Sunday, December 26, 2010

Scottish Legend Kenneth McKellar

A new BBC documentary set to air in January takes a closer look at this fine tenor's singing career and personal life.

It is a voice that is reminiscent of modern singers the likes of David Rendall, John Aler and Richard Croft. There is a clean and clarion majesty to his delivery. Had there been more heft to his voice, he may have been a heldentenor of
Wagnerian proportions (listen to his rendition of "Mary Morrison" for hints of Ben Heppner). You will even find glimpses of Nicolai Gedda or Fritz Wunderlich in his tone.

In the sixties, he had his own television series.  Sir Adrian Boult proclaimed him the 20th century's greatest singer of Handel. An extensive recording career of 20 years with Decca. He taught princes William and Harry rhymes.

McKellar died of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 82, at his daughter's home near Lake Tahoe on April 9, 2010.

Below are some excerpts from a review of the documentary (read the full article here):

"He is known for a rather stiff appearance – kilt, sporran, velvet jacket, lace jabot at his throat. His was a formal, kitschy, pre-Braveheart Scottishness.

By the time he died in the United States earlier this year at the age of 82, McKellar had not performed in public for more than a decade, and his name had become synonymous with all things teuchtery and cringeworthy. However, a new documentary, Trusadh: Kenneth McKellar, offers a more rounded view of the man and his talent (BBC Alba, December 30, 9pm and an English language version on BBC1, January 3, 6.30pm). It points out, for example, that he was described by Sir Adrian Boult as the 20th century's greatest singer of Handel.

He is better known, however, for his performances of Scottish songs, everything from Ae Fond Kiss to The Song Of The Clyde. McKellar signed to Decca in 1954 and remained with the company for 20 years, releasing around 40 albums and selling millions internationally. A typical McKellar LP has a cover photograph of him, clad in either jabot or Doonicanish polo-neck, staring into the middle distance with a bonnie Scottish scene as a backdrop.

The huge range of material he recorded, coupled with his couthy image, has tended to obscure just how well he could sing. But we should take the time to do as the singer and folklorist Margaret Bennett urges in the documentary: 'Open your mind and your ears, too. Listen, listen to Kenneth McKellar.'"

McKellar studied forestry at the University of Aberdeen, after graduation working for the Scottish Forestry Commission. He later trained at the Royal College of Music as an opera singer. He did not enjoy his time with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and left them to pursue a career singing traditional Scottish songs and other works. His albums of the songs of Robert Burns (now digitised) are considered by musicologists to be definitive interpretations.

In 1964, he toured New Zealand. On many occasions in the 1960s and 1970s he appeared on the BBC Television Hogmanay celebration programme, alongside Jimmy Shand and Andy Stewart.

In 1966, the BBC selected McKellar to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg. He sang five titles from which viewers selected "A Man Without Love" as the 1966 entry. According to author and historian John Kennedy O'Connor's The Eurovision Song Contest - The Official History, the Scottish tenor - who had changed into a kilt at the last moment - drew gasps from the audience when he appeared on stage. The song was placed ninth of the eighteen entries, making it the least successful UK placing in the contest until 1978. McKellar received scores from only two countries. The Irish jury gave the UK song top marks, one of only two occasions the Irish have done so in Eurovision history.

"A Man Without Love" peaked at #30 in the UK Singles Chart in March 1966. His albums The World of Kenneth McKellar (1969), and Ecco Di Napoli (1970), had a total of ten weeks presence in the UK Albums Chart.

On 31 December 1973, the first Scottish commercial radio station Radio Clyde began broadcasting to Glasgow. The first record they played was "Song of the Clyde" sung by Kenneth McKellar. The same recording featured over the opening titles of the 1963 film, Billy Liar.

McKellar made the majority of his recordings on the Decca Records label. He also recorded several classical works, including Handel's Messiah alongside Joan Sutherland in a performance conducted by Sir Adrian Boult.  

More information on the program here and listen to recordings of Kenneth McKellar here and here.

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