THIS year the Scottish Ensemble’s itinerary is streamlined, to embrace cities outside the Central Belt and allow its incredibly broad repertoire to celebrate Britten’s centenary.
Flashmob performances in Dundee shopping centres… tea dances in Inverness…late-night electronic encounters with Faust… string-inspired DJ sets in Aberdeen… care home visits in Perth… it’s the Scottish Ensemble, Jim, but not as we know it.
Today’s announcement of the ensemble’s forthcoming 2012/13 season is about as radical as any previous shake-up of the group, which began life back in 1970s Edinburgh as the wonderfully eccentric Leonard Friedman’s Scottish Baroque Ensemble.
Over the years the group has morphed at pivotal points in its history into the exclusively sponsored Glasgow-based BT Ensemble, and then to the compact string ensemble we recognise nowadays, which tonight performs the world premiere of Savourna Stevenson’s Harp Concerto in a concert at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall.
But until now, any appearances out of the Central Belt had been effectively been whistle-stop – a situation that seemed ridiculously time-inefficient to Bremen-born general manager Thorben Dittes when he took up the group’s managerial reins two years ago.
“My observation was that an awful lot of players’ time was being spent on buses, and that they spent four days on the trot travelling in and out of the four regional destinations we regularly serve – Dundee, Aberdeen, Perth and Inverness,” he says. “I reckoned that there had been a regular pattern over 40 years of spending roughly four afternoons and an evening in each over the course of a full season, and that was it.
“Most large-scale outreach seemed to take place in outlying areas such as western Argyll. Jonathan [Morton, the SE’s artistic director] and I have talked a lot about making much more of our presence in the four cities, and the players have been equally keen.”
So, it would seem, is Creative Scotland, who continue to support the SE as one of its top tier foundation organisations. That looks unlikely to change as the ensemble continues to tick all the right boxes with a new initiative that takes music outside the concert hall and into the heart of communities outside the Central Belt.
“These new residencies mark a big departure for us,” says Dittes, whose initial three-year programme will have the ensemble stay in the four outlying cities for four days at a time. “The group will plug themselves into the communities, creating music for people who might not traditionally come to classical concerts, opening up our rehearsals to them and generally popping up in places you wouldn’t normally expect to see a classical string ensemble.”
The programme of activity is different in each case. Dundee will have pop-up concerts in shopping centres, as well as a late-night screening of FW Murnau’s iconic 1920s silent film Faust, with live electronic score created by DJ Alex Smoke. Ensemble members will also give coaching sessions to amateur and youth orchestras, and offer free lunchtime concerts at Dundee University.
Inverness is where the tea dance takes place at the historic Bishop’s Palace. In Aberdeen the collaboration with SERG will focus on creating new student music based around Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony. Perth activity will centre on work with school children and senior citizens.
“Rooting into the communities in such a way is so important to us, not least in creating sustainable relationships with the ensemble,” says Dittes. “We’ve always done our own promotions in Glasgow and Edinburgh, besides our formal concert activity, but that has not been the case in other cities. I also feel that we really want to push what a string orchestra can be and the different facets that entails, making the musicians a resource for that in the cities we go to.”
At the core of the ensemble’s activity, however, remains a season of concerts that lends itself to the ensemble’s tight-knit all-string line-up. One of the key focuses will be to celebrate in 2013 the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. Every programme next season has been created around a Britten piece, paired variously with music by the composers he admired – among them Bach, Mozart and Schumann.
Tenor Thomas Walker joins the SE in October’s opening concert for a performance of Les Illuminations with a difference – it will be accompanied by a specially commissioned film from visual artist Netia Jones. Other Britten surprises include composer David Matthews’ new arrangement of the String Quartet No 2.
Resourcefulness is everywhere in a season where every programme harbours a delicious surprise. There’s Bach’s epic Goldberg Variations in a string version by Dmitri Sitkovetsky, Schumann’s Third String Quartet and Britten’s Three Divertimenti (for string quartet) arranged by Jonathan Morton. And in a programme that will herald the group’s return from its 11-concert tour of America in April with trumpeter Alison Balsom, Biber’s Battallia – a madcap frenzy of Baroque eccentricity – will be given a rare airing.
The breadth of repertoire is jaw-dropping, from Purcell (another great Britten favourite) to an ingenious commission from Glasgow-born composer Martin Suckling that will ultimately result in what Dittes describes as “a set of musical postcards”.
“They are intended to be sort of postcards to the ensemble, from the ensemble, about the ensemble, which Martin will send us from time to time. As such we haven’t even put them into any particular programme. We will include them as and when they appear. At the end of the process I suspect there will be something like a suite, if you want to give it a traditional name.”
All of which – if you include its recent successful tour of China and the forthcoming American tour that will include a performance in Los Angeles’ wonderful new Walt Disney Concert Hall – adds up to an ensemble that is fighting fit and hardly, as occasionally in the past, struggling to assert its own identity.
How would Dittes define today’s ensemble? “We’re the UK’s only professional string orchestra, simple as that,” he claims. “And a high-quality affordable option at that.”
• The Scottish Ensemble premieres Savourna Stevenson’s Concerto for Pedal Harp tonight at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, with further performances in Strathpeffer tomorrow and at Cottiers, Glasgow on 10 June. Full details of the 2012-13 season are available at www.scottishensemble.co.uk
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
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