Donald Shaw on moving Celtic Connections online: “It’s been an emotional experience”

Celtic Connections may be an online-only event this year, but it can still boast a packed programme, with international guest stars, intriguing folk-classical collaborations and a musical celebration of the life and work of Edwin Morgan. He talks to Jim Gilchrist about the importance of being “as adaptable as possible”

Fiddle and harp duo Chris Stout and Catriona McKay will perform against a dramatic backdrop seascape filmed by Sorley MacDonald
Fiddle and harp duo Chris Stout and Catriona McKay will perform against a dramatic backdrop seascape filmed by Sorley MacDonald

Revelling in Glasgow’s musical maelstrom of Celtic Connections last January, who could ever have believed that, a year later, one of the largest winter music festivals anywhere would be scuttled as a live-performance entity and banished into the wired world by a micro-organism? The festival, though, will indeed run online, across 19 days, from 15 January, in an ambitious programme of ticketed digital performances filmed exclusively in various Glasgow venues.

The live-to-online transmogrification presented hefty challenges to the festival’s creative director, Donald Shaw, and producer Lesley Shaw (no relation). “Essentially,” says Donald, “we’ve had to change our job descriptions from event organisers to low-budget TV producers. It’s a completely different ball game.

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Any thoughts of trying to tailor the festival for socially distanced audiences ultimately evaporated, but when they presented their business case to Glasgow City Council, “Glasgow Life [which delivers cultural activities for the council] were very supportive about making sure the festival had some kind of presence. Our funders, like Creative Scotland and the Expo Fund and Glasgow Life, said, ‘Look, why don’t you try and be as adaptable as possible?’”

Filming started in early November and was due to finish early this month. “It’s an emotional experience,” says Shaw, “rewarding but also difficult. We invited artists into venues like the Royal Concert Hall and Old Fruitmarket, maybe four or five acts in a day. For some of the musicians, the last time they’d played together was the last Celtic Connections.”

Some three dozen acts are billed, with an opening big band concert roping in Patsy Reid, Ross Ainslie, Greg Lawson, Paul Towndrow, Anna Massie, Shaw himself and many others. Other festival guests include regulars Breabach, Cherish the Ladies and Shooglenifty, along with singers such as Karen Matheson, Kathleen MacInnes, Siobhan Miller and Eddi Reader.

Recounting some of the video sessions, Shaw recalls fiddle and harp duo Chris Stout and Catriona McKay performing against a dramatic backdrop seascape filmed by Sorley MacDonald, while Highland fiddler Duncan Chisholm, whose award-winning “Covid Ceilidhs” were streamed from his fireside, appears amid the contrasting opulence of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, in the company of the Scottish Ensemble.

Sadly, a further planned folk-classical collaboration, Seek the Light, in which singer-songwriter Karine Polwart was due to live-stream with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Finnish conductor-violinist Pekka Kuusisto on the 29th, has been cancelled, along with the SCO’s other January commitments, due to the new Covid lockdown. Polwart can still be heard, however, in Come Away In, a Robert Burns-inspired show also featuring Eddi Reader, Rab Noakes, Siobhan Miller and Finlay Napier.

Back in Glasgow, Shaw’s team cleared seats out of the Royal Concert Hall and lowered the stage, allowing the ten-strong piping collective The Tryst to play, “in the round”, to potent effect.

Unable to fly in international guests, the festival nevertheless features some notable filmed contributions. Bassekou Kouyate, for instance, master of the ngoni, plays a set from his house roof in Mali, while Rajasthani musicians perform a moving dawn concert overlooking Jodhpur. Regular guests Le Vent Du Nord curate a French-Canadian session in Montreal and Shaw promises a Glasgow-Nashville collaboration for the popular Transatlantic Sessions. Listen out also for the breathtaking voice of American singer Rhiannon Giddens.

Jazz recitals include young Glasgow pianist Fergus McCreadie in the City Halls Recital Room with his trio, including material from his second album, Cairn, due for release this month.

This year’s “New Voices” commissions, meanwhile, go out as Sunday afternoon freeview sessions, from Rura piper Steven Blake, Gaelic singer Josie Duncan and award-winning fiddler and bassist Charlie Stewart.

Another last minute pandemic-related postponement was a planned centenary celebration, already Covid-deferred from last summer, of the late, great poet Edwin Morgan. Featuring songs from Karine Polwart and Roddy Woomble, and a choral work by Gavin Bryars based on Morgan’s Sonnets from Scotland, this event, in collaboration with Edinburgh International Book festival, will take place later this year.

For full programme and ticket details, including an unlimited access early bird ticket, see www.celticconnections.com

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