The great thing about putting on a concert of music from Eastern Europe is that even the unfamiliar jumble of grouped consonants and accents makes it feel intriguing and exotic. This is, unfortunately, exactly what can also make it difficult to put on a programme of music from Eastern Europe. This is not the place for a diatribe on the continued unpopularity of much modern classical music (as in, this website is certainly a place, just not this post) but let’s just leave it as, it’s not always easy to get people to come and listen to things covered in unfamiliarity, despite people so often leaving these concerts feeling inspired, surprised, sometimes overwhelmed by how much they enjoyed pieces they’d never heard before.
We’ve used words like ‘unpopular’ and ‘surprised’ but we’re exaggerating of course – the beauty of this programme (and many of our others) is that there are recognisable gems nestling amongst the less familiar, and of course we’re working from a quickly-made assumption that Scotland is not teeming with lifelong fans of Henryk Czyż. One of these is a string arrangement of two of Chopin’s pieces for piano (which is gorgeous – but, more on that below) and a version of Dvořák’s quintet in G major, already richer with its addition of a double bass, now scored for full string orchestra for even more volume and depth. The overall effect will, we hope, be one of balanced tones and moods: sweetness in with sparseness, pleasing melodies in with startling rhythms, the exciting new in with the familiar old.
The other interesting factor is of course our guest leader for the night, the Polish violinist Bartosz Woroch, who has basically excelled and then continued to excel some more from an enviably early age. As well as three seasons as artistic director of Sinfonia Cymru, he’s known as an excellent chamber musician, notably as a member of the Lutosławski Quartet, as well as for his passionate exploration of Bach’s work for solo violin. His personality and fierce and fiery playing style infuses this programme and will no doubt come across on the evening.
You can find the full programme on the event page – or, have a read of our easy-to-digest introduction to some of the pieces below. We hope it inspires you to come and experience them live.
Grażyna Bacewicz – Concerto for string orchestra
Bacewicz was one of Poland’s first female composers to make it into the public sphere, as well as doing very good things for the country in terms of pushing its music into the contemporary European scene – a particularly admirable achievement considering the devastation of World War II, which segmented her career and wrapped Poland behind the iron curtain in its aftermath.
This is considered one of her most important works, something you can hear from its driving opening bars, which immediately demand that you sit up and pay attention. The middle section shifts beguilingly between sinister and melancholy, with solo lines popping up like lonely voices amongst big swirls of urgent sound. It’s a brief piece, though, intense and concentrated; before you know it you’re at the vivacious attack of the final movement and it’s over too soon, leaving you wanting more.
Henryk Czyż – Canzona di Barocco
This is another special find, and a nice contrast with both Bacewicz and Gòrecki’s offerings. As its title suggests in its reference to the Baroque, it is a pastiche, a fond study in Baroque compositional style which brims with appreciation of the seventeeth century’s approach to lovely, flowing melody and harmony. Canzona literally means ‘song’ in Italian, something else which comes through in its beautiful, smooth sound.
Frederic Chopin – Two Nocturnes [arranged by David Matthews for string orchestra]
You might be forgiven for wondering how two of Chopin’s nocturnes, so perfectly penned and completely associated with their intended instrument of the piano, could be successfully translated into a piece for string orchestra; even the man behind this arrangement did, at first. Commissioned by Scottish Ensemble (we do like a challenge), the British composer David Matthews chose two contrasting examples – ones in which he heard a natural affinity to the way that strings might bring out a melody – and created something really quite beautiful. Each is delicate and – a word so often used when describing strings, but really appropriate here – exquisite, honouring the soft piano melodies whilst bringing out the beautiful nature of the violin in particular. A must-hear experience for fans of Chopin, the piano and strings (and if you’re reading this, surely at least one of those must apply?).
Antonin Dvořák – String Quintet in G major
Last but by no means least, this is the Dvořák quintet which we’re expanding into a piece for full string orchestra. Given that one of the notable qualities of the original was the fact that it was written for two violins, viola, cello and double bass (as opposed to doubling up on the viola or cello which is more usual for a string quintet), we’re looking forward to seeing what happens when we more than double the forces. It’s a piece which benefits less from introduction or explanation than just listening to it – an enjoyable, melody-driven, skilled composition full of catchy rhythms and jaunty little snatches of melody which, we guarantee, will be stuck in your head for days after.
Eastern Europe Express, the final tour of Scottish Ensemble’s 2016-17 Season, takes place from Wed 31 May to Wed 7 June 2017, calling at Dundee (Wed 31 May), Dumfries (Sun 4 June), Inverness (Tue 6 June), Glasgow (Wed 7 June).