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Archives for January 2010

Huge expectations fulfilled

Pauline McLean | 20:17 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The man from the Times describes it in football terms.

A concert of two halves, he says of last night's much anticipated performance by The Chieftains and Friends at Celtic Connections.

Just as well for me, because arriving 15 minutes late for the prompt 7.30pm start, and too polite to ask 20 people to stand up and let me in, I watched most of the first half on a monitor in the foyer (the auditorium so packed there's not even a latecomer's seat on the end of the row to spare.)

So the first half - with its apparently messy sound and slow build up was lost on me.

Instead, I got the roller coaster second half.

Ensemble piece

Just over an hour of music, singing, piping, dancing and storytelling which featured not just The Chieftains but American legend Ry Cooder, Mexican band Los Cenzontles, Galician piper Carlos Nunez, singers, stepdancers and just when you think they can't fit anyone else on stage - the whole Scottish Power Pipe Band.

Those who came to see an individual performer - Ry Cooder in particular - might have been disappointed because this is an ensemble piece, part musical history lesson, part talent show and no-one gets more than a few minutes in the spotlight.

The songs - for the most part - are from The Chieftains' latest project, a collection of songs about the San Patricio, a downtrodden group of Irish immigrants who deserted the US army in 1846 to fight with the Mexicans.

The ballads are particularly poignant but there are upbeat dance numbers too with the stage suddenly filled with the swirling skirts and multicoloured hats of the Mexican dancers alongside the truly breathtaking Canadian stepdancers.

Huge expectations

At 9.30pm Chieftains frontman Paddy Maloney announces that we're reaching the end of the evening - which seems disappointingly soon especially for those of us who rolled up late.

But the final number which reintroduces every performer - including the pipe band - does in fact last for the best part of 20 minutes.

Then there's an encore of Good Night Irene - where once again everyone gets to join in (including the audience) and the night draws to a close with everyone on their feet, clapping along to a Celtic wedding song as the dancers lead members of the audience round the hall, in an impromptu conga.

Huge expectations - but they delivered all they promised in spades.

Burns' widow writes

Pauline McLean | 19:17 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

American academic Nancy Groce knows the exact moment she became determined to donate a rare letter from Robert Burns' widow Jean Armour to the National Libraries of Scotland.

"I phoned a Burns archive and the archivist was adamant that Jean Armour couldn't have written it because she was probably illiterate.

"She wasn't illiterate. She was a mother, too busy to write. So I made up my mind that if the letter was genuine, I'd donate it to a public collection."

And true to her word, Dr Groce arrived in Scotland this week to hand over the letter - aptly enough, on Burns Night.

There are only two known letters by Jean Armour - and until today, the National Library of Scotland only had a copy of this one.

Although short, it offers fresh insight into a woman, known physically through the sharp, suspicious features of her most famous portrait, and in folklore as the nagging wife, who sat at home waiting for her errant husband to return from his various dalliances.

But in this letter, she's both stoic and dignified since the recipient is one of her husband's beautiful former muses.

Cate Newtown of the National Library of Scotland points out that the Burns family would have been at the centre of 19th century celebrity interest.

Fans of Robert Burns would regularly call at their Dumfries home.

But Jean was using all those connections to further her sons' education and careers - one entrusted to the sheriff of London, another is in school thanks to a wealthy benefactor.

Only three of their five sons survived. Francis died the previous year, aged just 13 or 14.

Even more heartbreaking is the little postscript that the baby Maxwell Burns - born the day of his father's funeral - died too, shortly before his third birthday.

But while the letter sheds more light on the Burns family, it does leave a few unanswered questions.

No-one can ascertain how the letter got from the recipient Maria Riddell in Dumfries to a junk store in the United States.

The previous owner in the US and the man who gave a copy of the letter to the archive are both named Armour but it's unclear whether they're related to each other or to Jean Armour.

Both Dr Groce and the National Library of Scotland hope they'll receive more information when the letter goes on display in Scotland later this year.

Haiti appeal

Pauline McLean | 16:15 UK time, Friday, 22 January 2010

American celebrities aren't the only ones doing their bit for Haiti.

Here in Scotland, a number of organisations are organising events.

As well as staging one of the largest scale operas around (Prokofiev's War and Peace) the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama has found the manpower and the willpower to put together an opera gala.

The concert, which will be staged in the academy's Concert Hall next Tuesday (the 26th) will feature Patricia MacMahon, Karen Cargill, Iain Paton and Julian Tovey alongside students from the opera school.

Timothy Dean and Duncan Williams will accompany the singers and Professor Christopher Underwood will present the evening.

Tickets priced just £5 (although donations will be accepted at the concert) are available from the RSAMD Box Office.

Meanwhile, another student, David Banks, will "cat crawl" the length of Buchanan Street on Sunday, not once but 26 times, to make up a half marathon to raise funds and awareness of the Haiti disaster.

I'm told a cat crawl is "a quadrupedal movement that involves walking on both your hands and feet creating a cat like movement".

It's also, I'm told, very physically demanding, and David's previous cat crawl in Aberdeen, was just a fraction of the distance - 3.6 miles.

He'll be starting from the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday at 10am, and both he and his supporters will be wearing white "crawl for Haiti" T-shirts . (although you might also spot them from having a man crawling down the street in their midst!)

Celtic Connections have also been taking collections after all their concerts.

And Glasgow Pavilion's panto is far from over and they intend to dedicate next Wednesday's performance (January 27th) to the Haiti Earthquake appeal.

The cast - who include Stephen Purdon and Joyce Falconer from River City, High Road's Derek Lord, Real Radio's Cat Harvey and Radio Clyde's Des McLean and Dean Park - all wanted to do something to help, so tickets for the special performance are on sale at £10 each and all profits will go to the Haiti appeal.

Don't worry be happy

Pauline McLean | 20:07 UK time, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

bobby_mcferrin226.jpgEddi Reader is backstage and Henry McLeish is sitting in the cafe, chatting to Iain Anderson.

There's no shortage of well-kent faces around the Concert Hall during Celtic Connections so Bobby McFerrin is in good company.

But despite having performed with everyone from Herbie Hancock to the New York Philharmonic, not to mention winning 10 grammy awards and selling 20 million albums, the American singer is nervous.

This is his first education concert, you see, and while he's happy to put the lights up on his adult audience, and challenge them to a musical duet, he's not sure how well it's going to go down with 1,000 schoolchildren, none of whom were born when his big hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was in the charts.

"These concerts are very tough" he says.

"It's why i don't do them very often. I don't see that's my calling. I think my calling is releasing the kid in the adult, that's what I love to do.

"You don't have to teach kids to be kids. I guess my only job is to open up the world of music to them.

"But they can be a challenge, because they can be noisy and fidgety and some of my performance requires quiet."

Other performers in the education programme agree it's one of the toughest gigs in the festival - mid-morning to a restless audience with just 15 minutes per performer.

But McFerrin takes it in his stride.

Perched on the edge of the stage, creating songs out of the children's names, he has the whole auditorium hushed, then clapping along.

Here's the original one man band, the only instrument required, his extraordinary four octave voice.

And the children in the audience are in their element.

Most listened to some of his music before they came, some are already promising to search on YouTube.

And almost all of them know that one hit, even if it does date back to 1988.

McFerrin sighs.

"By the time it became a hit song, I had sung that song a few trillion times.

"Even before then, I was sick of performing it and then it became a huge hit.

"I don't do it in concert because I'd rather the audience grow with me, and hear other songs."

But he admits that every child in the audience would have been briefed by a parent with the lyrics "don't worry, be happy."

"I know," he says, "what can you do?"

Meanwhile, musicians at the festival are paying tribute to folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who has died at the age of 63, after a long battle with a rare form of cancer.

The singer, who with her sister Anna, formed the McGarrigle Sisters, last appeared at Celtic Connections in 2001, although her daughter Martha Wainwright appeared here last year.

Along with her son Rufus - both from her marriage to American singer Loudon Wainwright - she'd often appear in special family concerts, the most recent at the Albert Hall in December, one of her last public appearances.

Linda Thompson, also appeared at that concert and as she took to the stage herself at Celtic Connections she paid tribute to her friend.

"I knew Kate McGarrigle for over 40 years, but we got very close when our children became musicians.

"We all did her last show at Christmas in the Albert Hall. She was a remarkable woman, and such a talent.

"For my money, she and Anna's first record is one of the best ever. My thoughts and love are with Rufus and Martha and her whole family."

To paraphrase Rabbie Burns: "Here's tae her, wha's like her? Damn few and their a' deid!"

Blue monday for panto

Pauline McLean | 18:24 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

gerard_kelly226.jpgSpare a thought on Blue Monday for performers from the country's pantomimes, many of which came to an end at the weekend.

After weeks of piling on the wigs, the costumes and the greasepaint, twice and sometimes three times a day, it has to be something of an anti-climax to wake up to a panto-free season.

At last night's final performance of Aladdin at the King's Theatre in Glasgow, panto veteran Gerard Kelly admitted the cast had mixed feelings about the last show.

On the one hand, he admitted it was a blessed relief, but that's tempered with genuine sadness that the family they've created over the past three months is once more scattering in all directions.

For my own family - including one panto virgin, two veterans of classic panto and a five year old who just wanted an excuse to kneel up on his chair and bellow at the the top of his voice - it lived up to all expectations.

Cheesy traditions and complete anarchy all in one package - which at almost three hours long, seemed to be something even the cast were loathe to say goodbye to.

Kelly extended the curtain call further to pay tribute to all the behind the scenes staff, who don't get the chance to take a bow.

But it was Kelly himself who was called back for another bow - to mark the fact that this is his 20th year in panto.

It's easy to underestimate Kelly's abilities - which perhaps also says something about our sniffiness about panto.

But whether he's running round the audience with a water pistol, trying to make his fellow performers corpse with ad-libbed jokes, or delivering double entendres with a cheeky wink, he's enormously watchable.

His "curry song" is pure vaudeville - think vintage Francie and Josie - and charms the audience in much the same way.

Let's hope he's already signed up for the next one. Not that it seems to worry the diehards.

Tickets are on sale already - and being snapped up with only the sparsest details of the next show.

And for most theatres, in the current climate, panto season isn't just a time of year.

It's the lifeline that keeps the rest of the season afloat.

Garden question time

Pauline McLean | 07:14 UK time, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

union_terrace_gardens_226.jpg"It's a no-go area at night. Smells like a public toilet. Dark and dingy.

"It's a beautiful but neglected Victorian park. I come here every morning - a little oasis in the city centre."

There as many opinions about Aberdeen's Union Terrace Gardens as there are ideas about what to do with it.

The biggest project on the table - a mammoth £140m scheme which would raise the gardens to street level and apparently incorporate everything from cafe culture to street theatre - launched a public consultation this week.

While nothing is set in stone - and certainly not the concrete its critics suggest will dominate the scheme, ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) launched their consultation with images of smiling Aberdonians strolling in the sunshine, sipping cafe latte.

While it's hard to imagine how the mature trees in their picture could bloom so quickly in the hard grey (not concrete) stuff, they do promise to reclaim further garden area by developing the area above the existing road and rail networks.

And they have a pledge of £50m already from the oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood.

All of which sounds great. If there wasn't already another plan on the table, with full planning permission and most of the funding in place.

The first sod of the new Peacock Art Centre should have been cut in December. instead, they're waiting - barred from the current consultation, ironically by the fact they have planning permission.

Their plans for a £14m art centre on hold now until the public consultation has had its say.

Inevitably, it's being billed in some quarters as an "arts versus business" argument, which is sad because the Peacock project - in looks, like the national galleries link in Edinburgh, in ethos, more like Dundee contemporary arts - has much to offer.

The latter has proven the economic regenerative power of a well placed arts centre, particularly if it offers a wide range of populist activity.

It would fit well in the celebrated triangle of "education,salvation and damnation" and cost a mere tenth of the £140m ACSEF scheme.

Meanwhile, there's another group - We heart Union Terrace Gardens - who,although largely supportive of the Peacock project say their main concern is the garden.

As they laid out their "Save me" banners in the snow yesterday, they reiterated their view that their support goes way beyond the arts community.

All sides say publicly, they'll consult after the public survey is done. But privately, many believe the two schemes seem further apart than ever.

Perhaps over the next eight weeks, the Aberdonian public will come up with some answers as to how to resolve this unholiest of turf wars.

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