Music Is Power with Alina Ibragimova at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow (Bachtrack)

Published on Sunday 19 February 2017
Written by David Smythe
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Kelvingrove Art Gallery bustles with visitors every day, but at night becomes a theatrically lit Glasgow City landmark. There is something magical about a museum at night, for as the lighting dimmed, the main hall overlooked by its famous organ became a dramatic setting for this concert exploring the political, spiritual and emotional power of music.

IT was an odd coincidence that saw two performances of the 14-year-old Mendelssohn’s 10th String Symphony on successive days in Glasgow, the BBC SSO’s Thursday concert under Alpesh Chauhan opening with the piece, and Jonathan Morton choosing it and the 6th to begin each half of this memorable programme. The earlier work, written when young Felix was just 12, perhaps has less evidence of his own distinct signature as you would expect, and here it served another formative purpose as both players and capacity audience attuned to the reverberant acoustic of the space – to my ears a task achieved by the brisk finale.

Mendelssohn’s childhood home in Berlin was a magnet for artistic intellectuals, the family putting on private performances to entertain the distinguished visitors. Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies for these occasions by the time he was 15, incredibly never performed in public until their discovery in the State Library of East Berlin in 1950. The String Symphony no. 6 in E flat major written by the 12-year-old composer showed an extraordinary grasp of musical form with its dancing opening with lots of dramatic unison passages. A beautiful central movement with elegant playing from cellos and bass with strong hymn-like powerful chords was followed by a Prestissimo scurry to the finish. Starting the second half, String Symphony no. 10 in B minor begins to display some trademark styles, from a mournful Adagio to an energetic Allegro. The players, urged on by leader and director Jonathan Morton, conveyed all the youthful energy and vigour in a joyous performance. Soirees at the Mendelssohn household must have been fun indeed.

Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song is an intense expression of deep spiritual faith, the music a series of phrases, each of several bars followed by pauses demanding absolute concentration from the players. We have to wait for the bass to come in, but when it does, it adds ethereal depth and beauty, crowned by a moving violin solo at the central climax, the building’s bathroom-like four second reverberation adding to the atmosphere.

Continuing the spiritual theme, Latvian Pēteris Vasks Viatore, dedicated to Arvo Pärt, imagined a traveller journeying under a starry and endless universe. A shimmering motif wove through the upper strings representing eternity alternating with a rich travelling musical theme beginning in the lower strings and gradually taken up by all. Morton’s players put a slight crescendo on the last note of phrases, almost like a question mark, drawing us further into the piece and deepening its intensity up to the last glissando as the music vanishes into thin air.

The Ensemble was joined by violinist Alina Ibragimova for Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s sombre Concerto funebre, written in 1939 during the terrifying annexation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. Hartmann survived the war through self-imposed musical silence, revising this piece in 1959, but the music is understandably dark and brooding offering only little glimmers of hope. Ibragimova gave a mesmerising performance, her elegiac lament giving the impression of bravely going against the grain, leading the Ensemble into new and challenging ideas. A fast urgent unison heralded a central angular section with a passionate and angry workout for the soloist, thrilling for us to watch as Ibragimova played as if possessed. The work ended on hopeful beauty with a tender violin solo, the Ensemble kindling warmth, yet it was easy to see why this work was considered too dangerous for public consumption in a world turned on its dark side.

Ibragimova is famed for her individual interpretation of Bach, and to round this concert off it was a special treat to hear her performance of Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major. The Ensemble was energetic and tight, earthy in the first movement, delicate in the second and vibrantly dancing at the end. Ibragimova performed without a score, eschewing vibrato for a cleaner more resonant sound filling her dynamic performance with ornament and energy. She engaged every section of the Ensemble in turn during her performance, moving towards the players, infectious in her enjoyment and our delight. The excitement of Bach heard afresh certainly caught the imagination of the sold out crowd.

The Kelvingrove acoustic took a bit of getting used to with the long reverberation tending to blur the details in the Mendelssohn and Bach, but the Ensemble tackled the challenge like an artist smudging the edges of a graphite drawing, bringing out different characteristics in the music. Wandering round the galleries in the interval and afterwards was an unexpected additional bonus.

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Music Is Power with Alina Ibragimova at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow (The Herald)

Published on Sunday 19 February 2017
Written by Keith Bruce
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IT was an odd coincidence that saw two performances of the 14-year-old Mendelssohn’s 10th String Symphony on successive days in Glasgow, the BBC SSO’s Thursday concert under Alpesh Chauhan opening with the piece, and Jonathan Morton choosing it and the 6th to begin each half of this memorable programme. The earlier work, written when young Felix was just 12, perhaps has less evidence of his own distinct signature as you would expect, and here it served another formative purpose as both players and capacity audience attuned to the reverberant acoustic of the space – to my ears a task achieved by the brisk finale.

Nonetheless there were other elements of the concert better suited to the environment, particularly the spare material and long pauses of Arvo Part’s Silouan’s Song, whose tonal and dynamic cohesion was heart-stopping in Morton’s direction of the 14-piece string group. I was less taken by Peteris Vasks’s Viatore, which occupied the same place in the running order after the interval, although his twin influences of both Part and Bach (whose music followed) made his inclusion most apt. The exchanges between fast repeating figures and glissandi on the high strings and slow phrases on the lower ones were certainly cinematic, but seemed a little superficial by comparison with the music around it.

The climax of both halves of the evening, however, was the arrival of violin soloist Alina Ibragimova to the stage. Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre is a virtuosic 20 minutes, at once exquisite and terrifying. Her bowing arm mesmerisingly balletic in its fluidity, every tiny harmonic Ibragimova played was absolutely clear and distinct in the interplay between ensemble and soloist. With Morton cheerfully ceding directorial control of proceedings (even if his players were still looking to him), this became Ibragimova’s show, especially when Tom Foster was added on harpsichord for Bach’s Violin Concerto in E.

Many listeners will have come to know the violinist through the broadcast of her late night solo Bach recitals from the BBC Proms last year, and her mastery of the composer was again on show here. There was no question who was in charge, or that the distinct acoustic of the space was going to be an incorporated part of the experience even at the blistering pace of the final movement.

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Music Is Power with Alina Ibragimova at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (The Guardian)

Published on Friday 17 February 2017
Written by Kate Molleson
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The Scottish Ensembles’s default setting is flux and dynamism: that’s the mission of this string orchestra, and it makes for nimble conversations within the group. So it was a thrill to hear what happened when they were joined by Alina Ibragimova – a violinist of uncompromising focus and intensity who made the sparring go deeper, quieter, fiercer. Ibragimova is a chamber musician as well as a soloist, acutely attentive to group texture and counterpoint, but there was no question who was in control. She didn’t so much invite as command their attention, and ours.

The programme was billed as “Music is Power”, a loose theme through works variously banned, self-censored, emphatically spiritual or plain joyous. A pair of early Mendelssohn string symphonies (the sixth and 10th) were delivered as pithy, boisterous dramas, full of light, shade and bravado. Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song and Pēteris Vasks’s Viatore sounded flinty and serene: the holy minimalism thing can feel tokenistic when plonked into a concert as if to provide a quick hit of transcendence, but this performance didn’t overstoke the meaningfulness.

Ibragimova’s two concertos came as a release and a focal point. Hartmann’s Concerto Funèbre was before the interval — a second world war score she recorded a decade ago and which she plays as a ferocious elegy, every phrase urgent and personal. To close, she gave an exuberantly huge-boned account of Bach’s E major concerto. I’ve never heard it sound so fun and so fiery.

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Ascent: Concerts by Candlelight at Caird Hall, Dundee (The Dundee Courier review)

Published on Monday 12 December 2016
Written by Garry Fraser


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Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending has confounded many, myself included, by repeatedly notching the number one spot in Classic FM’s top of the pops. It’s nowhere near my top 1,000 classical favourites, but if any performance was to make me reconsider, it would with the Scottish Ensemble’s Jonathan Morton as soloist, performing Adam Johnson’s arrangement for strings. Morton’s superb solo performance in the Caird Hall on Friday night was personal, eloquent and intimate and dusted off the saccharine sweetness I normally attribute to this work. It certainly made me see the work in a new light and maybe, just maybe, catapulted it higher in the Fraser list of favourites.

Friday’s concert, with the Ensemble being joined by young players from NYOS and the Conservatoire in Glasgow, might have emphasised Vaughan Williams – with his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis ending the concert – but two other composers of lesser renown should not go unmentioned and who provided works slap bang in the Ensemble’s world. That is a world of precision, unilateral brilliance and superb interpretation.

Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa is a work of hypnotic excellence, with a beautifully-structured build-up interrupted by a frenetic dance. There was a sense of the perpetual mobile about it, and I lapped it up, eager to hear more of this man’s work.

The same can’t be said for the first of Dobrinka Tabakova’s two works. I found Such Different Paths lacking in substance and too long by far. However, the chalk to this cheese was her Concerto for Cello and Strings. If there’s a better slow movement in contemporary music for soloist and orchestra than Longing, I’d be surprised. It was the perfect example of soloist wrapped in beautiful harmonies, with soloist David Cohen’s lyrical qualities standing out in abundance.

His other qualities of flair and technical wizardry had been highlighted earlier in the opening movement, with multi-octave jumps in the blink of an eye and some amazing finger board gymnastics.

And as for the Tallis work, it is a composition of outstanding beauty and perfect for such a unit as the SE, whose warmth of texture and exposition of multi-layered harmonies is one of their many qualities. Many composers have been inspired with Renaissance music, but this work is up there at the very top.

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Ascent: Concerts by Candlelight at Wellington Church, Glasgow (The Herald review)

Published on Thursday 8 December 2016
Written by Keith Bruce

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UK-domiciled Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova will have been a new name to many in the churches on the Scottish Ensemble’s Candlelit Concerts tour, but it is one they will certainly have noted. Artistic director Jonathan Morton may well have acquired the idea of teaming her music with that of Ralph Vaughan Williams from the premiere of one of her most recent works, Immortal Shakespeare, by the Orchestra of the Swan at Stratford earlier this year, but the pairing of two pieces from 2008, recorded on 2013’s award-winning ECM disc String Paths, with The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was a plan well worth pursuing.

There are very distinct echoes of The Lark in the leader’s obligato over the looping phrases on the low strings in her Such Different Paths, but the title is perhaps better explained by the way the very precise atonality of the opening and those minimalist repetitions come together with a unity of purpose by the end. In what was a superbly constructed programme, that minimalist influence had also been clear in the opening piece, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa, which make very specific tonal demands of individual players before an ensemble accelerando and climactic vocal shout.

The other remarkable partnership was of the professional group with star soloist David Cohen on Tabakova’s cello and strings concerto, nine players from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and two of the Ensemble’s “Young Artists” in a superbly coherent larger group, even when split into two cohorts in the space for the second Vaughan Williams piece.

Every detail of the experience was worth the closest audience attention, but it was the delicacy of Morton’s own solo playing – bravely bold in its proximity to silence – that everyone present will surely have taken home.

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Scottish Ensemble & Anna Meredith: Anno at The Hub, Edinburgh (Bachtrack review)

Published on Monday 14 November 2016
Written by David Smythe

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The annual Hot 100 cultural contributors from Edinburgh’s magazine The List draws interest from right across the entertainment world in Scotland. Beating Donald Runnicles (80), John Butt (63) and even The Edinburgh Festival (8), emerging smoking hot in the lead this year is composer Anna Meredith. We felt bang on trend as we packed out the performance space at The Hub in Edinburgh sitting on tiny stools surrounded by eight huge screens in a circle for a performance of Anno, first seen at the Spitalfields Festival in the summer.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is everywhere, performed almost nightly in churches in tourist cities in Europe, in lifts, on the radio and even when on hold on the phone. The Scottish Ensemble has performed it many times, often interleaving it with The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Piazzolla in a dialogue between the old and the new. It is a subject fascinating director Jonathan Morton who approached composer Anna Meredith with the idea of developing a piece using acoustic and electronic music depicting a year. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is used as source material with projections from the composer’s sister and illustrator, Eleanor Meredith.

Anna Meredith has said that she keeps composition fresh by using acoustic instruments to write for electronic, and electronic instruments to write for acoustic. Running to 15 short movements, the Vivaldi used was left intact, the amplified strings and harpsichord giving it a new rough edge. A pulsing electronic click track blended into live music with a techno beat from the Ensemble, the players emerging from the darkness between the screens, arranged in a semicircle, sometimes picking up their high tech tablet music stands and shifting position round us. Meredith weaved her own rhythms, sometimes sinuously, at others forcefully jabbing with inventive loops dancing round the Baroque.

Eleanor Meredith’s visuals were playful, nebulous translucent shapes dividing amoeba-like and spreading slowly round us as the year began. Sometimes a line was taken for a walk, squiggling across the screens, a bedtime story bird struggling against a strong wind, and an amorphous jelly-blue figure striding out purposely. A rough line drawing crane lifted blocks of watery colour like the mixing tray of a child’s paint box, and dumped them into a growing pile. Stronger coloured washes of abstract images built layer on layer, before eventually all the shapes slowly folded in on themselves as the year, and the piece ended.

Apart from the start and finish, it was difficult to mark the passing of a year, although electronic birdsong suggested spring and we had the Vivaldi fragments as reference. It was actually easier to stop worrying about whether or not we had reached September and let the abstract immersion of the old and new music wash over us, rather like the moving artwork. With eight projectors, a full surround track on six speakers and all the players miked, was a lot of kit to look after. It was fascinating to see who was actually leading the performance, as the composer sat with her score in full view at a mixing desk, laptop open, controlling the electronic track and occasionally the Ensemble. The players watched each other very carefully, some with headphones giving clear leads to the rest. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying performing this hour-long piece, melding the old and new in a liberating format.

Music with visual accompaniment is certainly flavour of the moment. A new film to accompany Steve Reich’s Different Trains was unveiled in Liverpool, and more recently the Hebrides Ensemble used new footage for The Last Island by Peter Maxwell Davies. Innovative and new, this sort of project is meat and drink to the Scottish Ensemble looking for new ways of presenting music. While sometimes music needs to stand alone, visuals can add a new dimension. It would be interesting to explore this format of live music and projection in the round to produce something more moving, powerful and intense. Playful Anno was more fun-filled and the obvious enjoyment of the performers was infectious.

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Scottish Ensemble & Anna Meredith: Anno at Tramway, Glasgow (The Guardian review)

Published on Monday 14 November 2016
Written by Kate Molleson

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At the start of Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake, the beleaguered Daniel spends hours on the phone to the Department for Work and Pensions, driven nuts by a chirpy holding jingle. Later we see Dan take a spray can to the local jobcentre: “I, Daniel Blake, demand my appeal date before I starve. And change that shite music on the phone.” The music in question is the opening of Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: overplayed to numbing point, life-sappingly familiar.

Various musicians have made efforts to strip back the naff associations and remind us that these four concertos are real and wonderful pieces. “Gentle confusion can give everyone a chance to hear something in a new way,” writes Jonathan Morton, artistic director of the Scottish Ensemble, and to demonstrate he commissioned sisters Anna (composer) and Eleanor (illustrator) Meredith to make an audiovisual work that might frame, refract and refresh Vivaldi’s originals.

The result is Anno, and it beguiles in exactly the gently confusing way Morton wanted. Anna’s remix avoids the biggest tunes. As a composer drawn to fragments and loops – and who currently spends much of her time making romping avant synthpop – she homes in on the most tetchy, evasive and repetitive aspects of the concertos, then dismantles and smudges them into plush electronic builds.

More than anything else she’s done, Anno blends her classical and club personas and proves that the fusion can work. It helps that the Scottish Ensemble attacks it all with such nimble, kinetic energy, and that Eleanor’s visuals are such eloquent counterparts. Her animated watercolours, projected on to massive screens surrounding musicians and audience, are playful, redolent and occasionally menacing.

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Scottish Ensemble & Anna Meredith: Anno at Tramway, Glasgow (The Scotsman review)

Published on Saturday 12 November 2016
Written by Ken Walton

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VIVALDI’S The Four Seasons has been subject to modernisation treatment in many weird and wonderful guises, from the bovver boy interpretations of Nigel Kennedy to it being well and truly tangoed by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. It’s also a past and present favourite of the Scottish Ensemble, whose slick strings have dallied with the latter, or simply played it straight.

But what they did this week was thoroughly original, offbeat and exciting. It wasn’t actually the premiere of Anna Meredith’s Anno – a fascinating multi-media re-imagination of the familiar Baroque potboiler, with agile multi-screen visuals by Meredith’s sister Eleanor – but the Scottish premiere, following a successful first performance earlier this year in London.

Tangible anticipation filled the darkened Tramway auditorium, the audience seated on scattered stools within a ritualistic semicircle of screens – a kind of cinema-age Stonehenge.

As the performance came to life, abstract images appeared sporadically on screen and throbbing electronic sounds emerged under the laptop control of Meredith. The Ensemble itself emerged from the sidelines, playing enigmatic trills that hinted of Vivaldi reborn for the electronic age.

What followed was as much about Meredith as it was about Vivaldi. Nothing apologetic or reverential in the boldness of her writing. There was subtlety and nuance as her free-flowing diversions took flight, but equally that hard-edged attitude that is the distinctive, ballsy hallmark of her music.

Vivaldi provided the heart and the thread – selected movements from each of the Seasons, some of them given an extra shot of adrenalin, such as the super-sensitising effect of the col legno strings in Winter – around which Meredith’s unfettered inventions, ranging from parodic twiddles and ethereal fireworks to brutal electronica and gut-wrenching techno, acted like a simultaneous translation from the real to the surreal.

And what of those visual animations by visual artist Eleanor? They ranged from flighty, frenetic doodles to soft, dancing pastel-shades, and strolling blob-like figures straight out of a kid’s story book. Their relevance wasn’t always crystal clear, but their abstract energy and presence was added a stimulating dimension.

Scottish Ensemble artistic director Jonathan Morton invested his Vivaldi solos with fieriest of virtuoso sprit, and drew the same from the strings as a whole – amplified by their progressive movement around the performance space. We all came out invigorated and smiling, Vivaldi included.

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American Life at Glasgow Royal Concert Halls, Glasgow (The Herald review)

Published on Tuesday 13 September 2016
Written by Michael Tumelty

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AT their first appearance in the Royal Concert Hall’s New Auditorium, Jonathan Morton and his Scottish Ensemble, using the space as a small chamber hall with a stage, opened up a few more horizons for a group with a vision.

Morton’s mantra is “redefining the string orchestra”. He took that one stage further on Sunday by adding other instruments to the string ensemble: piano, flute, clarinet and bassoon. Instantly, of course, the repertoire horizons of the group expanded, allowing the artistic director to add breadth and greater colour to his terrific all-American programme, played to a near-capacity audience who, I think, lapped it all up (I certainly did.)

It was one of those performances where you could feel the character of the music through the playing and almost sense the zest and warmth with which it was delivered. It was there to be heard in the beauty and excitement of Mark Stewart’s To Whom It May Concern, rolling effortlessly into the taut, cogent rhythms of John Adams’ Shaker Loops – the best performance of that piece I’ve ever heard. It touched the clever and sophisticated convolutions of Nico Muhly’s Motion, and gave us an incredibly concise account of Philip Glass’s Second String Quartet.

But the ultimate and absolute joy for this listener lay in the performances of James Manson’s collection of Shaker tunes, Meeting at Nisqueunia, a fabulous piece, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which received an utterly gorgeous performance, with all the spaciousness you could wish for in this masterpiece. Bravo to all: I came home with a big daft smile on my face.

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American Life at Caird Hall, Dundee (The Dundee Courier)

Published on Thursday 8 September 2016
Written by Garry Fraser

Scottish Ensemble group shot (Credit - Peter Dibdin 2015)

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To kick off their new season with a programme of music from the United States – 20th Century at the earliest – had a bit of the dare devil about it for the Scottish Ensemble. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and there might have been some foreboding among members of the audience. But at the end of the Caird Hall concert it proved to be an astute piece of programming, with the music delivered with customary SE efficiency.

This was the end of the ensemble’s Dundee residency, so before we took a trip across the pond we enjoyed the fruits of the SE’s work with local schools and members of the Dundee Symphony Orchestra. James Redwood’s Tempest was given its public premier and I enjoyed it more than some of the other works in the programme.

These “other works” were Nico Muhly’s Motion and Shaker Loops, by my all-time nemesis John Adams. Paradoxically, Adams puts substance in minimalism and occasionally a melody will creep through but I find his music repetitive and hard to keep focused on. If any unit would help me change my mind, it’s Jonathan Morton and his colleagues, but even their prowess failed to convert me.

On the plus front was Manson’s Meeting in Nisqueunia, Philip Glass’ second string quartet and the daddy of them all, Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Manson’s clever networking of Shaker melodies was a delight to behold, including a hoe-down that had both feet tapping.

The Glass work is short, too short in my book, because it is an example of excellent construction, clever interweaving between parts and some beautiful pianissimo passages.

The Copland? Absolutely stunning! This showed the many finer points of the ensemble and showed the quality of music from the States before it was smothered in atonal minimalism. The opening and ending was magic, and the haunting entry of the song Simple Gifts and the way it passed back and forth was musical bliss.

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South Atlantic Crossings at Caird Hall, Dundee (Dundee Courier)

Written by Garry Fraser
Published on Monday 14 March 2016

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It is the right of any soloist to provide an encore after a concerto performance. Sometimes they can be superfluous, other times a memorable ending to a marvellous concert. In the latter category falls Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero, who provided a tailpiece to her performance with the Scottish Ensemble in the Caird Hall that was worth the admission money alone. But it wasn’t simply a delivery of a short work from the repertoire. It was a piece of improvisation that was absolutely stunning. From a theme suggested by the audience, in this case “Happy Birthday To You”, she took us through the world of Liszt and Chopin – to mention just two styles – with some scintillating technique and marvellous vision.

An excellent performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.14 was left in the shade, such was Montero’s improvisatory brilliance.

It was Mozart of another form that started the concert and in this I didn’t detect the Ensemble’s customary pin-point cohesion and captivating brilliance. Perhaps it was the work itself, an Adagio and Fugue that can’t be classed as one of the composer’s finest works.

With the theme of the concert being South Atlantic Crossings, i.e. an examination of different styles and traditions, there was bound to be much more to excite. And I wasn’t disappointed. A marvellous Villa-Lobos work, where he fused the polyphony of Bach to the elan of Brazil, followed before the Ensemble provided an impeccable, beautifully-balanced Bach six-part Ricercar.

However in this transatlantic tussle, the trophy went to the master of tango, Astor Piazzolla. His Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra and Piano was immense in every way, sultry and laid-back one minute, lively and energetic the next. The perfect mix.

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South Atlantic Crossings at Caird Hall, Dundee (Bachtrack)

Written by David Smythe
Published on Sunday 13 March 2016

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The latest Scottish Ensemble’s trademark imaginative programming brings us South Atlantic Crossings, exploring what happens when music and traditions of two continents collide. The influences of Bach and Mozart on South Americans Villa-Lobos and Piazzolla are surprising, and adding the exciting Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero to the mix promised some high drama.

Mozart made a study of Bach, the story goes, rattling off his fugues to the delight of his wife Constanza who suggested he used this form in his own composition. His Adagio and Fugue was a startling mixture of compositional styles, beginning with a stately opening played here with precise bite and attack but interspersed with cello passages softly glowing in contrast before launching into the fugue. The Ensemble imbued a restless urgency into this piece, passing passages across from player to player in an exciting dialogue which became bolder as it built to a flourishing climax.

Our first visit across the South Atlantic was to hear Villa-Lobos’ aria from the Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 arranged for strings by John Krance. The dreamy theme was played on individual instruments, but then shared in combinations often an octave apart, the players enjoying setting up and then leaning into a gentle Brazilian sway of plucked broken chords referencing Bach’s ever moving bass lines. After some high passion, particularly from the sonorous three cellos, the music returned to the start, deliberately understated this time by the Ensemble and to a final softly dying chord.

Bach’s influence was felt throughout this programme, but the only Bach piece was his challenging Ricecar a 6, a devilish fugue in six parts. Jonathan Morton explained that it is like six people in a room having a conversation about something important, but all talking at once. We hear this on the radio sometimes when a presenter fails to stop just two people talking over each other, but it is intriguing that something which cannot work for speech manages very well musically. Using a reduced ensemble of single players for each part, Bach’s complicated gift to the King of Prussia was given a good workout, the double bass providing depth to the short pedal points and it was fun to try to trace the individual voices working their way through the musical puzzle.

To finish the first half, the Ensemble was joined by Gabriela Montero to perform Piazzolla’s Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra. A menacing Prelude beginning with a ghostly tremolo played near the bridge with repeated single notes from the piano on the beat developed into a sad flowing melody, violins and cellos with question and answer phrases. A lively fugue followed, pianist and lower strings lightly tapping out tango based rhythms with their fingers as the subject began in the upper strings developing into fierce unisons and a robust wild and spiky piano from Montero. Counting the band in, Un, dos, tres….. she sparkled at the keys in the bright and busy the Divertimento with all the fun and excitement of a bustling Buenos Aires.

Piazzolla died suddenly from a stroke. Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round imagines Piazzolla getting the chance to come back one more time. Two movements are based on the tango instrument, the accordion-like bandoneon, the first on its violent compression and the second on its endless opening and sigh. It is a theatrical piece for two string quarters arranged in a V shape creating a forest of bows, with a double bass taking charge at the top. Inventive and dissonant, the two quartets shared themes developing into a maelstrom of notes. There was a delicious mischief too as the second quartet set up a daring pizzicato/glissando accompaniment with a playfulness of children intent on lots of fun before a slower more lyrical theme brought us back to earth.

Finally, Montero returned for a wonderful performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major. The Scottish Ensemble has a knack of interpreting music as if it has just been discovered, and its lively account with detailed phrasing and perfect balance was an ideal accompaniment to Montero’s strong flowing interpretation in the Allegro, tuneful simplicity in the Andantino and letting fly with fistfuls of notes in the final movement which positively danced.

The Ensemble has been in Dundee for a few days residency, playing in schools, with young musicians and in the lovely McManus Art Gallery. It has also been a big birthday for Jonathan Morton in the city, so it was apt that when Gabriela Montero asked for a theme for improvisation from the audience as an encore, Happy Birthday was suggested. Like a theme and variations in a crazy musical playground, beginning quietly and ending in a wild South American dance, Montero’s birthday present was really something special, a treat for a special birthday boy.

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