January 31, 2003

Celtic Connections Report: Field Marshal Montgomery and Solo Pipers

Celtic Connections, one of the world’s largest Celtic music festivals, is happening in Glasgow over the next three weeks and Piper & Drummer Online has asked Michael Grey of Dundas, Ontario, to report on a few piping events.

Celtic Connections – The Afternoon Piping Concert
Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band, Gordon Duncan, Roddy MacLeod, Willie McCallum and Iain Speirs
2:00 p.m., January 25, 2003 – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Main Stage

After years of attending the Celtic Connections festival, it has become evident that the organizers consider Scotland’s national instrument the “downstairs” instrument while all else – ranging from Bob Geldof (?) to a Cajun group called “Balfa Toujour” – are happily placed in the upstairs quarters.

The festival’s curious decision to have some of our art’s most accomplished exponents perform in a matinee setting is a puzzle. There are few musicians at this festival that can come close to touching the levels of supreme musicianship that pipers and drummers have reached. Would the classical music world’s equivalent of Field Marshal Montgomery – say, the Berlin Philharmonic – play in such a slot at an equivalent festival?

The music on this Saturday afternoon matinee suffered little because of it.

Iain Speirs was the picture of professional intensity as he struck up his perfectly tuned pipes and got the proceedings going with a pair of smooth-as-silk marches. His 20 minute set was finger-perfect and just plain good music. Iain’s approach to “Celtic” music, really, like all the folks on this afternoon’s stage, is so different from most others participating in this festival. Competitive piping may have musical trade-offs, but this way of encouraging standards seems to instill remarkable levels of professionalism.

Roddy MacLeod followed and kept standards high with spirited playing and a great-going bagpipe. His reels were a highlight. With tempo and drive Roddy was maybe showing more than a little of his Hebridean roots.

Forty minutes on and in came the band. The sound of 1000 quiet whispers counting drummers could be heard, it seemed, throughout the hall. The score sheet would say this day: 14 pipers, 6 snares, 2 tenors, 1 bass and a smattering of bongo, bouzouki and guitar players.

FMM is one of the best exponents of what drummer Jimmy Blackley always refers to as “forward motion”: the band plays on and just a half-blink above the beat. Surely this is one of their secrets to their consistently high musical energy. Their opening set of jigs was a treat; textbook FMM precision, bright and clear chanter sound and an overall harmonic effect brought shivers. No evidence this day of adverse musical effects to personnel changes. FMM is one of the world’s most precise musical combos, without a doubt.

By my count FMM delivered 10 great selections of music. The band’s musical discipline is a marvel. As Pipe-Major Richard Parkes rightly pointed out, this concert, timed in January, “is very difficult for any competitive pipe band.” The band’s repertoire, too, seems more “pan Celtic” than most groups, and for this reason, seemed an especial good fit for the festival program.

The inimitable Gordon Duncan also took the stage, joined at times by his young son, Gordon on djembe and Neil Ferguson on bouzouki. Gordon is the master of unconventional Highland bagpipe technique and he used this talent to great effect throughout his show. He unveiled “The Belly Dancer,” a new selection from Thunderstruck, his April 1, 2003, CD release – a highlight for me.

The unflappable Willie McCallum followed Gordon and helped bring a clear understanding to all in the hall of just how diverse the 21st century Highland bagpipe repertoire has become. Playing with real vigour and an approach to tempo that was completely becoming, Willie showed once again why he is one our modern day maestros.

A great way to spend a January afternoon in Glasgow, or anywhere, for that matter. The event was a bit long-in-the-seat for my taste: 5 minutes shy of three hours had me pining for a few laps around George Square.


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