PERTH FESTIVAL: Scottish Ensemble

The Byre, Inchyra, Perthshire

Had the Scottish Ensemble opened this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in the manner it was originally contracted, rather than with an on-line concert and no live audience, there is no doubt it would have been an entirely different event. As it happened, and is available to Sunday May 29 via the festival’s website, it sits well in the sequence of concerts the group has filmed during the pandemic, adding another attractive venue to its imaginative list.

Perhaps artistic director Jonathan Morton may also have been less bold in the selection of works that led up to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings to entice Perth to book in person, but the ten other composers to be heard here are sequenced with great skill in an international journey that manages to keep one foot at home in Scotland.

In effect the Serenade’s best known movement becomes the last waltz in an evening of dance music, and there is an atmosphere of the ceilidh in this converted farm building, more than living up to Morton’s promise of a programme of joyful and exuberant music.

The opening movement from Grazyna Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra certainly fits the bill, and if James MacMillan’s Memento, which follows, is the composer in haunting, folky mode, it is the bridge to the Scottish strain being given full expression in Anna Meredith’s Tullochgorum, not only a Scottish Ensemble commission but also a reminder that MacMillan conducted one of her earliest orchestral pieces during his association with the BBC Philharmonic.

If we might seem to return to Eastern Europe with Dvorak’s Waltz in D Major, that reckons without the trad fiddle session way Morton leads the piece, and something of that style continues in first viola Andrew Berridge’s solo line in a selection from Schubert’s 5 German Dances, rather more lively than its Minuet title suggests.

After that, the music becomes more of a challenge to dance to, for all its rhythmic intensity. The Transylvanian dance of Sandor Veress has the sort of challenging time signature that was catnip to jazz trumpeter Don Ellis with his band, before the biggest geographical leap of the programme takes us to Buenos Aires and “Summer” from Piazzolla’s Four Seasons.

The natural move to William Grant Still’s Danzas de Panama introduces a work that then goes somewhere else entirely, before the adventurous strings cross back over the Atlantic for two pieces by members of the Danish String Quartet, cellist Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin and leader Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen. There may be a nod to Danish court composer John Dowland here, but we are also firmly back at the ceilidh until Tchaikovsky waltzes us all home.

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Keith Bruce