Hebrides on Film

A bold new film series reveals the inner workings of the Hebrides Ensemble, writes KEN WALTON

We’ve got used to the digital alternative to live concert attendance resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown. Many will agree that the resulting listener experience of concerts streamed to our homes was necessary and welcome, if never quite as vital or participatory as the real thing. But it’s with us now, possibly for keeps, and it has a valid role to play so long as it can be justified in bringing added value. 

It’s not just the big boys – our national orchestras, opera company and festivals – that are making something of it. A strikingly creative example comes from the more diminutive Hebrides Ensemble, which is not even one of Creative Scotland’s current RFOs (Regularly Funded Organisations), though it is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s most ambitious chamber ensembles. 

Its forte is in contemporary music, its workforce small and adaptable. It has been active now for three decades – the 30th anniversary celebrations were stymied by the pandemic – and under artistic director and cellist William Conway, it has established standards of performance that are as exceptional as they are explorative.

Take a look at the Hebrides website and you’ll find a link – surprise, surprise – to “Inner Hebrides”, a project featuring five individual members of the group who each present their own thoughts and performances in an unfolding series of 40-minute films released successively over five weeks. They are beautifully produced (by Glasgow-based Flux Video), each programme is highly personal and often quirky, and the locations – ranging from an East Renfrewshire windfarm to Edinburgh’s Arthur’s Seat – take us well away from the traditional concert hall.

Already available from the week-by-week releases are spotlights on BBC SSO principal violist Scott Dickinson (released 22 Oct), violinist Zoë Beyers (29 Oct) and BBC SSO principal clarinettist Yann Ghiro (5 Nov). Still to come (12 Nov) are the penultimate film by former BBC SSO principal flautist Charlotte Ashton – she recently shifted her day job to the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Newcastle – and a final release by Conway on 19 November. 

Dickinson’s film is set amid the vastness of Whitelee Windfarm on Eaglesham Moor, its endless forest of turbines inhabiting the triangular junction of East Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and East Renfrewshire through which Dickinson is seen cycling and talking between his phenomenal solo performances of Beamish, Britten, Kurtág, Hindemith and Watkins, among others, recorded in the lockdown quiet of the visitor centre.

For this was a project that began life as a Creative Scotland-funded lockdown initiative. “They were filmed back in March and April,” explains Nick Zekulin, who has recently taken up his new position (after leaving the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland earlier this year) as general manager of the Hebrides Ensemble. He’s glad the creators took time to get the final cuts right. “As everyone found out, creating content of this calibre does not happen quickly.” 

Taking time has also served key future aspirations. “One of the questions arising from the growth of online content during the pandemic is how to share that content. We’ve identified the need to develop our website and support its wealth of content by building our social media profile,” says Zekulin. 

“We also see our future as encompassing three key areas of activity: live performance, outreach and education, and digital, and addressing the last of these will be as challenging as it is exciting. Concert films are all very nice, but the opportunity to do much more than that, using media in a much more creative way as we’ve begun to do with Inner Hebrides, will be the real clincher.”

Inner Hebrides reveals the positive action behind the words. From Dickinson’s windswept wilderness idyll, the series then takes us to the utilitarian Coleman Pumping Station in Shrewsbury where Beyer introduces and performs music by Benjamin, Saariaho and more Kurtág. 

Ghiro’s clarinet programme, ranging from the multi-tracked New York Counterpoint of Steve Reich to Messiaen and MacMillan, is reflective of the player’s reputable quirkiness, evident in the gentle humour of his personable delivery, and the clever use of synchronised filming that enables Ghiro’s four colleagues to provide a remotely constructed drone in William Sweeney’s atmospheric Òran-Buidheachas. 

Still to come are Charlotte Ashton’s captivating programme filmed in the historic crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, featuring Debussy’s enchanting Syrinx and Alistair Savage’s wistful St Andrew’s Lament for the victims of the 2013 Clutha Bar disaster. Hebrides director Will Conway completes the set with music by Judith Weir, Fennessy, Britten, MacMillan and even more Kurtág, recorded atop Arthur’s Seat and in Edinburgh’s Institut français d’Écosse 

It’s no accident that the some composers reappear over the course of the series. “That gives us the flexibility to re-package the content from time to time, perhaps with a later focus on Kurtág, or a theme centring on the Scottish composers,” Zekulin explains. 

And he knows there’s an audience for it. “It’s so much easier to get useful analytics from digital activity than from live performance. We know who is enjoying it, how they’re enjoying it and where they’re coming from to engage in it. A quarter of people logging on to these films are staying through to the very end, which is a significant number.”

And let’s not forget that live service from Hebrides has also resumed. The group has already featured at major festivals this year, Lammermuir and Cumnock Tryst among the most recent, and there will, Zekulin promises, be news soon of a 2022 concert season. “We’ll be starting in February with a concert of new music by disabled composers in collaboration with Drake Music Scotland at the Queen’s Hall.” Anything beyond that is still under wraps. Meantime, enjoy the films.

Inner Hebrides films are available to view via www.hebridesensemble.com