Tag Archives: Scottish Ensemble

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.

Available to view via www.perthfestival.co.uk

Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble: First Light

The Engine Works, Glasgow

If you are, like me, a little tired of hearing about “light at the end of the tunnel”, it may caution your approach to the new online offering from the Scottish Ensemble, under the guest leadership of violinist Max Baillie.

However, not only had the string group and its composer/director conceived this programme before that phrase became quite such a tired cliché, but there is also a delicious ambivalence in the way they have chosen to see the idea of First Light. Yes, the prevalent tone is one of optimism, and a new dawn, but don’t rule out the possibility of an on-coming train.

Filmed in Glasgow’s newest post-industrial arts-space, The Engine Works in Maryhill, once again the ensemble and its partner, Flux Video, sets the standard for online presentation. With projections on the walls and a dazzling, but not distracting, range of camera shots, First Light is a beautifully edited piece of film-making. No-one else, in Scotland at least, has made such consistently compelling use of tight close-ups alongside the more familiar perspectives on chamber musicians. The sound, doubtless very much through the input of Baillie himself, is exemplary, and not without its own clever trickery.

The choice of works, and their sequencing, is in some aspects typical of a Scottish Ensemble programme: a balance of early music with contemporary composition, although with the input of new arrangements of the older scores. Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in G Minor, which opens the recital, is, however, played “straight” and its central Adagio – exquisitely clear and precise – is movingly timeless.

Jessie Montgomery’s brief Starburst, which follows, is the most vivacious, life-affirming work, the mix of pizzicato and bowed string sounds she employs finding echoes later on. There is as much exuberance in Haydn’s “Fifths” Quartet, here arranged for the larger ensemble by Baillie and Iain Farrington, but it is leavened with the darker tones of late Haydn as well as the playful rhythms.

A burst of Bach in Baillie’s minimalist, ethereal arrangement of the chorale O Lord let thine ear incline, precedes the violinist’s own Mirrors in Time, featuring himself on five-string electric violin and an ominous bass drum pulse. There is something ritualistic in his use of rhythms borrowed from African music as well as the Baroque and the dancefloor, and the sound and vision mixing is at its most sophisticated here. The richness of the ensemble strings disappears to leave Baillie alone in the space for his extended cadenza, before returning for what is a slightly querulous conclusion.

It is a big piece, but it is ultimately outshone by Steve Martland’s Eternity’s Sunrise. Like the late composer’s entire oeuvre, here is a work that is quite shockingly under-performed, demanding though it is. Taking its title from William Blake, here is a “First Light” as scary as it is to be welcomed. With sharp staccato playing as well as pizzicato pitched against legato lines, this is characteristically percussive, rhythmic Martland writing, propulsive and mesmeric in its subtly unfolding variations.

The band is rearranged physically for this, facing one another in a circle, doubtless for practical as much as presentational  reasons, but that speaks visually of the connectedness required of all of us as we face the future. A lovely visual metaphor to accompany the superb playing of a brilliant composition.

Keith Bruce

Available on the Scottish Ensemble’s You Tube channel until August 7.

Perth Festival

May’s Perth Festival of the Arts has maintained a classical music core to its programme even as it has diversified into other areas of music, theatre and a popular art fair. This year, although it will not be able to welcome live audiences to its concerts, it has doubled down on that commitment, with a fine line-up of local and visiting artists.

The 49th festival opens on May 20 with a concert by the Scottish Ensemble, filmed in the Byre at Inchrya as the string group continues its eye-catching exploration of different venues in its own response to the current crisis. The programme will be an international journey, visiting the Balkans, Central Europe, the Americas and Scandinavia and culminating in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, the work that had been due to close Perth’s 2020 Festival.

On the days following there is a concert from Perth Concert Hall, with Spanish saxophonist Manu Brazo, violinist Claudia Uriarte and pianist Prajna Indrawati, a performance by chamber choir The Sixteen followed by a live Q&A with its founder and conductor Harry Christophers, and a solo piano recital by Isata Kanneh-Mason featuring works by Mozart, Barber, Chopin and Gershwin.

The following week, the festival has concerts at Perth Museum and Art Gallery with the Gesualdo Six singing Monteverdi and Palestrina, and at Perth Theatre Studio with the Sitkovetsky Trio playing Schumann and Tchaikovsky and soprano Ilona Domnich, pianist Sholto Kynoch and critic Michael White exploring the songs of Rachmaninov.

The classical series closes at Perth Concert Hall with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and soloist Nicola Benedetti playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto.

Other ingredients of the programme include traditional music from Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton and jazz from the Fergus McCreadie Trio and big band Fat-Suit.

Tickets and Festival passes are on sale and full details are available at perthfestival.co.uk

Scottish Ensemble / NYOS / Glass

Minimalism is the natural soundtrack to a train ride. Steve Reich made the point literally in his string quartet “Different Trains”. The connection is more of an interpretational one in this filmed performance of the final two movements of Philip Glass’ Symphony No 3 – the repetitive chuntering of the hypnotic third movement shifting gear to the motorised euphoria of the fourth – but no less incontestable.

Written in 1995 for the strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, it is presented here as a collaboration between the professional Scottish Ensemble and talented senior members of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland; and rather ingeniously as a film, created by Hopscotch Films, in which all 19 players are cast as passengers in a seemingly endless, dimly lit, train carriage. 

There’s a mysterious sense of the surreal from the outset. Through the windows is a restless haze of moonlit smoke and mist, the carriage interior a haunting chiaroscuro in which Glass’s autumnal timbres gradually journey from repeated cello and viola sequences to a point where the full complement of strings are woven deliriously together. 

The finale moves instantly up tempo, but now with more impulsive reiterated patterns. Urban images flash past the window. The train hurtles on. 

It’s a compelling piece of cross-genre interpretation. The production quality is top-notch, where neither film nor music is compromised. The deep mellow timbre of the opening has a golden glow – beautifully sound engineered, intensely performed – that is only enhanced by the unobtrusive synergy of visuals reflecting the aching dichotomy – stasis versus momentum – that embodies Glass’s personalised, often lugubrious minimalist style.

In the darkness, it’s often hard to pick out who is Scottish Ensemble and who is NYOS in the ensemble mix, but that’s part of this collaboration’s charm. Yes, there are minor slips in detailed synchronisation that could easily be put down to inexperience, but the overall homogeneity is sleekly polished and characterful to the last. 

As part of the Ensemble’s excellent ongoing digital work, and its commitment to working with young musicians – who in this instance also get hands-on experience of the filmmaking process – this 15-minute project is as significant as it is entertaining. 
Ken Walton

Available to view via the Scottish Ensemble website, www.scottishensemble.co.uk

Scottish Ensemble: Reflection

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Its seasonal Concerts by Candlelight, like annual pantomimes in Scottish theatres, are the events at which the Scottish Ensemble could expect to play for its largest audience, touring to venues across the nation and attracting people less likely to buy tickets at other times of the year.

It is to be hoped that a good number of them make the leap to online concert-going for this year’s offering, simply titled Reflection and filmed and recorded in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, because they will hear a beautifully-structured programme, immaculately played.

There is, truth to tell, very little about Yuletide, the Solstice and the Nativity in it, until the closing arrangement by violinist Daniel Pioro of the Ukranian Carol of the Bells, unless George Crumb’s God Music, from Black Angels, somehow qualifies.

As that inclusion may suggest, this is as far from a recital of festive favourites as you will hear this year, and perhaps rather more brave than artistic director and leader Jonathan Morton would have felt able to be if it was to have been performed live.

Two 14-minute pieces composed in the past decade are the most substantial works. Appropriately in the middle of the programme – the works on either side of it each reflections on one another rippling outwards – is Edmund Finnis’s The Centre is Everything. It had its premiere (played by the Manchester Collective) in July 2019, and is a compelling listen, with very quiet music from the full string ensemble building in intensity and richness before falling away to a gentle, rustling noise again.

There is also a pleasing arc to Anna Clyne’s Prince of Clouds, from seven years earlier, but it is rhythmically bolder, with contrasting forces at work. In that aspect it is paired, tellingly, with Steve Reich’s 1994 Duet, written from the same combination of two violin soloists and string orchestra, and dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin. Clyne’s is a much more complex piece, but the Reich also sits crucially next to the opening Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering in a juxtaposition that hints at the clever parallels and reflections to come.

Both in repertoire of the Kronos Quartet, Arvo Part’s Summa, a choral movement he re-scored for strings, parallels the Crumb, which features cellist Alison Lawrance accompanied by bowed wine glasses. She also partners Morton in the final fragment of Bach, from the Art of Fugue, and one of those inspired moments where director Richard Watson deploys split-screen technique to fine effect. Here the interweaving lines of the two players are rendered in a composite “graphic score” above them, an eloquent representation of the composer’s method.

Unlike the Ensemble’s recent Cottier concert film, Flux Video’s contribution here is entirely in the service of the music, the “Reflection” of the title never over-played visually, as it is so skilfully expanded in the music.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble Scoops RPS Award

The Scottish Ensemble has triumphed in the ensemble category of this year’s prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. The full list of prizes, which also included success for the Virtual Benedetti Sessions, was announced in a virtual awards ceremony presented by BBC Radio 3’s Georgia Mann on the RPS website on Wednesday evening. 

The highly-contested Ensemble Award was conferred on the Scottish Ensemble “for sheer quality and innovation in their 50th birthday year [2019-20], and for showing us all how an ensemble can serve its community yet still have a striking international impact”. The Ensemble beat off stiff competition from fellow category nominees, the City of London Sinfonia and Manchester Collective.

The announcement also coincided with the launch of the SE’s new digitally focused autumn/winter season, which opened last week with Songs of Life, featuring mezzo soprano Karen Cargill (see Keith Bruce’s review on VoxCarnyx).

Responding to the RPS announcement, SE artistic director Jonathan Morton acknowledged the challenges facing the classical music world during a year that has sharpened ingenuity in the fight for survival. “Like many in our field, we have tried to stay connected with our audiences by creating new work and sharing it digitally, and we have enjoyed establishing new relationships with some exciting collaborators along the way,” he said.

“I very much hope that these experiments will be able to sustain performers and audiences alike, keeping our common musical spirits alive until the time when we can once again look forward to live performances.”

The Ensemble was also delighted to announce it has been awarded financial support from the RPS Audience Fund. “This will enable us to further develop our work finding a new filmic language for classical music and could not have come at a better time,” said SE chief executive Jenny Jamison.

Also among the recipients with a Scottish connection were the Benedetti Foundation’s Virtual Benedetti Sessions, one of several winners in the new Inspiration category, and soprano Natalya Romaniw in the Singer category for, among other achievements, her title role as Tosca for Scottish Opera. 

Tenor Nicky Spence, guitarist Sean Shibe, Scottish Opera’s Nixon in China production and Scots-based composer Errollyn Warren were also among shortlisted nominees. The RPS’ Gold Medal, recognising outstanding musicianship, went to legendary Hollywood composer John Williams. 

View the complete awards ceremony on www.royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk/awards

BBC Radio 3 presents a musical celebration of the winners on 23 Nov, 7.30pm

Scottish Ensemble/Cargill

Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow

Scottish Ensemble artistic director Jonathan Morton is both an original and inspired creator of programmes and a great collaborator, and his group chooses its performance venues with great care. All of those attributes are in evidence in its first streamed film event for the Coronavirus era, and the Ensemble’s first performance since March.

Songs for Life sees the string group partner with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill in a sequence of music that is as eclectic as anything it has done, filmed in Cottiers, the former church turned arts venue, bar and restaurant in Glasgow’s West End. Part of the charm of Cottiers is that it still, after many years, seems a work in progress – both Tramway and the Arches in the city were arguably diminished as much as they were enhanced by the spending of vast sums of National Lottery money – but its aesthetic proves rather too much of a temptation to the film-makers here. With many shots from the gallery above the musicians, much skilled and confident hand-held camera-work and even drone footage from high above the kirk spire, there is an awful lot going on, and the mobility of the images is often an attention-seeking distraction. Recording engineer Jonathan Green captures the sound in the theatre well – there is a real appreciation of the reverberant acoustic and individual players are quite distinct – but the spoken introductions recorded in the bar fare less well, particularly when Cargill is speaking. This is a particular shame as she tells a story that her many fans will recognise as illustrative of why she is such a captivating performer.

Thankfully there is also ample evidence for that in the recital, and, when she sings, Miranda Stern and Julyan Sinclair often have the sense to keep the focus on her expressive performance. Aside from the single glory of Purcell’s Dido’s Lament – every bit as heart-breaking as you might desire – and leading a closing choral Auld Lang Syne – the mezzo’s contributions come in pairs: two from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, two from Britten’s Charm of Lullabies, and two of Dvorak’s Love Songs. Those last four, in particular, are lovely original choices, matched by the varied instrumental pieces Morton places around them. They begin with a movement from Walton’s Sonata for Strings and end with the mesmerising Entr’acte by Caroline Shaw, the New Yorker who is very much flavour of the moment. With Janacek, Kurtag, Beethoven and more Britten along the way, lighter moments come in one of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs and George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, sounding a close cousin of Barber’s Adagio.

Those moments are welcome because the darkness in some of the other material is often matched by the images on screen. But then we live in bleak times, even if playing and singing of the matchless standard evident throughout this hour and a quarter presents the promise of light in that darkness.

Scottish Ensemble’s Songs for Life with Karen Cargill is available to view until 12 February, 2021; single ticket £10, household ticket £20. scottishensemble.co.uk
Keith Bruce

Scottish Ensemble takes its season online

After its proposed return to live work with a socially-distanced performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was stymied twice by the return of restrictions to combat the pandemic, the Scottish Ensemble has announced an ambitious slate of work online and on film that attempts to reach the broadest constituency, and particularly those most in need of the sustenance of music.

As well as work specifically aimed at school-children, and tailored to the needs of different ages and abilities, the string orchestra is providing, via digital broadcast, Music & Mindfulness sessions for users of Maggie’s Centres supporting those affected by cancer diagnoses. Like others with health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, they are particularly isolated in the current crisis, and other strands of the Ensemble’s programme aim to meet those needs in the wider community.

On November 4, the group relaunches its Musical Book Club, with sessions exploring works of music with the help of experts in composition, performance and research. Guests in the coming series include composers Craig Armstrong and Dobrinka Tabakova and writer and broadcaster Tom Service. The online sessions will happen every second Wednesday, priced at £5.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill joins the Ensemble for an evening of Songs for Life, premiering online on November 13, and available to view thereafter, tickets £10. The programme of music and conversation will travel from Purcell to contemporary composition and embrace songs of love, lament and celebration.

The group’s school concerts begin on October 30 with half-hour lunchtime performances available online, in both primary and secondary school versions, aimed at all pupils rather than those specifically studying music. Specialist students will be showcased later in the year when SE releases a video made with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland that uses the first two movements of Philip Glass’s Symphony No 3.

As well as a Solo Collaboration between principal viola Jane Atkins, artist Jyll Bradley and composer Anna Clyne, the whole Ensemble will provide an online version of its popular annual Concerts by Candlelight in December, in which Clyne’s music will also feature, in the company of Bach, Part and Crumb. Tickets to view that are also £10. Despite recent disappointments, the group has its fingers crossed that it may even be permitted to play that programme live if restrictions are lifted later in the year.