Classical and Opera: Bunfight of Brahms, beards and Bieber…

An ambitious programme of chamber music is set to ring out in Glasgow's West End this month, with a curiously-named ensemble acting as the linchpin

A COUPLE of weeks ago, as part of its evolving residency at Cottiers in Glasgow's West End, a newly formed chamber ensemble was offering free entry to its Sunday afternoon concert to anyone sporting "a beard like Brahms". Anyone familiar with the hairy German composer's long-term facial project will appreciate the challenge. In the event no beards appeared, but one woman did complain that the offer was sexist.

Why the beard; why the gimmick? Well, the ensemble in question goes by the unorthodox name of Daniel's Beard, which itself needs a little explaining. Daniel was the Christian name of internationally renowned Mr Cottier, the Glasgow-born Victorian artist and designer (and exact contemporary of Brahms) behind the original decoration and stained glass windows of the former Downhill Church which, some years ago, was decommissioned as a place of worship, and is now a theatre and restaurant complex bearing his name.

"He also bore a striking resemblance to the generously bearded Brahms," says the ensemble's founder and silk-chinned horn player, Andy Saunders.

And with Brahms featuring significantly among his diverse programming plans, and a permanent link with the venue's theatre rapidly becoming a reality, everything fell neatly into place: the quirky name; and any gimmick that might bring punters through the former ecclesiastical doors.

Since the recent renovation and reopening of Cottiers, Daniel's Beard has established its own regular afternoon series on the third Sunday of the month. It operates as a flexible ensemble, allowing it to perform in a variety of combinations from string quartet or wind quintet to any mix'n'match line-up in between, including piano.

Consequently the repertoire is fantastically varied – anything from Brahms' Horn Trio or Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds, to recent or brand new works, especially by Scottish composers. Oh, and with the ticket comes a discount in the adjoining restaurant. Saunders clearly recognises the need to woo an audience with promotional ingenuity.

Of course, there's far more to forming a chamber ensemble than a weird name and a couple of gimmicks. And for proof that Daniel's Beard has substance to match its glossy exterior, look no further than Glasgow's West End Festival, which runs from this Friday until 26 June, and in which the ensemble is a pivotal presence in the Cottier Chamber Project featuring 23 concerts in a space of 21 days.

"Daniel's Beard and the series itself are separate entities," Saunders explains. "But because of our ongoing residency at Cottiers we are the host ensemble and will perform eight of the concerts." Nonetheless he, in collaboration with West End Festival director Michael Dale, has co-ordinated the entire chamber music programme.

It's clear from the range of ensembles and music included in the series that Saunders' philosophy for his own ensemble – anything goes, so long as it's good – has been translated into a grander, more spectacular, piece of programming.

Boundaries aren't broken, they're simply not recognised. Besides the resident ensemble are groups as diverse as the high-minded Dunedin Ensemble, the cutting edge Red Note Ensemble, traditional string quartets such as the Fejes and Edinburgh Quartets, the rich gold blend of Pure Brass, contemporary folk band The Alastair Savage Trio, the Scottish Tango Ensemble, and the stubbly razzmatazz of Sax Ecosse.

There's music as early as Palestrina, as zany as HK Gruber (the Auricle Ensemble), and as recent as David Fennessy, Edward McGuire, James MacMillan and William Sweeney. But nothing's quite as new – or as accidentally topical – as the premiere this Saturday by the Red Note Ensemble of the winning composition in this year's West End Festival Composition Competition.

It's called Justin Bieber Is Not Gay, by the young experimental Glasgow-born composer Ian Anderson, a graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama but now living in London. "The title rather mystified, and slightly worried us," admits Saunders. "But further investigation revealed it to be a comment on how Twitter can create apparent truths at the touch of a button."

As for Saunders' own group, it explores worlds as diverse as Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (written during his incarceration in a Second World War prison camp), Brahms, Mozart, Richard Strauss and Nielsen, and even puts a new popular slant on a Prokofiev children's classic (Paul Ostermeyer's pumped-up arrangement of Peter and the Wolf) when it presents a family concert entitled Sneaky Pete and the Wolf, with Michael Dale as narrator.

But there's no getting around the convenient promotional platform the Festival chamber series provides for its resident ensemble. On 9 June, in a programme billed as the West End Heritage Concert, Daniel's Beard throws the spotlight on the music of Thomas Wilson, the pioneering 20th-century Scots composer who died ten years ago on 12 June, and who lived only a stone's throw from Cottiers.

The occasion marks the launch of the ensemble's latest CD, on the Meridian label, which features Wilson's Complementi in the company of McGuire's Horn Trio and Dohnanyi's Sextet, while the concert itself wraps works by John Maxwell Geddes, William Wordsworth, McGuire and Sweeney, and the world premiere of Martin Dalby's Sequence of Sorrows, around Wilson's Clarinet Sonatina and Three Pieces.

Encompassing the three-week long Cottier Chamber Project, and Daniel's Beard's ongoing presence in a venue held dear to Glasgow West Enders, is a determination by Saunders to make a traditionally esoteric musical genre as much a source of entertainment as sipping a pint to a folk band in a Byres Road pub.

"Chamber music is not regarded as an obvious choice of entertainment with most people," Saunders reckons. "They'll take a punt on the cinema or theatre, or sometimes an orchestral concert. But chamber music tends to be regarded as the poor relation, with little relevancy to anyone but the learned few.

"For me and those of us who play it, it's where music is at its most communicative – between the players, who don't have a conductor to tell you what to do; and with the audience, whom we talk to and who are invited to share that sense of intimacy and danger."

What's quite clear is that the gimmicks stop at the door, where the music takes over.

• The Cottier Chamber Project runs from 3-24 June, and is part of Glasgow's West End Festival. For more information visit www.westendfestival.co.uk

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