Pooling power: Nevis Ensemble
Moving mountains9:14, 13th August 2019
The Nevis Ensemble are redefining what it means to engage audiences. Toby Deller reports
Sometimes, just sometimes, the conductor’s bad habit of talking too much can come in handy. ‘We had a security guard saying: you’ve got to stop this right now or I’m calling the police,’ recalls Jon Hargreaves. He is one of the two conductor-artistic directors of Scotland’s street orchestra the Nevis Ensemble who, on this occasion, were setting up to play, unannounced, in a Glasgow shopping centre. ‘I’d been told to find strategies for keeping the conversation going until you can start playing, because once you start playing, people will be on your side and you can shift the conversation on. In the end people got behind it and it became a big thing, with people going: let them play!’
The advice came courtesy of the Ricciotti Ensemble, the Dutch orchestra who first popped up in the 1970s and have been performing in the open air, in social institutions and communities ever since. Indeed, it was their 2017 Scotland tour that led to the formation of the Nevis Ensemble. The group had hired Jamie Munn, a trained singer involved with running various international music projects, to join them for the trip. Such was the impact that he and co-founder Judith Walsh had Nevis off, or rather on, the ground in a year.
The ensemble combines touring – typically, a busload of musicians will travel from place to unexpected place, playing to whoever they find – with ongoing projects featuring smaller groups of players, run in collaboration with social organisations such as refugee charity Refuweegee. It is auditioned, although clearly it is not musical skill alone that will get you in, and the membership includes students, amateurs, early-career professionals and teachers.
The ensemble’s touring is done on a voluntary basis, with food, accommodation and travel costs covered. That, says Munn, is the players’ preference, expressed through a player committee that represents their views. ‘They said quite firmly that offering fees would change the feel of the ensemble, and change people’s motivations for wanting to join. It sounds quite trite to say but there is a genuine generosity in the musicians for what they are doing.’
‘Nevis is about building relationships with communities’
He adds that there are, anyway, other rewards to be had. ‘We offer training sessions in presenting, improvisation, playing styles (Scottish traditional, for instance), as well as working with children who have additional support needs, older people with dementia, young people with mental health issues – all for free. So they are learning a lot of new skills. We’ve also made links with organisations such as Live Music Now Scotland and Paragon Music, so are trying to create pathways for those wanting to become professional musicians.’
Then there is the opportunity of playing music in challenging environments like Ben Nevis itself: ‘There’s video,’ says Hargreaves, ‘of Jesús the trombonist standing and playing on the very top.’ Holly Mathieson, Nevis’s other conductor-artistic director recalls that their first gig was ‘for five dogs and two little girls with hula hoops at the Faslane peace camp. Everyone else just shut their doors and wouldn’t come out. But it was a successful gig.’ It is a reminder that there are many ways that music can be enjoyed, the size of the audience is not always so very important and any unusual experience will give players a different perspective on their craft.
For her part, Mathieson, a former Royal Scottish National Orchestra assistant conductor whose recent work in Scotland has included the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Scottish Ballet, is also learning from her role. ‘It’s had a far greater impact than I thought it would. It has taught me so much about genuine engagement. I think we bandy that word around really naively in the classical music world and actually what we’re doing often, away from Nevis, is: I will do my thing with a smile on my face in proximity to you where I wouldn’t normally do it in proximity to you. And we think that’s engagement. Whereas Nevis is far more about building relationships with communities that are remote or removed in any way: geographically, financially, legally, in terms of mental health, all sorts of things.’
Hargreaves says the experience of playing in such conditions brings things into focus on those occasions when Nevis does play in concert hall settings, remembering a date at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh that had him wondering at the formality of it all. But, he stresses, ‘Nevis Ensemble isn’t a comment on orchestral culture. There are things about it that come at orchestral culture but it’s definitely not a political agenda to do that. It’s more something that goes outwards rather than being directed towards a point. I was thinking on the way here of our motto: music for everyone, everywhere. Sometimes we’ll talk about it and it’ll sound really naïve: you know, music’s going to save people’s lives, that sort of thing. But actually, it is kind of projectile music-making.’