The Sounds of Scottish Island Music
Professor Joe Goldblatt
The several hundred primary school children gathered in a gymnasium in Kirkwall, Orkney recently and as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra performed a lively tarantella they spontaneously raised their arms as if holding a conductor’s baton and began leading the orchestra. Their engagement and enthusiasm reminded me of my own early experience with a live orchestra.
Aunt Sara invited me and my sister to join her and our cousin Ricky for a Concert for Young People at the State Fair Music Hall. The Music Hall was a vast auditorium seating over 4000 audience members. This concert featured the very popular American children’s television star who was known as the beloved Captain Kangaroo. For decades, the Captain entertained millions of children along with his human friend Mr Green Jeans, and puppets Mr Moose and Bunny Rabbit.
As soon as we took our seats in the rear stalls, a distinguished gentleman strode onto the huge stage, placed his fingers to his lips to encourage us to become quiet and then welcomed us to what for many was their first ever live concert with a symphony orchestra. He then asked us if anyone had seen Captain Kangaroo? He looked stage left, then stage right and finally he look over the heads of the audience pointed and announced, “There he is!”
Suddenly, directly beside my aisle seat was my television hero who was now for the first time live and in living colour. In the 1950’s black and white television was the norm so to see the Captain in his bright fire engine red uniform with his broad lapels outlined with white ribbon, was spine tingling. I was breathless with the hair standing up on the back of my neck as the Captain briskly made his way down the centre aisle. The quickly ascended the staircase in front of the stage and stepped upon the conductor’s small platform, tapped his white baton, and led the 80 musicians in Leroy Anderson’s brisk and lively composition entitled The Typewriter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVFR7wDZT9A
One of the key novel parts of this popular piece of music is the incorporation of a live manual typewriter as part of the score. Each time the Captain and his musicians struck a typwriter key or shifted the cartridge and rang the small bell the thousands of young audience members cheered loudly. As I watched and listed to the Orcadian students recognise the oboe performing the musical role of Gaspar the Fox I realised once again the power of live music to inspire, delight and positively influence our lives.
Orkney’s internationally acclaimed St Magnus Festival has had a long tradition of incorporating music into their annual summer programme. The festival was founded by the renowned composer Peter Maxwell Davies and many of his compositions enjoyed their world premiere in Orkney. However, today’s performance was indeed unique as following the three years of pandemic limitations, finally, hundreds of pupils could once again gather together in one room to enjoy live music together.
Orkney has always prioritised music education and most students learn to play a musical instrument. Those students who cannot afford to purchase an instrument are loaned one so they may practice. Therefore, it was no surprise that when the charming compere, Lucy Drever, instructed the children to notice the roles and corresponding sounds of each one of the eighteen professional musicians they sat forward upon the edge of their chairs in rapt attention. When the final note was sounded and the conductor lowered his arms and turned to the children to acknowledge their applause the cheers were long and loud. It was as if, following a long pause in our lives, finally, the sound of music in the islands was alive and well.
When my beloved Aunt Sara escorted my sister, cousin and myself from our seats to the lobby of the theatre we knew that our lives had been changed forever by the orchestra and the excitement of coming together with thousands of others to be entertained, illumined, and enthralled by the memories of meeting our television hero in person in our own home town. Such was the same feeling today when the Orcadian young student musicians met their professional heroes from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. This was yet another step and learning opportunity for these young people as they continue to seek ways to incorporate music in the future lives.
Upon leaving the gymnasium I turned to the compere, thanked her for her performance and then asked “I wonder how many future composers, conductors and musicians are now dreaming about a career in music?” He smiled and then I realised that regardless of their future career path, music will play an integral part in the lives of these children. They demonstrated during this concert that they are also becoming, thanks to the Orcadian music education programmes and the St Magnus Festival , even more enthusiastic future aficionados of live music. In order for a more peaceful world to emerge from the current chaos we experience each new day, the role of an orchestra meeting young musicians becomes even more critical to bring greater harmony to human society during these turbulent times. Bravo to the RSNO, the St Magnus Festival, Orkney and her young musicians!
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. To learn more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot