Queen’s Hall celebrates 40 years of pushing musical boundaries

John McCusker
John McCusker
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When the congregation of Edinburgh’s Hope Park Chapel of Ease first occupied the new building’s pews in 1823, the idea of music recitals within the body of the kirk – never mind concepts of jazz, folk or rock – would have been quite literally unimaginable. Yet this year the building, later known as Newington and St Leonard’s Church, celebrates its 40th year as one of Edinburgh’s best-loved music venues.

The Queen’s Hall, as architect Robert Brown’s elegant Georgian building is now known, was opened as a concert venue by the Queen on 6 July, 1979. Tomorrow night the venue kicks off a year-long 40th anniversary programme as Scots fiddler and producer John McCusker hosts Southside of the Tracks, a celebration of four decades of traditional music at the hall, with guests including accordionist Phil Cunningham and singers Roddy Woomble, Daoiri Farrell, Heidi Talbot and Rachel Sermanni.

The 2019 programme was announced last November, at a reception serenaded by singer-songwriter Ross Wilson, aka Blue Rose Code, who brings his celebrated This is Caledonian Soul show to the hall on 19 August during the Fringe.

As part of the anniversary celebrations, and with funding from Creative Scotland, the hall will present QH@40, a series of curated “adventures in music” covering jazz, folk, pop/indie and experimental. The first to be announced is curated by saxophonist Tommy Smith (whose services to jazz and education were acknowledged in the recent New Year Honours list by an OBE), who with his sextet will revisit his vivid Beasts of Scotland suite, inspired by the poetry of the late Edwin Morgan, with narration from Tam Dean Burn. That’s on 18 April, while on 13 June Smith joins his old sparring partner, pianist Brian Kellock, and the Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes, with support from the Fergus McCreadie Trio.

Further jazz at the hall includes a concert on 7 February featuring gypsy swing from Les Violins de Bruxelles and Scots swing outfit Rose Room, part of a weekend of Belgian jazz in various venues. Further notable gigs later in the year include Edinburgh Schools Jazz Orchestra appearing with the US a capella group Naturally 7 on 14 March, and the BBC Big Band with Claire Martin on 30 March, while 10 May sees soprano saxophonist Tim Garland present his sumptuous evocation of the Lake District, Weather Walker.

On the folk side, Homecoming 2: The Return of Mackay’s Memoirs, on 4 March, reprises the late Martyn Bennet’s magnificent composition for pipes, percussion, clarsach and strings, premiered in 1999 to mark the centenary of Broughton High School, with an ensemble including four of the original performers from Broughton’s City of Edinburgh Music School.

At the programme launch, Nigel Griffiths, chair of the hall’s board of trustees, declared: “We’re starting

our 40th year as we mean to go on, with a bold and ambitious programme … In the face of developing competition it is so important for Edinburgh to keep this beloved institution on the map and I believe we’re now poised to enter a truly dynamic era in the Queen’s Hall’s history.”

“Developing competition” reflected the proposed new concert venue for the city, the Impact Centre, which will see the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, based at the Queen’s Hall for the past four decades, move to the purpose-built venue, which will inevitably leave something of a hole in the hall’s regular programming.

The hall’s chief executive, Evan Henderson, however, sees the SCO’s departure and the advent of the new centre, as a double-edged sword: “While it’s a loss, there are also opportunities: we have to turn other business away when the SCO is rehearsing here, we’re in discussion with [SCO chief executive] Gavin Reid and we’re looking at it in a positive sense.

Henderson sees the hall taking its place in Edinburgh’s portfolio of different-sized venues: “There are a lot of positives about and we’re committed to developing ambitious events which push the boundaries of music genres. So it’s exciting times.”

For further details see www.thequeenshall.net