By Michael Grey

Silver Chanter (August 7)

The 55th MacCrimmon recital for the Silver Chanter was a fitting start to this year’s Piping Live! festival. With six pipers from among our very best, a well-lit stage and a breathing, drinking, honest-to-goodness live audience, festival organisers chose well. Of course, this year – a full-on global pandemic year – technology was again leaned on to connect the many from around the world unable to travel. And so what was presented Saturday, August 7 at the National Piping Centre’s Glasgow city centre hq was a sort of dual event: on the one hand, an intimate formal setting of cabaret-style seating, candle-light, bar service and an audience of music-lovers tarted up to the nines and on the other, the online crowd, those, maybe like me, sitting in a humid back garden in shorts and taking in the event through a thin film transistor liquid crystal display and small speakers buried under a keyboard.

This year’s Silver Chanter offered two very different experiences; I can only speak to the latter.

Finlay MacDonald, Piping Live! Artistic Director, kicked off proceedings. It seems to me a lot of credit and thanks has to go to Finlay and the team of people that made this year’s festival happen … and I’ll mark that as an understatement. To move forward with a festival like this in the face of a raft of ever-changing government restrictions and general uncertainty about pretty much anything – from funding to face masks – well, more than a little chutzpah is needed. That and an unshakeable vision of what can be. A gallus effort all round.

Colin MacLellan took on the role of this year’s fear an tighe. To knit together any evening’s entertainment presented by pipers is an especially daunting task. The natural capriciousness of our four-reed instrument along with the nerve-wracking intensity of competition, are two of the makings of a programme potentially fraught with unplanned gaps. Preparation along with quick thinking is the only way around the challenge. Colin helped deliver a smooth-running show with plenty of insight and stories related to both the tunes and the competition.

The pipers, their tunes and playing order:

  1. Stuart Liddell (Lament for the Only Son)
  2. Iain Speirs (Lament for Macleod of Colbecks)
  3. Finlay Johnston (Lament for the Children)
  4. Callum Beaumont (Lament for the Earl of Antrim)
  5. Glenn Brown (Rory McLoude’s Lament)
  6. Angus MacColl (Lament for Mary MacLeod)

The playing on the evening was just as you should expect: uniformly excellent. Each piper laid out one compositional masterpiece after another with mastery and confidence. Each instrument came through as resonant and tuneful, even through a keyboard, with overall bagpipe pitch ranging (for the tuning nerds) from 478 to 484 Hz. It was almost spooky – in a good way – to hear an audience clapping in appreciation (versus the far spookier hollow silence of last year’s empty-seated event).

Colin mentioned mid-way through the show he had at first envied Jack Taylor’s judging task over his own on-stage MC role; the level of high performance that transpired quickly changed his mind. The final recitalist of the night was Angus MacColl and his rendition of Lament for Mary MacLeod scored the big prize.

The last live competition for some of the pipers was last October’s Glenfiddich contest. It’s remarkable to think that the high level of play on display at this year’s Silver Chanter came on the heels of such a long absence from public performance. It’s a testament to the talent and temperament of the evening’s pipers. And for that, we’re grateful.

Events like the Silver Chanter are absolutely critical to a thriving level of superbness in the playing of the music of the Great Highland Bagpipe, especially when it comes to piobaireachd. Performance platforms of the kind offered by events like the Silver Chanter help ensure masters cultivate and continually fine-tune skills. It is in their benchmark musicianship that the competitive piping world marks itself. The Silver Chanter, The Northern Meeting, The Argyllshire Gathering and, of course, The Glenfiddich – as well as the other premier events we have, act collectively as a sort of mortar to the bricks of mainstream piping: they help bind us and keep us right.

A call-out to the William Grant Foundation, a redoubtable supporter of piping, who helped ensure this year’s Silver Chanter came to life, as it surely did: both in-person in formal evening dress – and online, in shorts.

Piping Degree Showcase – Royal Conservatoire Scotland BMus – August 8

From Saturday evening’s classic music performed by master players to Sunday afternoon and a feast of tunes from budding greats. As part of the festival the National Piping Centre (NPC) hosted an online showcase featuring players from the current Royal Conservatoire Scotland’s (RCS) Bachelor of Music programme. From years one to four a slice of programme life was laid out in all its euphonious glory.

As I started to take in the show I found myself making small notes like a piping judge might: cutting out here, errors part four, that sort of thing. Then, with a figurative face slap, I stopped. This show is a celebration of learned skills. Some new. Some old but now polished. And across the programme a few experimental risks that are surely the domain of true students of any art. So there’ll be no notes on missed ‘introductions’ (aside from this: there were none) or bourgeois error-noting.

As a piper from away, I must confess my envy of Scotland’s approach to music especially the traditional kind. Sunday’s show is clear evidence that both the NPC and the higher levels on offer at RCS have gone a long way to help create today’s vibrant piping scene. We need to acknowledge the visionaries who worked to make this happen. There’s too many to mention here.

With the show kicked off by a good old march, strathspey and reel, those in the first and second years of the programme showed confidence and skill – and an abiding love for the tunes of Pipe Major Donald MacLeod. His tasty, The Glasgow Skye Association Centenary Gathering from his book five was played with gusto, followed by Inveraray Castle and another from MacLeod, Neil Angus MacDonald. Based on this and other sets that followed there’s no doubt whose books are the most piper-worn in the NPC music book library.

Year one’s second set was an intriguing mix of old and new (a note to the person who provided notes to the video editor: while he certainly had the talent to do so, Donald MacLeod did not compose The Rothiemurchus Rant, Miss Drummond of Perth or The Goat Herd (sic). But he did, of course, compose The Cockerel in the Creel. Following a rich and attractive harmonic effect in you-know-who’s air, Tomnahurich, the group fell into one of my favourite pipe band effects, the gradual tempo build: poco a poco, in The Cockerel in the Creel. The gradual integration of sustained chords layered the melody – like ‘pads’ from a keyboard. The effect was completely pleasing and put me to mind of a harmonium.

Year two folks were in 19th century music mode. Their sets featured old arrangements of tunes played in imagined 19th century style. Willie Ross’ generally accepted competition setting of the strathspey, Struan Robertson, for instance, is a long way from William Gunn’s My Regard is for Donald (Donul Eachinn). The group performed it beautifully alongside The Blue Bonnet (aka Highland Harry). I can think of a few step-dancers I know who would, without doubt, be clicking their heels to these stylings.

The RCS drummer’s fanfare was both rhythmically and visually appealing with a dynamic display of percussion and back-sticking marvels leading into an explosion of finger dexterity featuring a set of Gordon Duncan’s tunes from a third year duet.

In a way the stars of the show were the graduating class. They did not disappoint. Their first set of tunes rocked with a high octane (think petrol) set beginning with Exploding Haggis (Isla Jane Stout), Scenario Boy (Alastair MacLean) and Veronique’s Jig (Kenneth MacFarlane). The team drew on the effect of rest – stopping and starting – and delivered a happy rhythmic vibe successfully.

The second set was four minutes of full-on tempo. Control (Calum Brown) started it off. Not many sets of hands in the world can manage this mighty technical monster with C and F naturally liberally peppering the score. The groove might be described as halfway between the Balkans and Brittany. Engrained in the Tread (Kenneth MacFarlane) and Sophie’s (Bradley Parker) had fingers flying and generating exciting musical energy. This was among the highlights of the show.

The third and fourth years joined forces for the closing set reel-filled medley that started of with a tuneful and flowing air, Alexander MacDonald’s Farewell to the Monarch Light (Niall Matheson).

Even online the show left me wanting more. So, as entertainers, their mission was accomplished. And all that in a year filled with relentless challenge.

Now if only I knew all your names. A note to producers to consider a couple of things next time: consider an MC. Nothing fancy, just introduction of sets, or even a voice-over at the right time. Performer’s names at least in the closing credits or in sub-titles would have been welcome.

And finally, not meaning to be ‘that guy’, the one shaking his fist in the air and complaining, but what about a little stage decoration? I kept thinking how cool the cast would look with lights subdued and all dressed as, say, Leonard Cohen, at his height (yes: Fedora versus Glengarry).

On that, Hallelujah! You done well, RCS degree performers!

• One of today’s foremost pipers, Michael Grey has been a member of the 78th Fraser Highlanders (a founding member), Peel Regional Police, Toronto Police and Glasgow Police. He has published seven volumes of original pipe music Michael’s new book, Grey’s Notes on a Life Around Bagpipes, will be launched on Thursday at the National Piping Centre (at 6.00pm).