It is perhaps a rare thing, in this year of Covid, for a cancellation to lead to something positive. But that is exactly what happened to the RSNO, earlier this year, when a last minute programme withdrawal, due to coronavirus, meant that the Orchestra had a 15 minute hole in the programme for one of their concerts.
As the news channels, beyond reports of a coronavirus resurgence, were filled with footage of the aftermath of the disputed election in Belarus, and the increasingly brutal and internationally condemned police dispersal of those peacefully protesting for democracy, the idea of a gesture of solidarity with the people in Belarus arose, driven not least by the presence in the Orchestra of Aleksei Kiseliov, the Belarusian Principal Cello.
“Conversations about democracy are very relevant in our times, and I do believe culture should be connected to these conversations,” Chief Executive Alistair Mackie tells me by phone, on his way back to Glasgow one wintry evening. The first thought, he tells me, was for Aleksei to play a piece of Belarusian cello music. Time was short, with just two weeks until the performance. But when the search proved fruitless, they began to think more creatively.
“I don't think we’d have done this in a normal Season. It’s one of the opportunities of the moment,” says Alistair Mackie, of the moment they decided to approach Principal Horn and composer Christopher Gough to arrange some Belarusian folk songs for cello and orchestra.
Gough laughs at the memory. “The original idea was simply to play a couple of folk songs to show Aleksei’s solidarity with what was going on. I think Alistair was just hoping I’d be able to do some basic arrangements – I only had a week! – but when I looked at it, I thought I could inject a bit of the subtext of what’s going on in Belarus into the songs. Hopefully it’s a bit more powerful,” says Gough.
The result is an evocative series of three songs without words based on folk tunes but given a haunting atmosphere by Gough, an allegory for conflict between state and people. Gough’s guiding principle was to create something “a bit more film music-y, a bit more thematic, trying to paint a picture, as well as a form of protest.” He started watching film footage of the Belarusian protests, and heard from Kiseliov about musicians in Belarus who had been taken out of rehearsals and arrested for allegedly being seen at a peaceful protest. His musical touchstone was Laboratorium Piesni, a polyphonic, all-female Polish folk music group who concentrate on northern European and Russian song.
“A lot is in the percussion. There’s quite a lot of use of finger cymbals and low drums, so I used that in my piece to create the sound. But more than anything else, I took the vocal quality from it. The opening of my piece is a kind of chant from the cello, and Aleksei tries to replicate the human voice. We spoke quite a lot about it.”
Gough says the nerves that come with writing for one’s colleagues very much put the pressure on. “It was the first time I’d been asked to write something for the Orchestra. Mainly I was worried about what my colleagues were going to think – I didn’t want to give them anything to complain about! And I really wanted to write something they would enjoy playing. I had some very late nights – we were recording that week too, so it was full on!”