Music review: Nevis Ensemble: The Hebrides Tour (Day 2), various venues, Oban

LAST year, the newly-formed Nevis Ensemble made its unique imprint on Scotland’s musical life by performing on the summit of Ben Nevis. Given the current weather, it’s just as well this year’s summer tour is keeping closer to sea level, although it’s no less adventurous.

Ken Walton's Nevis Ensemble review from Oban
Ken Walton's Nevis Ensemble review from Oban

Nevis Ensemble: The Hebrides Tour (Day 2), various venues, Oban ****

Tuesday was Day Two in a ten-day Hebridean Tour encompassing around 40 performances in schools, airports, castles, care homes, hospitals, and on beaches and ferries from Harris to Benbecula, St Kilda to Skye. In short, this hyperactive, international assortment of mainly young musicians, getting together for the sheer love of it, will play anywhere the mood takes them. Which is exactly what happened at Oban ferry terminal when the afternoon ferry was delayed and fellow passengers waiting to board were treated to an impromptu, carnival-style jam in the sun.

Earlier in the day, a packed hall of S1 and S2 pupils at ultra-modern Oban High School were rudely awakened – it was still only 9.30am – by the sound and sight of musical fireworks, a steeply-tiered line-up of 30-plus jiving instrumentalists trumpeting bite-sized chunks of music, from Debussy to A-ha.

As co-conductor Jon Hargreaves set the ball rolling with Sleepy Lagoon, Desert Island Discs’ soporific theme tune, the Oban-ites must have wondered if double maths might have been the better option. But it was a ruse, and the sudden intrusion of Rage against the Machine’s Killing in the Name transformed initial audience torpor into instant excitement.

Thereafter, it didn’t matter what the music was: the languid impressionism of Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie or nebulous soundscapes of Rufus Elliot’s specially-commissioned GEILT versus the hi-energy synthpop of Take On Me or euphoric singalong to Africa.

These kids soaked up the ensemble’s unbridled enthusiasm and infinite adaptability, tossing it back with synchronised arm-thrusting ritual, egged on by hot dance moves from fellow Nevis conductor Holly Mathieson. S1 pupil Laurie Eve answered the challenge to conduct Offenbach’s Can-Can. “I was nervous to start with. I don’t play an instrument, but once I got into the swing I loved it,” she beamed.

Nevis played cleverly to the crowd, singing an a cappella Gaelic song before razzing it up with a blast of Celtic rock. Natural presenters emerged from within the ranks, among them Alabama-born trumpeter Elisabeth Lusche, cool and sassy, a hit with her audience. Former St Mary’s Music School pupil Yeye Xu, now an administrator with the Royal Philharmonic Society but happy to spend her summer hols leading the ensemble, told me of her passion for Nevis’ unorthodox missionary work.

She was part of a string quartet that sped off to nearby Dunmar Court to entertain its elderly residents with music by Dvorak, Mozart and a swashbuckling arrangement of If I Were A Rich Man by violinist Roberto from Malaga. Simultaneously, a wind quintet was performing at the Eidar Glinn Care Home. Next stop Barra.