percussion ensemble The Chemiranis, promises another eventful chapter in her continuing travelogue.

Well connected from the Middle East to Sex and the City

review by   SUSAN MANSFIELD – The Scotsman

chemiraniLong SAVOURNA Stevenson boldly takes the clarsach where no clarsach has gone before. In her hands, the Celtic harp has voyaged into the territory of bluegrass banjos, sitar-style cascades, Indian ragas and African beats.

A concert at Celtic Connections will preview tracks from her forthcoming album, her ninth, which has a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour. But this is only one aspect of her work.

“Scotland’s most adventurously accomplished clarsach player”, as she has been called, has many other strings to her harp, from writing orchestral work, to having her music featured on Sex and the City.

Persian Knight Celtic Dawn  –  a typical Stevenson title, with a quirky twist of humour  –  features the playing of Iranian percussionists, the Chemiranis, and in particular the zarb, a drum played with the fingers which can produce as many different notes as a piano and is described by Stevenson as “mesmerising”.

Two of the Chemiranis will join Stevenson for her Celtic Connections gig at the Arches on Saturday.

They first met and played together at the Real World Festival. “I was doing an all-night live broadcast for Radio 3, and all the artists were listening to each other as we waited for our turn to play, appreciating each other’s music. Argentine accordionist Raoul Barbosa was there, the Chemiranis and myself, and we all just started playing together. It was a lovely impromptu playing experience.”

She promised the Chemiranis that when the right opportunity arose, they would collaborate. When Stevenson began to write songs for her new album, using text from ‘The Prophet’, by Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran, she realised the time had come.aylith _bestcropped for website

“The album will be very much a meeting of cultures from East and West,” she says. “The intricacy and ornament of Persian music is a little like Celtic music. I want the Chemiranis to bring some of their culture to it.”

She was reminded of the musical potential of ‘The Prophet’ in 2002 when she was asked to play at Peter Gabriel’s wedding “on a beach in Sardinia”, at which Gibran’s passage on marriage was one of the readings. She has now set that, along with two other passages, to music. Gibran’s  ‘Joy and Sorrow’ has been translated into Gaelic by her brother-in-law, the poet Aonghas MacNeacail, and will be sung by Alyth McCormack.

“I love to hear the human voice on my records. Just as music is an international language, the words of Gibran speak to anybody and everybody. It’s full of wonderful messages and symbols, a book you keep on the shelf and dip into. And it’s so international, we all feel the same about marriage, children, friendship.”

Stevenson is also increasingly being recognised as a classical composer. In 2001, she received a Creative Scotland Award – “a life-changing experience” – to write an orchestral work for young people. The resulting symphonic piece, ‘Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift’ was performed to great acclaim in 2003, with the actor Billy Boyd as the narrator.

“It was so successful that Children’s Classic Concerts decided to commission another one, which was an absolute joy,” she says. Hansel and Gretel was performed this season by the Scottish Opera Orchestra to capacity crowds at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and Usher Hall in Edinburgh, narrated by Taggart actress Blyth Duff, wearing “a fantastic pair of witchy shoes.”

It’s a challenge for Stevenson to switch between different types of music, one day composing for herself at the clarsach, the next sitting at a desk with a full orchestral score. “It’s a very different world to break into, but I think it’s a really healthy thing to be involved in so many different kinds of music”.

“I’ve had such a warm rearonaldction to my music from the orchestral players, maybe there’s something new for them in the fact that I started out in traditional music, with the likes of Fairport Convention and Aly Bain, and have been involved in world music and jazz. Hansel and Gretel also has a strong East-European element.”

She is following in the footsteps of her father, the composer Ronald Stevenson, who peppered her early piano lessons with eclectic musical influences. “I’m very lucky to have been exposed to so many different types of music from very early on. My father was passionate about Lewis Psalm-singing, pibroch and jazz, as much as classical music, and he would talk to me about these things when he was teaching me the piano.”

However, of all the places her music has ventured, perhaps the most unexpected is on to the set of Sex and the City, where a recording of her string quintet was used for scenes such as Charlotte’s wedding.

“My record company phoned me up completely out of the blue and said, ‘Somebody wants to use your music for Sex and the City’.  I was a bit shocked, but it certainly gave me a bit more street cred with my teenage son and his mates.”

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…

Savourna Stevenson and Alfredo Ortiz


Jim Gilchrist


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.

The Lord of the Strings

Sunday Herald

Children’s Classic Concerts
Usher Hall, Edinburgh by Christopher Lambton

Is it really 10 years since Children’s Classic Concerts had the audacity to offer real live orchestral music to children? The idea is simplicity itself: a big orchestra and real music, the only concession to tender youth being brevity. It has been a success from the start – a Scottish innovation that has spawned imitators in England and overseas. CCC has had its ups and downs, though.

I am one of those grumpy critics who has ignored screams of pleasure from his own children in order to fulminate against silly lighting or ill-prepared theatrical gestures. But no-one ever said it would be easy. It has been a challenge: one problem being to devise a format that allows children to enjoy the concerts when they are three and still to enjoy them when they are thirteen.

In this concert CCC comes of age triumphantly. Conductor and artistic director Christopher Bell has found an excellent balance between chat and music. The highlight is a new commission from Savourna Stevenson, Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift, a brilliantly coloured showpiece based on a fusion of folk tales narrated with gusto by Lord of the Rings star Billy Boyd. I was prepared to harrumph when Boyd later mounted the podium and pretended to conduct the William Tell Overture but, in truth, I laughed loud.

RSNO : Magic & Monsters


Classical review • Carol Main


Usher Hall, Edinburgh

AT A time when the search is on to identify new audiences for classical music, does it matter whether the children at the RSNO’s Magic and Monsters concert eventually metamorphose into grown-up enthusiasts? For now, they are simply having fun.

Skilfully presented by Christopher Bell and Children’s Classic Concerts, Sunday afternoon’s performance produced cheering, whistling and stamping of feet. Magic was conjured up from Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice (in its jaunty Disney makeover), and the hall’s very own monster took a starring role in the big-tune bits from Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony.

There was also an opportunity for the young audience to sample some of the best music being written now, alongside the familiar favourites. Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings was a popular choice, but more satisfying by far was Savourna Stevenson’s Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift, vividly narrated in its premiere performance by Billy Boyd, the Hobbit star of the aforementioned film.

Stevenson’s first score for a full orchestra is a mixture of Greek legend, Scottish myth and Orcadian folklore, conveyed with instrumental storytelling that has a special, intuitive magic all of its own.

Children’s Classics

The Herald

Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow • Michael Tumelty ****

christopherBillyRSNOSavourna Stevenson should be feeling extremely pleased with herself as she emerges from a weekend that doubtless was tinged with nervousness. By any criteria, her first full exercise for symphony orchestra, Misterstourworm, a tale of myth and legend, of magic and monsters, woven around the creation of Scottish islands from the west coast to Orkney, can only be judged a resounding success.

Though in the early stages of composition there was the explicit precedent and inspiration of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, by the time of completion of the project, a two-year venture funded by a Creative Scotland award, very little of that original impetus remained, barring a close reference in the theme associated with Coran, the hero of the tale, woven with characteristic elan by playwright Stuart Paterson. Indeed, in so far as there is a didactic element to Peter and the Wolf, Stevenson’s often-beautiful and exciting composition is in a different sphere to Prokofiev’s yarn, concentrating more, as it does, on colour and atmosphere than on characterisation through individual instruments.

The orchestral imagery that permeated her music was impressionistic and, in at least one instance, where tumbling woodwind scales magically represented the water streaming off the back of a kelpie, ravishing and exquisite.

True, Misterstourworm, conducted by Christopher Bell as the centrepiece of a rather overlong children’s concert, and played with gusto by the RSNO, sounded as though it could have used another rehearsal for familiarisation, and it cried out for visual imagery to clarify the progress of the story, narrated with increasing relish by Billy Boyd; but it is a splendid addition to the repertoire which, one hopes, will circulate and return.

Going back to her roots

The Herald

Savourna Stevenson is about to premiere her first orchestral work, a Scots tale of monsters and legend. By Michael Tumelty

BY her own admission, Savourna Stevenson is feeling “a bit desolate” at the moment. With the completion of Misterstourworm – The Kelpie’s Gift, her first piece for full symphony orchestra, the renowned harpist and composer has reached the end, or rather is approaching the climax, of a project that has dominated and permeated her creative life for two years.

She is in that peculiar hiatus between having put the last dots to her new work, which will be premiered this weekend by the RSNO, and hearing what the music actually sounds like. Nothing there, you might think, that hasn’t been experienced by every composer who pours his or her thoughts into a score, then wonders if the music will come off the page and spring into life. Yet, for Stevenson, whose new, 14-minute orchestral work will be played in Magic and Monsters, the first concerts of the new season by the Children’s Classics Concerts organisation, it represents a major move in her career, one of those “hold your breath” moments.

On the one hand, it’s a new step, and she has done “nothing like it before”. On the other, it is a conscious attempt to “pull together” many of the multiple strands of the music that has featured throughout her diverse career.

A narrative tale with music, built around the legend of the creation of Orkney and the Hebridean islands, Misterstourworm is the fruit of a Creative Scotland Award, whose handsome financing of (pounds) 25,000 has enabled Stevenson to undertake the “once in a lifetime” opportunity of moving into the territory of the symphony orchestra, and taking with her her long-time associates and close collaborators, writer Stuart Paterson, who has scripted the children’s tale, and actor Billy Boyd, who has gone on to big- screen fame through his Hobbit character in Lord of the Rings, and who is stepping off the publicity machine for the third film to return to his native Scotland and narrate the story in the two performances this weekend.

The tale of monsters, myths, and legends, which is written to through-composed music with narration, draws extensively on Scottish music influences and is consciously trying to avoid the Peter and the Wolf syndrome by resisting characterisation through individual instruments.

There is another element that, for Stevenson, adds an edge to the new experience of writing for symphony orchestra. She seems consciously not to make a big deal of it, but her conversation is peppered with references to her father, the veteran classical composer, Ronald Stevenson. “I suppose I’ve been running away all my life from what my father’s been doing; and now here I am doing it.”

She has, of course, shown the score of Misterstourworm to the great man, who, she says, has expressed nothing but support. That he is a major influence on her musical life is beyond question. As the musician in a family of three children – with actress Gerda her sister, and violin-maker Gordon her brother – Savourna Stevenson has always been conscious of the presence of her composer father.

Even as she became established in working with front-line names in traditional music, including Aly Bain, June Tabor, Martin Carthy, Fairport Convention, and Eddi Reader, she was aware that she wanted resolutely to plough her own furrow, through her compositions and what she calls her “quest for the harp”.

It goes way back. “I was desperate to find my own musical niche as a teenager. I lived with a fear: can I do things? I also lived with a demand for perfectionism from my father. Though I was always encouraged, and always received helpful advice, I guess I kicked away from it.

“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make the harp a contemporary instrument. I never wanted it to be a museum piece, which is why you’ll find me doing things like pitch bends or strumming the strings.”

That questing approach to the instrument and the music has led Stevenson to the remarkable tapestry of musical diversity with which she is indelibly associated.

With the encouragement of musical colleagues, she has “dared to go bigger and further, to learn about other instruments and work in different areas”.

She has worked with wind and brass instruments in a jazz context. She’s worked extensively with Womad, the World of Music, Art, and Dance. For almost 20 years she has worked in music theatre, allied to scriptwriter Stuart Paterson, in shows at the Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep. She is closely associated with music education.

And she has composed. Her Tweed Journey, the tracing of a musical river from source to sea, was commissioned by Judy Steel. In a number of her commissions, she has worked with words by Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan. In her String Quintet, which has developed an off-the-wall life of its own in a very peculiar context, she used the classical format of the string quartet, plus harp.

What she wanted to do in her Creative Scotland project, which has resulted in Misterstourworm, was “to dare myself to pull these strands together, write for orchestra, and to produce something not concentrating on the harp as an instrument”.

She wrote the piece on keyboard, with advice from a composer colleague, then orchestrated it with further advice and help from a friend who is a professional orchestrator working in the film business.

She found it a massive task, which entailed setting aside other work, and isolating herself from many of her other musical interests. The exercise was complicated by the fact she has a young family, including an 18-month-old baby. How did she cope? “Stress and panic,” she says, unhesitatingly.

As demanding as she has found the project, it has clearly whetted her appetite. She hopes the new piece will be a “useful” addition to the repertoire, would be intrigued to write for orchestra again, and has a strong inclination also to write for voices, particularly choral voices.

She also has an eye on her string quintet, which she has a notion to re-orchestrate for a fuller string orchestra.

That quintet, meanwhile, has developed its own context (not least as a nice little earner) by being requested by and licensed to Sex and the City for use in the steamy tv series. “There’s nothing quite like the street cred you get when your young son runs into the room shouting, ‘Mum, you’re on Sex and the City again’.”

Magic and Monsters, sponsored by Caledonian MacBrayne. Saturday, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow; Sunday, Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Both performances at 3pm