Updated: Sep 26
This has been a long time coming - it's now nearly two years since I sat down alongside Michael O'Rourke, Rosie Lavery and recording engineer Matthew Swan to record this album, but here we are finally with a release date of the 6th October 2023! So in advance of its launch out into the world, I thought I'd take some time to tell the story of how I came to this wonderful project, and share some 'behind-the-scenes' details. It all started in a galaxy far, far, away in Glasgow, in my final year at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland...
"We caught the tread of dancing feet..."
Back in 2020, I knew only a little bit about the composer Ronald Stevenson. I certainly knew of his daughter Gerda Stevenson, the celebrated actress, poet and director, and grand-daughter Anna-Wendy Stevenson, the Programme Leader of the UHI BA Applied Music Course. But Ronald was just entering my awareness as part of a growing interest in Scottish classical/contemporary music. I have always been drawn to art, stories and ideas that lie on the fringes - that are under-researched, less well-known, or under-performed - and across the first three years of my Bachelors I was becoming more and more curious as to why I didn't know the music of many Scottish composers. Did they even exist?
Well of course they did, but at the time I certainly hadn't come across more than a few. And certainly, of those, I wasn't aware of many who had written for the classical accordion. And so I threw myself into research and some academic digging, to see what I could find. Two highlights of my final year were performing Sally Beamish's Accordion Concerto 'The Singing' (2006) in a piano reduction, and organising a keyboard department showcase concert, 'Stravaig', featuring a full programme of Scottish composers and works. This has been a personal journey of discovery into Scottish art music, and is an ongoing thread in my career. It's by no means ground-breaking stuff - there is research out there and there are groups performing this music (though not many, and not regularly) - but it has become a key part of my identity as a classical musician.
So in my final year at RCS, I had caught a real bug for researching and expanding my own knowledge of Scottish composers, and was looking around for anything that was written for the classical accordion...
Enter my teacher Djordje Gajic, who has been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to me and all his students. It was he that first mentioned that Ronald Stevenson had written at least one piece for classical accordion. I immediately found the Ronald Stevenson Society website, and there, to my delight, was 'The Harlot's House - Dance-poem after Oscar Wilde (1988)'. A couple of weeks later I had persuaded the RCS library to order a copy of the score, and was pouring over it (mainly trying to decipher the vast array of percussion instruments required, and wondering who I could persuade to play all of them!). I was particularly curious about the title, 'Dance-poem', and the epigraph at the beginning of the piece - the poem it is based on, 'The Harlot's House'.
We caught the tread of dancing feet
We loitered down the moonlit street
And stopped beneath the Harlot's House.
Upon looking up the poem online, I came across this wonderful recitation in the villainous voice of the great actor Vincent Price (voice of Michael Jackson's Thriller intro). That captured my imagination, and listening alongside the score, I was determined to play this piece in my final exam...
"Inside, above the din and fray, We heard the loud musicians play..."
I was nervously asking around the RCS for percussionists, as I was aware this was a huge part, demanding both virtuosic flare and sensitive blending with the accordion. And lo and behold, I found the perfect duo partner in Michael O'Rourke, who crucially had the courage to ask the percussion department to let him use (virtually) all their instruments for our rehearsals. Over a couple of months we put together the piece, and performed it for the very first time since it's 1988 premier in my final exam. Of course, unfortunately, this was still in the Covid-restriction era, so only the five examiners had the chance to hear it.
In the course of my research into the piece, I had spoken to pianist Anna Michels about Stevenson, and she directed me towards Christopher Guild and Jamie Reid-Baxter. These two are true champions of Stevenson's music - Chris has recorded 6 volumes of his piano works for Toccata Classics, and Jamie has funded many of these and championed performances of Scottish music for years. I initially got in touch with Chris just to let him know about my performance of the piece in my exam, and to ask his advice on possible public performances. He was so encouraging and supportive, and put me in touch with Jamie - and all of a sudden a plan was hatched for an album of Stevenson's accordion music.
Now The Harlot's House, while an exceptional piece, is about 30 minutes long, and that's not quite album-worthy on it's own. So I was on the hunt to see if Stevenson had written anything else for Classical Accordion - and here I must tip my hat to Stuart Eydmann. Stuart is a concertina and fiddle player, and an excellent academic. His website, https://raretunes.org/, is a valuable resource for anyone interested in hard-to-find/unavailable recordings of music in Scotland. He also happens to be one of the very few people to write academically about the accordion in Scotland. And, while squinting through the reference notes at the very end of his article From the "Wee Melodeon" to the "Big Box": the accordion in Scotland since 1945 (both his articles on the accordion can be read here) I found a reference to one "Love Lilt" supposedly written by Stevenson for accordion around 1985 (three years before The Harlot's House). On getting in touch with Stuart, he directed me towards an archive held in the National Museum of Scotland of Stevenson scores and correspondences. Sure enough there was A Celtic Cycle, a suite of 3 short pieces for solo accordion (or piano) through which Stevenson had first explored the writing for the instrument. The album was taking shape.
The final selection of material for the album came from my own transcriptions of Stevenson's piano writing, and included 5 songs that would compliment the poetic nature of The Harlot's House. I had been looking for an excuse to work with singer Rosie Lavery (pictured here) for years, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. And her dramatic yet versatile voice lent itself perfectly to the range I'd chosen - from the comic Bubblyjock to the tender Day is Düne. That's all I'll say on the programme here - if you want to learn more about the pieces, you'll have to buy the CD and read the sleeve notes!
I want to note here that Toccata Classics, and it's founder Martin Anderson, were incredibly supportive from the beginning. Their promotion of unrecorded works by lesser-known composers is laudable, and their catalogue of recordings is a treasure trove. Martin himself has done so much to encourage the recording and propagation of Scottish classical repertoire, and was immediately enthusiastic about an album of accordion music. https://toccataclassics.com/
"The dead are dancing with the dead..."
Fast forward to recording day in December 2021, and it's all been planned, funded, arranged. The RCS have kindly offered us use of their percussion instruments and their Ledger Recital Room. Matthew Swan, the recording engineer, has travelled up from England and has set up his mics. And I have the flu.
Not the end of the world, but I did feel rather like one of the skeletal macabre figures painted in the poem - not how I was hoping to feel while setting down these first recordings of the pieces. Fortunately, Rosie had my back - she, being a singer, knew all the best balms and remeids - so I was soon dosed up, and holding back the sniffles as we pressed record. Matthew was the ideal recording engineer and producer - calm, kind and supportive, with his eye constantly on the score to make sure we weren't missing anything.
Despite my viral shakiness, the two days recording were rich in laughs and fun (see below) alongside the commitment we all brought to this album. Jamie Reid-Baxter was there for one of the days, tae mak shair that the Scots i' the sangs wis a' up tae code, as of course it was. And by the end of it, when I fell into bed to sleep off the flu, we had our recordings.
"The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet..."
A wee personal reflection. I must admit I was nervous when approaching this recording - my first 'classical' recording, and the first and only recording of these pieces. I felt a real duty to present them to the best of my ability, and do justice to a section of accordion repertoire that is pretty much completely unknown both in Scotland and around the world. But I can now say, on receiving the first physical copies through the post, that this album is one of my proudest achievements so far. My career is varied, like those of so many freelance musicians. I hop from one project to the next, often between very different contexts, genres and styles. But every once in a while I have the chance to look back on one of these pieces of work, and in this case at least, I'm pleased with what I find.
Myself and Marjorie Stevenson, after a good old blether about Ronald,
and a sneaky play on the composer's piano!
You can find out where to here the Stevenson Album, and about the other recordings I've been involved in on my Recordings page.
A wee note of thanks
A final little note of thanks to the following people who helped along the way in this project:
Djordje Gajic, for his continual encouragement and support
James Reid-Baxter, for his championing of Stevenson's music, and financial support
Michael O'Rourke and Rosie Lavery, for throwing themselves into the music with me
Martin Anderson and Toccata Classics, for immediately agreeing to record the album
Marjorie Stevenson, for her hospitality and expertise Ronald's music and life
Maria Turowska, for the photos she took during rehearsals
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, for providing the recording space and access to percussion instruments