Adjudicator’s verdict: isles have some of the best young musicians in the world
By BRYAN PETERSON
This year’s weeklong Shetland Schools Music Festival was an enthralling and entertaining glimpse into the vast amount of musical activity taking place in our schools and the immense talent of our young people.
This year the festival centred on secondary schools and primary seven pupils with over 260 entrants, although this number doesn’t do justice to its scale. It is estimated that around 1,000 young people participated in the many activities with a vast array of solo, duet and group performances at the Town Hall and Clickimin Centre together with a variety of workshops in schools around Shetland.
The festival was characterised by a broad diversity among the entries across its 40 categories. As well as soloists in brass, woodwind, strings, vocal and accordion, the festival featured a healthy dose of music groups, including orchestras, traditional groups, ensembles and choirs.
The competitive element of the festival was adjudicated by the internationally celebrated music educator Eric Tebbet, no stranger to the Shetland Schools Music Festival having performed the role four times in the past.
The adjudicator individually assessed each young performer, duet and group/choir against specific criteria and awarded them either a gold, silver or bronze certificate. Gold – for an exceptional performance, technically and artistically; silver – for a convincing performance, technically and artistically; and bronze – for showing artistic appreciation and technical ability.
As well as the performance elements, the festival featured a full workshop programme for many of Shetland’s primary 6 and 7 pupils. These were delivered in various regions of Shetland – Lerwick, North Isles, north Mainland, west Mainland and south Mainland and featured “Songs of the World”, African drumming and Samba.
The opening class of the festival was piano solo. This was the first clue as to the quality of the week ahead, and out of the 14 entrants taking part, Harry Whitham, Lana Thomson, Matthew Scollay and Maggie Adamson were awarded Gold certificates by the adjudicator.
Later in the morning came the vocal classes. After a terrific series of recitals across a wide spectrum of styles the adjudicator awarded gold certificates to Lisa Manson, Mairi Coutts, Lindsey Manson, Erin Sandison and Harry Witham for their solo performances and to Kirsteen Mullay and Claire Laurenson for their duet. Shetland is not normally associated with vocalists, but I’m sure that will change in the near future.
In the afternoon the brass solo category, with 21 participants, included a particularly strong showing from Sandwick. Despite the high quality of the performances, there was only one gold winner, Megan Govier.
Monday also saw the first of the evening concerts which was the large groups category, performed to a large audience.
Kicking off proceedings in lively style was Tunester, comprising 10 fiddles, three guitars, flute, accordion, bass guitar, piano and drums. Their first set was their own take on well known traditional tunes with fine use of dynamics and confident tempo changes, in places accentuated with pounding eighth note bass lines and solid rock drums to produce a contemporary sound. The second piece started with a subtle accordion and flute intro, which evolved into an interesting arrangement where the fiddles took on harmonies akin to a string quartet, rather than simply carrying the tune as might be expected. Overall, Tunester were tight and produced a full and confident sound.
Second on stage was 10 piece AHS Brass, who had been moved from their scheduled slot later in the evening. They had a strident set of tunes that were adeptly performed and sounded right at home in the Town Hall.
Next up was the Sandwick S1 Woodwind Ensemble, who were so keen to get going they didn’t wait for their introduction. The all female quartet of clarinet, sax and flutes competently skipped through all too brief renditions and left the stage as quickly as they had appeared. Short and sweet!
Third up were Fiddlers Joy, three young ladies from Cunningsburgh and Sandwick competently playing three sets of tunes. Their diminutive size meant they were almost hidden behind their music stands. However their intense expressions were a fitting reflection of the hours of practice they must have put in.
Sandwick S2 Woodwind Ensemble then graced the stage with a well-blended round sound from the flute, clarinet, sax and bassoon. The performance was accordingly accomplished, and both audience and musicians evidently enjoyed the jaunty interpretation of the Wallace and Gromit theme tune.
Fourth were Brae School vocal Trio, generously comprising four vocalists, whose delicately poised harmonies rewarded keen listening.
Then came No Strings Attached from the AHS, ably assisted by some members of Tunester who stepped in to take the place of some of their junior colleagues who couldn’t make it to the performance. Their 12 fiddle line up gracefully played a set of slow airs before merrily bouncing through an American Two Step.
The audience was then treated to Mariah Irvine & Co, a trio of musicians from Brae featuring Mariah on vocals backed by drums, piano and bass. She opened with KT Tunstall’s Silent Sea, before going on to a sassy finger clicking version of Fever, a song so well known it can be difficult to put an individual stamp on, but she certainly pulled it off.
By no means last were Fiddle Finale, a fantastic group of six fiddlers from the AHS and Cunningsburgh Primary School. They displayed controlled technique switching between pizzicato harmonies and strong bowed passages throughout their ear catching arrangements, which included a liberal dose of eastern European melodies.
Following this admirably were the Sandwick S3 Woodwind Ensemble who cavorted through some cheeky musical arrangements with their clarinet, sax and flutes. Another strong showing from Sandwick which revealed woodwind to be in rude health at the south end.
The penultimate slot of the concert was filled by the AHS String Ensemble, with perhaps the most refined performance of the evening. The 12 piece mini orchestra displayed remarkable technique as they fulfilled the ambitious arrangements. The pizzicato passages in particular raised smiles from the audience.
The final act of the evening was Unreel, performing some impressively varied arrangements of folk tunes with a nod towards jazz and rock. The assemblage of nine fiddles, bass, drums, guitar and piano were exceptionally tight and snappy.
Overall, this was an extremely engaging evening of music, as was highlighted in Eric Tebbet’s feedback to the groups. He noted the high quality and variety, the confident presentation despite the nerves on display and rightfully credited the dedication and hard work of the music teaching staff.
Mr Tebbet awarded gold certificates to Tunester, AHS String Ensemble, Fiddle Finale and Unreel.
Tuesday morning and afternoon were set aside for the woodwind classes. First up were the solo performers; mainly playing flute, clarinet or saxophone; a busy morning due to 35 entrants in the class. In the first round, Jenny Watt achieved the gold standard with a standout recital that showed a real sense of performance.
In the second round there were some fantastic and spirited presentations with a cluster of golds going to Morag Skinner, John Williamson, Joe Christie, Andrea Gordon and Joanna Goodlad. Morag Skinner is worthy of a special commendation due to the performance of her own composition, a classy modal jazz piece akin to Davis’ So What and Hancock’s Maiden Voyage.
The final round produced gold level performances from Calum Leask, Norman Wilmore and Miriam Veenhuizen.
In the afternoon came the woodwind duet class, with many of the morning’s performers pairing up to share the stage. Compared to the morning it was fairly brief section but nonetheless produced some fine performances. Gold standards were reached by Megan McLean with Siobhan Leask, Joe Christie with Andrea Gordon and brothers Scott and Calum Leask. The Leasks put me in mind of the Brecker Brothers with their balanced dynamics and close harmonies; a horn section any funk band would be proud of.
Adjudicator Mr Tebbet was full of compliments for the woodwind players, detailing the value of breathing techniques and dynamics.
Tuesday night was choir night, a concert I had been particularly looking forward to as I’m a sucker for harmony vocals. I wasn’t disappointed.
The evening began in style with the AHS Additional Support Needs Choir breathing new life and enthusiasm into old classics like Kum Baya. They gave it gusto and were perhaps the most energetic performers of the entire week.
Then followed the Scalloway singers, a 10 piece all female choir. Their uncluttered harmonies were particularly effective and their diction was clear and deliberate (although I didn’t understand a word of their second piece, which they sang in a language I didn’t recognise!) The AHS 5th Year Quintet Plus One all female choir displayed sophisticated close harmonies and dramatic, operatic and sometimes comedic presentation throughout their performance. Each of the vocalists was clear and controlled and the balance between voices was excellent. Overall this was a very professional, polished and enjoyable performance.
Next to take the stage were the 14 members of the North Isles Lasses. They started quietly but their confidence grew during their second song, the Friends theme tune, complete with handclaps. An enjoyable showing and I’m glad they made the trip south.
Then followed the Brae High School Choir, an exceptionally smartly turned out bunch. Their arrangement of Sting’s Fields of Gold was beautiful and Abba’s Thank You For the Music rounded things off nicely.
The expansive Sandwick Singing Group filled the stage with their 22 members. Their obvious enthusiasm was returned by the audience who eagerly joined in with handclaps and toe taps. Their slow building rendition of One Voice was particularly poignant with its counterpoint and harmony.
The concert was concluded by the AHS Vocal Group: 22 young ladies who displayed some fine intertwining harmonies and a wide ranging, well blended grouping of voices. Their articulation was clear and projection powerful.
Their set culminated with a harmonic turnaround into a gospel styling complete with handclaps and tambourine. A magnificent ending.
Mr Tebbet’s post concert feedback was encouraging as he enthused about the value of singing to the development of musicians, which he considers to be “the essence of music education”. He complimented the choirs on their deportment and encouraged them to “flash their gnashers” and smile when singing. A special mention must be given to the young gentlemen who participated in the choirs and who, although small in number, did a splendid job of representing the guys. Well done chaps!
Gold certificates were awarded to the AHS 5th Year Quintet Plus One, Sandwick Singing Group and Anderson High Vocal Group.
Wednesday morning saw the string players, the class with the most entrants. Given the popularity of traditional Shetland fiddle playing it was perhaps surprising to see the range of styles performed throughout the morning.
Gillian Morrison, Tom Jamieson and Catriona Mullay gave strong performances in the first category and were awarded gold certificates. Later in the morning Sophie Wishart, Ellen Smith, Hannah Adamson and Gary Stove also attained the top award. In the more experienced category the gold awards went to Chapman Cheng and Maggie Adamson, who also received a gold in the Duets class together with Hannah Adamson and Gary Stove. Maggie racked up another gold for her violin composition.
Wednesday afternoon was the solo accordion class; a relatively new addition to the school music curriculum. The accordion is a particularly difficult instrument to master, but the performances delivered on this occasion were testimony to the work put in by the teachers and the students, who made it look effortless.
Mr Tebbet too was hugely impressed and noted that the quality of accordion playing in Shetland is probably the best in the UK.
In accordance he awarded gold certificates to Loris MacDonald, Duncan Stove, Kaylee Mouat, Liza Fullerton, Steven Anderson, Calum Nicolson, Lana Thomson, Calum Irvine and Maggie Adamson.
Wednesday evening offered a continuation of the groups category and began in style with the AHS Orchestra, many of whose members were prizewinners from the previous days. Their luxurious sound befitted the opulent surroundings of the Town Hall and their magnificent performance left me wishing for more. I can’t praise the AHS Orchestra highly enough.
Next up was Fiddle Attraction: 10 fiddlers and a guitarist who swung through a lively set of tunes, often punctuated with pauses and shouts of “Hoy”. An entertaining performance thoroughly enjoyed by the audience.
Then came 20 piece Sandwick Wind Band, whose opening rendition of The Great Escape theme put smiles on faces. Their next tune, La Vida Loca, brought on an impromptu hand jive and singalong among some of the spectators.
Saturday Music Club opened with an intense minor key piece that matched the intense concentration evident on the 24 faces. The arrangements were effective with different sections of the ensemble taking the lead at different times. They took to their feet for the last crescendo and their faces beamed as they left the stage.
This was duly followed by Aith Wind Band for an all too brief appearance. The 12 performers, obviously enjoying themselves, capably bounced through a jazzy set of tunes before exiting stage left.
Then it was time for the intriguingly named Norman and the Folding Deck Chairs led by multi instrumentalist and cool cat, Norman Wilmore. This astonishingly talented jazz combo improvised, swapped instruments, played on the same instruments and generally did the unpredictable. Fantastic to watch and even better to listen to. You really need to see these guys play and girls sing to appreciate their talents. Some of the most gifted young musicians I’ve seen in years.
Aith Clarinet Swingers, four clarinet players, then appeared to deliver versions of This Old man, He Played Swing and Country Gardens which were well received and well executed. A brief but enjoyable outing.
And so to the Scalloway Wind Band who followed with another short yet enjoyable performance. The 10 talented young players made their way onto the stage, giving thumbs up to their watching friends and relatives, played a great set and made a snappy exit.
Next were the New Tradition Seniors. Bedecked in rather splendid trilby hats, the fiddle band effortlessly and confidently strode through sets of well-loved tunes. A prime example of the traditional style that Shetland is famous for.
During his adjudication Mr Tebbet again commented on the high quality of music currently being produced in Shetland and emphasised the importance of playing music together within the community. He awarded gold certificates to New Tradition Seniors, Norman & The Folding Deckchairs, Fiddle Attraction 1, Sandwick Wind Band and the AHS Orchestra.
Thursday morning began with performances from yet more groups. Due to the number of entrants it had not been possible to fit them all into the evening schedules. No problem there though: watching a young band in the Town Hall of a morning is a great start to the day.
First off was S1B; 17 performers playing handchimes in a fashion similar to hand bells. The co-ordination on display was incredible as each performer had only one or two notes to play in each piece, so timing was of the essence.
Second up were 10 piece Fiddle Attraction 2 who, with smiles on their faces launched into a set of pieces with some fascinating arrangements and pizzicato breaks.
Next in line were the Junior New Tradition. This consistently enjoyable group of 20 fiddlers, mandolin and guitar were the first band of the festival to get the whole crowd clapping. A very entertaining performance all round.
Another great turn was the Brae Band. Their line up consisted of fiddle, accordion, mandolin, keys, bass, drums and a 15 voice choir, which provided an interesting mix and full sound. The single piece was a very interesting arrangement. The only disappointment was that they did not play for longer. More next time please!
S2C then took to the stage and their first piece played on hand chimes was a tour de force of teamwork and co-ordination as they produced a sound which was as charming as it was light. They then returned to the stage with a collection of strings, marimba, xylophone, chimebars, sax, trumpet, clarinet, flute: an ambitious and entertaining mix and a fine finale to their set.
The Whalsay Accordian Group then took to the stage for a performance that was all too brief and yet showed that the strength of accordion playing in Whalsay is astonishing. The five young guys projected their music wonderfully and although they only played one tune, they could have played all afternoon, judging by the response they received from the audience.
Coming all the way from Unst, The Musical Monsters displayed an obvious sense of occasion. They appeared on stage wearing zombie make up and played the monster mash: a veritable riot of drums, bass, mandolin, fiddle, keys and piano. Hats off to the mad professor on vocals and his three undead backing singers!
The final performance was by Dark Roses, also from Unst who played the traditional tune Dark Island and in a smart contrast, Guns n Roses’ Sweet Child O Mine, adorned by a great vocal performance.
Adjudicator Mr Tebbet commented on the creativity, innovation and teamwork displayed by the groups and awarded gold certificates to S1B and to the Whalsay Accordian Band.
Thursday afternoon provided more performances of solo vocal, this time by the younger singers and performers from the additional support needs department at the Anderson High School. This section was a hard one to judge. Mr Tebbet gave the gold certificate to Jenny Watt and commented that he had greatly enjoyed all of the performances. I think Megan Petursdottir also deserves to be commended for her heartfelt and plaintive rendition of an Icelandic folk song.
Thursday evening was the final of the Young Musician of the Year competition.
The junior category finalists had been nominated by their music teachers and selected by committee prior to the competition.
First up was Sophie Wishart from Cunningsburgh on piano. She sat down with confidence and smiled at the adjudicator. Her chosen pieces contained some challenging tempo changes and fingerwork which she handled adeptly. A broad grin flashed across her face as she bowed and left the stage.
Next came Hannah Adamson, also from Cunningsburgh, who played the violin. Her performance was characterised by smooth, even bowing, controlled vibrato and clear tone. She explored the full range of her instrument with excellent staccato and pizzicato control.
Within a couple of bars Callum Irvine from Whalsay had toes tapping to his accordion. A real natural with an obvious love of playing, Callum’s nimble finger work and deep concentration was augmented by his happy smile.
Sophie Wishart then returned to the stage, this time to play violin. With her strident, confident bowing she revealed a full dynamic range, moving effortlessly from the delicate to the powerful. And she smiled broadly throughout.
Jonathan Hunter from Whiteness took to the stage to play the piano. Throughout his performance of highly rhythmic pieces he exhibited real concentration and judging by his serious facial expressions was absorbed in the music.
In his adjudication, Mr Tebbet said it had been an honour to witness the performance and that he hoped Shetland would realise how great these young musicians are. He assured the musicians that his decision had been a difficult one and that by making it to the final they had achieved an immense amount.
To great applause and a broad smile from the winner, he announced Sophie Wishart as Junior Young Musician of the Year 2009.
When I asked her how she felt about winning, she answered: “Great! I was a peerie bit nervous but I am really happy.”
After a short break it was time for the final of the senior category.
The senior category finalists were selected based on their earlier performances during the music festival. It had originally been intended that there would be eight finalists, but Mr Tebbet noted that the sheer quantity and quality of performances over the previous days meant he was unable to narrow the field down to less than 10.
The first performance was by Calum Leask from Whiteness on alto saxophone. He composed himself with deep breaths during the opening bars on piano and then blew a big, rich sound. His playing explored a wide dynamic range, building to crescendos. He communicated through his sax like he was conversing with the listeners. He let rip with a full range of runs and arpeggios, taking the opportunity between passages to catch his breath, and displayed a cool economy of motion in his left hand that barely seemed to move during the blistering bebop-esque passages.
Lana Thomson, from Yell, arrived on stage to play the accordion, warmed up and ready to go, having already played that evening at the Accordion and Fiddle Club. Her authoritative yet subtle control of the instrument is amazing to watch and as much as her control of dynamics is remarkable, it’s her sharp, accurate, natural timing that sets her apart from other accordion players. A true natural.
Next on stage was Mairi Coutts from Unst on vocals. Another born performer, she shook off her nerves as she prepared to sing. Her expressive face was captivating and a joy to watch as she smiled her way through her recital. An assured and unselfconscious performer. Mairi has a sense of real control about her and her power filled the Town Hall. I’ve had her second piece Johnny One Note stuck in my head for days.
And so to Mathew Scollay from Gulberwick on piano. He began his short, powerful set with a piece which was intense, discordant, pounding and moody. This he followed with a hard swinging tune with a modal harmonic structure that showed him to be a gifted player.
Next was Callum Nicholson, also from Gulberwick, on accordion, to deliver a really strong set. Tutored by his father, the great Alan Nicholson, Callum’s commanding left hand supplemented his agile right. During the cascading triplets his fingers were a blur. So much so that this reviewer fully expected to see them in knots when they became visible once again during the slower passages. The playing was superb and Callum’s co-ordination is second to none.
Harry Whitham, from Whiteness, resplendent in bright orange hair which, if memory serves, had been bleach blonde the day before, appeared next to sing. His performance was a real pleasure to watch as he really sold the song, with his fantastic diction and excellent dynamic control.
Scott Leask, younger brother of co-finalist Callum from Whiteness, played alto sax. He created a warm, open sound, as he negotiated some really challenging runs, punctuating with good tonguing and phrasing before taking a well needed breath at the end.
Miriam Veenhuizen from Sandness was next. With her big charming smiles, delicate trills and clean fingering she played recorder like I have never heard before. Her set was funky and jazzy and she pulled off the kind of technically demanding runs that an accomplished sax player would be proud of. Miriam has recorder chops!
Erin Sandison, a singer from Scalloway, gracefully glided on stage with a melancholy look on her face. Her first piece, a beautiful lamenting aria, was a well-chosen showcase for her wide vocal and dynamic range, and her delivery was filled with passion. Her second piece, the iconic Lady is a Tramp, completely changed the mood as she became vivacious and spirited. Erin was in complete control of her voice throughout and her performance was flawless.
Chapman Cheng from Gulberwick really makes the violin sing. Sweet, and smooth with wide vibrato, his playing revealed the kind of technical abilities you would expect from a young man who clearly puts in some practice.
And so to the adjudication. Mr Tebbet commented that Shetland musicians are world class and that his decision had been an incredibly tough one to make. With baited breath the assembled crowd waited to hear the result: this year’ss Senior Young Musician of the Year is Erin Sandison.
Afterwards, Erin told me how “chuffed” she was. “I’ve put in a lot of work and I’ve been really busy with exams comin’ up too. But it’s been worth it.”
Friday morning was a continuation of the piano classes and the last of the adjudicated sessions. First up was the solo category where a huge amount of talent was displayed, with Mr Tebbet giving gold awards to Kirsten Napier, Kirsty Uttley and Sophie Wishart.
In the following duets class there were some truly engaging performances as the musicians sat together at the same piano. The standard of playing was reflected in the number of gold level awards, which went to Matthew Scollay with Norman Wilmore, Debbie Adamson with Hannah Adamson, Sarah Adamson with Sophie Wishart, Loris MacDonald with Michaela Sutherland, Kirsty Uttley with Lynsey Morrison, Chelsea Jamieson with Karis Burns and Shannon Kerr with Holly King.
In his final official adjudication, Mr Tebbet was his usual positive self, and congratulated each performer and encouraged them to keep playing and practicing.
The trophy winners are as follows: The Kay Cup (Piano Solo) – Kirsten Napier, Sandwick JHS; Roesound Trophy (Piano Solo) – Lana Thomson, AHS; Senior Cup for Piano Solo – Maggie Adamson, AHS; Piano Duet Senior – Norman Wilmore & Matthew Scollay, Aith JHS and AHS; Woodwind Solo Cup – Calum Leask, AHS; Woodwind Duet – Calum Leask and Scott Leask, AHS; Brass Solo Cup – Megan Govier, AHS; Henderson Cup – Maggie Adamson, AHS; String Duet Cup – Maggie Adamson & Chapman Cheng, AHS; Vocal Solo Cup – Erin Sandison, AHS; Vocal Duet Shield – Kirsteen Mullay & Claire Laurenson, Brae High Shield; Accordian Solo Shield – Calum Nicolson, AHS; Secondary Classroom Groups Shield – S1B, Sandwick JHS; Ensemble Trophy (Small Groups) – Norman and the Folding Deck Chairs, Aith JHS, SandwickJHS, AHS; Secondary Instrumental Ensemble Shield (Large Groups) – AHS Orchestra; Josephine McRae Memorial Trophy (Choirs) – 5th Year Quintet +1, AHS; Willie Hunter Memorial Cup (Traditional Group) – Tunester, AHS; Young Musician of the Year (Junior) – Sophie Wishart, Cunningsburgh Primary; Young Musician of the Year (Senior) – Erin Sandison, AHS; Festival Cup (Outstanding Individual/Group) – Ellen Smith, AHS; Schools Shield (Notable overall contribution from a school) Anderson High School (ASN Dept) & Sandwick JHS.
Bryan Peterson is Shetland Arts’ music development officer.