Under Sir Alexander Gibson the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s international profile was established, but this great orchestra is also closely connected to Scotland’s musical roots; and on Saturday (7th June) at The Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, the orchestra joined Perthshire’s Dougie MacLean for a one-off evening to celebrate his 40 years as a recording artist. Later this month Dougie MacLean and the RSNO release a specially developed celebration of those forty years in Till Tomorrow, where a number of Dougie’s most famous and most treasured songs have been arranged for the orchestra. On Saturday, a delighted Glasgow audience were treated to a special performance to launch the album.
After the Orchestra opened the evening with a couple of reels, filling the large auditorium at the Concert Hall with glorious strings; conductor John Logan set the tone for what was to be, to say the least, a convivial evening, by welcoming visitors from as far afield as Boston, California and, erm.. Coatbridge. An exuberant audience welcomed Dougie MacLean to the stage as Holding Back provided a gentle start to the evening with soft strings leading to a final chorus awash with woodwind and brass.
Even at a large venue like this, discourse with the audience has always been an important feature of Dougie’s performances, and his new arrangement for his 2001 song, Talking With My Father, was accompanied by jovial tales of his father making the most of his advancing years. Inspired by treasured walks in the Perthshire hills during those years, the song opens with just voice and guitar and continues to a gentle orchestral melody. Later in the evening the versatility provided by orchestral arrangements was highlighted when This Love Will Carry made use of a delicate pizzicato and woodwind opening that gradually built to an emotional crescendo.
There’s far more to this celebration than an orchestra as king-sized accompaniment, though. Although, sadly, not included on the new album, Broken Wings is one of a number of Dougie’s songs for which the late Kevin MacRae crafted arrangements. As the lyrics question the arrogance of the human race, violins harmonize memorably with the vocal and there’s a subtle sense of urgency. Another of MacRae’s arrangements, Ready For The Storm makes full use of the orchestra’s ability to build tension and drama.
Almost as if an antidote to the drama, Dougie MacLean has always taken care to make sure his audience are part of the show, not simply spectators. Whether it’s careful tuition on the finer points of Scots song for Heilan’ Harry, which the orchestra brought to a bold march towards it conclusion, or those times when no encouragement’s needed -like Green Grow The Rashes. Dougie’s tale of his singing teacher sounded remarkably like my own childhood experiences of Scots song, and introduced one of his most loved arrangements for Burns. This has become a standard at folk clubs up and down the country, and no wonder. It’s a beautiful song and if you’re at all inclined towards the sing-along, irresistible.
Even in such a jovial setting, the power of song will prevail and, despite some fits of the giggles while setting up, Mary Queen Of Scots was haunting and evocative; with a Cor Anglais to send shivers up the spine. Another history lesson was delivered in Turning Away, given an almost tribal twist – with audience hand-claps and the brass section as a war horn; taking the drama of the song and stretching it over the hillsides.
And in the closing stages Dougie finally took delivery of his fiddle – beaming with pride at the thought of playing his old friend along with such illustrious company. The Gael is one of his best known melodies world-wide, thanks to its adaptation for the film Last Of The Mohicans. In the Royal Concert Hall it sounded truly epic as cello, bass, flute and, of course, fiddle, occupied every inch of air.
The warmth of the crowd’s reception meant a couple of encores were inevitable; as was, of course, Caledonia. Dougie reckoned he’d be in danger of a lynching if he failed to deliver what’s probably his most famous song; a tale of the exile yearning for home on the eve of his return. It’s an emotionally charged song at the best of times but it’s been played so often I thought I had become immune. I was wrong.
The evening’s success is, to a great extent, down to the clearly happy working relationship enjoyed by Dougie and conductor John Logan. John has been a feature of the UK’s top orchestras for almost thirty years and spent more than half that time as Principal Horn with the RSNO. His special interest in combining the worlds of classical and traditional music has resulted in performances with the likes of Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain, Eddie Reader, Roddy Hart, Admiral Fallow and The Twilight Sad. It’s little wonder, then, that these arrangements hit the spot with Dougie’s audience. After a return to the reels that opened the show – this time with the man himself joining on his fiddle, Dougie left the stage as the audience took to their feet in appreciation.
There are several very good reasons Dougie MacLean’s able to celebrate forty years as a recording artist in such style: he’s a born crowd pleaser, a skill honed during his early days with The Tannahill Weavers and Silly Wizard; he’s an accomplished song writer and arranger – his timeless Green Grow The Rashes and ever-popular Caledonia are testament to that, and he can fill a space the size of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall (and more) with an eager audience, wonderful music and his own personality just as effectively as he can at a village hall in Perthshire. An evening with Dougie MacLean at the Royal Concert Hall might be the grander option, but it’s no less enjoyable than the music he delivers in his beloved Perthshire countryside.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Till Tomorrow by Dougie MacLean, Royal Scottish National Orchestra released 23 June 2014
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Dougie MacLean – Live Dates
01 – The Queens Hall, Edinburgh
06 – Deeside Theatre, Aboyne
15 – 17: Milwaukee Irish Festival (USA)
29 – Lanark Memorial Hall, Lanark
12 – The Corran Halls, Oban
14 – Aberdeen Music Hall
24 Oct – 02 Nov: Perthshire Amber Festival – The Dougie MacLean Festival