Scottish Ensemble Inverness Residency

30 Oct 2012 in Highland, Music, Showcase

Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 25-28 October 2012

THIS YEAR for the first time the Scottish Ensemble initiated four residencies as part of their 2012/13 season in Dundee, Inverness, Aberdeen and Perth; integrating their performance, outreach and education work in regional cities and responding to each location with a unique programme of its own.

THEIR Inverness residency expanded the reach of the group to a variety of different audiences; taking the highest quality musicianship out of the concert hall to the cinema, dancehall, outdoors as part of the annual Ness Islands Halloween Spectacular and to Carolton Care and Southside Nursing Homes.

Scottish Ensemble (photo Joanne Green)

Scottish Ensemble (photo Joanne Green)

Performed to a capacity audience in the OneTouch Theatre, the first evening concert programme set the tone of the residency, with music as the leading force and architect of collaboration. Paying homage to the composer Benjamin Britten in anticipation of his centenary celebration in 2013, drawing on the work of composers who inspired him and introducing bold new work Illuminations was a thoroughly immersive and transformative experience. In partnership with video artist Netia Jones and tenor Thomas Walker, the Scottish Ensemble’s performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations (1940) was arguably one of their finest. With the work centre stage and musicians, soloist and visual artist all united in the service of the composer/poet , stakes were raised for both the performers and the audience creating an elevation of spirit in performance.

Opening the programme with Mozart’s lively Divertimento in D K136 followed by Schumann’s inventively sporadic String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, op.41 (arr Morton), relative familiarity paved the way for illumination through sound. Martin Suckling’s new work In Memorium EMS (2012), the first in a series of musical postcards which will be created and performed throughout the Ensemble’s 2012/13 season, combines microtonal harmonies with fragments of dance and birdsong.

The striking unease of this correspondence from an unknown territory was immediately intriguing and fluid. In Memorium moves emotively between density of sound and aural vulnerability, stretched like a human soul between two worlds; one mortally earth bound, the other soaring in high pitched bird-like strains. Suckling’s composition is a beguiling fragment of intrepid exploration that left the listener wanting to hear the evolving future series.

Purcell’s Fantasias 9, 5 & 11 that followed were an absolute joy to listen to with their rich contrapuntal textures and poised articulation in performance; pure music that needed nothing else to accompany it. There is an unfortunate tendency in a digital age for music, theatre and dance companies to throw every possible effect at the stage, whether in the service of their primary means of expression or not. These hooks, presumably employed to entertain audiences assumed to have acute attention deficit, often distract rather than enhance experience of the work. Fortunately the collaboration between the Scottish Ensemble lead by Artistic Director Jonathan Morton, Thomas Walker and Netia Jones, was seamless in its subtly nuanced interpretation of Britten’s Les Illuminations.

The relationship between musical, written, and visual language as text were compellingly explored, with the visual element not simply illustrating but creating its own distillation of language akin to poetry or music in its power of suggestion. The flickering cycle of light and movement in the opening sequence, shifting and ethereal, clearly established the role of the visual element in the performance as integral rather than dominant or an illustrative add-on. Abstracted textures of cloud merging into smoke stacks of industry, movement of light and human form on timeless city streets, layered images of bleached illumination and sepia, nature’s decaying surfaces and emerging aged interiors create the feeling of poetry suspended in sound and image and of the inspiration Britten found in Rimbaud’s original work.

The density and complexity of the poetry and its interpretation through music and voice are not explained away by the images and text on screen, rather the live delivery and response to the musical performance each night with variations of tempo and rhythm create a unique cycle of delivery. The performance, like its original material, is fluid, able to move into the depths of imagery, poetry and music as part of a living performance rather than an illustrated recital. It is exactly what cross disciplinary practice should be, taking its cues from the original material but creating something new in the live interpretation and experience, for both the performers and the audience. Thomas Walker’s sensitive, articulate delivery and the commitment of Netia Jones to this visionary material created an equal partnership with the Scottish Ensemble in bringing Britten’s music vividly to life with all the senses.

Pre CGI, the earliest cinema continues to inspire with its imagination and invention. Among silent film directors F.W.Murnau is probably one of the most influential on subsequent generations of film makers, best known for his Expressionist masterpiece of light and shadow Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922) and Sunrise, A Tale of Two Humans (1927), which won Murnau an Oscar for “artistic quality of production”. Originally commissioned for Glasgow Film festival, DJ Alex Smoke’s score for Murnau’s Faust (1926) oscillates between deeper exploration and overlay of the visuals in its blend of electronics and strings. Although sublimely performed live with sustained energy and verve by a quintet from the Scottish Ensemble lead by Jonathan Morton and DJ Alex Smoke, there are times when Nymanesque repetition, especially in the scoring of the strings, felt overpowering and laboured.

This is a film principally concerned with broad themes of good and evil, a wager not just for the soul of an individual but dominion over the earth. The Expressionist tonality of its visual composition completely fits the subject; it is an epic world of dreamscapes, earthly suffering and moral lessons where subtleties of character development are largely unknown. The challenge for the composer is whether to accompany this world or begin to uncover the humanity between extremes of heaven and hell by going deeper into the subtext of the work and the context of its creation. While Smoke has composed sequences that are sophisticated in adding layers of interpretation to the images on screen, there are also times when soundtrack and moving image vie for the audience’s attention, undermining the totality of the cinematic experience. Fortunately there are also significant points of convergence in the scoring that allow the audience deeper contemplation of the original work.

Emerging initially from an undercurrent of shifting electronic sound and reverberations, an eerily ominous atmosphere is created with the introduction of lower strings as the “portals of darkness open”, suitably Gothic in tone. There are familiar quotations when the scoring tips its hat to the familiar menacing horror of shuddering strings and more enlightened treatment of sound such as the variant textures and syncopated rhythm, skipped like a heart beat when Faust signs the pact in his own blood. This is heard and felt not just a sound effect illustration but nuanced with the emotional intensity of the sequence. When Mephistopheles is summoned by Faust the intensity of strings gives way to a static hum of industrial sound at his appearance, suggestive of the banality of evil.

It is, however, in the treatment of the Gretchen character, morally polarised by her gender in the story, where the music adds depth of interpretation to appearance. The inner workings of the character against type are suggested fleshing out the maiden/whore reading into something more realistically human. As fated temptation grows within the character, tempo, rhythm and volume intensify, reflecting her emotional state, a counterpoint of melodic fragments that allow us to read more than just angelic goodness. In that moment Gretchen becomes more than the ultimate feminine plot device of damnation or redemption, the interplay between Murnau’s 1926 film and Alex Smoke’s 2011 soundtrack enhancing our perception as an audience.

Also on a supernatural theme, members of the Scottish Ensemble worked with students from the Highland High Schools Symphony Orchestra to create a spooky soundscape for the Ness Islands Halloween Spectacular, held over two nights outdoors on the Ness Islands. This year the annual event included 130 young people working with Eden Court Creative, Highland Council’s Lighting Department, Arts in Motion, Fireworx Scotland and Fly Agaric. With skeletal projections, devilish shadow play, weeping angels, ghosts, druids and witches brewing potions, the walk-through event attracts thousands of visitors of all ages. This is undoubtedly the first time that members of the Ensemble dressed as undertakers have performed in front of a mock field of gravestones accompanied by the jerky movement of undead zombies! Even at distance strains of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre could be heard coming from the grove-like setting lit in otherworldy green, adding to the atmosphere and experience of the whole event.

In complete contrast to this ghoulishness, the final event of the residency saw the Scottish Ensemble donning tails and gowns for a late afternoon Tea Dance in Eden Court’s Bishop’s Palace. Reliving the glory days of the palm court orchestra with ballroom classics from Strauss waltz’s to dance music of the 1920’s and 30’s with afternoon tea and a dance instructor on hand, this event was part of Scotland’s Luminate creative ageing festival.

Always adventurous and consistently challenging expectation about what Classical music can be, the Scottish Ensemble are the perfect ambassadors for music experienced at the highest level of performance, minus the pretension. If ever there was a group to inspire the next generation of musicians and listeners then they are resoundingly it! Their energy, commitment and passion for the music they perform are palpable and infectious, both within the concert hall and outside it. The opportunity to develop partnerships with individuals and organisations locally will hopefully ensure that the Scottish Ensemble residencies become an annual event, as much loved and eagerly anticipated as their regular concert series.

© Georgina Coburn, 2012