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Clouds on our earthly path

20 September 2013

William Dundas concludes his round-up from Edinburgh

THE remainder of my festivals included three plays on the subject of depression and suicide, and five choral concerts, including two requiems.

Plays, or any performance art, investigating the human condition can and should prompt an intellectual audit and realisation of one's own emotional and mental state of well-being, or otherwise. The knack is to know whether one is in a fit state to journey these paths. I am glad to say that my judgement was sound.

Two of the plays were part of the Edinburgh Fringe. I was invited to attend the first play, Way Back. I am wary of such invitations. The last one I accepted was for a play that significantly failed to match the advertised quality or standard. I therefore wrote an unfavourable review. On this occasion, the text, direction, and performance were of the highest quality.

Way Back is a black comedy about the events of one member, Carol, of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team (hoping to engage with people in a troubled state who may be potential suicide victims) and two male characters, Miles and Randy, whom she counsels alternately, and then together on the same night.

Carol is not naturally suited to counselling, often just doing and saying what she hopes might be helpful. She finds herself thinking things like these people are called jumpers. Jumpers are meant to be cosy and comforting! Having kissed one of the men, she tells herself: I only did that because I had run out of ideas.

Her night is further complicated, because Miles has in the past been a member of the same chaplaincy team: he knows all the tricks and techniques of counselling and, more ironically, how to prevent their being effective. Randy, on the other hand, is an ageing self-obsessed member of a glam-rock band. His career is on the wane. He is fixated on the apparent absence of paparazzi there to witness his intended dramatic last performance.

Miles's girlfriend died in a car crash, years ago, driving home from his place. Since then, he has tormented himself over whether he was to blame for her death. Might it have been something he said, something he did? Carol does what she thinks best for each of them.

Randy is simply at war with the reality of the world versus his imaginative fantasies; and Miles is intellectually pensive and doubting, while Carol is being tossed between them in the stormy seas of their dilemmas and her own emerging emotions.

After lulling into a sense of safety with the black humour in the opening section, the play has a dramatic and violent middle section, and a heart-warming, mostly positive end. There was persuasive and committed acting from the three actors: Aynsleigh Turner as Carol, Matt Lim as Miles, and Stephen Bermingham as Randy. The alternating viewpoints and emotional values of the three characters give the audience much to consider in their value judgements of the characters in the play, and the characters in their real lives: especially themselves.

The second play, Shattered, was presented by Chimaera Productions in the performing space of Café Chamino at the Roman Catholic cathedral. The majority of the text was lifted directly from statements of people suffering from mental health issues.

It was presented in a bare room with only lighting and sound effects. The cast, dressed in paper hospital gowns, narrated the texts in turn as if stepping up to the plate to assert their guilt, shame, and even pride. The first girl's mother had tried to kill herself; the first boy was an academic achiever, but socially less of an achiever; and the second boy's father had a nervous breakdown. This boy had been bullied at school, and described his depression as a dirty secret. Subsequent actors described being the mother of a severely autistic son and suffering post-natal depression, or that depressed people are brave: brave to be normal. One boy had been a non-drinking youth, but started at 18 and went in deep. We were advised that drink affects your wallet health, your mental health, and your relationships. Another character lamented an untidy kitchen, promises made and broken, and drinking, swearing, and eating fatty food.

This constant barrage of descriptions of unhappy lives lived in unrewarding circumstances, including NSSI (non-suicidal self-injury), was broken and highlighted by the entire cast as they extended arms and repeated weaknesses or failings as a chorus. Fatty food! Dirty secret! Guilt!

Why should people with nervous illness feel stigmatised or be perceived as weak and unwilling to cope? I left deeply impressed. The young cast deserve praise for their message and the energy of their delivery.


THE third play was part of the Edinburgh International Festival: Eh Joe by Samuel Beckett, which featured Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton.

Joe is an old man, and he is living a miserable existence in a state of neurosis. He is in his bedsit, and he is dressed for bed. Before he can lie on his bed, in the hope of sleeping, he needs to reassure himself that he is safe and secure: not vulnerable to his imagined demons. In turn, he opens, checks, and locks the window, the main door, and the wardrobe doors. He looks long and wonderingly through the doors and window, but shows no emotion. These imagined demons are people, lovers from his long life. They are people he did not respect: people he abused.

He retires to his bed. No sooner has he lain down than he is disturbed by an audible voice. The Voice, the other character in the play, is that of a woman.

On the left of the stage we see a diminished elderly man sitting on his bed. The front of the stage is covered by a gauze. Joe's face is projected on to the right-hand side of this gauze because all of Joe's acting is non-verbal. The projection of his face is the full height of the proscenium. He looks passive and unmoved. Only tremors in his legs and hands suggest any discomfort, but on his face and in his eyes his inner agony can be seen. Involuntary twitches on his lips and on his cheeks are as nothing compared with the erratic and darting movements of his eyes.

The Voice accuses him of much from his past, but focuses on his poor treatment of her, and of another woman, who was driven to suicide. On many occasions, she ends her statements and accusations saying "Eh, Joe." She berates him for trying to hold on to her by telling her that the best is yet to come. She got fed up waiting for the best and found another. She found another man who was was better in every way.

She further taunts Joe by enquiring after his lord. Wait until he starts in on you, she chides. As she hits her stride of retrospective accusations, she alludes to one of Joe's previous lovers who committed suicide. Joe has the expression of a child in denial, but his facial ticks and his squirming eyes tell the audience that he is as bad if not worse than the accusations against him: a trait common to many in our society today. The play lasts only half an hour. It is, however, a lifelong warning about doing unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

These three plays have served to provoke thought and perhaps admission from their audiences. For me, they provoked a need to be more understanding of people, their circumstances, and their failings.


ST MARY's Episcopal Cathedral has for many years been offering late-night candlelit performances. I have attended many. On this occasion, it was a performance of Couperin's Leçons de ténèbres. The audience were seated in the choir stalls. The stalls are not comfortable, and on this evening, especially, they prevented the audience from seeing the performers. The sound was rather close and not well blended.

It was explained that during the performance there would be minimal lighting, and that the few candles that were lit would be extinguished in turn by the Provost, and that the final candle would not be extinguished, but removed, and at that time there would be a loud noise in the cathedral to signify the resurrection and the tearing of the temple veil. The remaining lit candle would then be brought back. The scene had been set, and expectations were high.

The singing of the two sopranos, Susan Hamilton and Emma Versteeg, was very fine, and the viola da gamba playing of Alison McGillivray was rich and warm. The electric candles on the choir stalls remained lit throughout; so the extinguishing of the candles as discussed above was more symbolic than effective. The loud noise was no more arresting than two planks of wood being banged together. The sound of the Tattoo fireworks penetrating the cathedral in the earlier part of the performance had been louder than this. Two young women noisily stumbling their way up the nave to the choir stalls mid-performance was another spoiler of what should have been a serene end to the festival day.


HARRY CHRISTOPHERS brought his Sixteen to the Usher Hall. He has done so before. He understands how to use the acoustic to best advantage - and a good thing, too; for, fine as the acoustic is, it lacks the resonance from which the ecclesiastical music in this programme benefits.

Tallis was the main composer featured. His music opened and closed the concert. The pieces were tunes from Archbishop Parker's Psalter, Miserere Nostri, and Spem in alium.

The other composers represented were Robert Wylkynson, Robert Carver, and James MacMillan. An unbroken line was drawn backwards from a contemporary composer to the masters of earlier ages.

MacMillan's Miserere was commissioned for The Sixteen and Harry Christophers in 2009, and is a full setting of Psalm 50. His other setting was O bone Jesu, another commission from The Sixteen, dating from 2002. It is amazing how well these modern settings hold up to their predecessors. Obviously, the text dictates where the high point should be. It is, therefore, not surprising that they have much in common. What is significant and impresses is the colouring and phrasing that MacMillan brings to the texts. The performances were, as one would expect, informed and well crafted. MacMillan's altern-ating use of the different voices in the choir in the Miserere was well executed within the confines of a concert-hall stage and acoustic.

The concert finished with a performance of the now ubiquitous Spem in alium. Extra singers joined the platform for this. The work was well sung, fluent, and clear, but suffered from not being in a more lively acoustic. That said, it was a fine performance. I thought it was bad form for the extra singers who had been brought on for this piece to be banished from the stage after the first acknowledgement of the applause. How élitist, I thought. This was hubris on my part, because at the end of the applause and seemingly the end of the concert, the singers who had left the platform were heard to be singing an encore from the upper circle. The entire concert was a bravura performance. Bliss!


THE Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir also performed in the Usher Hall. They sang works by only four composers, Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Cyrillus Kreek, and Sergei Rachmaninov. This choir is a great performer, but exudes no grandeur in the singers' body language. They stood in two rows: women at the front and men at the back. Compared with The Sixteen, they came across as relaxed and being in the hall to sing only for the pleasure of the audience.

Pärt is an Estonian. He was represented by two Slavonic Psalms: Psalm 117, "O praise the Lord all ye nations", and Psalm 131, "Lord, my heart is not so haughty." Their innate transmission of Pärt's sound-world was impressive and wholly relaxed. The Alleluia at the end of Psalm 117 included a wonderful antiphonal effect between the women in the front and the men in the second row.

Schnittke's three Sacred Hymns: "Hail to the Virgin Mary", "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God" and "Our Father (The Lord's Prayer)" were calm, restful, and emotive. I had been expecting something more aggressively rhythmic. The Our Father, not too surprisingly, was sung with the most empathy and with colourful emphasis on the word "temptation" in the section.

Kreek's settings of Psalms 22, 104, and 1, were underpinned by a strong folk influence. Their gentle colours and pulsing rhythms brought a great sense of comfort and hope to these troubled and challenging verses.

The highlight and glittering finale of the concert was a performance of the All-Night Vigil (Vespers) of Rachmaninov. Divided into 14 sections, this broad work had beguiling and, at times, very powerful sounds. Vivid in the memory is section eight, "Praise ye the name of the Lord", and the middle of section nine, "Early in the morning the myrrh-bearers hastened weeping to the tomb". Here the music was ethereal, and was followed by a robust setting of "Blessed art thou, O Lord: teach me thy statutes". The end of this section is rhythmic and fast. The choir showed off their skills and technique to great effect.

Section ten was, for me the most impressive in the entire work: "Having seen the resurrection of Christ". Here, Rachmaninov holds the notes of the opening singers, and out of those notes emerge subsequent phrases. This created the effect of text rising out of text: a suggestion of resurrection itself.

Having sung this taxing concert, the choir sang an encore. The conductor, Daniel Reuss, started them off and then stood aside, leaving them to shine as the stars they undeniably are.


THE Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich gave us but one work: Brahms's Ein Deutsches Requiem, conducted by David Zinman and featuring Rachel Harnisch and Florian Boesch.

This was an insightful performance, in which finely judged orchestral detail and balance shone fresh light on this often rather solid "big sing". From the outset, there were light and airy surprises. The opening choral entry of Selig sind (Blessed are) had attack in the opening "Selig" in the male voices, from which then sprung the full choir. Then there was the point where only the timps and the lower strings were heard in pizzicato. There was a succession of moments and effects that caught the imagination and lifted the spirits, such as Boesch's colouring of the word "entschlafen" in Wir werden nicht alle entschlafen (We shall not all sleep). This set up the next phrase, "but we shall all be changed", very beautifully. Harnisch made the most of her solo, and blended well with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who themselves gave another great performance. Zinman presented the score with seemingly effortless finesse.

Donald Runnicles conducted his BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in Verdi's Messa da Requiem. The quartet of soloists were Erin Wall (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Bryan Hymel (tenor), and Eric Owens (bass-baritone).

Runnicles approached the work as an interlocking sequence of musical set pieces. Well-judged detail was to be heard all through the work, from the hushed opening of Requiem Aeternam to the off-stage brass, located in the upper circle, for the Dies Irae and the ravishing playing of the two oboes in the "cum vix justus". (They were singled out for applause at the end of the performance.)

The "Rex tremendae", "Lacrymosa", and Offertorio were the high points of this performance, showing how the massed forces could flex their muscles and create moments of poise and calm as required.

The soloists were good, andvery attentive to the conductor's interpretation. The soprano (Erin Wall) and mezzo (Karen Cargill) were well matched, notably in the "Recordare" and "Juste judex". Strong contributions from the tenor (Brian Hymel) came in the Kyrie and "Ingemisco". The bass (Eric Owens) brought warmth to the "Mors stupebit" and great strength to the "Confutatis". Erin Wall gavea fine account of the closing Libera Me.

Runnicles gave a performance that was more likely to cause one to think of the warm colours of amber than of the flashy blinding light of diamonds. This was a splendid final concert by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who made spirited and well-controlled contributions to all the concerts I heard them singing in. Christopher Bell, their chorus master, deserves at least two gold stars.

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