24 January 2009

An evening with Burns...yikes

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Robert Burns is the Bard, the national poet of Scotland. He lived and wrote during the Enlightenment era, and many of his works were inspired by Enlightenment values and ideas. And his 250th birthday in a week and a half – the night before we depart for home – is the occasion around which Scotland has proclaimed 2009 to be Homecoming. (A tourism ploy, of course, but endearing nonetheless.) During this week, at the University of Glasgow, a major academic conference was meeting and examining all things Burns. One conference event was a dinner performance of some Burns musical works, so a journey to Glasgow was our second major academic event.

The venue, Òran Mór, was an interesting place. Formerly a Presbyterian church, it still displayed busts of major early Protestant leaders and a few more venerable Christian heroes. The busts were in excellent condition, but a glance to the ceiling made it clear that we were not in a Reformed house of worship.

Calvin students at Òran Mór experiencing Robert Burns.

The elaborate artwork (a large mural by Scottish novelist and artist Alasdair Gray) bespoke New Age-like themes, and the fully-stocked bar evoked good-natured muttering from some of the students. One student, gazing around and snapping pictures, referred to the place as "a little sputten" and was kind enough to explain the term to her mystified instructors. (The word apparently identifies something as somewhat blasphemous.)

The stage at the Burns Conference venue at Òran Mór. Note the nicely restored busts of historic Protestant Christian leaders.

The food was fantastic and in the elegance of the place it was easy to forget that most of us were sleeping four and more to a room in a hostel. The first performance was a singing of The Jolly Beggars, a cantata with several parts. The songs are earthy and bawdy, and we were able to grasp some of the difficult Scots language but mostly we relied on non-verbal cues and the voices of the interesting cast of characters.

The next performance was a memorable one indeed. The singer, Sheena Wellington, is one of the most renowned vocalists in Scotland – we had previously heard an excerpt of her rendition of "A Man's a Man For a' That" at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. She performed a sampling of songs from The Merry Muses. Ms. Wellington selected the songs, and she proudly informed us that she had omitted the "scatalogical" tunes since Robert Burns had probably never changed a diaper. To say that many of the songs she did choose were off-color would be to put things a bit delicately. While other selections were quite beautiful, most of us found the program to be over the top, and chalked it all up to a very interesting cultural experience.

Tomorrow: another day with an Enlightenment scholar

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