Meet Simon Frith – Why we should be frightened by Bach (and why we are not)

We speak with Simon Frith who will be introducing the discussion at our first coffee concert series! John Butt will join him to discuss along with the audience and musicians some of the issues raised.

Please could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.   I’m the (semi-retired) Tovey Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh.  My main academic duties now are supervising PhD students and running a popular music research seminar.  I’m also at work on the second volume of a three volume history of live music in Britain since 1950.

It’s fair to say that you’ve had quite an unconventional career for a ‘musicologist’. Please might you tell us a bit about your background and how it informs your current research?   I’m a sociologist rather than a musicologist, so my interest has always been in the meaning of music as a social and cultural practice, rather than the analysis of musical forms (though the distinction between text and context is also something that can be examined and understood sociologically!)

In the past, you’ve written extensively and perceptively on a wide range of socio-cultural issues relating to popular music. How far does this relate to classical music’s role in contemporary society?   From a sociological perspective, all musical practices are open to the same kind of analysis and, indeed, one interesting question is why and how the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ music in contemporary Western societies was first established and is now maintained.

Do you have (or have you had) any particular personal reactions or connections to Bach’s music?   Other than that I’ve always liked listening to it…. no

This project is boldly entitled Why we should be frightened by Bach (And why we’re not). Can you outline some of the reasons why Bach has become such a significant cultural figure, since the ‘rediscovery’ of his music in the nineteenth century?   What interest me here is a kind of double process in which, first, a music which has a religious function became a form of entertainment (people listening to Bach for pleasure; Bach concerts and recordings commodities for sale) and, second, that such entertainment came to be seen as offering a quasi-religious experience — a kind of transcendent uplift — which differentiated it from other forms of commercial musical entertainment (this is true for classical musical ideology generally — see below — but Bach’s music became particualrly important for this from the mid-19th century onwards).

To a significant extent in your writings — as both an academic and journalist — you’ve engaged with academia and ‘high’ culture’s difficulties in taking popular music seriously. How do you think that this might relate to some of the assumptions of earlier classical repertories?   An important strand of the thinking which created the high cultural ideology of the 19th century (the ideas of individual genius, the canon, silent listening, etc, etc) was the need to differentiate aesthetic experiences along class lines while also suggesting that the meaning of real art somehow transcended its social circumstances. To suggest that what we now call classical music (and its audience) was ‘serious’ in this new way necessarily implied that other kinds of music practice (and audience) could not be taken seriously.

Do you think it’s helpful for an audience to try and understand the creative contexts for historically distant repertories – for example, in this case, in relation to Bach?    I don’t think it’s necessary to have particular musicological or historical knowledge of Bach’s creative practice in order to enjoy listening to his music, but I think it’s helpful to have such knowledge when discussing why and how we enjoy listening to it (just as such knowledge is important for the musicians who have to make — and justify if only to themselves — performing decisions).

What do you think is particularly helpful or special about approaching Bach’s music in this format?   This format would be great for any kind of musical performance–we still know remarkably little about how people actually listen to and make sense of music–but it’s particularly interesting for Bach, partly because his music obviously raises interesting questions about the relationship of religious and aesthetic experience and partly because the music itself was first composed and heard when such questions about the nature of individual belief were of wide public concern.

Meet Simon Frith and join the discussion with John Butt at our concerts exploring JS Bach’s in early February 2015!
4th of February @ 6pm Greyfriars Kirk – Edinburgh Book Now

5th of February @ 6pm Glad Cafe – Glasgow Book Now

Best of 2014 – Herald Scotland

Dunedin Consort featured in many reviewers’ favourites of 2014. Here are Kate Molleson‘s choices for 2014.

The Dunedin Consort went from strength to strength with superlative recordings and performances

St Matthew Passion at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. The Dunedin Consort sounded colourful, lithe and gracefully spacious in Bach’s masterpiece; John Butt conducted with typically fresh, fascinating insight.

Full Article

Messiah – Scottish Tour 2014

Ever since it first appeared on the stage of Dublin’s Musick Hall in 1742, Handel’s Messiah has become a firm favourite with audiences all over the world. Some 272 years on, Christmas in Scotland just wouldn’t be Christmas without Dunedin Consort’s annual performances of Handel’s most famous work. Opening with the mystery of the nativity, it unfolds a uniquely dramatic and powerful narrative. These performances, given by some of the finest soloists and specialist instrumentalists active today, are sure to help you get into the festive spirit!

“The Dunedin Consort’s celebrated Messiah seems to get better every year” The Guardian

John Butt – Director Mhairi Lawson — Soprano Rowan Hellier — Alto Thomas Walker — Tenor  David Shipley — Bass

Perth Fri 19th December, 7pm St John’s Kirk Further details and online booking TEL 01738 621 031   Glasgow

Sat 20th December, 8pm  Kelvingrove Museum Further details and online booking TEL 0141 353 8000   Edinburgh

Sun 21st December, 7pm Queen’s Hall Further details and online booking TEL 0131 668 2019

Mozart’s Requiem recording wins Gramophone Award

Commonly referred to as the ‘Oscars in Classical Music’, the Gramophone Awards represent the most prestigious annual competition in the international record market.

We are proud to announce our latest recording of Mozart’s Requiem has won a Gramophone Award under the Choral category!

John Butt, Music Director, had this to say on the announcement:

“I am absolutely delighted to hear that the Dunedin Consort has won another Gramophone Award, complementing our success with Messiah in 2007. We are exceptionally fortunate in having an absolutely superlative team of soloists, choir and instrumentalists, the most supportive board and management we could hope for, and, of course, the unsurpassed work of Linn Records at every level of production. This success is also a wonderful reflection of our generous Scottish supporters and donors, in a particularly crucial year for the country.”

Meet the musicians – Mhairi Lawson

We catch up with Soprano Mhairi Lawson ahead of our Messiah performances in December 2013.

Tell us a bit about your early life. How did you come to be a singer? Did you play any instruments? Were you encouraged by your parents to pursue music as a career?   I don’t remember ever not singing something or other.  Sang around the house, in church and sundayschool, in school.  My parents are both active in choirs and amateur opera societies, it was normal for the house to be ringing with some kind of noise.  I learned the piano, played for local ballet lessons and also occasionally church organ. A career in performing music came as a bit of a surprise as we didn’t know any professional musicians and there were none in the family. My parents were and still are extremely supportive.  My Dad is still holding out for the yacht I’m supposed to buy him….

In recent years, you have really started to feature as one of the top specialist performers of baroque repertoire. Did you find yourself instinctively attracted to this repertoire? When did that happen?   I have been extremely privileged to have been given good opportunities to work within the area of historical performance practice – it seemed to choose me, and I wonder if my childhood exposure to a lot of national and traditional music of Scotland, particularly dance tunes, contributes also to my love of 17th and 18th century repertoire.

You’ll be performing Messiah with us in December. I’m guessing that you’ve sung the work many times (!). How do you manage to bring fresh insight to it with every performance?    Yes, I’ve sung this work many times – I never get bored with it, I always work it with my voice teacher to find a higher level of delivery – this is a lifetime’ s work.

What do you enjoy most about singing with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort?   Being involved in all aspects of the work in progress ie. as chorister and soloist is immensely rewarding – hard work, mind you, physically and mentally.

When you’re not singing or travelling between engagements, how do you spend your time?    I do the following….  build Lego star wars models with my 5 yr old boy, nag my husband,  build lego batman models, plant vegetables,  catch up on “worthy” reading to keep ahead of my historical performance students at the Guildhall School in London,  build Lego chima models,  go to the hairdresser, make damson gin and goosebarry and blackcurrant jam,  watch DVD box sets of ‘boardwalk empire’ and ‘homeland’, drink gin, go to the opera as much as possible.

Do you have any advice for young singers considering pursuing their art as a professional career?   Hmm, difficult.  I was told by a well meaning teacher that I’d never have a career and that I should probably give up. I suppose that my advice would be – ignore people wanting to give you advice.  At least, choose your advisors carefully!

Mhairi will appear with the Dunedin Consort at the following performances:   Fri 20th of December 2013 @ 7.30pm The Queen’s Hall – Edinburgh 01316682019 Handel’s Messiah Sat 21st of December 2013 @8pm Kelvingrove Museum (Glasgow) 01413538000 Sold Out (£10 Standing Gallery tickets available) Handel’s Messiah Sun 11th of May 2014 @ 3pm The Queen’s Hall – Edinburgh 01316682019 Madrigals of Love and War

John Passion nominated for a Gramophone Award


Our recording of Bach’s John Passion within a liturgical reconstruction has been nominated for a prestigious Gramophone within the Baroque Vocal category.

We are delighted by this nomination and want to once again thank all our supporters, musicians and customers for their support. We could not have done it without you.

You can find more information about this year’s Gramophone awards online at:

Meet the musicians – Jonathan Manson

We speak with Jonathan Manson ahead of his concerto appearances with Dunedin on August 2nd (The Brunton/Musselburgh) and September 17th and 22nd (Perth Concert Hall/Lammermuir Festival)

How did you end up playing the cello? I started on the violin when I was six but found it very frustrating as my sister already played the instrument much better than I could.  A year later, when I first tried the cello at our village primary school in Aberdeenshire, I was completely smitten – mainly because playing on the bottom string sounded to me just like a Land Rover starting up!

As a cello (and viola da gamba) player your role keeps constantly shifting. One day you are supporting the bass line, others you are part of the harmony and others you need to play the most difficult solo pieces. Is there a particular role you enjoy better? I feel very lucky to have such a variety of roles, often on different instruments, which all help me to get different perspectives on the music.  The difficulties involved in playing a concerto are obvious, but the craft of playing a bass line – which involves being responsive and flexible but also guiding the music with conviction – has particular challenges which I relish.  Playing middle parts, which I usually do on the tenor viol, is also great fun as one usually gets the juiciest harmonies.

The cello concertos you will be performing in August (Vivaldi) and September (CPE Bach) are very different. What challenges do each one bring? The Vivaldi C minor concerto is a wonderfully atmospheric piece, but it’s concentrated into a shorter and denser format so there is less time to develop the musical ideas: one has to grasp each character quickly before it changes again.  The CPE Bach concerto, on the other hand, is conceived on a bigger scale and uses a much greater range of the instrument.  The fastest movement is the last, so the challenge is to pace yourself so that you have enough energy left for the tiring passagework that comes just before the end.

What’s your idea of perfection? As I’m writing this in the middle of a heatwave, my idea of perfection right now would be standing on top of a mountain in Sutherland with a fresh sea breeze blowing in my face…

What living person do you admire the most? David Attenborough, who has done more than anyone in the last 50 years to raise awareness of the importance and extraordinary variety of the natural world.

What is special about working with the Dunedin Consort and John Butt? One of the things I appreciate the most is the working atmosphere in the group: the focus is always on the music and how we can best serve it, rather than on personalities and politics.  I’m sure we are all infected by John Butt’s generous, inventive and open-minded spirit, which helps us all to feel involved in the delight of ‘rediscovering’ the music.  I find it fascinating that pieces I’ve played hundreds of times before can seem so fresh and vivid when we’ve worked on them with John.  And his razor-sharp wit keeps us all amused, which is an added bonus!

Jonathan Manson performs:

Vivaldi’s concerto RV 401 2nd of August @ 7.30pm The Brunton in Musselburgh  EVENT INFORMATION CPE Bach in A minor 22nd of September @ 7.30pm St Mary’s Church – Haddington Lammermuir Festival SOLD OUT CPE Bach in A minor 17th of September @ 7.30pm Perth Concert Hall – Perth EVENT INFORMATION                 You can find out more about Jonathan Manson from our artists’ page.

John Passion is No 1

Our new recording of Bach’s John Passion has stormed to the top of the UK Specialist Classical Chart after its first week of release!  It is also at Number 10 in the UK Classical Artist Chart1    This is another great result with this album selected as ‘Recording of the Month’ by not one, but three different publications!

Recording of the Month: ‘a dramatic, profoundly considered reading.’ ***** BBC Music Magazine

Recording of the Month: ‘…[a] perfectly paced ensemble Passion.’ Gramophone

Recording of the Month: ‘an exceptionally fine small-scale performance’ MusicWeb International

‘wonderfully pure, buoyant and transparent.’ Financial Times   ‘the liturgical experience offers benefits to heart and mind.’ The Times   ‘A breakthrough on Bach’s John Passion.’ The Herald   ‘historic and supremely important new recording’ The Observer   ‘This Johannes Passion performance is without doubt the most involving and dramatic I have encountered.’ McAlister Matheson Music   ‘The impact is huge. The architecture, emotion and implication of Bach’s music all change.’ The Big Issue


John Butt awarded the Royal College of Organists Medal

John Butt has been awarded the Royal College of Organists highest honour. He was amongst the three Medal recipients honoured at the College’s Conferment of Diplomas ceremony at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday 11th March were. The three recipients were:

  • Prof. John Butt OBE, for organ playing, organ- and choral-related scholarship, and choral conducting
  • Dr Peter Hurford OBE, for organ playing, choral conducting, organ teaching, organ and choral composition, and organ-related administration
  • Mr Mark Venning, for organ building, organ-related scholarship, and organ-related administration.

Photography by RCO / Simon Jacobs

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Meet the Musicians – Nicholas Mulroy

We catch up with Nicholas Mulroy ahead of his appearance as the Evangelist in our upcoming concerts next week.

When did you decide to become a singer? There probably wasn’t a specific timing to the decision. I studied languages at university, and when I spent a year in South America I missed the collective act of music making a lot; perhaps that was when the seed was initially sown.

What would have you become if you had not pursued music professionally? I worry that I’m unemployable otherwise, but I think I might have followed my parents into some sort of educational job. I enjoy the bits of teaching I do at the moment, and those times when you can see or feel something getting through to someone for the first time can be incredibly satisfying, which isn’t unlike something we aim for in performance – a moment of direct communication.

Tell us about one of the highlights of your career to date? That’s a difficult one! I tend not to look back very much (also, my memory isn’t what it was…), and often find that people’s ideas about any given concert can differ hugely anyway. But I work regularly with some extraordinary musicians (very much including the Dunedin Consort), and have been incredibly privileged to hear quite amazing performances of all kinds of things in all kinds of places. There are, of course, certain places where it’s always a thrill to sing – the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is very special, for example – but the main thing is the connection between the performers, the music and the audience; when you get that right it’s quite something.

Are stereotypes about tenors true? Do you all really want to sing as high as you can? I might not be the best person to answer that.. Though I do think that performing can cause stress in every musician. In Britain the more neurotic types don’t tend to be indulged too much, whereas on the continent I’ve found there to be more concessions given. Having said that, singing tenor can feel a bit like a high wire act (mostly without a safety net!), and there is of course always an element of macho competition in any extreme sport like that.

What’s special about working with John Butt and the Dunedin Consort? There’s always a strong sense of discovery in everything John does – no two performances are the same, and he creates a fantastic working atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable trying new things, and pushing themselves and each to new places with the music. John wears his huge amount of knowledge very lightly, but is endlessly compelling and never fails to shed new light on what we’re performing, more often than not with unusual and entertaining turns of phrase. It also helps that the musicians of the group are all amongst the very best around.

What keeps you awake at night? At the moment, my four month old son, Michael.

What is the hardest thing about performing the Evangelist role you will be singing with us? It’s a fantastic role to sing. In telling the story, a big part of the piece belongs to the Evangelist, and the way Bach sets the story, harmonically and dramatically, is – in both Passions – completely masterful. But it’s not easy! Firstly, it’s long (and the way we do it with Dunedin means that I sing in all the choruses and the tenor arias, too, so not much time off), so the question of pacing is key. It’s not completely clear how ‘involved’ the Evangelist should be: in the St John, for example, it always seems to me that the storyteller is really very close to the action – he could well be the ‘well-beloved disciple’ mentioned – so one has to consider how emotionally bound up with it the Evangelist should be, and to what degree one is outraged or bereaved by what happens. Bach gives lots of clues, though: harmonically you can feel the story ebb and flow, peak and trough as you go through, all of which helps you along the journey of these extraordinary pieces.

Nicholas Mulroy performs the Evangelist with the Dunedin Consort in their Passion tour this coming March.

Passion Tour Dates 2013:

Wed 13th March at 7.30pm Aberdeen Music Hall John Passion Book Now Thu 14th March at 8pm Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow John Passion Book Now Sun 17th March at 3pm The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh Matthew Passion  Book Now Mon 18th March at 7.30pm St John’s Kirk, Perth John Passion Book Now

New accolade for the Dunedin Consort!

Gramophone has awarded the Dunedin Consort’s gripping new performance of Bach’s ‘John Passion’ its highest accolade naming it ‘Recording of the Month’ in the March issue of the magazine!

This new recording marks the first time on record listeners can experience the Passion within its original liturgical context and features a star-studded cast including, Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Brook, Robert Davies, Joanne Lunn and Clare Wilkinson.

‘…the increasingly impressive Nicholas Mulroy’s alert, lightly coloured Evangelist strikes a balance in which declamation and lyricism are equally ardent and equally touching, while Matthew Brook is a supple and authoritative Christus.’ Gramophone

Fans of Dunedin Consort will know that director John Butt is a master at using historical context to shine new light upon well-known choral works. Recreated for this recording is a Good Friday Vesper liturgy of a passion performance as it would have occurred during Bach’s time at Leipzig.

‘…naturalness and emotional honesty are what emerge from this tight-knit and perfectly paced ensemble Passion, in which Bach’s complex succession of recitatives, arias, choruses and chorales has surely seldom sounded so convincingly of a piece.’ Gramophone

Pre-order your copy now, join us for our tour dates (below) or visit Linn website to learn more about this exciting new recording!


Passion Tour Dates:

Wed 13th March at 7.30pm Aberdeen Music Hall John Passion Book Now Thu 14th March at 8pm Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow John Passion Book Now Sun 17th March at 3pm The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh Matthew Passion  Book Now Mon 18th March at 7.30pm St John’s Kirk, Perth John Passion Book Now