Culture in Cowal

Item Posted: Tuesday 17th November, 2009


Last weekend, seemingly by accident, there was an extraordinary range of quality cultural events on offer. An informal community piping ceilidh was put on by Strachur and District Pipe Band Association, involving the world- champion Inveraray and District Pipe Band, then there was an international Folk concert in Strachur; the Queen’s Hall held a Taiko drumming night and Moscow Ballet’s production of the Nutcraker; and classical and popular brass was on offer in Kirn.

Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers

Modern Taiko (Japanese for drum) developed in Japan in the 1950’s and was exported to the USA in the 60’s and it now a world wide musical phenomenon. If ever there was a musical incarnation of raw physical power, Taiko drumming has to be it. The ‘ Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers’ celebrated their 15 year anniversary with a 40 plus gig UK tour which took in Dunoon. The name "Mugenkyo" means "limitless reverberation" and reflects the group’s belief that Taiko has no limitations, no musical or geographical boundaries. The possibilities of Taiko seem endless, both in its pure form, and in collaborations with other artists and disciplines. The group are
developing Taiko as a modern European art form, and are working on a world-first project – a blend of taiko and jazz big band with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Thundering rhythms on huge taiko drums interweave with delicate bamboo flute and subtle percussive soundscapes in a spellbinding display of fluid grace, precise choreography and sheer athleticism. To this was added mesmerising, provocative and sometimes disturbing dance from Lale Sayoko.
The concert captivated with its passion and intensity, journeying through a myriad of moods, from the heart-pounding excitement of 'Tijimbo’', the hypnotic 'Phoenix', to the happy festival atmosphere of 'Matsuri'.
Through their 10 years of rigorous touring, Mugenkyo have developed a gritty passionate style that is uniquely their own. They retain the traditional spirit of taiko -drumming as an almost religious experience - yet creating a thoroughly contemporary sound. Mugenkyo are forging a new path with their innovative approach. They splendidly exploit the theatrical potential of their intensely forceful drumming and energetic heat of the rhythm, they leap from drum to drum, dance around them with mini cymbals and handbells, and strike vivid gestures with choreographed force. Mugenkyo sustained its appeal right to the climax, winning thunderous applause.
Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker
Dunoon also hosted The Nutcracker with ‘The Moscow Ballet’. 'La Classique' - was founded in 1990, utilising ballet dancers from the leading theatres and the Bolshoi, Kirov and Ballet Theatres of Kiev and Odessa. For 16 years this company have gained new fans for opera around the world. This year's tour stars the ballet world's Prima Ballerina, Cristina Terentieva and her partner Alexei. Cristina was a Gold Medalist of the 2008 Varna International Ballet Competition. Also dancing was the award winning couple Akzhol Mussakhanov and Ekaterina Bortykova.

With its seasonal connection and joyous child's dream, in which anything is possible. Nutcracker is universally acknowledged as one of the great classics of fantasy and a ballet for all ages. Featuring spectacular sets and beautifully costumed Russian dancers, Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker was a treat for the whole family. Whimsical and imaginative storytelling blended with the richness of Russian classical dance.

Choreographer Emelianov is to be praised for the unique setting of Act II in the "Land of Peace and Harmony." To convey his message of peace, he incorporates an ethereal dove that escorts Masha and the Prince to a land where there is no war or suffering; a whimsical, giant, six-handed grandfather clock signals the transition. Set against Valentin Fedorov's spectacular scenic design, with larger-than-life puppets and the costumes made this a visual delight.

The performance featured recorded music of Tchaikovsky's perennially popular score. To carp a little, the lack of a live orchestra makes it difficult for the cast on the rare occasion that something goes wrong, but generally the corps de ballet were precise, the main dancers energetic and spectacular. Certainly they will have gained some new ballet fans from the enthusiastic audience.

International Folk

Fiddle Folk’s final concert of the year in their ‘Hands Across the Seas’ concert series, supported by the Scottish Arts Council, brought an exciting array of musicians from Sweden, Denmark, USA and Scotland together for this one –off venture.

Mairi Campbell’s voice is delicate, smooth but precise. She has that rare ability to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, whether singing old or new Scots songs. The audience were fortunate to have the public premiere of her Niel Gow International Fiddle Composition Award winning tune, showing that, as a composer and fiddle player she is rated amongst the top flight in Scotland. Cowal accessed her tour with Ferintosh members from the USA - Abby Newton on cello and Kim Robertson on Celtic harp, playing vibrant folk music of Scotland and of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Scottish Highland music has continued in a living tradition since the 18th century. From poignant airs to high-spirited strathspeys and reels, their dynamic arrangements unleashed both the subtle beauty and rhythmic energy of this timeless music.

Habbadam, the Danish/Swedish trio played tunes and sang songs mainly from the small Baltic island of Bornholm, an area rich in folk traditions, but with a dialect, language and music all of its own. Like most ‘modern’ traditional musicians they add in their own compositions to the older music canon. The soprano sax, fiddle and guitar mix is more common in Denmark than in Scotland. It produced, in their highly skilled hands, delightful melodies and foot tapping tunes. A relaxed and cheerful stage presence, combined with highly professional playing, endeared them to the audience. Encouraging musicians like Habbadam to travel abroad would do more for Danish tourism than an amount of brochures or TV advertising campaigns!

Brass Quintet
Meanwhile Cowal Music Club (sponsored by Fyne Studios) was hosting Thistle Brass, the exciting young Glasow quintet. The group is fast making a name for itself as an innovative young chamber ensemble. Thistle Brass has performed from the Orkney Islands to the Great Wall of China for major music festivals and concert clubs.
Thistle Brass, all graduates of RSAMD, has built a reputation for concerts presented in its own inimitable and entertaining style. Their humour on stage was infectious. A rendering of ‘What can you do with the drunken sailor?’ was certainly played in character –they all acted tipsy! The group has an expansive and diverse repertoire and is equally at home performing classical to jazz, from serious to lunatic, whether performing new commissions from composers of today, or loosening its ties in a selection of its distinctive lighter repertoire. For this concert they performed a lively selection of the ‘Bs’ – Bach, Berlin and Bernstein! The combination of trumpet, horn, trombone and tuba gave an unusual and interesting rendering to some favourite classics.

The fact that so many local residents attended these events over the weekend clearly illustrates that if venues and events organisers bring quality acts to Cowal the demand is there, although there are issues around how well some of these events were publicised in advance. If this weekend is a (good) sign of things to come in the width of choice of cultural events in Cowal venues may need more cooperation and communication in programme planning to avoid clashes. Given the addition of the Loft as a regular venue, and the Burgh Hall imminently coming ‘on stream’ as a regular site for events, coordination is likely to be more important than ever.
All in all this was an exhausting but satisfying weekend’s entertainment which forcefully emphasised that quality events can, and should, be arranged locally and that the Central Belt and urban conurbations do not have a stranglehold on cultural life!
Mark Morpurgo

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