During Scottish Ensemble’s RCS Week, which takes place at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, a group of musicians from Scottish Ensemble spends an intensive week with a handful of promising students from the RCS’ Strings department, who have auditioned for a place on the programme. The students then enjoy five days of focused coaching, working towards a public performance at the end.
Each year, either one or two students are then selected to become one of our SE Young Artists, accompanying us on tour during the following year in order to gain real experience of the life of a professional touring musicians.
Our performance in October 2016 felt like an exhilarating experience for both the audience and the performers. The programme was exciting, lively and diverse – Kilar’s Orawa, Webern’s Five Movements (arranged for string orchestra), and Bartók’s relentless, gutsy Divertimento for Strings.
But there was also the intrigue of witnessing these young musicians, in the midst of the conservatoire stage of their careers, performing on stage with a professional string orchestra, and all that goes with that: the nerves, the anticipation, the interplay between the people and the levels of experience on stage.
We’d been with them for five days prior to this concert on the last day, which took place to a packed audience as part of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s Fridays at One series. The students had done these kinds of things before, of course, with musicians from other professional groups, but the aim of our week in particular was to really focus on strings, allowing a more intense, specific coaching than might be available in more general ‘sectionals’ sessions.
But of course, it’s all well and good us pontificating on this – what made far more sense was to get feedback from the students themselves. After the concert, we grabbed three of them as they left the stage for a quick interview about their experience.
First things first, how did you find the performance?
Balazs Renczes (Cello): I really enjoyed it; I think we worked pretty well together. It was an intense programme.
Michelle Dierx (Violin): There was a lot to think about in each piece – so much information to process in just one week!
Edward Keenan (Viola): I’m still totally buzzing!
In terms of the week you’ve just experienced, what was different about it compared to other similar coaching sessions you’ve done previously?
Balazs: I’ve learnt about how to listen to others while playing my own part, how to work with and play with others. One of the best things about the whole thing was how it felt like we were part of a normal week in the Scottish Ensemble’s schedule. It didn’t feel like we were just being told what to do, like a lecture or something – we were genuinely playing together.
Michelle: Jon was talking about things like different colours and characters of the music, which you can do with a smaller group.
Edward: Yeah, I loved the fact that it was entirely string-focused. There was no needing to get your sound to blend with a bassoon, or something. I found I could really focus in on the technical side of string playing specifically. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough of that. For once, I felt like I was surrounded by like-minded string players.
Michelle: I suppose rather than learning anything surprising or different, it was more about the way it was described: I’ve never had things explained in that way before. It was so interesting, getting their view on things.
Balazs: Also, in playing in an ensemble, there’s a different kind of pressure compared to what you feel in an orchestra.
Michelle: Yes, we had much more input into everything.
Edward: I agree – even though Jon [Jonathan Morton, Scottish Ensemble’s Artistic Director] was leading the rehearsals, it didn’t feel like we were being dictated to. We weren’t just being told what to do – everything they did took into account what we were like as musicians, rather than us just filling in the gaps. And, because we had to respond to what these five incredible musicians were playing, you wanted to reciprocate with your best playing…
Michelle: We were given so much time to stop on one bar – but it wasn’t boring, it was brilliant. We would spend, like, one hour on ten seconds of music.
What were your favourite aspects of the week?
Edward: The thing which made it really different for me, as compared to the usual orchestra stuff, was that 90% of the time you’re working on trying to blend with the other instruments. The thing I really loved about this week was that Jon always focused on the music. Yes, there were some bits where he’d be saying, “OK, that’s not in tune” – but other than that, we spent most of the week talking about the music – which is the way it should be!
I’d listened to the Webern beforehand and was like, “urghhghhh…” But then working on it was so different, and I think that was because with Jon, he’s just so into the music. You could see this light in his eyes when he spoke about it, which made you engage so much more with the piece. We all wanted to make him proud, I think.
Balazs: It was good to work on the first piece [Kilar’s Orawa] because it was so minimalist. If I were to have worked on it on my own, I’m not sure I’d know what to do – but Jon and the others had these new ideas and approaches that I’d just never have thought of.
What about the negatives – what would you change if you could do it again?
Edward: I felt really scared the first day about making a sound or coming in with everybody else. It took about two days to really feel comfortable with the ensemble.
Michelle: Yes, if we’d had another week it would have been nice I guess…
Balazs: But then, if the week is supposed to teach us about the life of a professional musician, I don’t think they’d have more time than that to prepare before a concert, so maybe it’s a good thing?
Which was your favourite piece to perform?
Edward: The Bartók. Musically, it was the biggest piece so it contained the most different characters. There were bits in that which were ridiculously difficult, for me. The Kilar had lots of cool sounds in it too, but the music itself wasn’t as challenging.
Michelle: The Bartók and Kilar as well, for me – the Kilar because the lines are so simple, but everyone has their own part, which makes it feel more personal and special to bring together. The Bartók is just really fun to play.
Balazs: I enjoyed the challenges of playing the solos, I guess… Even if in some bits I could have done a better job, it’s about the performance in general I suppose, not one small bit. [Edward and Michelle jump in at this point to say “oh, Balasz!” in exasperation – his solos really did sound very good.]
Michelle: The overall impression of the week actually feels more important than the one performance we’ve just done, which isn’t usually the case.
Edward: Yeah, usually you’re really looking forward to the end performance, but actually with this week, you ended up looking forward to specific parts of the week. That special sense of enjoyment was there the whole time. People often say playing in an orchestral concert is the only time you can really let rip, as opposed to chamber music or rehearsals or that kind of thing, where you’re stopping all the time. But I found that I was doing that in each rehearsal as well.
This season’s RCS Week takes place from 8 – 12 January 2018, culminating in a performance on Friday 12 January at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Stevenson Hall, 1pm-2pm approx).
Photography by Kenneth Dundas