Rhinegold Photo credit: Hugh Carswell
The Scottish Ensemble and Andersson Dance

Susan Nickalls

Branching out: Scottish Ensemble

9:21, 23rd August 2018

Curiosity is very much the starting point for the Scottish Ensemble’s (SE’s) collaborative cross-arts projects. Since embarking on these ventures four years ago not only have the 12 string players joined forces with dance and theatre companies and visual artists, but the ensemble’s audience base has grown and broadened significantly at home and abroad.

For the 2014 pilot project 20th-Century Perspectives, SE joined forces with visual artist Toby Paterson to present contemporary music in a derelict modernist building in Glasgow. This wasn’t so much a radical departure but part of a continuum, says Jonathan Morton, the ensemble’s artistic director and violinist.

‘To the outside world it might have looked like a sudden jump, but for me it was a building outwards from the relationships we’d created amongst ourselves in the group. There’s a certain curiosity and generosity in being willing to try things and listen to other ideas. So it got to the point where extending this ethos and spirit felt quite natural.’

The ensemble’s chief executive Fraser Anderson adds that the dynamic between the musicians and their desire to do things outside the traditional mould also appeals to audiences. ‘Too often we try and reduce things to specific categories. But part of the reason audiences like our projects is that they don’t see these divisions anymore. So people that come to one of our cross-art form shows often have their interest piqued and join us for our more traditional projects.’

Furthermore, Anderson says that the SE’s collaborative projects give them a distinctive profile within the international market. ‘So many venues are in search of something new that brings in a wider audience and these types of projects give them this opportunity. Venues are also keen to book us for more than one night which hasn’t happened before. So we did the Goldberg show in China for two consecutive nights and in the larger venues like the Kennedy centre in Washington we did four nights.’

Goldberg Variations – ternary patterns for insomnia is the SE’s critically acclaimed collaboration with Sweden’s Andersson Dance. Sitkovetsky’s arrangement of the JS Bach classic for string ensemble has travelled widely since its first performance in 2015. This month it has its London premiere with a three night run at the Barbican. The two companies will join forces again in November to unveil a new work, Prelude – skydiving from a dream. Like the Goldbergs, this project also aims to blur the boundaries between music and movement, this time using works by Bach, Beethoven and Lutosławski.

Morton says that the Goldbergs presented a number of challenges, not least for the musicians who had to master moving and play an instrument at the same time. ‘I remember at the first workshop with the choreographer, there were a lot of nerves in the room. But the ice was quickly broken and people went with it.’

Each collaboration is completely different, says Morton. In Anno, Anna Meredith’s electro-classical take on Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, the challenges were more to do with balancing the sound between amplified electronics and acoustic instruments. Co-commissioned by SE and Spitalfields Music in 2016, the music is played to images created by Anna’s sister Eleanor, a visual artist. The piece will be performed again in August as part of the Made in Scotland showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The Scottish Ensemble’s 2018-19 season also includes the linking traditions and developing soloists’ strands. In February the ensemble will work with pianist, composer and improviser Gabriela Montero to perform a new commission, Babel, for piano and strings. In March, the group will explore the Middle Eastern classical tradition with Persian percussionists Keyvan Chemirani, Bijan Bhermirani and Sokratis Sinopouylos in Continental Drift.

This is part of SE’s ethos of broadening their repertoire, which also feeds into their work outside the concert hall. Over the years the ensemble has developed a strong community outreach programme, explains Anderson. ‘We’re exploring new avenues to apply what we’ve learnt through these cross-art collaborations to bring communities together. Two years ago we trialled a music and food format in Shetland. It was an amazing experience. We cooked with the locals, coached an amateur orchestra and then invited the whole community to share the meal, hear the music and dance. With learned a lot from these residencies. For instance, we’ve found that what works in Aberdeen might not in Inverness, so our outreach programme is now more closely linked to our performances in a particular community.’

And next year the Scottish Ensemble celebrates its 50th anniversary. It’s gone through a number of changes since violinist Leonard Friedman established it as the Scottish Baroque Ensemble in 1969. What distinguished it from the start was the practice of having the violins and violas play standing up. A tradition that remains to this day.

As for the next 50 years, Anderson believes the potential for growing the collaborative ventures and the ensemble’s ability to respond to contemporary life will stand it in good stead. ‘The group’s always been forward thinking so it’s my ambition to remain connected to what’s going on in Scotland at a national and international level to make sure the group remains innovative. It sounds easy, but it’s a huge challenge for a classical music company and one we seek to rise to.’


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