The Scottish Ensemble has been resident in Dundee for four days, really getting under the skin of the city. Amongst a whole raft of activities, including pop-up concerts, performing a film score live at a screening at Dundee Contemporary Arts, the Ensemble has been working with string players from Dundee Schools Orchestra and Dundee Symphony Orchestra.

Members of Scottish Ensemble © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Members of Scottish Ensemble
© Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

After a trailer on screen flagging up highlights of their 2012/13 season, the Caird Hall filled with the sound of string players from both orchestras, unseen at first, playing Pachelbel’s Canon as they made their way to the stage through the audience. In a genuinely delightful surprise start to the Scottish Ensemble’s main season, they gave us a special performance of the final movement of the St Paul’s Suite by Holst: The Dargason mixed with Greensleeves.

The main programme began with Mozart’s Divertimento in D. Written for background entertainment when Mozart was sixteen, the Ensemble’s performance demonstrated why it deserved the closer attention of the concert hall. The lively opening Allegro was taken at speed, yet was full of detailed phrasing and crescendo and decrescendo shapes. After an elegant Andante, an impressive Presto ended this sunny piece.

The mood suddenly changed for Robert Schumann’s String Quartet no. 3, here arranged for full string orchestra by the Ensemble’s director Jonathan Morton. Schumann composed this during an intense year of chamber music composition as he wanted to explore soundworlds beyond the solo piano. Sounding almost like a symphony in miniature, the performance opened with dreamy falling fifths passed between the players in a romantic style, with the livelier second movement of theme and variations and a wild ragged waltz before calm was restored. A lyrical Adagio preceded the almost pastoral final movement. As with any arrangement of a string quartet, I did wonder how it compared to the original, and perhaps that might be an interesting theme to explore in a public workshop, as the Ensemble takes a residency in each Scottish city over the coming months.

In an exciting innovation, the Scottish composer Martin Suckling is sending the Ensemble “Postcards” this season, the first of which was entitled In memoriam EMS. This short piece had microtonal harmonies with a lyrical cello tune trying to burst through the chorus of birdsong in the upper strings. It was fun watching Morton keeping the birds in order, and I am looking forward to the next postcard.

Before the meat of the evening, Britten’s Les Illuminations, the Ensemble programmed three Fantazias by Purcell. Britten loved Purcell’s music, and these pieces, through their use of astonishing chromatics and adventurous harmonies for the time, goes some way to explaining the attraction. Composed for a consort of viols, but here played by a string quartet, the long, drawn open chords sounded surprisingly viol-like. Each piece had a slow beginning and finished with something more lively. Purcell was Assistant Keeper of the King’s Instruments when these were written, and I wondered if, like the Mozart at the start of the concert, the music was intended to be incidental to the goings-on at Court.

And so to Les Illuminations, here performed by the Ensemble and tenor Thomas Walker, with video projections from Netia Jones serving the twofold purpose of displaying both a translated text and images to reflect the changing thoughts of French poet Arthur Rimbaud. The Ensemble know this piece, and played it brilliantly, if slightly overwhelming the voice at times.

The visual images consisted of a series of half-formed sepia pictures and video ranging from a ghostly square and winged statue to blurry merry-go-round and upturned rotating bicycle wheel. Innovative and interesting though this was, I am not convinced that video is helpful to a live classical performance, and would have really loved to have watched this again without the projections as watching the Scottish Ensemble play is a visual feast in itself. It was actually very challenging trying to work out what we were seeing on the screen as relating the images to the translation, and the music took attention away from the performance that was happening on stage.

All in all, as players, composer and video artist took their bows, this was a good finish to a city residency, full of innovative ideas, living up to the group’s bold new strapline “Redefining the String Orchestra”.

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