Erik Chisholm Anniversary Weekend

 A report by Hugh Macdonald

Sometimes it seems that we only hear the music of composers from beyond well-worn and familiar paths when there’s an anniversary to celebrate. But too often the celebration amounts to little more than a token gesture  –  a brief flurry of activity to mark a centenary, followed by a rapid slide back into obscurity. Happily, Erik Chisholm’s slow but steady recovery from neglect continues and the recent weekend of performances in Glasgow commemorating the 50th anniversary of his death will be remembered as an important staging post en route to his acceptance as one of the most significant artistic figures to emerge in Scotland in the 20th Century.

The Organ Symphony

The weekend was to have begun with the premiere of Chisholm’s early Hebridean Organ Symphony by Kevin Bowyer on the evening of Friday, June 5. Sadly, though, Kevin was ill and his recital in Glasgow University’s Memorial Chapel had to be cancelled. The organ symphony dates from the 1920s and is incomplete, consisting of one big movement lasting about 25 minutes. We don’t know for certain whether Chisholm ever performed it during the time in the late 20s when  he was organist at St Matthew’s Church (now known as St Steven’s Renfield) in Glasgow, but it seems unlikely given that for one reason or another he never got round to composing the other movements. We shall have to wait a bit longer to hear it, but Kevin assured us that he hopes to reschedule it for a later date.

‘Chisholm the Modernist’ and the Concerto for Orchestra

Saturday, June 6 brought two events in one  –  the Glasgow University Study Day, with a lunchtime recital for two pianos scheduled in the middle of it. The Study Day, led by Trustee and Chisholm biographer John Purser and Professor Alan Riach had a smaller attendance than we would have liked, but the dozen or so people who came along enjoyed a fascinating series of talks focussing on Chisholm’s place alongside other Scottish modernists in visual art and literature. There was also a particularly compelling contribution from Morag Chisholm on her life with her father, and a talk by Hugh Macdonald on musical life in Glasgow during Chisholm’s early years in the city between the wars.

At lunchtime we moved from the university’s St Andrew’s Building to the University Concert Hall for an excellent recital of music for two pianos given by Andrew Johnston and Michael Jones. The programme consisted of two works by Chisholm, his Celtic Wonder Tale and the first performance of his Concerto for Orchestra in an arrangement he made after the orchestral premiere in Cape Town in 1951 had to be abandoned for lack of rehearsal time. The Concerto was a revelation, and it was an extraordinary privilege to be among those hearing such an important work for the first time  –  something denied to the composer himself  –  even without all the orchestral colours he had envisaged.  It must be said that Andrew’s and Michael’s brilliant traversal of what is certainly a technical mountain to climb was marvellously evocative of the variety of colour that one would hear in the full orchestral score. The hard work and care they had taken in preparing for the performance did Erik proud and the concerto full justice. It’s another of the works, like the Violin Concerto, from his ‘hindustani’ period, with a wealth of contrapuntal complexity and expressionist intensity  –  quite a tough nut, to be sure, but an exciting and powerful piece. Let’s hope it won’t be too long before an orchestral performance becomes possible.

Songs and Piano Music

On Sunday, June 7 Pollok House Arts Society presented a recital of songs and piano music by Chisholm, given by three talented young artists  –  soprano Emily Mitchell, baritone Douglas Nairne and pianist Edward Cohen. Pollok House is a magnificent Georgian mansion in the grounds of Pollok Park in the south of Glasgow; the estate is also home to the beautiful modern museum that houses the famous Burrell Collection and all of it is now owned by the City. Originally the estate and house belonged to the Stirling-Maxwell family and it was they who founded the Arts Society in the 1960s to promote concerts in the beautiful library of the house. The list of artists who have performed there reads like a who’s who of music, from Elizabeth Schwarzkopf to Kiri te Kanawa and from Alfred Brendel to Mitsuko Uchida.  It’s worth noting, too, that Erik Chisholm himself played at Pollok at least once  –  in a wartime charity event with Margaret Morris’s dance troupe held in the grounds of the house. John Purser acted as MC for the concert, which was followed by an excellent dinner.

Edward Cohen gave fine, sensitive performances of a range of piano works, chosen to emphasise Chisholm’s Scottish heritage but extremely varied in style and mood for all that.  He played five of the Scottish Airs for Children, the First Piano Sonatina, the Ossianic Lay, the Sonatine Écossaise and nine of the extraordinary Cameos. Ed was also accompanist to the two superb young singers, who delighted the audience with selections from the Celtic Song Book and Lilias Scott’s Poems of Love. This was an intimate and memorable recital by three terrific young musicians in a beautiful setting at the end of which, most appropriately, John Purser presented Morag Chisholm with a bottle of single malt whisky, congratulating her for all the hard work and dedication she has devoted to bringing her father’s music back into the world. Daisy Henderson and the Pollok House Arts Society deserve the Trust’s heartfelt thanks, too, for their organisation and generous hospitality in mounting the concert.


Monday, June 8th  –  the actual anniversary of Chisholm’s death  –  marked the climax of a remarkable weekend and what must be one of the most significant performances of any of his works ever, including those in his lifetime. Since researching his authoritative Chisholm biography and examining the music in great detail, John Purser has had a bee in his bonnet about the one-act opera Simoon. John has always maintained that this was potentially the most important of Chisholm’s forgotten works, the one work in his ‘Murder in Three Keys’ trilogy which he never heard, and that finding a way to have it performed must be a priority for the Trust. We knew that it would not be easy, because the score of Simoon bristles with extraordinary challenges, for the instrumentalists even more than the singers. We also had to commission, at considerable cost and effort, modern typeset scores and orchestral parts since all we had was a manuscript full score.

But to cut a long story short, a way was found  –  and the piece emerged triumphant, an incredibly powerful, intense, dark musical drama that was a complete revelation to those in the capacity audience  –  i.e. nearly all of them  –  who were encountering Chisholm’s operatic music for the first time. The performance was given as part of the Cottier Chamber Project, a visionary festival of chamber music that was started by a young horn player called Andy Saunders five or six years ago and has now established itself as a major annual event in Scotland’s musical calendar. Andy had long wanted to include chamber opera in his festival and after a smaller-scale first venture in 2014 he agreed to attempt the daunting task of staging Chisholm’s setting of Strindberg’s psychological drama. Simoon was in fact the product of a great partnership of utterly committed people, and Andy and the EC Trust were joined by Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland headed with brilliant organisational flair by its chair Sue Baxendale.

‘MacOpera’, as they call themselves for short, was formed a few years ago by the players of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, after their parent company put them on part-time contracts to save money, leaving the formerly full-time employees with a problem about how to make up their lost income. The players’ cooperative was set up specifically to generate work for them outside their work for Scottish Opera, but they can hardly have guessed that they might ever be called upon to devote their considerable talents to such a work as Simoon! The piece calls for 26 players, each with a highly virtuosic, sometimes verging on impossible, individual part to play. Certainly not a job for the faint-hearted, but carried off with staggering aplomb by these players, who, as Sue Baxendale later commented, had ‘worked their socks off, to achieve a frankly amazing result with frighteningly little rehearsal time.

Sue had scoured Britain for exactly the right singers and used her contacts to come up with an ideal cast of three highly experienced and respected artists headed by the marvellous Jane Irwin as Biskra, with Damien Thantrey as a hauntingly intense Gruimard and Philip Sheffield a scarily obsessive Yusuf. The off-stage soprano part was beautifully sung by a talented young student at the Royal  Conservatoire of Scotland, Charlie Drummond, and the score was conducted with a passionate sense of drama by Ian Ryan. This was in essence a concert performance  –  it would have cost too much in time and money to stage it fully  –  but it was hugely enhanced by a film specially commissioned from director Roddy Simpson which was coordinated with the music and acted as a highly evocative backdrop to the score. It mirrored the action, set in the Morrocan desert, with the three characters represented by two dancers, Salma Faraji and Erick Mauricia, and an actor, Michael Daviot, as Gruimard. It was a simple, but extremely subtle and skilful way of creating a powerful theatrical experience, and the Sports Hall of Glasgow’s Western Baths Club was transformed for the occasion into a very effective theatrical space.

The music itself took one’s breath away. What other British composer was writing music of this kind in the early 50s? Its strong expressionistic echoes of Berg’s Wozzeck take it into a quite different sphere from contemporary pieces by people like Britten, Vaughan Williams and Tippett. The exquisite colours of the score, so many and varied, were beautifully realised by the players. No-one had ever heard these before since Simoon’s only previous outing had been with a two-piano accompaniment at its premiere in New York, but now they were revealed in all their kaleidoscopic richness. The audience gave it a rapturous reception and the critics (who included John Allison, up from London to cover it for Opera magazine) were just as enthusiastic. According to Kate Molleson in The Guardian the score was

“teeming and seething, percussive, restless and evocative; Chisholm is marvellously adept at conjuring up the desert storm and conductor Ian Ryan drew focused and atmospheric playing from the musicians of Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland”

And in The Scotsman, Ken Walton was equally impressed:

“The small cast delivered the hi-concentrate libretto with dark and devilish potency; Jane Irwin’s Biskra wild and seductive, Damian Thantrey portraying Guimard’s diminishing will with horrifying vocal conviction, and Philip Sheffield and Charlie Drummond chillingly effective in delivering the supporting roles. It was a performance that did full justice to Chisholm’s score, its pungent colours and master craftsmanship. Well done Music Co-OPERAtive, for taking the leap into the unknown and making a powerful evening’s entertainment.”

 And so what might be called a ‘red letter weekend’ in the ongoing effort to give Chisholm his rightful place in our musical history came to a suitably exciting and satisfying end. Will this single performance of Simoon be our only chance to hear it in our lifetime? Not if the Trust has anything to do with it. The performance was professionally recorded for posterity, so watch this space!