If anyone wants to embark on study of what orchestral players do when not playing with their orchestra, they would do well to take a look at Mr McFall’s Chamber. The core band of four string players have made it their trademark to perform new, rare and experimental music, carefully programming the accessible and surprising and inviting handpicked musicians in collaboration. From their roots performing late night spots in the creative space of the Bongo Club in Edinburgh 20 years ago, their style remains infectiously informal. All of the Above was a nostalgic trip back to the club nights, but true to the band’s ethos, there were also two new works receiving their premieres specially commissioned for this pre-20th birthday concert.

McFall's Chamber © Douglas Robertson
McFall's Chamber
© Douglas Robertson

Composer Jeremy Thurlow took the stories of wild parties the poet John Keats attended as inspiration for Blithe Wine where  there were tales of competitive sonnet writing against the clock and drunken imitation of orchestral instruments (Keats chose to be the bassoon). The work is a series of seven short vignettes reflecting the poet’s moods, aptly written for bassoon quintet, but more like a concerto as Peter Whelan took us on a journey from the brightness of youth with lively skipping runs set against answering phrases and snappy pizzicato from the strings giving way to a jazzy syncopation. An opening world of schoolboy discovery and growing confidence was followed by a tender and simple mood, the plangent bassoon perfectly capturing the beauty of a poet’s love. Keats was an apprentice surgeon, and soft dissonant strings with mechanical cello interjections from Su-a-Lee depicted pain and misery. A raucous party with instruments playing different tunes in different times was followed by an insight into Keats’ depression with sighing strings and the bassoon in its lowest mournful register. The despondent mood lifted as the last glimpse into the poet’s short life was all about a man of vast ideas, the bassoon happily running free and the strings building to a blaze of optimism.

The band was joined by clarinettist Maximilano Martin, Stuart Brown on drums and Rick Standley on double bass for Tim Garland’s extraordinary three movement ExtrApollination taking its first stop on the Metropolitan Line, after a thoughtful opening cadenza from Martin. Lively with train-like brushwork from Martin, a stream of jazzy ideas flowed until a signal slowed things down, and then the train took off again into the distance. A slower tribute to lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson the clarinet playing against a continuous note passed between the strings, the music reflecting the swing of the lightbeam across the water. Finally, rhythmic fireworks for a tribute to flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, as rapidly changing time signatures brought the work to a joyous climax.

I had forgotten the beauty of Joe Zawinul’s  A Remark You here created with Su-a-Lee’s soaring cello taking Wayne Shorter’s famous solo and Rick Standley in his matching rust-coloured bobble hat and top, whipping out a fretless bass to give a true Jaco Pastorius sound. As Paul Harrison on piano swivelled round to play the tiniest of synthesisers (Zawinul was surrounded by huge stacks of keyboards on stage) this unlikely version completely won over this Weather Report fan.

The second commissioned work was Consequences by the pianist Paul Harrison. Written to reflect dissatisfaction with our politicians, its urgent driving rhythms and dense jazz harmonies gave way to sadness as the piece ended on a quiet but restless series of chords played by the string quartet alone.

In a hugely varied evening of music, there was lots of high energy fun with Frank Zappa’s Peaches en Regalia, G Spot Tornado and Echidna’s Arf, the band making light of the fearsome unison runs and solos with Brown and percussionist Iain Sandilands cooking up a rhythmic storm. There was more amusement to come with pieces The Penguin, Curlycue and The Auctioneer from composer and bandleader Raymond Scott in a 1920’s cartoon caper.  

McFall’s Chamber from its early days has championed the music of Astor Piazzolla, so his slow and passionate Milonga del angel  was a chance to catch our breath as Cyril Garac’s sinuous violin and Lee’s ardent cello were set against the slow syncopated Milonga beat (try tapping out 8 beats with accents on 1,4,5 and 7). To finish, an encore of Michel Legrand’s theme from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg with Su-a-Lee on musical saw, a humorous McFall trademark.

A final credit must go to the sound engineers who got the balance just right for the miked pieces, taking their cue from the drummer and percussionist and adopting a subtle ‘less is more’ approach. Classical musicians straying over boundaries into jazz and rock does not always work, but it certainly did here in a wonderfully varied and enjoyable evening.