Fearless Mr McFall’s Chamber celebrates 20 years

Mr McFall's Chamber
Mr McFall's Chamber
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From Purcell to Pink Floyd: happy 20th birthday for genre-bashing ensemble, writes Jim Gilchrist

I first saw Mr McFall’s Chamber perform during the Fringe in August 1997, the glory days of Cafe Graffiti when it occupied the former Bellevue Reformed Baptist Church, famous for its Phoebe Traquair murals. The ensemble’s characteristically eclectic programme included works by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, Erik Satie, Astor Piazzolla and John Adams, but, as I wrote at the time, the piece that really “made the wee hairs on the back of the neck stand on end” was their instrumental arrangement of a hoary old Scots psalm, the musicians stationed about the church playing the metrical theme “with the solemnity of an auld licht precentor”.

Like most things, it just happened, though we were frustrated with classical audiences

Robert McFall

Pure theatre, as well as captivating music – that was when the band was just a year old. Two decades on, this month sees the groundbreaking, genre-bashing ensemble launch a typically diverse 20th-anniversary concert programme, as well as a new album.

“Like most things, I suppose it just happened,” recalls Robert McFall, the ensemble’s Edinburgh-based violinist, musical director and founder. “I guess, though, we were frustrated with classical audiences. Peter Campbell Kelly, our original first violin, had a piano trio and I used to help them out, sometimes turning pages or putting up posters. They did very good concerts but for rather sparse and elderly audiences.

“At the same time, my sons were in a teenage rock band and playing clubs down in the Cowgate, and the organiser of one [Alex Fiennes, who would become a sound engineer for McFall’s] said, ‘Oh your Dad’s a classical musician? Why don’t you get him to play some exotic contemporary music here?’”

The group, then as now drawn largely from members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, duly played their debut gig at two in the morning – and for no fee – in the dark and smoky Transport Rooms in August 1996. Their programme, which ranged from pieces by Webern and Purcell to Weather Report, established the eclectic template for the future. Their cross-genre approach and reputation were enhanced by the opening around the same time of Edinburgh’s Bongo Club, which established Mr McFall’s Chamber at the heart of monthly “None of the Above” evenings.

The ensemble’s left-field approach drew mixed reactions from their Scottish Chamber Orchestra colleagues. Many were highly supportive, although McFall recalls one former SCO leader taking a dim view of them sitting on the stairs of Glasgow City Hall, playing their arrangement of Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive. “Other people were rather bemused: ‘Is that Bartok?’” he laughs.

Today the core of the group remains McFall, now 64 and still retaining his SCO day job, and fellow SCO members Brian Schiele (viola), Su-a Lee (cello), as well as Rick Standley, principal bassist with the orchestra of Scottish Ballet. They maintain a “floating first violin position”, with recent incumbents including Rosenna East and the French violinist Cyril Garac.

Numerous fruitful collaborations and commissions over the years have seen them work with composers such as Edward McGuire, Gavin Bryars, James MacMillan, and jazz saxophonists Martin Kershaw and Tim Garland, and with piper Fraser Fifield in a powerful celebration of the work of the late Martyn Bennett. Ask McFall for any projects that stand out for him and he cites two other sadly departed musicians, the Dundee singer-songwriter Michael Marra, with whom they made a notable live album, and their larger-than-life, one-armed roadie and singer, Dave Brady.

The ensemble’s repertoire remains as engagingly diverse as ever, over the years encompassing Captain Beefheart, Gaelic song and Astor Piazzolla tangos as much as Arvo Pärt or Henry Purcell. The repertoire may be all over the place, but the playing is spot-on, as testified by frequent critical acclaim. An ongoing association has been with the Distil composition workshops organised by Hands Up for Trad, and Thursday past saw them in Peebles reprising the Further Distillations show they premiered at Celtic Connections in January.

An intensive touring schedule this month and into next year includes an Island Life programme of Scottish and Caribbean poetry settings, which kicks off at Discovery Point, Dundee, tomorrow, then plays in London before returning to the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, on Thursday.

The group also launch their latest album, Solitudes (Delphian), featuring contemporary works from Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, at Stirling’s Tolbooth on 11 October and the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on the 12th.

From the Baltic to the Caribbean may seem a long way, but it’s the kind of stretch of musical imagination that Mr McFall’s Chamber carry off with panache. n

• For a full list of Scottish tour dates see www.mcfalls.co.uk