DO you believe in synchronicity, a coincidence of time, place, event and other factors that give, perhaps with retrospect, a certain inevitability to circumstances or developments? Just over 25 years ago, the well-known viola player Sally Beamish, a leading light in London’s heaving freelance classical music establishment, was a member of Sir Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields, a classy orchestra for first-class musicians. Her mum was a member, too. But young Sally ached. There was an urge to be doing something else. She was desperate to write music. She had already spoken with Sir Neville, and very probably many others among her London friends and confidantes on the capital’s bustling music scene. Among others, she spoke to the young James MacMillan, in that same year being catapulted into the firmament with the sensational launch of his international career following the premiere of his Confession of Isobel Gowdie. MacMillan had a suggestion which proved critical. “Why not move to Scotland? There’s something in the air up there,” she reported him as saying, in a later interview.
So she packed the viola, her commitments, her successful career as a player, and, lock, stock and family, moved north. On the one hand she was spotted quickly: the Hebrides Ensemble was among the first, if not the very first, to feature her, performing one of her extant pieces, which led immediately to a commission for a new piece, then that to another and so on. The word spread; and so did the commissions. The enquiries came in. “Is she the next James MacMillan?” this writer was asked on more than one occasion. “Nope”, became the stock response. “Her music is utterly different; she is the first Sally Beamish”, which never sounded anything other than trite, though true.
On the other hand was never easy for Beamish. This writer recalls, in one of our many interviews, Beamish expressing, without ire or regret, that “it can be difficult to think about composing when you’re holding a child in one arm and trying to heat a tin of beans for lunch.” And her music didn’t have the immediate mass appeal that MacMillan’s had demonstrated. It was tough stuff. But she had great champions who absolutely believed in the music and demonstrated that belief in the way they knew best: by knowing it intimately and performing it at every available opportunity. Conductors Martyn Brabbins and Ilan Volkov were prominent among these. And another of her champions, and a vital one, was the influential and idiosyncratic Robert von Bahr, founder of the Swedish record label, BIS, who, when asked by this writer which of Sally Beamish’s pieces he would be recording, snapped: “Everything”.
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Meanwhile, as she became a prominent figure in Scotland’s music, her music spreading, the recordings beginning to appear and her reputation blossoming, other aspects of Beamish’s musical character began to emerge: her love of jazz and the immense breadth of her musical interests. And that, too, sparked more strands of activity and output from this lady of many musical hues: jazz-tinged compositions and pieces from the deepest wells of Celtic culture. Now, with her creative involvement in the St Magnus Festival as yet another string to her bow, she is a figurehead in the nation’s cultural life. And all of that is enshrined in a glorious new CD, entitled The Singing, with the RSNO and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, along with solo stars including Hakan Hardenberger and Branford Marsalis, all celebrating the music of this great lady, her presence in Scotland and her immense contribution to the nation’s culture.