A desire to perform Michael Daugherty’s entertaining and imaginative work Dead Elvis was a wonderful excuse to put together a fascinating programme of American, or American-influenced music. Always with an eye for the unusual, the Hebrides Ensemble made a convincing case for exploring some pieces at the edge of the repertoire. In any case, the striking posters for this concert – with a bassoonist in a white Elvis jumpsuit and hairpiece – certainly sparked plenty of curiosity.

Peter Whelan: <i>Dead Elvis</i> © Hebrides Ensemble
Peter Whelan: Dead Elvis
© Hebrides Ensemble

The charming Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano by Darius Milhaud was a gentle opener, David Adams’ viola and Michael Whight’s clarinet by turns jaunty and then more reflective, interweaving lyrical phrases with each other as Huw Watkins provided flowing and sensitive accompaniment from the piano. The final movement started with a cry of anguish, but then almost swung to the end, betraying Milhaud’s jazz influences – Dave Brubeck was a pupil after all.

Watkins was joined by American soprano Claron McFadden to perform Life Story by Thomas Adès. McFadden totally immersed herself in Tennessee Williams’ smouldering world of one-night-stand lovers in a hotel bed, wistfully capturing the awkwardness of striking up conversation with a stranger ‘afterwards’. The piano provided disjointed raging and bitter bristly accompaniment, but all eyes were drawn to McFadden who was in her element, her distinctive voice moving effortlessly between highs and lows, negotiating tricky sequences and descending into smoky speech with a soft disdainful “Ugh!” leaving us in no doubt of her opinion on the general seediness... and the cigarettes.

Stephen Montague’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s Wild Nights and How Slow the Sea was, if anything, more bizarre. Watkins, leaning into the piano workings, plucked and stroked the strings. He was re-joined by Adams and Whight who created a compelling soundscape, but again the focus was on McFadden who sang Wild Nights contemplatively from a stool facing us, then walking over and singing directly into the piano, allowing her voice to reverberate with the strings, which she now caressed like a lover might, before facing us again full voice.  How Slow the Wind was an unfinished three line poem written at the end of Dickinson’s life, a fitting postlude made especially haunting as Whight blew air through his clarinet.

For McFadden’s final song there was a complete change of mood. Leonard Bernstein was invited to provide some incidental music to a 1950 Broadway production of Peter Pan, which he did, but came back with some songs as well as lyrics in addition. The music has been largely forgotten but, on this hearing, is clearly worth investigating. Dream With Me is undoubtedly a Broadway show tune, but is a rather beautiful song, sung by Wendy and given honeyed lyrical treatment by McFadden accompanied by Watkins and the Ensemble’s director, William Conway, on a plaintive ‘cello.

Claron McFadden in <i>Life Story</i> © Hebrides Ensemble
Claron McFadden in Life Story
© Hebrides Ensemble

Conway took time out while the stage was being reset to explain the programming to the audience, but he was interrupted by May Halyburton bouncing her bow off her double bass strings, and in a puff of white light and stage smoke, suddenly Elvis was in the building. Michael Daugherty holds that “If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis”. Peter Whelan, taking a few nights off as principal bassoon at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, was magnificent in his white Elvis costume, hairpiece and shades. Strutting about, kneeling down, wandering off and back onstage, Whelan enjoyed showing off an instrument not normally used to the limelight. Against a slow rock 'n' roll rhythm, deliciously peppered with bongos and tight percussion from Oliver Cox, Elvis strutted and squawked his way through various Dies irae idioms with odd Elvis references thrown in for good measure. Ryan Quigley on trumpet and David Stewart on trombone cooked up a jazzy storm. This bonkers, infectious, theatrical piece was all over too soon – I would have loved to have heard it again immediately!

The second half was a performance of A Fiddler’s Tale Suite by Wynton Marsalis. Mirroring Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale in terms of musical forces and named movements, Marsalis brought a jazzy edge to the music, the eight players sounding like a full blown big band at times. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of different sound textures, especially with trombone and bassoon in combination, as well as a very full percussion palette, including washboard. The Faustian story is a slightly different version, but David Adams’ sparkling violin broke the Devil’s hold in a series of spirited dances interspersed with some more reflective beautiful interludes. Classical jazz is an odd beast as all the notes are written, whereas there is normally more scope for improvisation, even within a big band. A trumpet player’s piece, it was exciting to hear the renowned Ryan Quigley finally letting rip in the last movement “The Blues on Top”.

William Conway’s hand-picked performers took us on a brilliant journey of musical discovery, surprising sophistication, crazy stories all with an infectious zany edge. Different and refreshing, I hope we see more evenings like this.

****1