Neil Georgeson Delights

by Alastair Hamilton -

Neil Georgeson has launched Shetland Arts season of classical concerts with an outstanding concert.

Neil, who grew up in the Shetland village of Aith, went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and subsequently became a Fellow of the Academy. His thesis on the role of the performer in classical music became an exemplar for others. These days, he combines the roles of pianist, writer and composer with directing the Ossian Ensemble, a new-music group, and his interest in new and experimental music – always evident in previous Shetland appearances – has led him into collaborations with a number of other ensembles and orchestras. He has appeared at venues ranging from London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Barbican to Glastonbury. He has worked with many contemporary composers, including the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who spent much of his life in Orkney and Neil’s own work includes a composition that was commissioned for Shetland’s Johnsmas Foy.

...Neil...grew up in the Shetland village of Aith...

September’s concert at Mareel in Lerwick explored the ideas of island, home and, indeed, homesickness. It was a beautifully-constructed programme, blending older classical forms with more radical approaches.

The programme opened with Beethoven’s sonata in D minor, ‘The Tempest’, composed in 1802 and inspired by the Shakespeare play. The island connection is clear: Prospero and his daughter Miranda flee to exile, shipwrecked on a remote island. Neil’s playing perfectly articulated the contrasting moods within the piece, capturing the storm and the gentler, lyrical passages with equal conviction.

The evening continued with a piece from Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage), a set of three suites, each of which includes musical essays referring to people, places, works of art or stages on journeys. Neil chose Mal du Pays (Homesickness) from the first suite, replete with wistful longing and nostalgia.

The third item on the programme introduced us to the work of an Ethiopian composer, Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Her musical education was rooted in the western classical tradition, but her composition pays homage to her Ethiopian Orthodox heritage and, in the piece Neil played, Homeless Wanderer, jazz influences can be heard. Astonishingly, Neil had had to learn the work from a recording, a manuscript not being available. The beauty of her music, bright and soulful, belies the difficulties she faced, which included imprisonment in an Italian prisoner of war camp and eventual exile to the Ethiopian Monastery in Israel, where she still lives, prior to which she had become a nun in her home country.

To end the first part of the concert, Neil chose five of the 66 Lyric Pieces by Edvard Grieg that he felt fitted with the theme of the concert; for example, Shepherd’s Boy (“well", he said, "I am a shepherd’s boy”), Butterfly (“flitting about, never settles”) and Homeward Bound, portraying an energetic journey.

...the beauty of her music, bright and soulful, belies the difficulties she faced...

Resuming their seats after the interval, the audience fell to wondering about the appearance of a single loudspeaker beside the Steinway. All was to be revealed, but Neil began the second half with J S Bach’s Capriccio for the Departure of a Beloved Brother, which, as he explained in the programme notes, is unique in Bach’s output because it presents a story in a series of musical vignettes. A piece of strongly contrasting moods, it also flows more sinuously, particularly in the first movement, than is usual in Bach’s music.

Neil then explained the purpose of the loudspeaker. Austrian-born and Berlin-based, Peter Ablinger began writing music for solo piano and tape in 1998 as part of an approach to composition that has seen him experiment with sound installations, white noise and much else. The tape holds recordings of public figures, and as the programme notes explained, their speech has been subjected to spectral analysis to generate chords and patterns. In this case, the speeches were associated in some way with refugees or civil rights: Orson Welles’ wish that more refugees should have been admitted to the USA after the Second World War (as long as they weren't communists); Bertolt Brecht being questioned by an American immigration panel about his revolutionary ideas; and activist Angela Davis talking from prison about the denial of her rights. Neil chose to preface and end Ablinger’s work with two Schubert pieces alluding to wanderings. All in all, the sequence made for compelling, if at times challenging, listening.

...compelling, if at times challenging, listening...

Two shorter pieces concluded the programme. Neil reminded us that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ gentle Farewell to Stromness had actually been composed not for a sentimental departure from that beautiful little Orkney town but as a protest at the prospect, in the 1980s, that it would find itself the neighbour of a huge uranium mine, a plan that was fortunately unfulfilled. He then concluded the planned programme on Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse, inspired by the Greek island of Kythera. A rapturous piece that demands a great deal from the pianist, it was a rousing end to the evening.

Or, at least, it would have been. But of course Neil’s impeccable playing had entranced the audience and they weren’t going to let him go without an encore. So we were treated to a sparkling, joyous account of a very old favourite, Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, Opus 66, rounding off the concert in style.

...Neil’s impeccable playing had entranced the audience...

The audience would happily have settled for a second interval and another hour of Neil’s playing, but the good news is that he’s coming back twice more in this Shetland Arts season. On 1 December, he appears with soprano Anna Dennis, who has sung at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Lincoln Centre in New York, the Sydney Opera House and the BBC Proms. Together, they’ll perform an exceedingly varied and exciting programme of French, Russian, German and English song, including Strauss' audacious Ophelialieder, settings of Ophelia's “mad speeches” from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Sorabji's decadent setting of Verlaine's Fetes Galantes, Thomas Adès' jazz-influenced Life Story and Mussorgsky's hilarious and charming Nursery Songs, as well as works by Stravinsky and Wolf. Neil’s final visit this season is on 9 February, with a programme entitled Pictures at an Exhibition, focused on Mussorgsky’s showpiece but also including Debussy's Estampes or “Prints”, scintillating impressions of exotic locales, and works by Couperin and Liszt.

Beyond that, local music lovers can look forward to three chamber concerts, featuring the Hebrides Ensemble (11 March), Mr McFall’s Chamber (15 April 2017) and the Dunedin Consort (19 May).

It’s a rich and diverse series.

...The audience would happily have settled for a second interval and another hour of Neil’s playing...

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