Scottish Ensemble Residencies: The View from a Young Artist Part 2

Talented violinists and SE Young Artists Katrina Lee and Wen Wang continue our residency blog as the Ensemble travels to Dundee for another 4-day residency. 

After our first main concert in Inverness, everyone clambered onto the coach with bottles and nibbles! What a fantastic way to spend the time travelling to Dundee and to celebrate after the first ‘From Russia with Love’ concert!

The first day in Dundee was a visit to the Dundee high school and my first experience of coaching a high school string orchestra and quartet! Watching the first group with Laura, Bas and Diane was so interesting! With Laura directing, the whole ensemble was listening to her fun ways of experimenting, such as holding the bow a bit higher and other suggestions. Next was our group, which I was feeling rather nervous about it but with Rakhi leading the session, she again like Laura had the attention of the group and really was great with getting them to try using different bow lengths to achieve the style. I definitely learned a lot from just observing them about how to lead and coach these young adults!

The evening session was coaching the string players that would be joining us for our last concert in Dundee in the Caird Hall. The Scottish Ensemble would be joined by players from different schools and orchestras for the first piece in the concert by Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile. Jon led this session to create the beautiful, sweet, soft cushion of sound that he wanted from the players. The session finished by 7.30pm and as it was quite early, we decided to have some food and catch a film at Dundee Contemporary Arts. We had to quickly order some burgers and scoff them down as the film was shortly starting! The film was Jon’s recommendation, the new Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine. After being a bit dubious about it, I ended up thoroughly enjoying it! The night finished with a few drinks with the rest of the Ensemble joining us after their coaching session had ended.

ImageSE coaching session with young musicians

Our second day in Dundee was the evening tea dance in the Marryat Hall which was absolutely the perfect location for a tea dance.  This time the Tea Dance was in the evening which mean instead of tea and cake there would be fizz and canapés, (which the Ensemble members got very excited about too)! Our afternoon rehearsal in the hall was a good way to refresh our memories from the previous tea dance we had done in Inverness and the suggestion to open up the curtains on the stage and opposite side of the hall to reveal two HUGE mirrors created a very dramatic and glamorous effect.

The Tea Dance was great fun again and a wonderful evening for all who attended. The only dance that nobody dared to come forward to the floor was the Paso Doble…Perhaps Jenny and Thorben from the SE office can learn it for next year and take to the dance floor with flourish to show them how it’s done?!
Katrina Lee 

After lots of beautiful tea dance music last night, everyone kept singing the tune from ‘Moonlight’ and talking about how they enjoyed the music and the wonderful audience at the Tea Dance.

The next day we went to Bharatiya Ashram (Dudhope Centre) the next day, although the very windy weather made it difficult for us to get there! We performed jazz and light Latin music for a friendly, enthusiastic audience. After the performance, we had some nice tea and biscuits with the audience in the community centre. We had a good chat, and they told us that we should come on a Sunday next time, as there is very nice Chinese buffet every week! Later, we went to McManus Gallery and performed ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, arranged for three violins and bass. We also performed one of my favourite pieces, Czardas, which was well loved by the audience.

Imageperformance in the grand surroundings of the McManus Gallery

On the last day of the tour, we had our main concert in Dundee Caird Hall. My highlight was Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, which we performed with around 80 young and amateur musicians. The young players were all string players from schools in Dundee and I was very impressed by them. They were hard-working and they had improved greatly during the course of the day. We rehearsed alone in the afternoon and then joined the children later for a half hour rehearsal in the Caird Hall.

Imagepacked stage at the Caird Hall during the rehearsal

Our concert programme was Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile, Shostakovich String Quartet No.2 and Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings. The acoustic of the beautiful Caird Hall was just brilliant. Playing with the Scottish Ensemble was a great experience for me and it was very inspiring.

ImageDundee’s Caird Hall and newly renovated city square
Wen Wang

Scottish Ensemble Residencies: The View from a Young Artist

The Scottish Ensemble Young Artist Scheme gives some of the brightest young string players the opportunity to perform alongside SE and benefit from coaching and mentoring. Viola player and SE Young Artist Morag Robertson – a recent graduate from St Mary’s Music School and now at the Royal College of Music – blogs from our 2013 Inverness Residency.

September had come and it was time for another Scottish Ensemble residency, this time back in the beautiful city of Inverness. This was the third set of residencies I have joined the Ensemble in as a Young Artist so I had an idea of what to expect but, as ever, the management team had a couple of fresh projects up their sleeves.

After a pleasant train journey up from Glasgow, we arrived in Inverness in the early afternoon with time to check-in to the hotel, grab some lunch and head across the river to Eden Court where our afternoon of rehearsals were to take place. We were rehearsing for the following evening’s event ‘SE Sessions’ which would show off the Ensemble in new ways with solo and small group performances in an informal environment. The afternoon ended with a run-through of the programme and it was great fun hearing everyone play in this setting as the Ensemble spends so much time playing all together, but very rarely to each other. Although some people said to play in front of your peers felt a little like an audition!

In the evening, the Ensemble split off into two groups. Some of us went to rehearse for the afternoon sextet concert which would take place the following morning whilst the rest of the players remained at Eden Court to take a coaching session with the Highland Council Strings.

The next morning was an early start for some with a sextet rehearsal before the afternoon performance. The programme was Haydn’s charming String Quartet Op.33 No.2, “The Joke” and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence  for which Eden Court proved to be a beautiful setting. The concert went very well and it was a fantastic experience for me as an SE Young Artist to play alongside such brilliant musicians.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Ensemble were scattered in small groups around the city to visit and perform chamber music in care homes and community centres.

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SE musicians perform for residents at Southside Nursing Home, Inverness

Later on we all met at Hootananny, a pub and live-music venue in Inverness, where there was a bit of excitement around what was to unfold in our evening event, SE Sessions. Group by group we took to the stage and performed to a slightly more rowdy audience than we were used to. Highlight performances included Jon and Andy’s ‘Clapping Music’ by Steve Reich, Naomi and Ali’s ‘Four hands, one cello’ and a tag team style rendition of Mendelssohn’s Octet, cleverly named ‘Tagtet’!

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SE cellos Ali and Naomi with ‘Four hands, one cello’

More fun was planned for the following day with a Flashmob at the Eastgate Shopping Centre where the Ensemble was joined by some young players of the Highland Council Strings for a surprise performance. Gliding down an escalator, we played Pachelbel’s Canon and ended with a performance of the last movement from Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite.

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SE musicians bravely keep playing as they descend the escalator

Having already checked out of our hotel that morning, and some time before the next event, some of us were in desperate need of somewhere to rest. It had been a busy few days!

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SE violin, Sophie, takes a nap before our next performance

The afternoon followed with another of the Ensemble’s glamorous Tea Dances. A mixture of the beautifully set Town Hall, music brilliantly arranged by Jamie Manson (Di’s husband), a last minute investment for a set of maracas (allowing Thorben, Chief Exec., to make his cameo appearance as a percussionist) and some very impressive and enthusiastic dancing made it a very special occasion.

Image.Thorben (in a suit and tie) with maracas

Morag 10

Unfortunate timing of the Inverness Marathon, which would take place the next day, meant all the hotels in Inverness were booked up so we had to interrupt our residency in Inverness for the night and travel to a bed and breakfast in Nairn. After a filling curry and a bit of hanging around for a delayed coach, we made it to Nairn where for many of us a much needed sleep was in order.

The final day of our residency had sadly arrived but what a glorious way to start the day with a stroll along the beach in Nairn.

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A beautiful morning on Nairn beach 

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SE Young Artists (from left to right) Morag Robertson, Katrina Lee and Wen Wang

Feeling somewhat more refreshed, we got onto the coach back to Inverness and with some time to fill before our rehearsal for the concert that evening, a few of us went to cheer on the marathon runners. Naomi showed particular skill in encouraging the runners to keep going!

The final performance of our 4-day residency in Inverness was the main-season concert at Eden Court. It was an all-Russian programme titled ‘From Russia With Love’ and included Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile from the first string quartet, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 and Two Pieces for Octet, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. On stage there was an exciting buzz and the audience were very enthusiastic. It was a fantastic end to our four-day stay in Inverness. We finished the concert with Jamie Manson’s arrangement the James Bond theme ‘From Russia with Love’ as an encore.

As soon as the concert came to an end, we quickly made our way to the coach for a late night journey down to Dundee. With surplus supplies of drinks and snacks on the way, we made it to the hotel in the early hours of the morning. One residency completed another one just about to begin.

SE Young Artists Katrina Lee and Wen Wang continue the residency blogging from Dundee. To be posted soon. 

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Scottish Ensemble 2013 Shetland Residency

SE violin, Laura Ghiro, looks back on our action-packed 4-day Shetland residency. ‘Thanks Shetland for the fun and the memories!’ 

Following a successful recording session in Dundee with Chris Stout (fiddle) and Catriona McKay (Scottish harp) to record Seavaigers by Sally Beamish, and a concert as part of the Aberdeen International Youth Festival, we were all looking forward to our 4 nights in Shetland, a first for the Ensemble.

Arriving at Aberdeen airport, however, was rather strange. Women seemed to have eluded this place, as we passed through a sea of large rugged men. Later in duty free, as James (violin) was sampling some very fine whisky, one of the staff explained that the oil riggers had been stranded for almost 2 weeks due to fog. Fingers crossed our flight would not be affected…. Thankfully all was well, and after our inflight refreshments of tea and Tunnock caramel wafers (not had one of them for years!), served by Ian, possibly the most polite air steward I have ever met, we landed safely at Sumburgh airport.

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Most of our events were to take place in the Mareel, a recent addition to Lerwick providing the community with a state of the art cinema, cafe/bar and an auditorium for concerts, shows and conferences.

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Our first evening saw the Ensemble divided, with some giving a live performance to the silent film Faust with DJ Alex Smoke in the auditorium, whilst Liza (violin), Jo (violin), Naomi (cello) and I spent a lovely couple of hours in the Green Room, coaching some very friendly and enthusiastic local musicians in preparation for our flash mob performance (the location of which very hush hush!)

ImageLiza taking the coaching session

By now we were all ravenous, so decided to try out the Hay’s Dock restaurant just next door in the Shetland Museum. Not only was the food delicious, but the view was spectacular as the clouds had lifted and a glorious evening now ensued.

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After meeting up with the rest of the Ensemble for a couple of pints of “Bitter & Twisted”, our concert soloists Shetlander Chris Stout (fiddle) and Catriona McKay (Scottish harp) took us to the legendary Lounge bar. The place was packed and local musicians were providing an electric atmosphere with some truly incredible playing. Cheryl (violin) even remembered her dad playing with Ally Bain in this bar! With our heads spinning and our feet tapping, we all departed for bed.

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Day 2 began with a surprising view for Liza. Upon opening her curtains she spotted James swimming in the sea! AAARRRRRRRRR!!!

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Today was our “Out and About Day” with the Ensemble split into 3 quartets giving informal concerts around the island. I was in a group with Jon (violin), James and Di (d. bass) performing some new arrangements by Julian Milone. After a quick rehearsal and a spot of lunch, we set up in the Boat Gallery in the Shetland Museum. Not only did it have a lovely acoustic, but it was an amazing room with boats suspended from the ceiling.

We had time for a coffee and piece of chocolate cake in the Mareel cafe, before heading off to Scalloway Museum in our people carrier, with Di at the helm. We were accompanied by Lynda, one of the team from Shetland Arts, who informed us that the Museum had been built to commemorate the Shetland Bus. Apparently during WWII, sailors from Shetland tried to help the people of Norway during their German occupation. For years the Shetlanders, under darkness, carried supplies to Norway and tried to evacuate as many Norwegians as they could.

ImageView from the museum 

Our audience were very appreciative, even asking for an encore of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” By the end we were met with lots of questions about the Ensemble and the Tea Dance scheduled for the following day.

By now we were ready for a relaxing drink and met up with Chris and others in the bar. He told us of a small early morning boat trip he had managed to squeeze in for some of our players, before they started work that day. They had a brilliant time, even managing to spot some seals and porpoise and Chris managed to catch a few mackerel.

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It seemed he had not been the only one in the family fishing that day, as his dad had caught over 60 mackerel when out that morning! A very gracious invitation then came to join Chris and his family at their house to savour the said mackerel. Catriona promised a great view from the conservatory but the journey there didn’t look too hopeful, as a thick fog suddenly descended. Thankfully by the time we arrived it had cleared, and the views were breathtaking.

Chris’s parents, Andrew and Kathleen, were the most wonderful hosts and even let Jon help with the preparations. A feast of grilled mustard-glazed mackerel, oatmeal fried mackerel, salad and Shetland beremeal bread was enjoyed by all. It was without doubt the best mackerel I have ever tasted.

Chris 2

 Chris 1

We had all had a great day and were looking forward to the next……

On day 3 we all met at the Mareel at midday for our rehearsal of the Tea Dance music. The tables were all being carefully arranged, plants placed strategically and our stage had been beautifully backlit with fairy lights…… “Strictly” eat your heart out!

We just felt there was something missing….what was it? With two talented percussionists in our midst, we decided we needed to add a rhythm section. Fraser (projects manager) jumped into action and quickly came up with the solution….two coffee cups, unpopped popcorn from the cinema and some gaffa tape. It was all very reminiscent of Blue Peter. Would it pass the soundcheck?

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As the doors were opened to the public we all headed off to change into our glamorous attire. The boys, by now, loved getting into the 1930’s feel by slathering their hair in a vat of Brylcreem.

For all of us, however, James stole the show playing his newly nicknamed “Mareel Maracas.” Jon even introduced him to the audience, where James described this unusual instrument as a Norse design!

After a delicious spread of sandwiches and numerous cakes, the Shetlanders rounded off a fabulous Tea Dance with some special requests, Waltzes and Foxtrots seeming to be the favourites here.

We had some time before meeting up with the local musicians again for a brief flash mob rehearsal. This gave Andy and James just enough time to shower and wash their hair 5 times to remove the Brylcreem! The rest of us just decided to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine.

ImageCheryl topping up her tan

During the flash mob rehearsal Naomi decided she would try her hand at the viola. Watch out Andy! Even Di and I couldn’t break her concentration…what a pro…..the same however cannot be said of Lady Marwood!!

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So far, on previous residencies, we had been to 2 large shopping malls, so where on Shetland would we go? Tesco of course! Apparently, it’s a hub of activity on a Friday night. Splitting into 3 groups and walking down the aisles, we stopped some shoppers in their tracks, making them reach for their phones to capture us on camera. Typically, the second violins managed to walk down the alcohol aisle, whilst Liza opted for ice cream instead!

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Meeting behind the cash registers we brought Pachelbel’s canon to a sterling climax, before entertaining the onlookers with a rousing rendition of the ‘Dargason’ from St Paul’s Suite. Much fun was had by all.

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It was then back to the Mareel for a Players’ Meeting. We can honestly say we have never had a meeting in such wonderful surroundings.

ImagePlayers’ meeting

Our last full day on Shetland, Day 4. After meeting Liza for lunch at Hay’s Dock it was time for our rehearsal for the main concert tonight.

The concert opened with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins with Jon, Cheryl, Clare and Jo having their moment to shine. Well played one and all! Next was Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Jon was building up to the big introduction of Chris and Catriona on stage, but they beat him to it. Friendly banter ensued, giving the audience a few laughs and brought a relaxed atmosphere to the auditorium. Chris brought his creative folk style into the piece and gave it a whole new dimension. Seavaigers rounded off the first half with both Chris and Catriona playing with such impressive energy in the outer 2 movements and real sensitivity in the slow middle movement. Poor Catriona had food poisoning the previous day, making her performance all the more remarkable.

Gorecki”s Three Pieces in Olden Style opened the second half, before Chris and Catriona joined us on stage again to perform their new piece Sunstone. I, like the rest of the Ensemble have been in complete awe of these two amazing musicians. There are sounds that Catriona can create on her harp that I have never heard before. Chris can play the most difficult reels with such ease and freedom that would put most classically trained musicians to shame. It has been a real honour for us to perform with them and hope to do so again in the near future.

The audience were on their feet by the end, so thankfully a couple of encores had been prepared just in case. The first Michaelswood was written by Chris in memory of one of his fiddler friends, Michael who died when he was only 21 from cancer. His parents created Michaelswood in his memory and has become a community led project that works with schools, nurseries and local groups, raising awareness of nature and the environment. Chris’s piece has a beautiful melody and with him playing it so tenderly, I could not help but shed a tear. Isflak lifted our spirits again with lightning fast reels keeping the violinists’ fingers busy. We all looked at Chris and asked the same question..”How does he do it?!!” Coming off stage everyone was on a high with wide beaming smiles.

On the way back to our guest house we couldn’t resist the smells coming from the “Relish” van, so we had to stop for bacon butties. (Usually a cheese pastie for Liza before getting on the sleeper after our Wigmore concerts!)

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Checking out of the guest house next morning, I was met by James and Andy who were going for their last swim. They are either very brave or mad…..answers on a postcard please!

We met in Mareel for the last time and had coffee and bacon butties for breakfast, before getting on our bus to the airport. A small detour en-route took us to the best place to spot puffins, but alas it was very windy and they were all tucked up in their nests.

ImageThe only puffin we managed to see

Our flight home was a quiet one with most people sleeping or enjoying their Tunnock’s caramel wafer again.

It has been a great residency and we were sad to see it come to an end at Glasgow airport. The Shetlanders have been so friendly, warm and enthusiastic that we all hope to return again very soon. Thanks Shetland for the fun and the memories!

Scottish Ensemble 2013 Perth Residency

SE violin, Xander van Vliet, sees us through to the end of an ‘epic’ 3 months with a blog from our first-ever Perth residency.

April 21st. Remember when it all began? 19 concerts, 25 flights, 3 continents, 17 hotels, 52 trumpet concertos, endless Wi-Fi codes and 12 missed breakfasts later, we arrive in Perth for our second June residency: the great season finale.

The last two months have been described by many as ‘epic’, and epic it was to see members of the Ensemble once more geared up with not only what was probably their last clean suitcase, but with the endless energy, enthusiasm and drive that has been the signature of Scottish Ensemble tours this season.

Perth Residency

Having conquered the most complicated international travel plans for the season, we relax too soon and somehow manage to get lost inside the labyrinth of Perth train station. Not the best start perhaps?

First on the residency menu was the Ensemble’s tea-dance-special with the brilliant arrangements of ballroom classics by James Manson. Diane’s amplified double bass, the boys’ sleek brill cream look (slightly too much? – never too much!), and last but not least, the lovely cakes and sandwiches, all transformed St John’s Kirk into a true 1920s tea dance room.

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The luxury of not being on the move for a few days meant that there was time for a couple of lab sessions. These sessions allow us to explore new possible repertoire, and during this session we try out a Scottish version of Bach’s double violin concerto with folk super-duo Chris Stout and Catriona McKay. Some long-forgotten repertoire was also dug up from the depths of the Scottish Ensemble library (bringing back a few hilarious memories for some members), and after the Bach double concerto, Chris and Catriona played their hearts out with a couple of their tunes that reminded us of how great it is to be back in Scotland!

During the residency we split into smaller groups for a wide variety of activities throughout the city: pop-up performances, coaching at Perth High School and the Perth Youth Orchestra, and a sextet concert at Perth Concert Hall, which all made full use of the versatility of the Ensemble. One of the highlights was the composition workshop at Perth High School where participants were drawn from five Perth schools. We took the idea of Martin Suckling’s musical postcards to 5 groups of students who managed to compose and perform their own musical postcard. This was led by members of the Ensemble, and also Martin Suckling who helpfully illustrated how he came to compose his postcards and inspired the students to a huge variety of sounds (including sea, cows, donkeys, trains, breathing).

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The two months of continuous socialising, the lack of physical exercise, and Tristan’s (violin) determination to fit into his wedding suit, all sparked a new exercise trend that very quickly spread through the Ensemble. It was ‘planking’.

You might have thought all of us had the aspiration to fit into Tristan’s wedding suit when we were found on the floor in a communal planking competition. Although that in itself sounds slightly ambiguous, the photo will illustrate the sheer innocence of the exercise!

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The Perth residency was concluded with our main stage concert in Perth Concert Hall. We surprised the audience when members of the Perth Youth Orchestra and the Gordon Duncan Experience joined us to enter the hall from all sides whilst playing Pachelbel’s Canon. Then, we finished with around 70 string players on stage performing the Finale from Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. It really made an impact!

Highly emotional readings of Martin Suckling’s Postcard No. 4 ‘Touch’ and Shostakovich’s second quartet followed. The final epic C major chords of Britten’s second quartet arranged by David Matthews were a fitting celebration of everything the Ensemble has achieved both at home and abroad over the last three months.

Scottish Ensemble 2013 Aberdeen Residency

SE double bass, Diane Clark, took some time out of our action-packed Aberdeen Residency  to record some of her highlights…

Day 1
The train pulls into a sunny and warm Aberdeen. Hurrah! Lashings of ginger beer for me as I head straight to Pret a Manger. We check in and head off to the Lemon Tree venue, our base for the next five days.

When we arrive the smell of stale beer is strangely comforting, less so the sticky floor! The hard work of our first day of rehearsals in Glasgow has paid off and we seem to be in good shape, unlike poor our leader Jon who has put his back out and has to top himself up with painkillers every couple of hours. It’s time to get that tour physio! We stop at five and have the luxury of a two-hour break which I spend with Liza (violin) at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant. One Shetland salmon and crab spaghettini later we head back to start our first coaching session with Grampian Youth Orchestra.

Xander (violin) takes the rehearsal in great style – the makings of a future conductor? And we launch into Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. I haven’t played this piece since I was in youth orchestra over …erm… 20(!) years ago so it’s a bit of a shock for the first five minutes but then all those sectionals I sat through years ago pay off and soon my fingers are moving from memory. The kids sound great and soon get to grips with the music for our pop up concert which includes one of my favourites – Pachelbel’s Canon. I never tire of it. Four notes ALL in first position. Tick. And so to bed and a lie-in, an even bigger tick.

Day 2
It’s a slow start to the day with most people spending the morning practicing in their hotel rooms. Thankfully they seem well insulated.

We split into three groups in the afternoon playing at various community centres and care homes. Our group consists of myself and four violins, which turns out to be great fun as we romp our way through some Piazzolla. The violins whizz up and down their instruments like true Latinos while I’m stumped by a tune all in harmonics at the end of my fingerboard. Thorben helpfully says I sound like a distressed seal. With that in mind I clap my hands and find a darkened room for some private practice.

Soon we arrive at Newton Dee Community Centre and receive the warmest reception I’ve experienced yet. They start clapping BEFORE we’ve even got on stage. Very encouraging. If only they’d start chanting it would feel like the O2 Arena.

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In high spirits we head back for our evening rehearsal. Notes, notes and mores notes.

A well deserved pint at Brew Dog and a cheese platter help end the day. I dream about seals….happy ones.

Day 3
My day begins in the empty shell of a Jane Norman store. This is not a result of too many Punk IPA’s but because it’s time for the Flash Mob rehearsal with the various local youth orchestras. The violins and violas have to practise walking whilst playing Pachelbel’s Canon. No mean feat or should that be “feet”? groan, while the basses and cellos get the easier job of sitting in Costa.

The idea is to sit casually in the shopping centre drinking coffee and eating cake (not a problem) till we hear the dulcet tones of approaching violins at which point we are to whip out our instruments and join in, hopefully to rapturous applause from a surprised public. All goes smoothly, phew.

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That done there is just time for food and a lie down before our evening event- Shostakovich Undressed. We are to play the Chamber Symphony while three burlesque dancers perform on stage. Unsurprisingly the ladies of SE have been agonising about what to wear for weeks so we’re rather unimpressed at Tristan’s (violin) suggestion contribution of “rolling his sleeves up” to get in the mood. We needn’t have worried though as the boys come up trumps for the show and look fantastic!

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Sound installations followed by some black and white film of Stalin’s Russia with a dance interpretation alongside take the event into the night. It is rounded off with some DJs laying down beats to Shozza. Some of us head to Brew Dog for a quick drink then bed. Tomorrow is going to need every grey cell we have left.

Day 4
Today is the final event in our Aberdeen residency. It’s been such a busy and varied schedule that I feel we’ve been here for far more than just four days. It’s Cathy’s birthday today so she receives the obligatory atonal rendition of “Happy Birthday” at the start of the rehearsal. There are a pile of presents under her chair and a flaming cake arrives just as we play the last bars of Shostakovich’s second string quartet.

Fortified with tea and cake, I start setting up my bass with a pick-up for the sound check with Clachan Yell who we’re joining later in a post-concert ceilidh. That done, there’s just time for some last minute practise before myself and Laura have to attend a civic reception. By now we are getting slightly anxious about fitting in a meal before the concert. As a musician much of your day revolves around food as you never know quite when you’ll eat again. So it is with great relief that we spy some trays of finger food in a corner of the reception room.

Some self control is needed though. I try to mingle less with the canapés and more with our guests but I soon find myself inhaling a tray of mini cottage pies and spinach tartlets….Speeches done, I need to get horizontal and checkout the tennis score.

7.30pm arrives all too quickly. Our evening concert starts with a repeat of the Flash Mob we did in the Bon Accord the day before. The kids perform really well and afterwards take a seat in the hall to listen to the rest of the concert. Jon’s solos are heartbreakingly beautiful (don’t blush) and perfectly supported by the rest of the strings. It’s a privilege to sit amidst their sound. I can listen to more of the concert than you’d imagine. Less notes are an advantage of being a bass player. I leave the stage feeling exhausted, a bit relieved, aching but moreover extremely proud to be part of such a lovely group.

Beers are handed out as we clamber onto the larger stage and get folky. I mostly play D and A which is fine by me as it means I can dance and play at the same time.

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The crowd soon start to rev up as do we, flinging each other around in a never ending Orcadian Strip the Willow. Ceilidhs should be on the NHS they’re so good for you! We keep going till just before midnight when thankfully the doors are opened and the sweat of a mixed sauna escapes into the night. People flood out onto Union Street and go their separate ways.

Fusion Bar. Mojitos. Bed. Night, night Aiberdeen it’s been grand.

Scottish Ensemble Far East 2013 Tour

SE cello, Naomi Pavri, buckles up her cello (yes, it’s definitely secure) and begins the second instalment of our blog as the Ensemble travel to Taiwan 

Day 6
Speaking as a cellist, and having experienced suspicious and anxious check-in desk assistants on countless occasions over the last couple of months, fellow SE cello Ali and I arrive at Shanghai airport with some trepidation at the inevitable comment “Do you have a seat for that?” “No,” I stubbornly want to reply, “I’m hoping to put it in my pocket.” However, all goes smoothly and we manage to check in in the record time of 60 seconds. Feeling overly confident, we then pre-board the flight for Taipei and rather smugly swan into our seats only to be met by a swarm of immaculate looking air stewardesses who insist on strapping the cellos in with enough extension belts to circle the globe twice. This involves tying the poor instruments to virtually every neighbouring seat. Quite an impressive achievement. Inevitably the rest of the Ensemble board effortlessly and the flight to Taipei is a breeze.

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A couple of hours of relaxation is looked forward to by all with a promise of meeting for dinner at the wonderful Din Tai Fung restaurant, Taiwan’s no. 1 Dumpling House. However, it is safe to say that the majority of the group spend that time rather baffled and somewhat stupefied by the toilet in our room. It is the most elaborate contraption known to mankind, involving a myriad of buttons to push, pull and press, not to mention the extraordinarily complex instructions. Finnegan’s Wake makes easier reading. Still, it clearly promises the Ultimate Sanitised Rear Experience, complete with dryer.

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We congregate in the lobby at 6pm with great excitement and judging by the rather sodden attire of certain violinists, it is easy to see who has pressed the wrong button!

We all consume more than an elegant sufficiency (Jon Morton) of said dumplings and conclude the evening with an eye-opening stroll through a night market. A wealth of culinary delights (some more delightful than others) greets us with the pungent smell of fish and the intoxicating allure of watermelon stirring the sleepiness of the senses.

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Day 7
There is an intense fusion of New York meets Asia in Taiwan with its bustling city, yellow cabs and scooters in abundance. Taiwan is certainly a country with warmth and generosity at the heart of its people, so much so that you could almost expect to see a car slow to a halt on the flyover (as some random pedestrian tries to cross) and say, “No, really. After you.” There is a wonderful balance of city and natural beauty and with our 3rd concert tonight, we divide into groups in the hope of covering all cultural avenues in a limited space of time.

A trip to the top of Taipei 101 is enjoyed by Laura, Jenny, Zoe, Xander and James, where they are treated to staggering views across Taipei and up into the tea plantations. Boasting 91 floors high and grounded by an impressive 4000 ton steel ball, Taipei 101 glories in the title of “World’s fastest elevator.”

Meanwhile, Jan and I journey to the tea plantations and although sadly the gondola is out of service, we delight in boarding a pink bus that resembles an ice cream van from Balamory. Vertiginous, winding roads take us to the very heart of the plantations and we revel in the enchanting views across lush, verdant hillsides. Surprisingly there is no smell of tea, but the stillness is magical and the air, wonderfully clean – a welcome relief from the palpable smog of recent days. Feeling on a high yet aware of time restrictions, we reluctantly abandon the allure of dappled pathways and make our way back. We do have a concert after all!

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The name Cultural Centre barely does justice to the awesome beauty of the stunning concert hall we are to play in tonight. With chandeliers to rival Versailles and enough seats to accommodate the entire population of Belgium, we feel so privileged to be performing here. It is Ali’s special birthday and a brief rehearsal is pleasantly interrupted by the arrival of a delicious cake. Thanks to tour manager Jenny!

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The hall has an acoustic to relish where even the most daring pianissimo can be heard from far afield. Alison, as ever, plays like a dream and is unsurprisingly called back for 3 encores. We also have our fair share of the limelight (having played for nearly 2 1/2 hrs!) and are showered with many a “Bravo!” as we perform our encore of Britten’s Aria Italiano.

After the concert, Thorben (our Chief Exec.) arranges for us to celebrate in style at a little-known but quirky bar. Having driven tentatively down a number of back streets it is clear that even the local taxi driver has no idea where he is heading and regrettably our knowledge of Chinese is not sufficient to assist him with directions. Even an award-winning performance of charades gesticulating in all directions does little to help. We finally stumble on “The Bed” bar and are hastily ushered to a corner downstairs where soft cushions are strewn on cosy benches and muslin drapes cascade above. A rambunctious evening is enjoyed by all and as a resplendent Shisha pipe takes centre stage on the table nearby, in true Eastern spirit we are seduced by its intoxicating aroma.

A fitting end to conclude a memorable day.

Day 8
The day of our final concert dawns and today we are bound for Kaohsiung in the south of Taiwan.

We are taking the train and after yet another sumptuous breakfast (anything from chicken feet to croissants), Jenny instructs us to meet at the bottom of the bridge stairs that cross a horrendously busy road. Normally this would be fine, but the prospect of hauling heavy suitcases laden with gifts purchased over the last week, is rather daunting. Sensing our heavy hearts,  a couple of the wonderful hotel staff immediately leap into action slinging several suitcases across their backs and with gazelle-like grace, nimbly ascend the stairs with consummate ease. It is hard to imagine this level of customer service at home! Thank you so much Palais de Chine staff.

We have the unusual luxury of travelling business class and our level of excitement is clearly visible. This is a train second to none where one seat can house several Buddhas and rotate 360 degrees. It is not difficult to imagine the amusement this creates and we are soon spinning to our hearts’ content, much to the bewilderment of regular passengers. The fun over, we all recline in splendour and soon the sound of heavy snoring envelops the carriage.

The hotel in Kaohsiung is yet again extraordinary and its contemporary architecture next to the old Taiwan is startling.

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A quick freshen up and then to our final concert. One of the luxuries of performing the same pieces on tour is being able to try out different musical ideas. There is an element of spontaneity in light of this, and being the last concert and knowing Jon’s love of the unexpected, we are aware of having to be mentally on our toes. A loud musical passage suddenly becomes very quiet in the Handel Concerto Grosso and although momentarily surprised, we are thoroughly practiced in reacting to such an event and rejoice in something new.

And so we bid farewell to China and Taiwan. Thank you to everyone who has supported and cheered us. It has, once again, been epic.

Scottish Ensemble Far East 2013 Tour

SE first violin Tristan Gurney begins our Far East 2013 blog as he gets into the swing of Chinese life… 

Day 1
So, merely three and a half weeks after our USA tour we find ourselves back at Glasgow airport, checking in for a tour to the Far East. All starts smoothly, nearly everyone arriving at the airport on time (…mentioning no names…) and after a quick transfer to Heathrow we set off on the grueling 10-hour flight to Beijing, cue Gin and Tonics (thanks BA). We are greeted by hot sultry conditions and a smog so thick that it looks like it’s about the pour with rain. Balls of dust float like dandelion seeds in the breeze. And thank goodness for the breeze, as, by the time we reach our hotel, the air begins to clear. Horribly jet lagged, we retreat to our rooms for a couple of hours before embarking on a Beijing adventure. A calming and cleansing visit to the spectacular Summer Palace affords us fresher air and great views of the hills and the city. A few beers and street food dumplings later and we are well into the swing of Chinese life.

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Day 2
One of the challenges of touring is managing that subtle balance between jet lag, sight- seeing and energy saving so as to be in optimum form for the evening concert. People adopt differing strategies today, some opting for the peace and quiet of their rooms, others venturing to the local ‘Hutong’ (old town areas) opposite the hotel, sipping coconut milk with straws from coconuts and slurping on noodles. The rest embark on a military-like sortie to the Silk Market in search of tailored suits and counterfeit handbags. A few mulberry imitations and no fewer than three sets of tailored concert tails later, that group return, and we all crowd onto the bus to the Beijing Concert Hall. We’ve seen plenty of concert halls in the last few months and they don’t come much more spectacular than Beijing.

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Competing with the extraordinary Walt Disney Hall in LA in style and statement, and with any concert hall I’ve ever visited in scale, and a fine acoustic to match, this was a privilege and a pleasure to perform in. If only they’d thought of slopes, but Thorben flexes his muscles and all is well!

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The concert goes well and Alison plays beautifully. The large Beijing audience appears a curious mixture of satisfied and subdued, clapping at length, but conservatively.

In this city, there is an unnerving sense of control and order that you can’t help feeling is being imposed on everyone there. At the hall, stewards beam lasers at people daring to illegally film the concert until they put their phones back in their bags.

We’re all ravenous after the concert and go to a great Peking Duck restaurant and indulge in a range of tasty Chinese cuisine including succulent duck with pancakes, pork and aubergine hot pot and the slightly less familiar ‘squirrel fish’. It’s the small details that often leave the greatest impressions and here, the small bathroom sink in the middle of the restaurant, the distinctly grimy outdoor loo and the authentic assembling of a duck pancake (dip your duck in the plum sauce and smear sparingly onto the pancake, don’t ladle on with a spoon!!) will last long in the memory.

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Day 3
A treat on any tour is a day with no travel, and with another Beijing appearance scheduled in the afternoon at the museum, we have time on our side. Some of the group sign up for a 3-hour cycle ride around Beijing, exploring the many Hutongs and back streets. The brochure promises everything from ‘secret passage ways in the Forbidden City’, to being ‘dazzled by the contrast between the old Chinese neighborhoods and the 19th century embassies from around the world’, to ‘kids playing with a slit in their pants’…they see all of that, and more…Image

It’s a great pleasure to play at the museum, made all the more satisfying with the knowledge that most of the audience will have never heard anything like it before. Their faces tell us the same, but we’re pretty sure they enjoy it and almost all of them are taking pictures!

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With the concert over by 4:30, the Ensemble bargain hunters are out again in force, this time at the more chaotic Pearl Market. With renewed steel and better bartering skills, purchases of hand bags, pearls, phone handsets, shirts, tea sets ensue. A mixture of night time entertainment is found all over the city, including the vibrant, lantern lit ‘Ghost Road’ …

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Naomi is celebrating her birthday, enjoys a nice meal with others at the characterful Hutong and then the tranquility of the hotel, who provide her with an enormous surprise birthday cake…that she promises to share around…where did that go Naomi?!!

Day 4

Time to leave Beijing. It’s been good fun but we are happy to move onto the more vibrant Shanghai. That feint feeling of oppressiveness becomes suffocating after a few days, as does the smog. Shanghai is spectacular. It is a city where East meets West, where sleek modern stands alongside old colonial splendor. The hotel is lovely, so we all take advantage of this and the afternoon is a rather docile and sleepy affair. At 7 we all reconvene in the lobby and head to ‘the Bund’ for Shanghai dumplings and cocktails. We land firmly on our feet at ‘Bar Rouge’ and sip decedent cocktails and take in the impressive views of the ‘Pedong’.

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Apparently, dancing on the tables significantly enhances the view….

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Unsurprisingly, the next morning drifts by with the curtains drawn and before we know it, we’re on the bus to the concert hall. It’s an old hall, full of character and a perfect size and acoustic for the ensemble so we enjoy the rehearsal, squeeze in a few more dumplings and then do the concert.

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It is swelteringly hot, but the audience here is livelier than Beijing and the atmosphere is great. Tan Wei delights with another serene account of ‘Crouching Tiger’ and everyone is happy…three encores happy in fact! A relaxed cocktail in the refined and peaceful French Concession district rounds off our Shanghai experience nicely and it’s off to Taiwan in the morning.

US Tour: 11 dates crossing 7 states

SE principal viola, Catherine Marwood, ends the US tour blog from our final destination, Ann Arbour, and looks back to concerts in Urbana-Champaign and Chicago. 

Day 15

Today we leave the lovely warmth of the south and head north to Urbana-Champaign Illinois. Texan hats and boots made their appearance in the rehearsal yesterday and on the bus this morning. We’ll be setting new style trends in Sauchiehall Street…

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We arrive into Chicago after a long descent through thick clouds and emerge to a 20 degree drop in temperature. The bus is quiet on the 2.5 hour journey to the hotel due to some enthusiastic sampling of the Texan night life after the concert. There were rumours of a 4.30am return but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Life returns to the group with a good meal and Team Girls hit the bowling alley. Much fun had by all.

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Day 16

The day dawned wet with intermittent thunder, constant rain and the general consensus that a quiet morning in was required. There were distant sounds of practise from hotel rooms and I heard rumours of a gruelling session in the gym led by our fitness guru James but I have to confess I only took part in the former. Alison had not been so lucky with her travel the previous day. Chicago airport was closed after we arrived due to more storms and, as she was behind us, she was diverted to Dallas and the Milwaukee where she ended up without the case and various bits of plumbing that make up the natural trumpet featured in the programme for tonight. Order was restored by the time of the rehearsal and we all enjoyed our experience of playing in the huge but resonant hall at the University of Illinois in Urbana. A generous champagne reception followed and I spoke to two gentlemen who professed to playing the trumpet. Naturally they were glowing in their praise of Alison and also of the concert in general.

Day 17

Breakfast and a bagel and all on the coach ready for a Chicago experience before the rehearsal. Unfortunately Chicago has been hit by storms and there is severe flooding causing road closures and chaos. We sit in a stationary traffic jam for ages and a 3 hour journey turns into a 6 hour one. The only excitement is a visit to McDonald’s and an overdose of salt and fat. We are all expert at sleeping whilst travelling now but few achieve it with such grace as Cheryl.

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Plenty of time on the journey to contemplate American culture, the incredible diversity and vastness of the country and the oddities of the common language that divides us (as someone once said). Passed a poster on the motorway inviting me to visit gunssavelives.com and there are lots of signs prohibiting weapons in bars. Strange to our eyes. We have met many lovely people and there is a warmth and openness that is very endearing. The audiences have been generous and enthusiastic giving us standing ovations at all the concerts and we will take many happy memories with us. Whale watching, a visit to NASA, and roof top cocktails in NYC rate highly for me.

We finally make it to the hotel at 3.30pm in time to check in and extricate concert clothes. Then it’s on to the hall for another well attended concert. We’re all feeling pretty weary by now but a big effort is made and it all goes well. We then take the lift upstairs for a ceilidh led by Alistair and some members of the group abandon their instruments and encourage the more reluctant guests to dance. There is a lot of whooping and many smiling faces when we leave. Some folk visit a spectacular bar on the 96th floor of a skyscraper. ‘ Wetherspoon in the skies’ as Thorben puts it but I made straight for the 12th floor and bed.

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Day 18

Breakfast in Chicago was marked by a certain amount of dissatisfaction with slow service but more especially with the tea. The concept of tea bag + boiling water = tea is not always evident in this country and we were all tired of barely lukewarm coloured liquid. ‘It’s the American way’ our waiter assures us. We leave Chicago for another long coach journey and we arrived in Ann Arbour for a quick sound check in the beautiful hall …

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We had a fantastic audience of 2500! It seemed to me to be the best concert of the tour and I’ll remember it for a long time. The acoustic was beautiful and everything seemed to flow with ease. Alison played wonderfully well. The colours she is able to get out of the trumpet and her control and sensitivity are quite breathtaking. The audience stood and cheered with great enthusiasm. We all felt quite emotional and there were a few tears backstage.

It has been a really momentous experience and I don’t think you could find a better group of people to spend 3 weeks with. There has been much laughter, great concerts, moments of difficulty of course but those always serve to bind people together and strengthen ties and I’m sure we will always look back with great affection and the knowledge that the Ensemble will grow and develop further from here. I have been proud to have been part of it all and there is real sadness that it coming to an end although it is rather wonderful that we meet again in Glasgow in a few days time. The management on the tour have been absolutely fantastic and I can only imagine all the hours and hours of time that have gone into making it happen. We owe them a huge thank you and also to all our supporters, funders and sponsors who have generously given to the cause. I think we did you proud.

The evening ended with a much deserved group celebration and an appreciation of what each member had added to the tour led by the comedy double act of Tristan and Andy. There was a lot of laughter and some tears and I imagine it will be a quiet bus as we leave for Chicago airport and the long journey home. See you in Glasgow on Wednesday.

US Tour: 11 dates crossing 7 states

SE principal cello, Alison Lawrance, on the third leg of the Scottish Ensemble US tour writes about Florida, New York, and Texas.  

Day 12

8.30am: we’re leaving the hotel for the departure gates of Orlando airport and after a late return in the early hours of the morning from Gainesville, everyone’s looking very sleepy. We’ve had many problems flying with our cellos on this tour and I’m sure today’s not going to be any different. It didn’t start well on day 1 when the check-in desk couldn’t find my cello reservation, saying that American Airlines only take one cello per flight, and that was my desk partner Naomi’s! He finally realised his error after chatting to various colleagues.

Today, I had altercations with 3 ground stewards wanting to tag my cello case and put it in the hold. Every time I’ve boarded a plane a stewardess greets me with ‘Have you purchased a seat for that ma’am?’ to which I would like to reply ‘ No, I’m just trying to smuggle it on board and hope you won’t notice’ but instead I smile sweetly and brandish my cello’s boarding card.

Today is a 5pm concert at New York’s Town Hall…

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We’re very excited to be playing in such a famous venue which many musicians believe has an even better acoustic than the Carnegie Hall. It holds an audience of 1,500 and it’s sold out – it’s a wonderful feeling to walk out on stage to a packed house. We have a mad dash from JFK airport into the city, and only time for a short rehearsal so we work on a few musical ideas. We’re all struggling with tired limbs from playing our socks off last night but hope once the adrenalin kicks in we’ll be fine.

We’ve been hiring a double bass in each city to avoid the problems of flying with a bass and unfortunately the quality has generally not been good. Graham, our bass player for this tour, explained to me that they’ve been set up for playing jazz with strings very close to the fingerboard, good for pizzicato but not for bowing loudly….it just makes a rasping noise which I confess has made Naomi and me laugh. Thankfully today’s is a proper professional bass, set up for classical playing, so Graham’s a happy bunny.

We start the concert and realise the acoustic has changed with a full audience making the sound more harsh under the ear so we work hard to counteract it. It’s what I call a lonely acoustic when you can hear yourself very clearly but not the other players (thankfully we chat to some of the audience afterwards and find out that the sound is amazingly detailed but warm). We’re delighted the concert went well and the audience seemed to love it…. they were already on their feet and clapping before we’d finished the final bars. Alison played beautifully as usual and Jon’s Mendelssohn concerto sounded fantastic….I was very proud of him. We’re all on a high after this performance so we quickly check into our hotel and then pile into taxis to take us to an open air rooftop cocktail bar overlooking the Empire State Building.

The views are ‘totally awesome’ as they say over here!

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The down side is that it’s rather chilly but all of us are handed hooded red dressing gowns. I can’t decide if we all look like Santa Claus or we’ve joined a commune of Tibetan Monks.

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Later some of the group move on to a blues bar (which I thought I was going to) and others on to a club for some dancing (which is where I ended up).

Day 13

Awoke at 8.30 still fully dressed and all the lights on in my room….. I must have been tired! A free morning in New York before a 4 hour flight to Austin Texas. I’m being a geek and head off for a violin shop to buy some strings. They used to be much cheaper in America than the UK but I’m shocked to find out that’s not the case any more…$299 for a set! Have a stroll through a bit of Central Park. It’s about 15c with clear blue skies, a pleasant change from the searing heat of Florida…

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Arrive in Austin about 9pm and many of the group head off for a protein overdose at a steak house. Early night for me…my feet and ankles are so swollen from all the flying and salt in the food that I fear I’m turning into an elephant…I even dream of being squashed by one.

Day 14

Everyone at breakfast is comparing notes on their preferred bed firmness. In this hotel we can remotely control the mattress firmness from 0 (way too soft) to 100 (rock solid). We decide we like it around the 50 mark. Have a walk around the city. It’s much more urban cool than I’d imagined: a real mixture of old and new. The State Capitol building is the largest one in the US and very impressive with its pink granite glistening in the 30 degree sun.

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Today’s concert is at Austin University, one of the best and wealthiest in the US, and home to the Texas Longhorns. Passing the huge stadium we see a real live longhorn cow with 7ft horns doing a photo- shoot outside. The Bass Concert Hall is vast and they have amplified the harpsichord a little to help the sound carry. This is our last performance of program 2 of the tour and we experiment with different tempi in the concert to keep it exciting. The audience seem to thoroughly enjoy it and we get another standing ovation.

US Tour: 11 dates crossing 7 states

SE viola player, Andrew Berridge, on the second leg of the Scottish Ensemble US tour writes about LA, Manhattan (Kansas), and Florida.

This is my first proper tour as a member of the group and the build-up to leaving was a strange mix of excitement and trepidation – how does one pack for such a long stretch and for a 30 degree temperature range? While we’re now fully in the swing of things and relaxed into ‘tour mode’, the excitement at where we are hasn’t subsided, and the LA concert was an early highlight. A beautiful and superbly appointed concert hall, it still felt intimate and special on stage, despite the daunting size and the feel that we were on somewhat hallowed turf. Alison was superb and the group really responded to the energy of the place, and the standing ovation(s) were met with huge smiles all round.

Day 6

At this point, the group split into two – most headed off to Manhattan (another day of gruelling, and delayed, travel) whilst five of us departed in a different direction. Two members of the group (Tristan and Xander) are getting married shortly after we return home, and this seemed the ideal opportunity for Jon, Thorben and me to take them on a short seminar course to prepare them for married life. After long hours of internet searching, the others had found a travel window which enabled us to attend a series of meetings in a small town out in the desert, called Las Vegas. After procuring suitable transport in the form of two convertible Mustangs, we did our best to stifle our grins and headed into the unknown…

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For reasons of continued employment it would be unwise to divulge all of the details of our trip, but suffice to say we attended some interesting and thought-provoking vocational short courses on topics as varied as fund management and fiscal responsibility, safe disposal of potentially toxic liquids, appreciation of traditional American fine dining, and complex interactions with a rather persuasive gentleman called Gabriel (‘Angel’ to his friends, apparently). For some of us the intensity of the experience proved exhausting and they retired early while a couple of us eschewed our beds (in the bizarrely pyramid-shaped hotel) to continue our education into the night, only to be disturbed by an alarm reminding us that our cab to the airport was to depart in 30 minutes. Despite the arduous nature of the experience, we all had aching faces from the sheer joy of learning, and it was certainly 24 hours that I won’t forget in a hurry. With apologies to the rest of the group, it was bloody brilliant.

Day 7

After another rather tiring journey we arrive in Manhattan, Kansas. It’s a small university town and the hotel is almost on the campus. Several of us recharge in our rooms before a mercifully short sound check, and then the concert at the McCain Auditorium…

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When repeating programmes like this, any small change is seized upon. Tonight is Alison’s first outfit change and she arrives in a stunning white dress, and plays like a dream. Special mention must go to Jon, though. Heroic comes nowhere near to describing his performance of the Mendelssohn. We sample some of the local brews and retire, exhausted.

Day 8

The night has been filled with thunderstorms as a cold front moves in. The temperature has dropped from mid-20’s to almost freezing, and it’s distinctly unpleasant. Manhattan feels distinctly Scottish in the rain. I wander out in search of anything and am struck by how difficult it is to actually walk anywhere in American cities. While the road is fairly pristine and full of enormous cars that dwarf anything back home, the pavement is full of potholes and puddles up to a foot deep. After persevering for half an hour I give up and return, cold and disappointed. On the way back I pass block after block of stereotypical houses with large porches and swing seats, one of which has a camper van sprayed camouflage green. It has a bumper sticker which reads “I’ll keep my freedom and my guns and you can keep ‘the change'”. We depart for the airport later that afternoon; the flight is delayed as the weather is still causing issues. When we eventfully fly, we are treated to a visual spectacular as we first skirt the storm, and then fly over it.

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We eventually arrive in Melbourne, Florida in the wee small hours.

Day 9

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A chance to rest with a day off. Some head out for Kennedy Space Centre while the rest of us hit the beach. It is blissfully hot, and several of us renew our Santa Barbara sunburns. In the evening we head out for a group meal, taken by some of the local taxis. The drivers impress with their southern drawl and tales of joggers being taken by ‘gators (“all they found was her right arm”). We revise several of our lessons from the desert, play pool, and head back feeling rested. I can’t sleep so go for a walk on the beach. I go much further than intended, enjoying the warm air, starlight and crashing surf. All in all, a good day.

Day 10

It is HOT and lethargy is rife. Today’s concert is in St Mark’s, a local church up the road. The air is stifling and none of us really feel like playing in that environment, but the people running the place are lovely and we are very well taken care of. Happy memories of cream puffs, vast platters of fruit and cookies, and welcome air con in the dressing room. The venue is pretty well sold-out which gives us enough adrenaline to get through, but it feels like a very long night. After the concert we are ushered on to the coach and set off through the heat for Orlando.

Day 11

The heat and locality prevent much happening; I stay in the protection of the air con and iron the shirts I’d washed in the previous hotel. Domestic bliss. Almost. Some of the others find the pool until we leave for the University of Gainesville, Florida. It’s a couple of hours away along endless motorways, and the tedium is only broken when we see our first ‘gator by the side of the road. It seems remarkable that we’re actually on campus at this point, and start wondering if they ever go walkabout?! Tonight we play the longer of our two programmes, and it is, again, difficult in the heat. Alison and Jon keep us all going with their inspirational performances, and the Tchaikovsky serenade gains extra life. Alastair Savage’s stirring rendition of ‘Herr Roloff’s Farewell’ makes us all feel transported back to a more familiar place, and it’s a very emotional end to the concert. We come away feeling like we’ve run a marathon, so the thoughtful provision of ice cold refreshments by both Alison and the promoters is most welcome on the coach back. It’s an early start in the morning, and most of us just head for our rooms and collapse. After all, we’re off to New York in the morning, and this one is going to be fantastic.