Picture the scene: Dunbar Parish Church nearing the end of major renovation. Looking heavenward, one sees two RSJ-type structures which appear to have facilitated the removal of all impediments to vision and light, the latter refracted through stained glass windows. In one corner of of the resulting square, facing the opposite corner, sit the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The audience form a broad L-shape around them.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Lammermuir Festival
Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Lammermuir Festival

I was effectively an empty-handed occupant of the fifth desk of the first violins. What a fantastic lesson in orchestration this was going to be at such close quarters. My nearest instructor in this was the fantastic harpist Sharron Griffiths, ably assisted by Ravel. Who better to illustrate the harp’s contribution to colour, diction and punctuation than this master orchestrator.

Originally a six-movement piano work, Ravel selected four movements for the orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin. The SCO wind players scurried gracefully through the “Prélude: vif” counterpointed by a beautifully soft string sound. The highly ornamented “Forlane: Allegretto” exemplified élan. Behind the graceful optimism, the harmonies in this movement occasionally hint at losses which had recently been experienced by Ravel; his mother and then six friends who fell in the First World War, in which Ravel also served. Each movement is dedicated to one of these friends. The slowest tempo is the Allegretto which, midway through, introduces some slightly more threatening sounds. However, these are short-lived and the tone soon lightens. The closing “Rigadoun: Assez vif” was played with great gusto and the orchestra, most particularly conductor Joshua Weilerstein, looked and sounded like they were having the time of their lives. Some believe that life should inform art, and others that art’s purpose is to inspire the best in us, despite circumstances. There seems little doubt on which side of this divide Ravel belongs.

Royal Over-Seas League Gold Medal winner Sean Shibe joined the SCO for Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. A prodigious technician and supremely expressive player, Shibe gave a masterful account of this much-loved work. The outer movements were breezily paced and Shibe’s crisp technique ensured great clarity. Despite the tempo of the most fierce scale passages, every phrase was beautifully finished with no sense of rush. There was more flexibility in the famous Adagio than I can recall hearing and watching Weilerstein harness orchestra and soloist was very engaging. I’ve known this piece for over 40 years and heard in this performance orchestral details never before noticed. One such example was the use of first a single horn and then two, to ensure a fine dynamic gradient. I had always been aware of the eccentric bassoon lines in the opening Allegro con spirito, but the clarity that live music affords, especially at such close quarters, threw these quite bizarre lines into sharp relief. Full marks to Paul Boyes for articulating them with such joy. Rosie Staniforth was excellent in the Adagio’s tender cor anglais solo. Orchestral balance and ensemble were very impressive in this work, under the increasingly ebullient baton of Weilerstein. The audience were delighted with this performance and Shibe returned for several curtain calls with his trademark disposition of quiet modesty.

Returning from a sunny outdoor interval (Dunbar is often referred to as the sunniest town in Scotland), I noticed that the orchestra had been reshaped. A wedge of cellos had been driven between the first and second violins and the double basses were now on my side of the hall. The nearby horns had exchanged their modern horns for natural ones, with spare (key-changing) crooks hanging from music stands; welcome to a changed sound world, that of Mozart’s Symphony no. 41 in C major, “Jupiter”. Throughout the concert I had become increasingly aware of Weilerstein’s highly physical presence. In this work it struck me that he was unequal parts conductor, dancer and actor. From my relatively unusual location I was able to see how his facial expressions and body movements conveyed expressive ideas which would have been difficult to put into words. In a language such as Mozart’s, where conflict and contrast are everything, expression changed suddenly from “swaggering down a county lane” to “how could you say such a thing?” With Weilerstein conducting this work without score, one could see how the joyous counterpoint of the closing Molto allegro was completely embodied. This compositional extravaganza, famous for integration of its five themes, almost requires an octopus to conduct as the contrapuntal entries get ever closer. The combination of Weilerstein’s lively style, combined with his friendly opening introduction, strikes me as what is required to ensure the future of live classical performance. This concert was a joyous, revivifying experience for me and, I feel sure, for the volubly appreciative audience.