Matching Loch Shiel’s Grandeur in Music

1 Jun 2012 in Festival, Highland, Music, Showcase

Violinist Charles Mutter is artistic director of the Loch Shiel Spring Festival.

THIS unique festival is set amongst the stunning scenery around Loch Shiel, west of Fort William, and Charles says his aim is to programme music with sufficient majesty to match the landscape.

THE Loch Shiel Spring Festival has been running for 16 years. This year’s event was somewhat pared down compared to previous years, because the chair of the festival committee, Hege Hernaes, has been taking a sabbatical, yet it included chamber music classics by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as well as an adventurous array of pieces probably never before heard live in the Highlands, by Offenbach, Bartok, Schnittke, Andreae and Arensky.

Charles Mutter, post-concert in Glenfinnan

Charles Mutter, post-concert in Glenfinnan

The core of the festival was the Florin Ensemble, a remarkable string trio led by Charles, with Catherine Rimer on cello and Alistair Scahill on viola. Together with guest musicians, they performed a programme of chamber music of a quality that’s rarely heard live north of the Central Belt.

Charles is passionate about the need for more live classical music to be staged in the Highlands and Islands. ‘It’s well documented that children who learn a classical music instrument perform better in all other areas of their schoolwork and develop all kinds of skills – listening, co-ordination, self-discipline and teamwork. But there’s no point in learning an instrument if you can’t get to hear it live. That’s why it’s vital that live classical music is heard, everywhere. All my work demonstrates that if you put classical music events on, you reach people who don’t know that they like this sort of music. In a small village hall you can make the air throb – it really is an intimate and incredibly powerful experience.’

Originally from a fishing village called Piddinghoe, in East Sussex, Charles started to play the piano aged 3. He says that at the age of 6 he ‘clamoured for a violin’, then ‘like all children, I had to be driven to practice it until I was about 15′. Ever since then, though, he has been a more than willing musician.

He resisted music college, despite gaining offers of scholarships, because they insisted he would have to choose between the piano and violin, and instead went to Jesus College at Cambridge University, where, he says, ‘I had opportunities way beyond what I would have had at music college and met people who led me directly into the profession’. In common with many freelance musicians, he moved to London and began ‘an interesting but precarious career’, playing with a range of orchestras and travelling a huge amount.

The Florin Trio - Charles Mutter, Catherine Rimmer and Alistair Scahill

The Florin Trio - Charles Mutter, Catherine Rimmer and Alistair Scahill

He says he fell in love with Scotland when he came to Edinburgh with a youth orchestra, aged 13. ‘Seeing Arthur’s Seat for the first time – you don’t get that sort of thing in Sussex!’ Later he toured with the Scottish Ensemble. ‘Our first concert was in Thurso and on my way there, I don’t think my mouth properly closed once. I’ve loved Scotland ever since.’

He moved to Scotland in 1999 to join the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. His wife played in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and for four years he led the Edinburgh String Quartet.

It was through the quartet that he made his connection with the Loch Shiel Festival, playing as a participant for three years and then being invited to become Artistic Director from 2006. Although he moved back to London in 2007, to take up the position of associate leader of the BBC Concert Orchestra, he says that it’s not much harder to keep in touch from London as from Glasgow or Edinburgh, and he appreciates the festival as it enables him to keep his link to Scotland.

Inside the Ark in Noye's Fludde

Inside the Ark in Noye's Fludde

Since becoming director of the festival, he hasn’t been short of ambition. The festival committee consists of people representing a range of educational and amateur music groups. Charles says, ‘This came into its own in 2010 when we put on Noye’s Fludde’. This musical drama by Benjamin Britten involved a big cast of local children, musicians and elaborate head-dresses as well as professional singers. Other spectacles put on by the festival have included a family gala day at Glenborrodale Castle, a concert at the historic Glenfinnan Railway Station and a specially commissioned piece, Lady Chisholm’s Songbook, where 5 very different composers were given a lament by the widow of William Chisholm, who fell at Culloden.

‘What I try to do is to create things you couldn’t hear anywhere else,’ says Charles. ‘I try to programme pieces specific to locations in the area, or music of sufficient grandeur for the landscape.’

He uses Scottish musicians where he can, but will bring musicians from far flung corners of the world to create the right sound, and often uses, or makes his own, arrangements of music to create the effect of a big orchestra with a chamber group. One example was an arrangement of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, a huge orchestral piece, for just 9 instruments. ‘Because the venues are small, you can approach the physical impact of the full orchestra with a small group, achieving the same ratio of players to space.’

He is proud of the festival’s record of commissioning new music, with 5 new pieces in 2007 and 4 in 2010. Following the pattern, he says, ‘2013 should see some more commissions.’ Budgets are always tight, but, he says, ‘it always seems to be a triumph of imagination over resources. A lot of our most daring events have drawn the biggest audiences, rather than traditionally more ‘bankable’ programmes,’ citing Noye’s Fludde, which packed Glenfinnan Church for 3 nights.

‘This is in no way a little backwater where you can try stuff out before taking it to other places,’ he says.’The audiences here are as demanding as you’ll find anywhere, in the best possible way.’

At this year’s festival, he was particularly thrilled by the response to Alfred Schnittke’s String Trio, written in the dying days of the Soviet regime. ‘You’d be hard pressed to find an angrier or more thorny piece’, he says, yet the audience were rightly impressed by its power, communicated vividly by the Florin Trio.

Charles says that the Florin Trio would be delighted to get the chance to play more in the Highlands and Islands. The trio formed after the festival in 2008 and it provides Charles with an opportunity to play chamber music between the big orchestral works of his day job. ‘I relish the opportunity to put the string trio repertoire under the microscope,’ he says. He describes playing with the trio as like performing ‘with mutually-supporting acrobats’.

Composer Hugh Wood has said of the Florin Trio, that their ‘sense of ensemble and of balance is beyond criticism, their phrasing is elegant and immaculate and they have developed a beautifully nurtured overall sound.’ They certainly held the audiences at Acharacle, Strontian and Glenfinnnan rapt, and their performance of the Mozart Divertimento (available on their first CD) is world class. It is, Charles says, ‘arguably Mozart’s finest piece of chamber music, and one of his greatest pieces full stop. It’s a work of extraordinarily sustained invention and delight, but it wears its greatness lightly.’

Let’s hope that Glenfinnan Church remains in good enough condition to host many more festivals. With its beautiful views out over Loch Shiel, it is a superb music venue. ‘It’s magical,’ says Charles. ‘I just don’t know anywhere else like it.’ We will await the 2013 Festival programme with interest, and if music lovers can’t wait that long, perhaps other ways need to be found to invite Charles and his colleagues back to the north.

© Mandy Haggith, 2012