Billy Budd crit. The Scotsman; David Kettle

With designer Leslie Travers’s shabby-chic set, all curling floorboards and distressed paintwork, director Orpha Phelan’s fine production of Britten’s great nautical tragedy for Opera North placed us firmly inside the mind and regretful memories of the aloof Captain Vere. Which felt only right, given Alan Oke’s quietly commanding performance in the role, the still point around which everything orbited – detached at times, yes, but also tracing a brilliantly believable arc from duty to despair to redemption. Billy Budd **** Edinburgh Festival Theatre There were equally fine performances from Roderick Williams in wonderfully rich voice as a surprisingly sturdy, thoroughly likeable Billy, and Alastair Miles, gratifyingly balanced as the sinister Claggart, deeply unsettling in his manipulations of the young and vulnerable, but far from a panto villain in his struggles with his own deep damage. Indeed, Phelan’s honest, intelligent production achieves a fine sense of balance with Britten and librettist EM Forster’s homoerotic subtext, never concealing it, but never overplaying it either – instead leaving it to fester under the surface, and to inform both the opera’s warm, seafaring camaraderie and its darker moments. Two elements really stood out: first, Opera North’s superb chorus, wonderfully roof-raising in the opera’s aborted battle scene but equally eloquent in its ominous opening; and second, Opera North’s equally superb orchestra, which delivered a brilliantly vivid, sharply etched account under conductor Garry Walker, full of surging drama and also moments of exquisite contemplation. This is a glorious, thoughtful production, as strong on technical accomplishment as it is on insight.
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Red Letter Day

Probably because I seem to be always horrendously busy, I've been very bad at making blog posts, but I thought I'd include the following from a rare day off. 


Ocassionally, just occasionally, you get settled periods of cold clear weather in a Scottish winter; days that guarantee that you are not going to have to worry about compass, white-outs, wind roaring in your ears and spindrift exfoliating your face.


In March, one of those weather windows opened, and even more astonishingly I had a bit of time off. The East Coast was fog bound, but we were assured that the west coast was clear. Having stopped for a coffee at Tyndrum in grey mist, I had thought we were going to be cheated, but, as we went round the corner and up the side of Ben Dorian, the mist simply stopped, and ahead of us was clear, crisp blue sky.....


As we raced across the Great Moor of Rannoch, we got more and more excited. The Big Buachaille looked absolutely fantastic. 


Our destination was the little Buachaille, and it provided us with one of the most extraordinary days in the hills in recent years. You could see all the way from the Skye Cuillin to the Paps of Jura to the Cairngorms and Schiehallion.


Let the pictures tell a thousand stories!! 


Billy Budd

The last few months have been very hectic with work; hence the reason for a reasonably long silence on this post. We are getting towards the sharp end of Billy Budd with Opera North, and I am very hopeful that it'll be a success. It helps, of course, when you have  fantastic people around you to make everything work, and a real sense of teamwork.

Despite the claustrophobic nature of the settings for Britten's operas (boats, small communities, isolated country houses) the atmosphere throughout production has been very happy and good humoured. 


Good music making is not rocket science; it simply requires talented people; a passion for what they do; a willingness to collaborate; a desire to give of their best; and good material to work with.  

New Video

I've posted a new video online of me doing Ross Harris' Violin Concerto wth the Auckland Philharmonia and Ilya Gringolts. It's coming out on Naxos. It's a very difficult piece, with numerous tricky tempo changes and temporal relationships, but it's a really fabulous performance, and really tight.


The next couple of months sees me totalling up large numbers of air miles with trips to Australia, New Zealand, Rome, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and even Glasgow. All very exciting projects, with repertoire as diverse as Brahms and Bartok, Mendelssohn and Ades, Chopin and Prokofiev, Brett Dean and Hamish MacCunn. There is also an interplanetary journey with Holst, which will be paid for through the air miles I am accruing.....

A personal tribute to the Sea King (and their pilots).

"August 15 Walker, (25) injured leg on steep path on south side of Ben Vrackie. Rescue by RN Sea King.Taypol S and R. Kinross MRT. 40 [man hours]

August 15 Paramedic descending from above rescue twisted knee and was aided down to a Land Rover by Kinloss MRT." 


Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal, 2000. 




"I'm off," was all he said,not shouted, as he slid down the crumbling gully, gathering speed. Then he simply went airborne before hitting, out of view, the scree slope below.  He burst into sight again in a cloud of dust and sulphur.


"Are you alright?" I shouted, partly angry, partly worried and more than partly desperate. It was a silly question.

A very pained no was the reply. 

"You stay there .....[as if he was going to nip off for a cup of tea]..... And I'll get help." 

I remember the waves of panic. Not only was my friend possibly very badly injured, but, as far as I knew, I was the only one to witness the accident. If I fell off, then no-one might ever know. The gully had become hellishly loose the higher we had gone. The SMC accident report  mentions a steep path. There was no path. This was virgin territory, and I could see why. Fighting off the waves, I steadily went higher until, quite soon I seem to remember, there was a way off right onto heather and the open hillside. I recall being incredibly out of breath. It wasn't exertion; simply horror. I met our two girlfriends on the path on the way down, though I had been shouting towards them from a long way off. They had gone up the tourist route; we had looked for a bit of adventure, and certainly found it. I don't remember at all getting down to the lochan, but I do remember seeing with some relief two guys already attending to my friend on the scree slopes about 50 metres higher up.


"Your friend's very badly injured!" was shouted down. Somehow this is the sentence that I remember the best from the whole day; it still chills me. I mistook the concern in his voice for anger, as if the accident was my fault. Until that point, this was my own private dream with people in it that I knew. When a stranger's voice entered it, I knew it wasn't a dream.

"I'll go and get help," said one of the men. "I live in the village. I'll phone." I'd like to say it was the day before mobile phones, but it wasn't. We all had phones, but no-one thought to take them up such an innocuous hill.

When I got to him, I remember my friend looking remarkably pale. His lips were the same colour as his skin, and his eyes had a curiously distant look. We tried to move him, as he was in considerable pain lying on sharp large scree stones. He immediately passed out when we lifted him ,but thank god came-to almost as quickly. I shan't dwell on the injuries. The most serious we were not aware of. The most obvious were, well, obvious. "Injured leg," as the SMC   Report mentions doesn't do it justice, and anyway, it was both legs.

I will never forget his quiet bravery and calm. Maybe there is no other way to be. I remember my only determination was that he wasn't going to sleep. We were rather slow to realise that he was getting dangerously cold. It was August, and a reasonably pleasant day, but at 2500ft and being stationery, it doesn't take long to chill. I recall being unusually preoccupied with the weather, and particularly some grumbling clouds to the west. We put as many things on top of him, underneath him and around his head as possible. There was no possibility of dressing him.

Time seems to have contracted over the years. It doesn't seem long now before we could see two police officers, one male, one female, and a rather large gentleman dressed all in green, coming round the lochan. I remember the intense frustration of how totally ill at ease they were on the terrain. They were wearing Dr Martin type shoes, with soles that are better suited not to make indentations on old ladies' shag pile carpets. The male police officer was perhaps not in his first flush of youth. The female officer stayed with the Jolly Green Giant who was taking an absolute age to get to us. It was hardly a surprise; the terrain was horrendous and very loose.

It never struck me at the time that this wasn't the rescue party. I naively thought it was. This was the party to co-ordinate the rescue, but as I assumed this was "the help" I started to get increasingly frantic. I guess because I was in a state of shock, or perhaps because I now just don't remember the detail, I don't think I ever asked the PC "Is there any back-up?" For some reason I think I became aware that the RAF Mountain Rescue Team were training nearby. This elderly police officer, his colleague below and the paramedic were all that I thought we had. I am ashamed that I felt so frustrated at the time. I now realise just how important the police and paramedic were to the situation (the radio link was presumably absolutely crucial) and I apologise for my black thoughts at the time. If memory serves me right, I didn't express my silly concerns to them!


The paramedic never seemed to get any closer. The guy who had run for help had rejoined us, and was carrying the emergency kit-bag. Just a couple of metres below us, the paramedic suddenly started to scream. The police officer went straight onto his radio.


"The paramedic is having some sort of seizure, I repeat, seizure. "

In a moment of gallows humour that my barely conscious friend seemed always to remember, I apparently said, "Christ. That's all we need. The paramedic needs a paramedic." 

"I'm no havin'  a f***ing seizure!" came a rather strangulated response from the not so Jolly Green Giant. " I've twisted my f***ing knee."

By this point, I'd lost almost all hope. Everything seemed against us. There were spits and spots of rain. My friend had gone a rather unpleasant grey colour, and we seemed no nearer effecting a rescue.


Then everything changed. The policeman's radio crackled with something about HMS Gannet, and then we heard the Sea King inbound. It flew around the hill, then came back much nearer. Then, it started to drift in crab-like towards us. The noise was tremendous; the downdraft very frightening. I was acutely aware of how close the helicopter's rotars were to the cliff face, and the consequences of having 10 tonnes of flying machine above us if those rotars should come into contact with the rock face.  Down came a man on the winch with a stretcher,spinning like a 78 record, and the helicopter disappeared off again. His professionalism and calmness immediately put me at ease. The paramedic had bravely crawled to assist us by now, but had had no luck finding a vein. The winchman was completely focused. We were all asked to help lift my friend onto the stretcher; he immediately passed out. For reasons I still don't remember (maybe we were asked to go down by the police?) we left the winchman, my friend, his girlfriend and the male police officer at this stage, and descended towards the lochan. The helicopter came in again. From this angle, looking back up at the cliffs, it seemed even more impossibly close the the wall. I remember thinking that it was an extraordinary piece of flying. I think it was the only time I cried. The sheer selflessness of putting oneself, one's crew and the emergency services in danger in order to help an injured stranger still astonishes me today.


I wasn't party to the conversation of the winchman at that point clearly, but I was told he said, " We're losing him. Ninewells, not Perth," and he advised my friend's girlfriend that there wasn't time to take her with them in the chopper.

Up went the stretcher; I remember the winchman using his feet to push against some of the smaller outcrops. And then, it all went silent as the Sea King wheeled off eastwards. I seem to remember it was 17 minutes to Ninewells, but that might be wrong. 

We walked down the hill,  dazed and exhausted by the whole experience. The RAF Mountain Recue were waiting, on standby in case the helicopter had failed to gather its quarry. The ambulance was a bit lower, and had got stuck in the mud. The winch on the Rescue Truck was used to shift it, but not after quite a struggle and a distinct burning smell. The cable may even have snapped.



They didn't lose him; neither did we. But it was all thanks to the extraordinary flying of the pilots, the professionalism and bravery of the winchman, the co-ordination of Taypol, the determination of the paramedic and the fly-ability and reliability of the Sea King that resulted in us not losing him. For the emergency services, and particularly MRT and S and R, this is their everyday reality. But for my friend, it is a lifetime.

We thank them from the bottom of our hearts, and salute their bravery, brilliance and skill.


So, as the Sea Kings are retired, I raise a glass, quite literally, to them and all who flew in them. 



I've just had a wonderful week in Berlin doing concerts as part of the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Hochscülen Wettbewerb. What an incredible standard of musicianship from all involved. A real joy to be part of. The NRW ORCHESTER ZENTRUM were absolutely fantastic, and delivered 2 amazing, spirited concerts which were very well received. Berlin, as ever, was an inspiring city. One really feels the history there.

Scotland; the most expensive place to live in the UK

Can I just say categorically that I am not anti-tax. Nor am I against richer people having to pay more. I'd happily advocate the return of the 50% band, and I'd also advocate the removal of benefits such a Winter Fuel Allowance for those above a certain income threshold. I'd also levy tax on those who own more than one house.At the same time, people who earn more pay more in tax by, ehm, earning more, so there is a balance.

None of the above could be considered Conservative policy.

For many years, people have talked about a North/South divide in the UK in terms of wages and power, and if you've ever been to London, you certainly know it's true.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy a family house for, say £400 000, in London, this would cost you £ 10 000 in stamp duty. (2% up to the value of £250 000 from £125000 ,i.e £2.5k, plus 5% on the 150k above 250k, i.e £7500).

In Scotland, it'll cost you £16 400 ( 2% up to £250 000 from £180000 i.e 1400, then 10% on the remaining £150k, ie 15 000).

That's £6400 more in Scotland than in England.

With house prices inflating at 10% in the last year, and an already grossly inflated Edinburgh and Aberdeen housing market, a house of over £400000 is for some not a vanity choice, but a necessity.

The poor middle class, I hear you sobbing unsympathetically.Well, George Osborne has now made stamp duty 5% cheaper in England than in Scotland for all properties above £250 000, and I'd suggest that affects a much bigger demographic than just the middle class.

Remember, your mortgage won't cover the stamp duty, as banks will only lend as a proportion to Home Report Value so you'll have to fund that out of your savings. AND, when interest rates increase (which they will) you'll have fewer savings to offset the pain of the increased repayments.

The SNP, and indeed a wider community, has moaned about Westminster and a North/South wealth divide. Now you can say the Scottish Government has helped widen it.

Scotland; a more expensive place to live than England.

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Why the Scottish Government shouldn't give £1m to golf

I write this from the perspective of someone who loves Golf. I respect its history, am delighted its origins are Scottish, love that it is a game largely free from cheating and drug problems, and where the rules, and sportsmanship, are held so highly. You'll never see a golfer diving in the box.

I am also not anti-wealth. People with outstanding skills, at the top of their game, should be rewarded according to the market. The problem is when the market stops functioning, or has no relationship to the reality of the world around it.

Have you ever heard of Morten Madsen? Probably not. Well, he won 63 000 euros at the Portugal Open for coming joint 4th. He's earned over half a million euros in the last year, and he's currently 191st in the World Golf Rankings.

Not bad for a golfer you're unlikely to have heard of.

Like many golfers, he's probably sponsored. He'll wear branded clothing advertising golfing manufacturers, sun glasses, banks, finance companies, cars or holiday destinations, often simultaneosly. If he's good enough, he'll be paid just to turn up at an event with "appearance money."

Yesterday, I read that the Scottish Government has helped secure the future of the Scottish Open by giving it £1 million pounds of taxpayers money each year until 2020. Prize money for 2015 is £3 million, then it'll rise to £4 million by 2018.

Many will say that that this million pound investment is a good investment. The Scottish Open is a big event, people travel to it, they stay in hotels, they drink beer and then (presumably under the influence of the beer) buy bad jumpers and even more ridiculous trousers.The Scottish Open gives people an outlet to spend their money, which is good for the (service) economy.

I say that Golf can look after itself. There have been a lot of column inches about how the golf world has struggled since the Credit Crunch. As long as there is prize money of £3 million for a single (relatively small) event, there isn't a problem as far as I'm concerned. Something like The Open will have prize money in the region of £5.4 million. There are 51 events advertised on the European Tour website in 2014. The Sponsors include BMW, HSBC, Rolex, Aberdeen Asset Management. Strikes me that Golf might be struggling to increase the prize money at an above inflation rate, but if prize-money was cut by 10%, presumable poor old Morten would only have received 450 000 euros.It doesn't seem to me that professional golf is struggling. It seems to me that it can look after itself.

Others will say that if the Scottish Government hadn't stepped in, the European Tour would have threatened to remove the Scottish Open from the calendar. Here is the real problem. Whether it's banks or Insurance Companies or Sport, governments are threatened, almost blackmailed, by business. How many times have we heard, "You can't increase tax on those who earn over £150 000, or all the talent will leave the country." "If you don't subsidise this event, it'll not happen."

I say, let the Scottish Open leave if it threatens to leave. I think the tour would be poorer off without the event. If golf is struggling, then it shouldn't have to threaten to withdraw events; it should be grateful that the event is happening at all.

I think that tax payers money should be used to the benefit of the tax payer. Schools, hospitals, public services  (maybe even the Arts!!)....all the things that we're being told that there just isn't the money for.


But there's enough money to boost the prize money for a golf tournament from £3 million to £4 million, right?