You can’t get very far into a discussion about the arts and culture scene in the Outer Hebrides without arriving at An Lanntair.
In Gaelic, the name means the ‘lantern’ and it truly is a beacon for the arts in this part of the world. A great venue that draws in the best musicians, performers and artists — and, by making friendships, keeps them coming back again and again.
I have two particular An Lanntair favourites and was delighted to hear a few days ago that they are definitely on the schedule and will be back again later this year.
First up, it’s Scottish Opera, who make a big thing of touring remote and rural venues across Scotland every year. But Phil and Aly (accordian player and composer Phil Cunningham and fiddler Aly Bain) are coming back too — the dates haven’t been announced yet — and I could not be happier.
Very different styles of music, but not as remote from each other as some might think. Both are big nights that draw loyal crowds. But there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ fan.
Alex Macdonald, who has literally been running the show(s) at An Lanntair for years, as head of performing arts and cinema, says you just can’t tell. “Just because you’re from somewhere, that doesn’t mean it’s what you like,” she said, adding that such a fixed view “drives me nuts”, as does any suggestion that the likes of opera “isn’t for the likes of us”.
Any stereotype of people from the Highlands and Islands being only into traditional Scottish music is exactly that. It’s not all heedrum-hodrum any more than it’s shortbread tins and stags in the glen.
We don’t put ourselves in a box and we should challenge the assumption that one type of music is better than another, as well. While some performers clearly excel, there should be no hierarchy of genre.
Alex said: “One is not better than the other. There is no better than the other.
“Traditional people think that there’s a set audience for these kind of things but I know that there isn’t. I’m on the door and I see who comes in!
“It’s a huge myth that you can tell what people like by looking at them or by sticking them in an age bracket. If you are going to think like that, you’ll never be able to experience anything new.”
She added: “People don’t realise but the opera have been coming here for a long time and we’ve dealt with them for a long time. It’s a big night, it’s a big occasion. But Phil and Aly sells out just as quick. There’s people who’ve come to Phil and Aly who don’t come out otherwise.”
This incredible duo — it’s more of a marriage than a musical pairing — celebrate their 30th anniversary this year and will be including An Lanntair on their celebratory circuit.
“The opera and Phil and Aly are both coming back this year,” confirmed Alex (yay!), adding: “It would be wierd if they didn’t because both are things that we have done since the beginning of An Lanntair and not just in new premises.”
“We were putting them on long before we ever set foot in the new building and because of that we have a relationship with these people that spans 25 years. We are always included (in the Phil and Aly tours). They would not leave us out! There would have to be a good reason for us not to see each other every year.”
There is no place for a pigeon hole where great music is concerned. Talent and the love of it will transcend all boundaries with giant strides. Critics like to talk about ‘crossovers’ and you can take one huge opera star in particular — Andrea Bocelli, whose voice I was introduced to by Alex, incidentally — as an example of this.
Bocelli, whose father is said to have “absolutely hated opera”, has made albums loosely termed ‘pop’, but shrugged off the criticism, saying: “I have many friends who don’t love opera and I like to sing songs for them also. It’s beautiful to sing for everybody.”
Aly Bain started out training as a classical violinist but it’s as a Shetland fiddler that he become renowned.
“Aly is a virtuoso player,” said Alex. “There’s no two ways about it. There’s a snobbery there about that kind of thing. He’s in the category of a folk musician but there’s lots of folk within that tradition who are on a par with classical musicians.
“Aly says himself that his style of playing owes as much to country music as it does to either being trained classically or in traditional styles at home and it’s the kind of breadth of knowledge of music that makes both these events accessible to everybody.”
She added: “I think people recognise quality when they see it.” That quality is what Scottish Opera — a national company doing a production they would do in any city — and Phil and Aly — both players famous worldwide because they’re at the top of the tree — have in common.
“And the fact you can tell they are performers who enjoy what they’re doing,” of course. “That translates to the audience.” Further stories of Scottish Opera’s Così fan Tutte and Phil and Aly’s last visit to An Lanntair are told in my music pages. Read on, friends!