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  • Two Glowing Reviews
  •  Date Posted: Mon, 6 May 2024
    Two Glowing Reviews
    To be piped into the ballroom of Blair Castle to the sure sound of Annabel Charlton’s playing was the best of welcomes to ‘Here Lies our Land’, an evening of Scottish music given by the Pitlochry Choral Society with their guests, the tenor David Douglas and fiddler Pete Clark. It was a very well-designed programme in which a central focus was given to the first performance of Muriel Johnstone’s ‘Bannockburn’, a setting of the ten poems commissioned from contemporary Scottish poets reflecting upon the historical and social significance of the battle. The poems, the first and last of which were recited rather than sung, all reflected upon the historical significance of Bannockburn, and the composer showed considerable acumen in endowing each of the remaining eight poems with its individual musical life within this central theme. The accessibility of the music itself, with its ever-changing choral colours, changes of metre and carefully rhythmic word-setting, brought forth their best from the choir in support of the composer, their fellow-chorister.  Of all the dramatic moments in the piece, I felt the sudden, unexpected appearance of the drum, followed by the repetitive choral chanting in ’It’s never winter’ was a particularly inspired moment.
    David Douglas made a signal contribution to the concert with his expressive accounts of a number of Scottish songs, including Sir James MacMillan’s ‘Scots Song’, Toby Hunt’s ‘A Red, Red Rose’ and two of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s arrangements of Hebridean songs. Britten’s arrangement of ‘O can ye sew cushions’ and Vaughan Williams’s of ‘Loch Lomond’ came up over the border from the South for the occasion, the latter involving the men’s chorus to lovely effect.  During the second half, Pete Clark, supported by Muriel Johnstone’s fine accompanying, treated us to a glimpse of his authoritative performing knowledge of the Scottish folk fiddle tradition, ranging from the beautifully shaped ‘Niel Gow’s Lament’ to a dance sequence which set the audience’s feet tapping. 

    The Ballroom proved a more encouraging acoustic for choral singing than last December’s ‘Messiah’ and the choir responded well:  the full chordal sound was better balanced and, for the most part, confidently projected, as in MacMillan’s ‘O Radiant Dawn’, the Gaelic Fhir a’Bhata and Eric Bogle’s ‘No Man’s Land’.  The two Hans Gal songs and the ladies’ ‘Make this night loveable’ seemed slightly less assured in places, needing just a little more all-round confidence at the entries.  Special praise is due to the Society’s two musical directors, Colleen Nicoll and Andrew Johnston for such a successful and enjoyable evening, Colleen for her always clear and above all encouraging direction of the choir; and Andrew, whose empathy as accompanist was nowhere better shown than in the gossamer texture of the Britten song.  His arrangement for choir of Highland Cathedral was sensitively done, breathing welcome new life into this established favourite and providing the second world premiere of this special evening.

    Roger Pope


    Pitlochry Choral Society’s Spring Concert, ‘Here Lies Our Land’, was a celebration of music associated with Scotland. It was held in the ballroom at Blair Castle, which fitted the occasion perfectly. The weather turned out to be perfect too. In the golden evening glow, the castle looked magnificent, white walls pin sharp against a clear sky. Even before the start of the concert, one felt a sense of drama. Concert-goers approached the castle to the strains of a lone piper – the talented Annabel Charlton – and her music set the mood for what was to come. When all were seated it was 18-year old Annabel who opened the proceedings. As she moved forward in stately fashion up the central aisle towards the assembled company of singers and instrumentalists, she played the majestic tune ‘Highland Cathedral’. It was a thrilling, goosebump moment, and a magical start to the evening’s performance, leading into a stirring arrangement of ‘Highland Cathedral’ written for the choir by Andrew Johnston, the choir’s assistant musical director and accompanist.

    The next item on the programme was Muriel Johnstone’s choral suite ‘Bannockburn’. This is a recently composed work, and it was a privilege to be present on the occasion of its first performance. The suite was inspired by ten poems written in the year preceding the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. The poems were submitted to the National Trust for Scotland in 2012, and one of them (‘Here Lies Our Land’ by Kathleen Jamie) was used as the inscription on the rotunda at the Battle of Bannockburn site. Muriel Johnstone’s involvement with these poems has resulted in a quite remarkable artistic creation. Her ‘Bannockburn’ suite is a gem, and a wonderful addition to the choral repertoire. There is a modern, contemporary feel about the piece, but it remains accessible to choirs with its appealing melodic lines and harmonies. It is striking how much variety and contrast Muriel has achieved within the ten movements. The opening and closing movements, for example, are spoken word, bringing an element of drama, as well as lending weight and seriousness. The eight choral movements in between are cleverly conceived. Each is attractively concise, evoking a distinct mood. Different choral textures are employed to good effect. There are, for example, several passages written for unison choir; one movement is scored for altos and men with drum accompaniment; another has a distinct rhythmic appeal. The overall effect is stunning. The performance on Sunday sounded well rehearsed, and all are to be congratulated on bringing to fruition this exciting piece.
    The choir sang again just before the interval, performing two contrasting madrigals by Hans Gál. The pieces are elegant and sophisticated, scored for mixed choir a cappella, and were an ambitious choice that even a more advanced group would have found challenging. There were some difficult harmonies and tricky interplay between the choral sections that had not perhaps been entirely mastered. But the feel of the music came over. ‘Foolish Love’ with its quick and playful answering motifs made a nice contrast to the softer ‘Cradle Song’. After the interval the choir demonstrated its ability to handle music of a rather different style. ‘No Man’s Land’ is a lengthy choral arrangement by Ken Johnston of the 1976 folk song by Eric Bogle. The song is a poignant expression of the futility of lives lost in war, and the choral sound was broad, flowing and reflective. A choir member sang the bass solo part, a solitary voice with a tonal quality that caught the pathos of the song. Guest artist David Douglas sang the tenor part from a gallery above the main hall to dramatic effect. The hymn-like ‘O Radiant Dawn’ by Sir James MacMillan showcased the choir singing in a different style again. The sacred motet with its glorious soaring harmonies was one of the highlights of the concert, carrying well in the acoustics of the ballroom. The programme would not have been complete without the inclusion of a Gaelic song, and the choir, indomitable as ever, rose admirably to the challenge. The penultimate item in the programme was the beautiful arrangement by Philip Lawson of ‘Fear A’Bhàta’ by Sine NicFhionnlaigh. The choir clearly enjoyed it, and gave a strong performance with a very convincing ensemble sound, and nice shaping of phrases. The addition of fiddle lent a traditional feel.

    In addition to the full choir items there were separate contributions from the tenor and bass sections of the choir, and from the sopranos and altos. The men’s chorus was joined by tenor soloist David Douglas for a lovely rendition of ‘Loch Lomond’ in the arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The balance between soloist and chorus was excellent. The ladies chose a charming short piece by Tom Cunningham ‘Nocturne ll – Make This Night Loveable’ from ‘Five Auden Songs’. This was not the easiest piece to bring off effectively with its intricacies of phrasing, but it nicely fitted the vocal range of the singers, and the bright upper voice sound came over well.

    Guest tenor David Douglas performed five solo items during the evening, accompanied on the piano by Andrew Johnston. These mini recitals for voice and piano were exquisite, forming contrasting interludes between the choral works. Both performers are masters of their craft. Andrew’s contribution to the evening deserves a special mention. He was busy throughout the concert employing his fine accompanying skills, and occupied with a large and varied repertoire. But as ever he made the work look effortless. The solo voice and piano items, in particular, showcased his talent, and it was a joy to listen to his sensitive, expressive and beautifully paced accompaniments. David Douglas, too, is a musical artist of the highest calibre. Like Andrew he is supremely attentive to detail. And what a fabulous variety of textures and tone qualities his voice encompasses. The higher notes in his register are sweet, airy and light; his diction is excellent. He uses just the right amount of expressive gesture on stage, and his narrative style of singing engages the listener. The duo selected some lovely repertoire including ‘A Red Red Rose’ by Toby Hunt, a beautiful setting of the familiar words, and Sir James MacMillan’s ‘Scots Song’, dreamily meditative and perfectly paced. Their final set wonderfully evoked Hebridean island landscapes with Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser’s ‘Eriskay Love Lilt’ and ‘Kishmul’s Galley’.

    Another of the evening’s guest artists was well known fiddle player, Pete Clark, who played a lovely selection of Scottish traditional tunes accompanied on the piano by Muriel Johnstone. Both are fine musicians, and their neat ensemble playing was a pleasure to listen to. Many of the tunes were by the 18th century Scottish composer Niel Gow, and it added a marvellous dimension to the performance that they played against the backdrop of Raeburn’s portrait of Niel Gow. Indeed, one of the pieces in the programme – Niel Gow’s ‘Lament for the Death of his Second Wife’ – was played on the instrument thought to be the one in the portrait. Pete and Muriel gave a sparkling performance. It was a real treat to hear fiddle music played with such skill. The audience loved every minute of it, and the final set ended to resounding applause.

    What better way to close the concert than with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in time-honoured Scottish fashion. The arrangement by Cedric Thorpe Davie made a powerful end piece. After a choral opening, there was an opportunity for the audience to stand and join in, and consequently most people were on their feet when it came to the applause. How fitting that standing ovation was, and none was more deserving of it than Colleen Nicoll, the choir’s Musical Director. She was key to the concert’s success. In addition to ably conducting the choir in music of many different styles, she did a wonderful job of presenting the pieces with lively spoken introductions. She was presumably also largely responsible for finding the music in the first place, and devising the well chosen and balanced programme. Colleen’s dedication to the choir is clearly apparent, and she leads it with imagination and vision. How many choirs can count among their achievements a world premiere performance? What challenges lie ahead remains to be seen, but clearly where there’s a will, there’s a way.                


  • Here Lies Our Land
  •  Date Posted: Wed, 17 Jan 2024
    Here Lies Our Land
    On Sunday 28th April our concert in Blair Castle ballroom featured music to celebrate Scotland including the world premiere of "Bannockburn" composed by Muriel Johnstone. 
    Blair Castle was the perfect venue for this concert and the 200 strong audeince were treated to the sound of the pipes played by resident piper Annabel Charlton as they arrived for the concert.
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