Inspiration from Belarus

Sarah Urwin Jones talks to composer and RSNO Principal Horn Christopher Gough, Principal Cello Aleksei Kiseliov and CEO Alistair Mackie about the performance of three Belarusian folk songs in our Digital Season.

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!”

He decided that each day he would show Kiseliov the movement he’d been working on the night before. “When I showed him the first movement, he was really excited and seemed to love it, which really propelled me forwards to the next one.” When it came to that momentous first – and only – orchestral rehearsal, he found his wider nerves ill-founded. “A lot of my colleagues came up to tell me quite candidly that they had enjoyed playing it, which was so heartwarming.”

Gough has written the piece in three parts, opening atmospherically with pinched percussion and the voice of the cello. This first folk song, Leciele zurauli ('Oh the flying cranes'), pits the cello – the voice of the people, effectively – against the orchestral voice of the state, first in harmony, then at odds until it ends in musical violence. “There is a place in the first movement which seems to describe this situation of clashes between police and people. I knew straight away how to play it,” says Kiseliov, when we talk on the phone later that day. “What I saw in the score, I immediately had this idea of how I was going to do it. I didn’t have any doubts. The first tune itself, it is a folk tune, it already speaks to me from that respect, but also it is just so well written. If we as musicians understand the language of the music, we can tell the story when we play.”

The second movement, based on the folk song Sztoj pa moru ('There by the sea') is fast paced, more fun, says Gough. “But it is more the last song, Kupalinka, that's the emotional centre of the piece,” says Kiseliov, of the well-loved Belarusian folk song that has become an informal anthem of the protesters.

It begins with a haunting cadenza on the cello. “It’s like a song of sorrow. It is as if someone is standing on a battlefield after a battle has ended, with everything in front of them. And that one lonely voice carries the weight of everything that has happened,” says Kiseliov.

For the cellist, the experience of having an orchestral colleague write a piece for him was “my dream came true. I’ve never had a piece written for me, and I would never have thought that these would be the circumstances. I felt quite a responsibility. As a musician, I am not in Belarus, I do not know what it is like. But I am able to play the cello as sign of solidarity. It was a privilege to be able to do something with the music that maybe will not change things there, but will help people remember what happened.”

© Sarah Urwin Jones

Watch the performance of the three Belarusian Folk Songs as part of our Digital Season: Beethoven Symphony No6 Pastoral concert.

Three Belarusian Folk Songs launches the RSNO’s Scotch Snaps series, celebrating established and emerging composers born or living in Scotland. Scotch Snaps is supported by the John Ellerman Foundation.

The RSNO’s performance of Penderecki Adagio for Strings, Belarusian Folk Songs and Beethoven Symphony No6 Pastoral was released on 4 December 2020. The concert was partially supported by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Edinburgh and Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the international cultural programme marking the centenary of Poland’s regained independence. Financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland as part of the multi-annual NIEPODLEGŁA programme 2017-2022.

© Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2020