Celtic Connections Opening Concert

Keith Bruce

four stars

FOR its 28th edition, Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival has perforce been reinvented as an online event, and while the consequences of the pandemic are not what anyone among the players or its vast loyal audience would have sought, there are upsides to be appreciated, as have been noted in other areas of the arts over the past year.

With a huge number of musicians poised for January action and well-versed in what is expected of them, creative producer Donald Shaw had to find the mechanism to bring them together and press “go” for the magic to happen. But if the sophisticated Celtic Connections machine was ready to pick up where it left off last January, it was also back to square one and first principles for the potential global audience – and not far short of 50 countries tuned in on Friday evening.

So there were a lot of boxes to tick, and the opening event was remarkably successful in doing a great number of things all at once. As well as pleasing the aficionados and explaining the Celtic Connections idea for first-timers, the show must have made the citizenry of Glasgow swell with pride. Rarely has the Dear Green Place looked so well onscreen, from the opening shots of pipers assembling to stroll up Buchanan Street towards the festival’s Glasgow Royal Concert Hall HQ, to the range of venues across the city exquisitely lit for the occasion – and in sparklingly clear audio to match.

The cross-programming that has always been part of the festival, with musicians popping up in different contexts during the event, was incorporated into this first concert so that it became a sequence of trailers for what was to come. Anecdotal evidence already suggests that many ticket-buyers have opted for a full festival pass so that they can dip into whatever takes their fancy over the 18 days and there was a taste of much of what is to come here. The invitation to “Come Away In” that Karine Polwart and her cohorts extended from Glasgow City Chambers was also to their full show going out on Monday evening, and fiddler Duncan Chisholm’s partnership with the Scottish Ensemble and a group of Scotland’s finest traditional musicians at Kelvingrove with the appropriate tune “A Precious Place” was just one of the highlights of a programme broadcast on BBC Alba later on Friday. Just as apt was the spangly Kinnaris Quintet, filmed at the Old Fruitmarket, with the bouncy optimism of “This Too Shall Pass”.

The global reach of Celtic Connections was equally well represented, in the familiar form of Montreal’s Le Vent du Nord, who also have a full concert, filmed at home in Canada, in the programme, and a moving performance from Gambia’s kora virtuoso and singer Sona Jobarteh.

That internationalism was as evident in the unique sound of the Celtic Connections Big Band, anchoring the whole show from the concert hall and bringing traditional, jazz, and classical musicians together in superb arrangements of tunes from distant lands like the Armenian “Shaloka” and the colossal, closing “Karabach”. Those with the longest memories of festivals past know that it is this combination of talents – often hit-and-miss in earlier years, and always unmissable now – that is the most eloquent expression of Celtic Connections in its robust maturity.