AS one of the world’s most acclaimed Renaissance and early music specialists, Dame Emma Kirkby is much in demand around the world.
However, this weekend presents the first opportunity to hear her in Inverness when Kirkby, who was created a Dame for services to music in 2007, performs a fund-raising concert at the Old High Church in Inverness in aid of the Moray Acorn Upper School.
The school will allow children aged from 15 to 18 or 19 to continue their education in a school operating on Steiner-Waldorf principals. The current Moray Steiner School only caters for children aged three to 15 years of age, and once open the Moray Acorn Upper School will be the only senior school of its type in the north of Scotland.
Kirkby, who has become a frequent visitor to the north of Scotland, especially after her son began studying at the University of Aberdeen, explained why she was happy to lend her talents to support of the new school.
"I have three beloved half-sisters, one of whom has two sons who are currently very, very happy at the Moray Steiner School," she explained.
"It’s been such a success for both of them that I do feel happy to join in any initiative to prolong this for people — the parents are so happy that they want this to go on for longer than 14 years old. It is an alternative thing, but it has proved its worth elsewhere."
Joining her will be Swedish-born lute player Jakob Lindburgh, a long term collaborator of Kirkby’s.
"That’s very nice of him," she said.
"I’ve got a very happy duo with him and we go around the world mostly performing and occasionally teaching as well, so it is just lovely that he is free to come and join me in this."
Unlike a guitar, which is strummed, a lute is plucked and the precision of the instrument means that you need to have silence round it, Kirkby says.
So the acoustics of a church as historic as the Old High are ideal for her performance with Lindberg, which they have entitled "The Distilled Beauty of Silence".
"We’ve played in a lot of good churches over the years, so I’m trusting this is another," she said.
"Silence was a rather sacred thing to renaissance thinkers because silence represented the music of the spheres and represented something beyond our worldly ken, the music of the heavens, which is so subtle that we can’t hear it."
This is why writers of the period wrote pieces with silences contained in them so that thoughts could turn heaven-ward, Kirkby added.
Though she initially had no intention of becoming a professional singer, Kirkby has come to be regarded as one of the finest performers of music from the pre-Classical period. In 1999 she was voted Artist of the Year by Classic FM Radio listeners and in 2007 was placed at number 10 on BBC Music Magazine’s list of the greatest sopranos.
Kirkby was introduced to Baroque and Renaissance music in her teens. Already much involved in singing at her school, it was when she joined a mixed choir and was introduced to the songs of Renaissance composer William Byrd.
"I was just enchanted by the feeling of these interweaving lines and the tenor and bass sounds below and I just adored this music. It felt that I’d come home somehow," she said.
"Then, when I went to university, I was very lucky because there was a very active choir that’s still going.
"There is so much repertoire. It was the best way to express the divine service in England for centuries, but also you have wonderful instrumental music too, the precursors of the string quartet. I just adored all that.
"I enjoyed all the more obvious things, the Mozart and the Handel and so on, but this felt even more truly me. Being quite a literary person — I did a degree in Classics — I also enjoyed the texts as well. I enjoyed the way that they set these texts into song and that’s still something that I get a great deal of satisfaction and enjoyment from. I like to think when I’m singing that somehow the text is expressing itself through the music."
Aside from her personal taste for music of the era, Kirkby also has a voice that fits.
"It’s useful to have a voice that is clear, that balances the instruments you are working with," she said.
"If you have got a lot of vibrato, it has a rich effect, but this music is all about interweaving lines and they make this wonderful bittersweet effect when one note clashes with another. If you have them moving around too much, you miss it. You need a rather clean, clear delivery, which I’ve always liked anyway, but it works particularly well for this stuff.
"The lute itself is a magical instrument, but it’s a plucked instrument, so you get this beautiful shape of the note and the very clear ring of the note that fades gradually into silence so again to have a voice which is clear rather than complicated is good."
For many people, the word soprano is synonymous with the world of opera, but it is an area of music Kirkby has avoided, though she acknowledges that she is as excited by the spectacle of opera as anyone, Kirkby points out there is a lot more music beyond the obvious opera repertoire to enjoy.
Which is why she was happy to accept the title of Dame when it was offered to her.
"I got an OBE first and I was amazed by the reaction from some of my colleagues who were saying: ‘Yes, at last! This is what we need!’" she said.
"Our way of making music is a little bit special and is thought of as a little side-turning and for that to be accepted rather than treated as a poor relation was very welcome to people. So once you accept that, you can’t really turn down the next one.
"I don’t know what it means. The title ‘Dame’ is quite odd really. Particularly Dame Emma — it’s not far off Dame Edna, is it?
• Dame Emma Kirkby and Jakob Lindberge will be in concert at the Old High Church, Church Street, Inverness, on Saturday September 29th at 7pm.
The concert is in aid of the Moray Steiner School and there is a minimum donation of £25 per ticket.