High Heels and Horse Hair: Transplanted

Alice Rickards (violin) and Sonia Cromarty (cello)

Saturday 22 November 2014 • 7.30pm
Tin Hut, Gartly (map)

Review by William Gilmour

High Heels and Horse Hair

With the theme of native Scottish plants depicted in music, dynamic duo High Heels and Horse Hair, Alice Rickards (violin) and Sonia Cromarty (cello), made a welcome return to Huntly. The concert centred around the music of Baroque composer James Oswald (1710–1769) from Crail in Fife, a renowned violinist, cellist and publisher, eventually becoming Court Composer to King George III. In 1755, he published a set of 90 one-page miniatures, each named after a Scottish plant. To continue the spirit of this remarkable work, eight of Scotland's leading composers were invited to write similarly inspired one-page pieces. This task was tackled admirably by all the invited composers, each piece being individual, exciting and well-crafted for the instruments.

The concert began with three works by Oswald. I had not heard of the composer, but was immediately entertained by well written Baroque music and struck by the elements of "Scottishness". By way of introduction to the programme, the first two pieces, Scabious and Rocket, showed this with beautiful flowing lines and lively interplay. These were immediately followed by Spring, beginning with a third composition by Oswald, Primrose, in the minor key, with falling chromatic harmonies evoking a certain sadness, though where it modulates to the major, hope rises.

Now to the first of the commissioned composers, Eddie McGuire (b. 1948), with Clover. The music felt almost romantic in places and spoke to me strongly of nostalgia. There were soaring moments of beautiful dissonances, almost bringing a gentle anger, and using an impressive range of dynamics. I could hear the buzzing of insects, and the piece ended with stunning harmonies.

High Heels and Horse Hair

Our next composer was Hanna Tuulikki (b. 1982) whose piece Heartsease showed a completely different approach to composition and sound. Tuulikki wrote the score in the shape of a flower, adding words instead of notes. The composition was moody, in a beautiful and haunting way, almost like a series of breaths. I imagined I could hear the spaces between the petals: a "modern" piece, but totally accessible.

We now come to Summer with Oswald's miniature, Heather Bells, at first a gentle pastoral piece in 3/4 time with a flowing sense of movement and "Scotch snaps", which suddenly becomes a fast reel, doubling in tempo for a dramatic ending.

Next was David Ward's (b. 1941) composition, Lukkaminnie's Oo (cotton grass). Taking rest for a moment from his extensive opera compositions, Ward had produced an innovative piece of programme music, stylishly crafted for the instruments. The ethereal opening on cello weaving in and out of tonality is unmistakably Ward. I could hear the wind in the exquisitely crafted tremolandi, and after the energy of the main body, the piece fades to nothing: a master of his discipline, with total knowledge of instrumentation.

Sundew by Judith Weir (b. 1954), who is now Master of the Queen's Music, the first woman to hold the post, finished the first half and indeed Summer. As you would expect from Weir, it is a stunning composition, atmospheric, ethereal and filled with musical fireworks, giving a tension to the music which so portrays the feeling of an insect caught in a devouring plant. The sounds forge ahead with an uneasy dissonance, until a high tremolando on violin fades to nothing.

High Heels and Horse Hair

Autumn comes with a piece by David Fennessy (b. 1976), The Changeless and the Changed (St Kilda Dandelion). Fennessy uses natural harmonics and open strings to produce a warm and breathy sound from the instruments, creating a haunting effect with busy cello harmonics against mysterious sounds on violin: full of depth, yet with space to talk to the listener.

Sneez-wort by Oswald is in the minor, with strong melodies featuring chromatic movement, this time rising in nature, until it breaks into a jig to end with a flourish.

Waxcap by Martin Kershaw (b. 1973) is our next miniature and the only one to represent fungi. It begins tonally with long flowing lines, an almost walking bass effect, offset with a sometimes uneasy melody on violin. Intensely passionate and growing in dissonance, though in no way harsh, this is a most successful composition depicting an often overlooked member of our eco system.

Winter sets in with Cladonia Bellidiflora (lichen) by Stuart MacRae (b. 1976), opening with a very quiet cello note before an almost Bartók-like figure on violin. Soon the cello is wavering in and out of tune in microtones, giving a warm, though dissonant sound. Then there is a lovely fast interplay between the instruments from bowed to pizzicato and back as the piece drives forward with more interplay, before fading to nothing.

Oswald's contribution to winter is Hawthorn which begins as an "air" in 3/4, built from wonderfully satisfying phrases, which reveal his great skill in both melody and harmony. Unmistakably Scottish in sound, it suddenly moves into a reel and then, just as suddenly, a jig to end.

High Heels and Horse Hair

The final contribution to the evening was from Christopher Stout (b. 1976). Anyone with an interest in traditional music will be well aware of this composer/performer. And what an excellent choice to write Juniper, a vibrant composition, full of driving energy, by a composer who knows what can be achieved on these instruments. I was impressed too with his skilful use of the "cell". This was a piece of authentic Scottishness from beginning to end.

This was an excellent concert, with something for everyone, all of superb quality. Interspersed with slides of the flora by Laurie Campbell, it was an adventure for the eyes and ears.

High Heels and Horse Hair are two young ladies who are rapidly going places. I recommend that you search their website to see their most impressive rise in the last five years. I am more interested in the fact that they are ambassadors for their field. Their warmth to the audience, their explanations of the music they are playing, and the obvious love for what they do, will ensure their ongoing and deserved success. They also wear very nice shoes, designed especially for them.

Photos by William Gilmour

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