For Auld Lang Syne: St Albans Symphony Orchestra plan a New Year Scots celebration

20th December 2007

Scots wa’hae! The traditional New Years Day Family Concert in St Albans Abbey is turning tartan to welcome 2008 – with possibly the most unusual soloist that the St Albans Symphony Orchestra has ever accompanied in its 75-year history (7pm, Tuesday January 1st).

Highland bagpiper Steve McGuinness, a Chief Technician with the RAF Music Service in West London, will perform while processing to the front of the orchestra at the climax of Orkney Wedding with Sunrise by Sir Peter Maxwell-Davies. Although originally from Northern Ireland, Steve learned to play the Scottish pipes as a child and has twice performed at the Edinburgh Tattoo, as well as the Royal Tournament and for members of the Royal Family. The Maxwell-Davies music vividly describes an increasingly drunken wedding feast on the composer’s home island, where guests eventually stagger out to witness the sun rising over the Scottish mainland.

There is, supposedly, no word in old Gaelic for ‘dancing’, but this has never deterred the Scots; nor English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold whose Four Scottish Dances will also be performed. These include a traditional strathspey, highland fling and a reel with a hint that some dancers, like the Orkney wedding guests, may have imbibed a few too many drams.

On a more sober note, the concert, conducted James Ross, includes The Land of the Mountain and the Flood by the late 19th century composer Hamish MacCunn, who took verses by Sir Walter Scott as his inspiration. MacCunn, the son of a Clyde ship owner, never quite equalled the success of this rugged musical depiction of the Scottish countryside. It achieved a mass audience in the 1970s as the theme for the BBC TV series ‘Sutherland’s Law’.

Sir Walter Scott’s writings feature a second time in the concert, portrayed in the Rob Roy overture by Hector Berlioz. Despite an authentically Scottish opening, it was sketched on the French Riviera in 1831 and completed in Italy. Another Frenchman, Claude Debussy, composing 60 years later, was surprised to be visited in Paris by a Scottish General who commissioned him to write his Marche Ecossaise, based on a folk tune.

Guiseppe Verdi, adding a ballet for the Paris premiere of his opera Macbeth, worked with nothing more Scottish than Shakespeare’s play. He, nevertheless, succeeded in conjuring up scenes of witches cavorting round cauldrons and a waltzing ‘danse macabre’. Felix Mendelssohn, on the other hand, had the real-life inspiration of his 1830 visit to the isle of Staffa and its famous cavern, Fingal’s Cave, to inspire the ever-popular overture, The Hebrides.

By tradition, the St Albans New Year Concert will end with audience participation in Johann Strauss the elder’s Radetsky March by. On this special occasion, however, those present will also be asked to sing, raising their voices for an appropriately Scottish ‘encore’…

Tickets price £18, £15, £10 and £5 (Under-18s £1, Students £5) are available from the SASO Ticket Secretary (01727 857422), the Abbey Box Office (01727 860780) or on the door.