Kenneth McKellar

Most orchestra musicians, in addition to loving the repertoire they play (or most of it, at least), like other music as well – although just what they like varies greatly from person to person.

My secret vice is Scottish folk music. So I was saddened to hear that the great Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar died a few days ago:

His Handel’s Messiah with Joan Sutherland became one of Decca’s best-sellers, and his Decca recording of Handel Songs and Arias prompted Sir Adrian Boult, who had conducted the sessions, to describe McKellar as “the best Handel singer of the 20th century.”

That McKellar never became a big name on the operatic or concert circuit was principally because he lacked the ambition. For most of his life he was content singing and broadcasting in his native Scotland, where he was best known for his renditions of popular and traditional Scottish songs.

…When Alex Gibson asked him to join his new Scottish Opera he refused, although in 1965 he was persuaded by Benjamin Britten to sing the part of McHeath in a production of The Beggar’s Opera with the English Opera group at the Aldeburgh Festival and in Paris.

McKellar’s interest in the Scottish folk tradition had been stimulated during his time with the Forestry Commission by his friendship with an elderly landlady with whom he had lodged at Portree. “She had the most marvellous store of folk tales and a great grasp of Scottish history,” he recalled. “‘Aah,’ she’d say wistfully, William Wallace! I was awful vexed to hear what they did to him in London.'” He began to attend Gaelic classes at night and learned the songs of the Hebrides.

McKellar was, in fact, one of the very first classical cross-over artists, although he crossed over so thoroughly that he tended to be looked down upon as rather twee for most of his career. This was unfortunate, as he really was a great singer; reminiscent, in fact, of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in making song sound like extended speech.

In addition to recording much of the popular Scottish song repertoire (and adding at least one song to it as well), he wrote several sketches for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

This version of the ancient Scottish lament Flowers of the Forest will give you some idea of what he sounded like in his prime, as well as of the kind of artistry that can be brought to bear on folk music by a great artist.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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