Kristan Harvey - Taking a bow in a year to remember


Kristan Harvey is getting round the concert halls of Scotland at the moment. Two weeks ago she played at the Caird Hall, Dundee as part of the Scottish Proms. This weekend she’s at Perth Concert Hall for National Treasure V, the latest in the annual tributes to the late composer and piping marvel Gordon Duncan, and next month she’s at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh as one of the featured artists at Fiddle 2011, the capital’s annual weekend celebration of fiddle music.


Come January, the fiddler from Orkney will be back at City Halls, Glasgow as the outgoing Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year, the event that kick started all this activity. If the competition’s organisers had wanted to advertise the benefits that fall the winner’s way, they could hardly have hoped for a better example than Harvey, who also appears at the Scots Trad Music Awards in December as a result of her YSTMY success.


“The gigs at the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year and the Trad Awards are the only two that actually come with the title,” she says. “The rest have come separately through winning but it shows how winning has given me lots of opportunities to showcase my band and myself. A lot of really good things have come out of it because it gives you a profile and gets your name out there.”


Winning the title couldn’t have come at a better time for Harvey as it’s given the launch of her career as a full-time professional musician a real boost. In July she graduated with a Bmus in Classical Violin as one of the final group of graduates from the RSAMD in Glasgow before its change of name to The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. So there may be a discernable sigh of relief that everything’s going so well.


Harvey grew up in the ancient capital of Orkney, Birsay, about half an hour’s drive from its modern equivalent, Kirkwall. Her parents don’t play any instruments but their love of music would have been obvious to any callers at their house as the radio was always tuned to music programmes when the CD player wasn’t playing “all sorts of stuff, quite a lot of traditional music, but a real variety of styles.”


When the chance came to learn violin at primary school when she was nine, Kristan didn’t take much persuasion and any parental warnings of the “if you get one, you’ll have to practise” variety would have been pretty much redundant.


“I used to get home from school and get the fiddle out straight away and just play,” says Harvey. “It wasn’t practising in the serious sense, where you concentrate on various aspects of technique, it was just tunes I’d learned and loved to play. I’d do this for an hour, two hours every day and it was good because it helped to make me fluent but also helped with my memory in building up a repertoire for later.”


After getting a grounding in classical violin Harvey decided that she wanted to try something different and joined the Orkney Traditional Music Project, where she initially played in a class of young musicians with the project’s founder, Jean Leonard accompanying on piano, and wound up tutoring her own class before she headed for Glasgow on leaving school.


“Glasgow was a different world compared to Kirkwall, let alone Birsay,” she says. “But I’d psyched myself up for it and was determined that I was going to fit in. I actually auditioned for both the classical and Scottish Traditional Music courses at the RSAMD and decided to go with the classical course because I wanted to improve my technique and make a better sound when I played, but I took Scottish fiddle as my second study and all my pals were on the traditional music course.”


Throwing herself into the pub session scene, she made the best of both musical worlds. Her tutor in Scottish fiddle was the Perthshire fiddle master Pete Clark, whose expertise in the music of his Perthshire predecessor Niel [correct spelling] Gow and the north-east style of James Scott Skinner added a stricter discipline to Harvey’s traditional playing.


“Pete was great because he really made you think about your instrument and what you were playing and he did this in a really encouraging way,” she says. “He used to throw all these great tunes at me, one at a time, every week and he was really good for making you play in all the flat keys and really getting you to know your way around the fingerboard.”


Clark’s influence – he’s not shy about airing his views on the speed for speed’s sake school of fiddling – may well extend to Harvey’s preference for slow airs, although her early influences, fellow Orcadian Douglas Montgomery and Gordon Gunn, from Caithness, whose Shoreside CD she says she wore out listening to it, have stayed with her too.


“I enjoy playing reels and other dance tune types,” she says. “But for me there’s nothing like a well-played slow air for capturing the attention in a room because you can really express yourself and say something of your own at that slower tempo.”


The National Treasure V concert is one of several concerts and events that are currently raising Perth Concert Hall’s profile in traditional music – it’s hosting the Scot Trad Music Awards for the second time in December and its team have been responsible for resurrecting the Perth & Kinross Feis, or music learning festival, for young musicians – and it gives Harvey an opportunity to honour a musician, Gordon Duncan, whose contribution to her own playing, she concedes, took her by surprise.


“I have to be honest and say that I knew his music before I realised that he was responsible for it,” she says. “We played his tunes in Orkney but I didn’t really appreciate his importance until I got to Glasgow and someone gave me his tune book. I was playing my way through it, thinking, I know this one, I know this one, and suddenly I realised that this one guy had written all these fantastic compositions. Every one of them has something special that catches your ear and makes you think, wow, that’s brilliant, and once I realised just how much he did and how he went about it, he became a massive influence, not just on what I play but on the way I play.”


From The Herald, September 22, 2011.


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