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Classical music writer Michael Tumelty shares his thoughts on the Scottish Ensemble residency programme in the second of a two-part commentary on the 2015-16 season in The Herald.

Written by 
Michael Tumelty
Published on Saturday 20 June 2015
Read on The Herald website

Quote-Marks-1The Scottish Ensemble, a 12-strong string orchestra that very much has its own niche in Scotland’s musical landscape, seems to be going through a root-and-branch appraisal: what it is, what it does, where and how it does it and, fundamentally, what the Scottish Ensemble is for.

I’m intrigued by the fact (or so I perceive it) that the group, while remaining essentially the virtuoso string ensemble that music lovers have known for decades, is actually developing quite radically in its flexibility.

In a sense we saw that, on the lighter side, at their final event of last season in the Old Fruitmarket, when the floor was thronged with couples dancing waltzes, quicksteps and so on. And we now know we’ll see more diversity of a very different order next season, when the players of the ensemble will themselves be choreographed, along with five dancers, in a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

SE Songbook at The Old Fruitmarket on Sat 16 May   (Image: Peter Dibdin)

But the group’s programme of residencies is expanding too. These were called city residencies, saw players working in social-housing areas, in hospitals and care homes, even at hospital bedsides, taking the music to the bedridden, and could be found in Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen. Equally, the Ensemble could be found working on a music theatre project with five- to nine-year-olds in Aberdeen or coaching three levels of regional orchestras in Dundee.

All of that work continues next season, and indeed will expand, as the ensemble extends its outreach operations to Mull, Dumfries and Shetland, where the islanders have specifically requested smaller groups from within the main orchestra, and will receive, by way of response, a string quintet project featuring quintet masterpieces by Mozart and Brahms.

The word “city” has been swiftly and quietly dropped: the term is no longer broad enough; from now on they will be SE Residencies. Some of the quintet performances will come south – watch out for them appearing as lunchtime concerts. But Shetland, uniquely, will also receive a fabulous programme in which artistic director Jonathan Morton will be joined for an evening of violin and viola duos by his SE predecessor Clio Gould, now Director Emeritus and current leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Now there’s a reunion and a half.

Development and expansion seem to be happening at every level of the operation. Not even the hallowed SE Yuletide Concerts by Candlelight, for many folk an absolute highlight of the SE season, are sheltered from the wind of expansionism. This year, the Christmas concerts, in an adventurous musical development, will see the meditative music of Arvo Part and Sofia Gubaidulina line up alongside the more orthodox seasonal fare by JS Bach.

But there will be more there too when, onto the traditional candlelit atmosphere, special effects will be layered, designed by the contemporary architecture and art collective, DO Architecture. Whether these effects will be more than merely decorative we will see in six months. Another change there, by no means merely decorative, is that a guest musical director will come in for the Christmas season. Violinist Matthew Truscott, regular leader of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, will join SE as guest soloist and director.

Matthew Truscott will be guest director at Scottish Ensemble's concerts by candlelight series
Guest director Matthew Truscott, with a specialist knowledge of period instrument performance

The ensemble will plough yet another furrow when it makes its first visit to the Dumfries and Galloway Festival with a ravishing programme of French music, including both Ravel’s and Debussy’s String Quartets, the former arranged for SE by Rudolf Barshai, while Morton himself has written up the Debussy for the big string band.

And there is yet one further development; moreover, one that should be a stonker. Does anyone remember the sensational double-string orchestra at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, with SE joined by the Commonwealth Strings? Well, Morton’s SE will move into the RCS for a week and build another Quote-Marks-212-strong string band from the top string players on the threshold of the profession, double them up with SE, and unleash them on a big arrangement of George Enescu’s Octet. Did I happen to mention that development was in the air for the Scottish Ensemble?