By Lynne Walker
From the Independent - 06 July 2006
Martyn Brabbins clearly has a soft spot for Scotland and its culture. He first went to work with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 15 years ago and not only carved a reputation as an extremely able conductor with a clear head and an even clearer beat, but also as a champion of the country's creative talent. Now in his second year as artistic director of the Cheltenham Festival, Brabbins has brought in a tartan army of composers - Judith Weir, James MacMillan, Edward McGuire, David Horne, Anna Meredith and Alasdair Nicolson, as well as honorary Scots Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Sally Beamish, whose 50th birthday is celebrated.
The opening concert, in which Brabbins conducted the Hallé, featured a new, 25-minute concerto by Beamish for an unlikely star, the accordion. If James Crabb, clutching his squeeze-box, looked a trifle out of place threading his way through the orchestra, he sometimes sounded it too. But that is part of the work's charm. Called The Singing, the three-movement work exploits the accordion's characteristics and colour. Inspired by that terrible blot on Scotland's history, the Highland Clearances, and the gap they left in the fabric of communities, The Singing is, at times, more a wailing, a gnashing of teeth and a sobbing lament. Beamish creates a vivid musical landscape, making use of Gaelic song and psalm, the insistent rhythms of the looms and the lamenting pibroch, as well as dance. Brilliantly resourceful in her use of "vocal" effects to portray emotional upheaval and frozen stillness with luminous colour, her evocative piece found a hugely sympathetic interpreter in Crabb, who relished the chance to explore his instrument's sonorities.
Mendelssohn's Hebrides overture has seldom sounded so inspired, while Mahler's Fourth Symphony, conducted with conviction and affection, drew eloquent strength of purpose from the Hallé, despite the Town Hall's acoustics.
But the Hallé, whose director Mark Elder has sounded off often enough about orchestra dress, could surely have shed its white tie and tails and dusted down its cream linen jackets on one of the hottest evenings of the summer.