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Scotsman review - 7/9/05 by Jim Gilchrist

Item posted: Wednesday 7th September , 2005

new generation of fiddle music bridges the age gap


WHAT'S a 45-year age gap between musicians? One of the most engaging Scottish music recordings to appear for some time has just been released by the distinguished composer and concert pianist Ronald Stevenson and his granddaughter, Anna-Wendy Stevenson, well known on the Scottish folk scene as a fiddler with groups such as Fine Friday and Calluna.

Gowd & Silver, featuring the 77-year-old Stevenson's compositions and settings of Scots tunes, may sound like a stretch across the cultural divide - family ties apart, what might a musician whose best-known works include a violin concerto commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin or a Passacaglia dedicated to Shostakovich have in common with a tradition-fuelled fiddler? In fact, the recording is the natural culmination of decades of playing together and a cross-generational love of traditional music within a musical dynasty which also includes Ronald's daughters, the harpist Savourna and the actress and singer Gerda. The album, which exudes artistry, affection and soul, has been issued by Eclectic Records, run by Wendy's father, the Edinburgh violin-maker Gordon Stevenson, whose idea the project was.

There was nothing intimidating about venturing into a studio with such a distinguished musical figure, albeit her grandfather, says Wendy, 32, recently returned from teaching fiddle in North Colorado. "As a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house in West Linton and from an early age he was teaching me piano, then I started on violin and he would make arrangements of everything I was doing - Fritz Kreisler and Scottish melodies."

A lot of this has found its way on to the CD, including Stevenson's own beautiful Ae Gowden Lyric, which he originally wrote as a song setting of the poem by his old friend, Hugh MacDiarmid.

The album also features his settings of several traditional Strathspeys and airs but, as Wendy points out, the last two tracks in particular may make traditionalists sit up, as they are purely modern classical, being her grandfather's Recitative and Air, derived from the mighty Passacaglia he dedicated to Shostakovich and a nocturne he composed when he was 24.

Such breadth of material utilises Wendy's classical violin training - at one point she led the orchestra at a Texas University and, in one notable interlude, played in a local orchestra backing jazz crooner Tony Bennett. "But I was studying anthropology and that made me want to find out more about traditional music from where I came from."

She returned to Edinburgh and did a masters in social anthropology on authenticity and identity in Scottish traditional music, while industriously researching that authenticity, not to mention virtually re-learning her playing techniques, in pub music sessions. Following some playing with her harpist aunt, Savourna, she ended up touring internationally with the band Anam, while more recently she's played with the trios Fine Friday and Calluna, as well as with the ceilidh band Bella McNab's. Then there was a spell of duty as a fiddler in a certain popular children's TV series based in Tobermory.

While she has another more traditional album at the mixing stage with pianist James Ross, she agrees that Gowd & Silver has brought her full circle.

Between them, she and her grandfather embrace the broadest of all musical worlds. Wendy can recall being in a Motherwell pub with her father and Sir Yehudi Menuhin, during the run-up to the Glasgow premiere of Ronald's mighty violin concerto, The Gypsy, commissioned and conducted by Menuhin, who regarded Stevenson as "one of the most original minds" in the world of composition. She recalls the great violinist-conductor, oblivious to the smoke and TV football, unconcernedly yoga-stretching on a pub table, then partaking of Guinness and fish and chips.

Originally brought up in Lancashire, Ronald traces his lifelong interest in Scottish music back to his father, who was from Kilmarnock and "sang Scottish and Irish songs. He was too shy to sing in public, although he had a lovely tenor voice."

While Ronald has played on every continent, his first "grand tour", as he puts it, was at his Majesty's Pleasure during the late 1940s, when he was serving time as a conscientious objector. While behind bars he composed a prelude dedicated to Finland's grand old man of music, and dispatched it, addressed to "Jean Sibelius, Finland". The elderly composer received it and wrote back with thanks.

He describes himself as "thrilled and honoured" to have recorded with his granddaughter: "Not many families now have this sort of musical connection, though it used to be the case that whole families would be musical." And he cites one of the album tracks, John Gow's Compliments to the Minstrels of Scotland, written by a son of the famous 18th-century fiddler Niel Gow: "The Gows were known, of course, as folk musicians, but that is really a piece of classical music. And incidentally... the Gows had a music publishing shop in Princes Street, and they published Beethoven."

Cross-genre creativity, it seems, can run in the family, as well as in the tradition.