With jazz-bar style gigs and a replacement second violinist in the wings, the Edinburgh Quartet are trying something new in more ways than one

Edinburgh Quartet
Edinburgh Quartet
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THERE’S a sense of excitement surrounding the Edinburgh Quartet these days. For a start, it’s undergoing a major metamorphosis, as older members gradually retire and new blood steps into the breach. By springtime, only cellist Mark Bailey – 25 years a member and at one time considered the “new boy” of the 52-year-old ensemble – will be left from what might be considered the older guard.

This process of change has taken well over a decade to reach a satisfactory conclusion. After numerous attempts to fill the all-important first violin slot following Miles Baster’s thriller-style disappearance in the early 1990s, it wasn’t until a young Tristan Gurney was brought in, six years ago, that some sign of stability began to re-emerge.

By the 50th birthday celebrations of 2010, Gurney had established a gutsy rapport with the other three players, but almost immediately, the boat was rocked again by violist Michael Beeston’s decision to retire, so the search went out for a suitable replacement for the longest serving member of the Quartet, a position from which he had rightfully assumed the role of spiritual leader. Beeston’s daughter Jessica was appointed, not out of family loyalty, but simply because she is a damn good player in her own right.

Most recently, it was the turn of second violinist Philip Burrin to announce that he would step down this coming March to make way for the latest young recruit, 28-year-old Glasgow-born violinist Gordon Bragg, a former leader of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, and currently with the Maxwell String Quartet, which he will leave in April to take up his Edinburgh Quartet position.

So the Doctor Who-like regeneration is almost complete – three young and dynamic players alongside the experienced cellist Bailey, whose remaining presence provides a solid link with the past, while allowing the new blood to inspire fresh ideas and new repertoire that should help sustain the life of the Quartet well beyond its recent half-century birthday.

Already this season the Quartet’s profile has witnessed significant change. And according to Gurney, whose own profile as lead violinist has clearly been boosted by recent developments, such changes have been a deliberate attempt to “upgrade” the ensemble’s profile and popularity.

Observers will already have noticed this, not least through various new Edinburgh initiatives – the decision to create a sustained presence over three concerts at the Queen’s Hall, early evening Rush Hour concerts at St Andrew’s and St George’s West in George Street, and a series of so-called Late Session concerts taking place in the informal surroundings of the Teviot Lounge Bar at Edinburgh University’s Teviot Row.

“With the help of financial support from Creative Scotland, we’ve been able to create a new-look season with increased presence in Edinburgh,” Gurney says. “Whereas before, we stuck to six regular evening concerts in Edinburgh, along with the various lunchtime concerts in association with Edinburgh and Napier Universities (which still continue), we have taken this opportunity to work out new ways of accessing more diverse audiences”.

Sure, enough, a week on Friday (18 January), the Quartet engages in its second Late Sessions concert of this season, with an hour-long programme that combines Purcell’s exquisite Fantasia with Star Gazing, a work commissioned a few seasons ago from Edinburgh University music professor, Nigel Osborne.

But don’t expect the standard sit-down-and-deliver presentation. “These are very laid-back affairs,” says Gurney. “We present them in the way you might present jazz, with people standing around enjoying a drink from the bar – not at all like a typical concert hall. We’re following a British theme, throwing in bits of Britten alongside John Tavener, James MacMillan and even the [18th Century] Earl of Kelly.”

One of these concerts has already been given in November, and they’re proving an unexpected hit. “Our first one attracted 200 people. We were worried at first whether folk would pay attention, that they would talk all the way through. But they were great. We chatted to them about the music, and they responded with questions and a genuine interest in the performances.”

There’s a similar informality built into the 5.30pm Rush Hour concerts, where the magic formula is to catch workers on the way home and treat them to a single work, presented in the context of relevant readings and introductions.

At the next one on 6 March, for instance, the focus is on Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, around which will be read relevant extracts from Beethoven’s letters. “We’ll also include other related music, but we’re keeping that a secret until the actual concert,” says Gurney.

At the more formal end of the spectrum, the Queen’s Hall concerts are a vehicle for the Quartet to pursue its 2013 tribute to Benjamin Britten’s Centenary, with March and May programmes that focus on the First and Third String Quartets. More of Britten’s music for string quartet can be heard in the many forthcoming concerts that are part of the Quartet’s ongoing associations and residencies with the various universities, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Napier, Aberdeen, St Andrews and Heriot Watt among them.

What all this amounts to is a palpable new lease of life for an ensemble that may have been part of Scotland’s musical fabric for the past 52 years, but which, like any other long-lasting institution, has had its periods of complacency and inertia.

For Gurney and his colleagues, the recent shift in personnel has been an invigorating opportunity to revitalise the Edinburgh Quartet. “Finding the right people is never easy,” he admits. But the latest replacement proved so much easier than they expected.

“There are so many things that have to feel natural and right, but when it came to working with Gordon, everything just fitted perfectly into place. The second time he came in, we actually forgot he was a guest. It was as if he had always been part of the fabric.”

With its increased concert schedule over the coming months, recordings of MacMillan’s quartets planned for the summer on the Delphian label, and a new commission expected next year from the Scots-educated composer Helen Grime, the opportunities to judge for ourselves the new look Edinburgh String Quartet are as plentiful as they are enticing.

• The Edinburgh Quartet presents Late Sessions at the Teviot Lounge Bar, Edinburgh on 18 January, and performs lunchtime recitals at Heriot-Watt University the same day, and at the Reid Concert Hall, Edinburgh, 22 January. For details of other performances, see www.edinburghquartet.com