The Scotsman Sessions #53: Su-a Lee

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, Scottish Chamber Orchestra cellist Su-a Lee performs Songs My Mother Taught Me by Antonín Dvořák to a small but appreciative audience of woodland creatures near Grantown-on-Spey

“At about nine o’clock I crept up with my cello to a ditch and placed my chair half in and half out of it, quite crooked, but I knew that the exquisite voice was there, under a thicket of oak leaves, ready to sing to his little wife.”

Beatrice Harrison, the celebrated British cellist and friend of Elgar, later also recalled how the nightingale eventually burst into song on that balmy May evening of 1924, duetting with her “like a loosely improvised cadenza over a bass ground.” The moment, captured in Harrison’s Surrey woodland garden by the BBC, its first ever outside broadcast, enchanted a worldwide audience.

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South Korean-born cellist Su-a Lee, the charismatic Scottish Chamber Orchestra front-desker, though equally adept on musical saw with the quirkier Mr McFall’s Chamber and erstwhile collaborator with such rock giants as Eric Clapton, has also been living close to nature during lockdown at the secluded Speyside home of her partner, the folk musician Hamish Napier.

Inspired by Harrison, she thought it might be fun to test her own musical charm on Scotland’s wildlife. A friend pointed her towards a nearby nest of starlings - well-known as mimickers - but as it turned out it was a chaffinch that was to respond exquisitely to Lee’s woodland rendition of Dvorak’s Songs My Mother Taught Me.

“It was so magical - I didn’t expect there to be such a feeling of dialogue,” explains Lee, whose intuitive musicality accommodates the birds’ antiphonal responses. “I let them finish their little phrases. It would have been rude not to.”

Like Snow White, Lee’s magnetic charm lured a menagerie of wildlife - red squirrels, deer, and the inevitable midges. “And just as I finished, a different deer arrived looking curious and excited - as if the word in the woods was ‘go check this out.’”

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