I do enjoy visiting the coastal pearl of Scotland that is St Andrews, for the city knows its culture well. I was thus in a premium state of anticipation to experience for the first time a festival there, Voices. Its artistic director, Sonia Stevenson, certainly knows what she’s doing. A loyal local lassie, being brought up in St Andrews & nurtured by its thriving & masterful music scene, by 2019 Sonia is using her national experience as a performer & events organiser – fuelled by her clear love of bringing people together – to formulate a quality program. For the 7th time in a row, she has assembl’d a venturous team of volunteers & performers to spread musical joy across the city for four very freshening days. Reinventing itself each year, Voices showcases the versatility and beauty of the human voice in an amazingly broad spectrum of genres including opera, cabaret, lieder, folk, spoken word, choral, a cappella, early music, new music and more…
To experience the festival I intended to attend two evening’s worth of events – the Friday & the Saturday – & spend the weekend in the area as a bonus. The wife & I do enjoy supra-historical Fife, & booked ourselves at an air B&B in Newport-on-Tay. The view across ever the Silvery Tay reminds her of home – the Puget Sound, north of Seattle – & being only 20 minutes from St Andrews, & even less to Dundee’s TK Maxx, Newport seem’d perfect for all our needs.
Friday the 18th of October 2019 saw wild fits of weather lash the eastern coast of Scotland. It was absolutely brutal, but Voices is not an outdoor festival, peppering instead some of the best venues in St Andrews. Parking up near the abbey, we slipped into the splendid Byres Theatre for our first event, a recital by soprano, Carolyn Sampson, accompanied with flourishing panache by Joseph Middleton. Carolyn has an internationally acclaimed voice, performing roles for the English National Opera, the operas of Lille, Paris & Montpellier; & also appearing as a soloist across America with symphony orchestras from Boston to San Francisco. Middleton himself is a highly esteemed member of the living pantheon, being the first accompanist to be the recipient of the Young Artist Award at the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards.
They are quite a team these two, with an invigorated history of combined performances & recordings behind them, including the fantastic Fleurs of 2015. It is from this sense of togetherness that a remarkable set of songs have sprung back to life in their hands, lungs & vestments. It was quite an honour to be there, as this was the very public first performance ever of SONGS OF HEAVEN & EARTH. The next day, Saturaday 19th, they would be doing it all again at the Leeds leider.
A recital such as this is window into the drawing rooms of the Romantic era. Long before the electrification & mass reproduction of music, all of it had to be done live. Haydn, appreciating the talented amateur, creative his simple but effectively entertaining Italianate Arianna a Naxos. This provided the opening three numbers of the night, all conjured with precision & liveliness by Sampson & Middleton. Next up were four songs from Schoenberg’s Vier Lieder, followed by two from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
Switching to French after the interval, we enjoyed a miniature procession through the sapphic Les Chanson de Bilitis, written by the Belgian poet, Pierre-Felix Louis. A series of 143 poems with strong lesbian themes, some were put to music by Debussy & Koechin, & were presented to us with continued performative excellence. Finally we were given Four Last Songs, by Richard Strauss, followed by another Strauss piece, Morgen, as an encore.
As audience members, my wife & I adored Carolyn’s stoic & quasi-theatrical performance of these soliloquyised serenades, hardly taking our eyes off her apart from when Middleton ended each piece with a downturned floating hand, as if bouncing some invisible energy-sphere off the keys. All in all, witnessing the higher cerebrality of such trilinugal musical mastery was a scintillating start to our Voices experience, especially when I heard the vaulting etherality of Debussy’s Le Tombeau des Naides for the first time.
After the performance, we had half-an-hour out in the tempest. We had to get ourselves to the Hotel du Vin at the other end of St Andrews, for a very different but equally magnaminous musical performance. Robyn Stapleton is a lassie of the purest Celtic tradition; raven-headed, lilly-voiced, & a consummate teller of tales. Former BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, she was accompanied by Mike Vass, a tender guitarist who never dominated, always allowing Stapleton’s singing to willow upon his silken waters.
Her talent lies in a consummate memory for word, phrase & pitch, while the overall song selection was stunning, keeping well within the theme of the festival, which is to shine a spotlight on some of history’s most important women, such as Sundays opera Mary Queen of Scots, by Donizetti. Among the beautifully sung numbers we heard the broken token classic, Pretty Fair Maiden, Stapleton’s personal favorite, Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Violet Jacob’s excuisite poem ‘Halloween‘ (music by Jim Reid) & a Burnsian ‘bothy ballad’ – I cant recall the writer or name – that got the crowd singing along for the first time.
The performance was over only too soon, despite most of the crowd now getting quite delightedly on board with the choruses. We were like a boiled sweet that had finally sucked down into the honey-sweet centre. By the end I really understood the remit of the festival – I had heard two very special & different singers, but if you add the unique & idiosyncratic playing styles of Middleton & Vass then perhaps I had hear four Voices.
It had been a wonderful initiation into what Sonia Stevenson is trying to achive with her festival, & as I stepped out into the skin-stripping Viking blast, I was warm enough inside to get to the safety of the car heater without too much discomfort. On the drive back to Newport, my wife & I were breaking into – quite randomly, but in perfect synchonicity – diddly-pom choruses based upon Robyn’s own brilliant selection – the pure pudding proof of a top night out!
Weatherwise, the next morning was a much less sanguine affair; clear skied & breezy, the quintessence of the east coast Autumn. While I followed the Rugby World Cup, my wife hit Dundee & its celebrated TK Maxx. ,Before we both knew it, daylight was rapidly running out of room in the sky, so we drove the 20 minutes back to St Andrews & began the rather serious hunt for a good restaurant. It was a great excuse to meander about the trident streets of St Andrews, & we eventually settl’d on an incredibly tasty Chinese called New Dynasty.
So to our second & final evening at Voices. It began with a tour of the dreamlike Luxumralis installations, guided by Sonia Stevenson herself, still effervescently sprightly considering she is mid-term with her second child. By her side was the equally charming Amanda Macleod, in her second year of assisting Sona, while the guest speaker was Dutch astrophysicist Anne-Marie Weijmans. The tour began in the Zest Cafe, where for 20 minutes or so we were regaled with a scientific introduction to the light-show we were about to see.
Luxmaralis are currently taking a light & music spectacular into cathedrals & churches across the land. It was borderline beatific to experience a papal score & fabulous 3D images swirling into every physical & metaphysical crevice of St Andrews Holy Trinity. We British may be a much more agnostic bunch these days, but if anyone would have seen such a ‘miraculous’ show even 150 years ago, they would have downed tools & immediately joined some kind of religious house.
Spiralling through time on a 20 minute loop throughout Voices, of its installation in the festival, Luxmaralis mastermind Peter Walker told the Mumble; We have been working for around 12 months with the festival director, looking at the subject of Space and the cosmos and considering how this works not only as an artwork but also bringing in a concert element with a collaborative choir which, although we have worked with choirs before, is in this case directly linked to the artwork. The Space link comes from the Lunar landing anniversary, although its not the only reason – being in a church reanimating the space and the architecture and creating a different visual experience for the festival was also key (read the full Interview).
Towards the end of the sequence, into the church stepped 4 members of festival’s ensemble in residnce, the Gesualdo Six. They were singing some utterly divine Latin homily, reinforcing once more the exploration of the capabilities of the Human Voice that is the eclectic & entertaining theme of Voices. This sonic wonder was rapidly followed by the arrival of spacecraft projected onto the Holy Trinity masonry & its illuminated glass, the piece’s proper pinnacle & one which all othe best of performance art needs to possess.
After our 20 minutes, a portion of the tour group followed Amanda out into the St Andrews night, for the relatively short walk to a wee gem of a church, All Saints, & its own portion of the Luxmaralis experience. This instigated a less epic, but equally as intense severing of the consciousness from the self, & once more I drifted into quasi-spiritual thought.
“We’re gonna be late,” whispered my wife, snapping me into full action for our final show of our Voices experience, back where we started at the Byres. This was to be David McAlmont, famous from his collaboration with Suede’s Bernard Butler, which turned out be a startlingly pleasurable show in which he sang some of the best songs by Billie Holiday. The ultimate ariel blueswoman, she was an enigmatic, hard-partying, bisexual, junkie black jazz singer who the shoved the Jim Crow laws where the pale-visag’d sun doesn’t shine, via the magic of her singing. Her ability to conjure a thrilling atmosphere was replicated with some success by McAlmont & his immaculate band. Their set consisted of 14 songs, inbetween which McAlmont & his pianist, Alex Webb, told the fascinating story of Billie Holiday’s rise & fall drawn directly from Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.
Through songs such as ‘I Cover the Waterfront‘ & ‘Fine & Mellow,’ McAlmont gave a subtle but refined performance, allowing me to enjoy the watching of each member of the band as they strutted their pristeen stuff – Sophie Aloway’s drumming was especially entrancing. I thoroughly loved the stage-space, which helped my mind to focus on each member of the ensemble, tho’ my wife disagreed & said she’d have preferred a more distill’d version in a jazz bar or something. I reminded her that the show was meant to be emulating Billie Holiday’s famous second, sold-out comeback show at the rather large Carnegie Hall in 1956.
We both agreed to both agree & disagree, & were soon enough happily singing some of the splendid songs we’d just heard on our drive back to Newport, just like we did the previous evening. For two nights in a row the Voices conjured by Sonia Stevenson, her team & the superb performers were flying flowing through our brain channels like naiads, & we look forward already to what ‘soup of the day‘ selection of Voices will be pirouetting about St Andrews next Autumn.
Damian Beeson Bullen