Scottish Ensemble Side By Side with RSAMD Strings

10 Feb 2011 in Highland, Music, Showcase

OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, 9 February 2010

PERFORMING with young musicians from the RSAMD, this latest Scottish Ensemble concert tour celebrated British string music past and present. Familiar works by Britten and Elgar were juxtaposed with the premiere of a bold new work, Equal Measured Music by Joe Cutler, together withTippett’s superb Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli and a hidden gem of the repertoire, Variations on Sellenger’s Round by Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkley, Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle, Michael Tippett, William Walton and Imogen Holst.

Members of the Scottish Ensemble

Scottish Ensemble (photo by Joanne Green)

Britten’s Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings, Op.29, opened the concert, followed by the evening’s finest discovery, Variations on Sellenger’s Round, an old Irish tune expanded in infinite variety by seven different composers. Initiated by Britten and celebrating the crowning of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, these variations are full of unexpected subtleties. Opening with Imogen Holst’s orchestration of a theme by William Byrd (1540-1623), the piece immediately evokes the past in its gracefully structured rhythms and lilting melody, continuing to expand throughout the work as more exploratory sounds from Britten’s contemporaries come in to play.

Tippett’s Variation 2: A Lament, Andante espressivo and Berkeley’s Variation 3: Andante, with its poignant delicacy in the violins, is particularly beautiful, especially when contrasted with the almost percussive treatment of the lower strings and rhythmic intensity of Britten’s Variation 4: Quick and Gay. The progression of variations combined creates a thoroughly engaging and complete work and a wonderful sample of the musical milieu of the day.

Joe Cutler’s new work Equal Measured Music featured Scottish Ensemble Artistic Director and solo violinist Jonathan Morton on electric violin with string ensemble and electronics. A foray into new territory for the Ensemble, the work featured visceral sampled sounds blended with acoustic and electric strings. While the mix of live and recorded sounds were seamless (once some initial technical problems had been solved) and driven by rhythm the energy and physicality of the work is undeniable, there is something in the pitch of this piece, especially in the electric violin, that diminishes appreciation of any depth or complexity in the work.

Like any composition visual or musical the dialogue between structure (in this case chord progressions in 8 and 16 bar sequences) and more random elements can be compelling for both the artist and the audience. However, any high sound sustained throughout a work will dominate the senses and in this case, though the solo work was designed to be impressively virtuosic, the actual range of solo instrument displayed was disappointingly narrow. While Equal Measured Music is an interesting work and represents an exciting expansion of the Ensemble’s repertoire into electric and electronic territory, it felt more like a clever exercise than a mature composition inspiring depth of thought or feeling well after the performance had ended.

Elgar’s Serenade For Strings in E Minor, Op.20, provided an almost balletic introduction to the second half of the evening with some fine ensemble playing from the combined musicians of the Ensemble and RSAMD. This particularly came to the fore in middle section Larghetto, where the blend of multi-layered strings in unison presented a strong counterfoil to the work’s more sentimentalised phrases, saturated in sweetness.

Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli followed, with excellent performances from Xander Van Vliet and Jonathan Morton on violin and Alison Lawrance on cello. The dialogue between instruments and variation of texture in this work were equally superb. Commissioned for the 1953 Edinburgh Festival, Tippett’s Fantasia is steeped in the Baroque but equally modern in its vision, expanding form and expectation in a way that makes the listener crave more live performances of his work.

Consistently refreshing and challenging in its programming, the Scottish Ensemble’s ongoing commitment to the commissioning and performance of new music, supporting both emerging musicians and composers, was richly in evidence in their latest tour. Side By Side illustrated beautifully the necessity to take risks in order to creatively expand both the range of the players and the perception of the audience in relation to established and hidden repertoire.

© Georgina Coburn, 2010