St Cecilia’s Recital 2019 Review

We are grateful to John Slavin, Features Manager of Piping Today magazine, and the author Andrew Bova for permission to reproduce the following on the Society website….

By Andrew Bova

Keen readers of this magazine will have seen my article in the previous issue of Piping Today regarding what goes into putting on an enjoyable recital. Throughout the Piping Live! festival, I was fortunate enough to attend a number of incredibly enjoyable recitals put on by talented artists from all over the world. A particular highlight, though, occurred not as a part of Piping Live! but as a part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival. The Piobaireachd Society put on, for the second year running, a recital of eight piobaireachds entitled Classical Pipe Music: Scotland’s Hidden Treasure

The format of the recital was unique, with four pipers performing a piobaireachd in succession, one tune flowing into the next with no break for applause or tuning. (There was an intermission, so four piobaireachds, a break, four more piobaireachds). First impressions indicated that this would be a long listen, testing the focus of the audience. However, the recital was anything but difficult to listen to and proved to be one of the more enjoyable experiences I have had listening to our historic music.

I attended the concert with my parents, who were over visiting from America for Dan Nevans’ wedding (congratulations, Dan and Katrine!), as well as a few family friends who were over for Piping Live!. Upon our arrival on a cold and very wet evening, we were warmly greeted by Alan Forbes, Chairman of the Piobaireachd Society music committee. The society should be commended, as they would have been hard pressed to find a better hall in Edinburgh than St Cecilia’s.

The space was beautiful both acoustically and visually, yet still inviting and casual, perfect for a relaxed evening of enjoying live music. The players were, of course, top class, as would be expected from the Piobaireachd Society. Dr Peter McAlister, Niall Stewart, Darach Urquhart and Stuart Easton stepped up to a challenging evening and delivered masterful performances on excellent pipes. Well done, especially, to Stuart Easton, who was fresh off a flight from New Zealand and still performed a brilliant pair of piobaireachds.

After an informative welcome from Piobaireachd Society president, Robert Wallace, Dr Peter McCalister took the stage for The Daughter’s Lament. As I mentioned, there was no tuning on stage, so he simply launched into the tune. A lovely touch was that he did not actually stay on the stage, but instead walked up and down the centre aisle of the audience, adding an air of intimacy to the performance. As he finished the repeat of the urlar, he walked out the back of the auditorium and, as his pipes faded away, Niall Stewart came on stage and started into Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute.

This was followed by Darach Urquhart with The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy and Stuart Easton with The Massacre of Glencoe. I would give comment on the performances, but instead will simply say you should have been there. It was an incredibly high standard of performance on excellent bagpipes. After a brief intermission it was on with the second half. This included The Little Spree (Dr Peter McAlister), The Old Men of the Shells (Stuart Easton), Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay (Niall Stewart) and Chisholm’s Salute (Darach Urquhart).

Following the recital, there was a small drinks reception where the audience had the opportunity to speak with the recitalists over a dram. I had a few takeaways from this recital. Firstly, well done to the Piobaireachd Society on putting together a brilliant programme. I don’t mean the performance (which was also brilliant), I mean the actual printed programme that was handed out to those in attendance. In making this performance accessible to the non-piping public, the programme had a short explanation of what piobaireachd is, detailed biographies for all the performers, a short history of the Piobaireachd Society, and notes on the origins and stories behind the music being performed through the evening.

For those in attendance who were not pipers, this provided excellent context to the music they were hearing. For anoraks in the audience, there were plenty of gems of information to be gleaned from the programme. Secondly, the format of tunes running into one another with no tuning worked brilliantly. This allowed a great deal of music to be played in a relatively short period of time and the performers handled the challenge of no tuning on stage with grace.

Next, there was a well thought out mixture of tunes of varying difficulty and length. A friend of mine in attendance who only recently started playing piobaireachd was thrilled to hear a player of Niall Stewart’s calibre performing the tune he is currently learning, Queen Elizabeth II’s Salute. I was chuffed to hear The Massacre of Glencoe, the first piobaireachd I ever learned.

I mentioned at the start of this article that I was in attendance with my parents and some friends from home. My parents aren’t pipers, but obviously have spent quite a lot of time at piping contests and recitals so are very clued in to what the procedure is. Of the three family friends with us, only one is a piper. Our attendance at this recital was juxtaposed against our attendance at the Silver Chanter competition the night before in The National Piping Centre.

One of the complaints following the Silver Chanter from my non-piping friends was that they couldn’t tell when the tuning stopped and the tune began so, for them, the format of the Piobaireachd Society recital was very accessible. I should mention that they thoroughly enjoyed the Silver Chanter, but that as non-pipers there were aspects of the competition format that made things difficult for them to understand at times.

Additionally, on the drive back from Edinburgh to Glasgow we had a wonderful conversation about what tunes we liked and what performances we enjoyed. The mix of piping experience in the car led to a fascinating conversation about musicality, performance practice and melody. To my mind, that’s what the great thing about the Piobaireachd Society recital was. It took our oldest and most complicated music, which can, at times, be rather inaccessible to the general public, and made it accessible and engaging to a wide audience. The Society and its performers should all be congratulated on an excellent evening of music, and I sincerely hope they continue this recital format in years to come.