A short interview with David Matthews

Having just been premiered on our festive Night & Day concerts, acclaimed British composer David Matthews’ brand new arrangement of two Chopin nocturnes for string orchestra has without a doubt been one of the highlights of the tour – both for us and our audience, it would seem. Whilst Bachtrack described Two Nocturnes as being “meltingly beautiful”, The Scotman’s David Kettle said: “supple and gently flowing, they found new perspectives on the piano originals”.

David Matthews

We caught up with Matthews to share some thoughts on the challenges and joys of arranging some of the most innately pianistic pieces ever written for string orchestra.

Could you tell us how the commission came about?

It was the Scottish Ensemble’s idea, because of the concerts which are concerned with night. I don’t think I’d have thought of trying to arrange the nocturnes as they’re not obviously suitable for strings.

You settled on Op.37 No.2 and Op.55 No.1. Why these two nocturnes? 

I initially found it hard to choose suitable pieces – they are so pianistic, and most of them are conceived as a melodic line with accompaniment. Op.37 No.2, however, stood out with its opening in parallel thirds and sixths, which would transfer well to two solo violins, and its richly harmonic middle section. Op.55 No.1, with its strikingly operatic opening melody, is dedicated to Chopin’s Scottish pupil Jane Stirling, so that became an irresistible choice.

What are the challenges that come with arranging a piano piece for a different instrument, and do you enjoy the process?

I always enjoy arranging, and have now done a great deal of it. I start by getting to know the piece thoroughly in its original state (in fact I knew these two nocturnes well already) and then trying to hear them in the new medium – in this case, strings. The two big challenges with piano music are first that piano figuration isn’t always ideal for strings and, second, that of course the notes don’t sustain in the same way, and you have to translate the use of the pedal in piano music to the string section in a way that sounds right – not always easy to do.

Is there another piano piece that you would love to arrange for strings, or string orchestra?

For some time I’ve thought of making an arrangement of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, initially for chamber orchestra, but I think they could work well just for strings.

Which of the projects you’ve been working on this year has excited you the most, and what’s planned for 2015?

I’ve spent more or less the whole year writing my Eighth Symphony for the BBC Philharmonic, which will be premiered at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester in April [2015]. In 2015 I have to first compose a short orchestral piece for the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, then a fairly substantial piece for piano duet, then a Thirteenth String Quartet which will be in memory of my dear friend the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, who died this year.

Finally, we are delighted that you will be attending the concert in Glasgow. Is this the first time you’ve seen Scottish Ensemble play?

I’ve heard then several times in London, but this will be the first time in Scotland. I think my favourite memory is of the concert in February this year at the Wigmore Hall where the soprano Sophie Harmsen gave electrifying performances of Handel arias followed by my arrangement of the Dvořák Love Songs, which she sang from memory. It was a wonderful performance, and the string playing was quite stunning.

David Matthews
1st December 2014


20th-Century Perspectives: City Spaces & Strings

In his third blog post, photographer Tommy Ga-Ken Wan talks about the venue for 20th-Century Perspectives and explores the connections between music, architecture and visual art. 

Look up. That’s the first piece of advice I give to friends or colleagues who are visiting Glasgow for the first time, having learned from experience how easy it is to moil through our city’s streets, between the architectural layers, without ever seeing them. It’s advice I try to take on my own trajectories through urban space and, more often than not, I’m wearing a pair of headphones when I do. To look, listen and think at the same time requires an effort of will but, when made at the right moment, I’ve been struck by how what I can see and what I can hear have, in some ineffable way, worked together to enhance the experience of each.


The view looking northward from inside the Anderston Centre 

Such is my own personal empathy with one of the aims of Scottish Ensemble’s event ’20th Century Perspectives: City Spaces and Strings’, which will see a programme of music performed in a disused Modernist landmark in Glasgow city centre – whose interiors have been designed by the visual artist Toby Paterson. With music curated by SE’s Artistic Director Jonathan Morton, the emphasis is on the many narratives and styles in 20th-century music, a departure from programmes that are linked through nationalities and styles.

This idea of many narratives is reflected in the choice of venue: The Anderston Centre: intended to be constructed as a megastructure, a city within a city, its concept was never fully realised and, in the less than fifty years since its construction, it has declined and been partially regenerated. This rich history is part of what attracted Toby Paterson to it as a venue for the event: “It’s a place that in my head is a touchstone when thinking about Glasgow. I’m fascinated by it as an example of what happened in Glasgow after World War Two, the old joke being that the Luftwaffe didn’t bomb Glasgow: Glasgow bombed Glasgow.”

DSC_9824The Anderson complex

The Anderson Centre, not just in its history but in the attitudes that people had and have to it, is a symbol of something bigger, something that has largely been lost in contemporary architecture. Paterson explains:

“It’s a built example of an *idea*, an attempt to wrestle with difficult questions – how do we build a place to live and to work in? – and while it may have been unsuccessful, it’s a tangible residue of a kind of idealism, of a failure to learn lessons, of mistakes repeated, ambitions defeated. However, in its forcefulness there are elements of the traditional sublime to be found.”

There’s a relationship here to the music that Jonathan has programmed to pull these threads together: Xenakis, whose experimental Analogique A+B features in the programme, is also known as an architect for the work he did under Le Corbusier. Paterson and Morton suggest that the architecture, like the music – shot through with big ideas that these days can intimidate us – may be difficult, but is worth taking a new perspective on:

“I’ll introduce you to a building, and Jonathan will introduce you to a piece of music. If you go away thinking that the building is still an ugly disgrace, and that this music still sounds like a squeaky gate, then that’s alright, but there’s been an engagement and I think that’s what’s important.”

DSC_9788A view from inside the south facing section of the Anderston complex

“It’s the old artist’s cop out, isn’t it,” says Toby, “to say it asks more questions than it answers. Maybe when I’m eighty I’ll have some answers!” A cop out it may be, but I prefer to see the opportunity and the challenge in that: here is a concert – an event – which in its ambition and innovation might easily profess or proselytise, but instead invites us to explore and experience; which does not say “Here’s what we think” or “Here’s what we think you should think” but rather says “Hey: discover this.”

Book for 20th-Century Perspectives on Friday 12 September here
Book for 20th-Century Perspectives Saturday 13 September here




20th-Century Perspectives: City Spaces & Strings

In his second blog post, photographer Tommy Ga-Ken Wan spoke to SE’s collaborator for 20th-Century Perspectives, artist Toby Paterson. Tommy also shares some more pictures of the secret Glasgow venue.

If asked to describe the space where the Scottish Ensemble will stage their site-specific concert next month, I’d be inclined to say “empty”: walls, windows, floors and ceilings. Concrete and glass with nothing but me between them; empty of sound but for the hum of distant traffic outside and below. And yet, like many empty spaces, it stirs the imagination: there is a palpable sense of its history, of what once was here and – as I move through the sunlit motes of floating dust and listen to my echoing footsteps – a sense of expectation and of what is to come.

DSC_9738Inside the performance space

If that seems overly cerebral or contemplative, then my conversation with the visual artist Toby Paterson, about his interest in architecture and how he came to choose this venue for the concert, expands its scope to the big ideas, the ways in which music and architecture touch our lives.

“Jonathan [Morton, Scottish Ensemble’s artistic director] and I wanted to do something experimental in an unconventional venue, something more challenging than the binary experience of a traditional concert format. I wanted to find somewhere that would be suitable for having a promenade element, and which from an architectural point of view would be impressive and imposing, but also interesting internally and with views to the outside.”

Paterson goes on to explain the rich potential of Glasgow for venues which fit this bill, a potential restricted by some of the practical implications:

“There is a lot of empty space in Glasgow, and you would think that commercial property managers would be keen to use it, to engage with the amazing cultural activity in the city, but many have a very narrow view. In the case of this venue, however, they were very open to our suggestions and – even if they thought we were a bit insane – to helping us make it work.”

DSC_9819A reflection of the building’s exterior

Toby will also design the interiors of the space for the concert, constructing a bar, seating and lighting the space.

“You’ll move up through this amazing staircase into what will be the bar area. I’m working on a series of sculptural objects and perspex screens that will echo elements of form and colour that are already there. In a way, I’m working to activate the space, but the space itself will do most of the work.”

PoisedToby’s ‘Poised Array’ outside BBC Scotland’s Headquarters (2007)

Standing in the main performance space, where the exposed concrete of the building’s brutalist exterior has continued through to the interior walls and ceiling, massive windows afford a panoramic view of Glasgow’s skyline: a jumble of architectural styles which Paterson describes as being “like a palimpsest on which you can read a secret history of the city, even among the mistakes and missteps.” As a photographer my primary subject is people. I look mostly for the moment when light and colour illuminate a facial expression to give some insight into a life and an inner world. And so to be asked to photograph the shapes, forms and abstract details of a building – to see them and to feel them in a new way – was challenging but rewarding, a phrase which might easily be applied to Toby Paterson’s vision for the concert:

“I wanted to find an intriguing space that an audience wouldn’t have experienced before, to encourage a metaphorical as well as a literal view of the city. I first came into direct contact with buildings like this through skateboarding, and so for me there was an element of teenage transgression. There’s an amazing tension, and so much of this music and architecture is worth taking a new perspective on. I hope that it might bring in a new audience from fields like art, architecture and even skateboarding.”

DSC_9715 A view on to the Glasgow skyline

20th-Century Perspectives: City Spaces & Strings – Friday 12 & Saturday 13 September, 6.30pm, in a secret Glasgow city centre location. More information at scottishensemble.co.uk.

Book for Friday 12 September here
Book for Saturday 13 September here


20th-Century Perspectives: City Spaces & Strings

Tommy Ga-Ken Wan, a Glasgow-based photographer with an international reputation spoke to SE Artistic Director Jonathan Morton about the upcoming event 20th-Century Perspectives: City Spaces & Strings. He also took some beautiful, striking images of the event’s secret location.

Outside the performance space
Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The Provencal-Rosé paradox is the name scientists give to the phenomenon that rosé wine tastes better when imbibed in the sun; that whisky tastes better by the firelight of oak-panelled rooms. How, then, might our perceptions of a piece of music be affected by the space in which we listen to it? How might that space come alive to us because of the music that shakes its air? Scottish Ensemble’s ambitious new project – not just a concert, but an immersive experience – may offer some insights.

“20th-Century Perspectives: City Spaces & Strings”, a collaboration between Scottish Ensemble and artist Toby Paterson, will take place in a secret location and will bring together music, architecture and visual art. “There is an overlap between the perception of the music and the architecture,” explains the Scottish Ensemble’s Artistic Director Jonathan Morton. “Toby and I are both passionate about buildings and music that are often perceived as difficult or challenging. We are very excited about the new perspective that one art form might throw onto another.”

Precinct (Bull Yard)
Toby Paterson Precinct (Bull Yard) 2005
Acrylic on Paper // Photo: Andy Keate
Courtesy the artist // The Modern Institute

A detail from inside the performance location
Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

In curating the pieces for 20th-Century Perspectives, Jonathan Morton wanted to reflect the multitude that music became in this time of artistic revolution, from the propulsive, minimalist-rooted music of John Adams to the folk-inspired, idiosyncratic string pieces of Stravinsky: “I really wanted to get away from traditional programming, where pieces and composers are linked through themes, nationality or styles. I let my musical imagination guide how the different works would succeed each other, creating an interesting and varied journey through this rich seam of music.”

Morton’s language as he explains this to me also hints at the frisson of these different themes and styles, a postmodern fusion that is reflected in the history, construction, decline and regeneration of the space where Morton and Paterson have chosen to stage this event. “Thinking about directing the energy towards certain points, building tension and release… I did at times feel like a bit of a DJ.” This comparison with the nightclub performance DJ – the most modern breed of musical superstars – seems apt. How should the music be selected? How should the signal be separated from the noise? How should it be presented so that better-known composers merge seamlessly with lesser-known names?

Find out on Friday 12 & Saturday 13 September, 6.30pm, in a secret Glasgow city centre location. More information at scottishensemble.co.uk

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.

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’!

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.

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!

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.

A beautiful morning on Nairn beach 

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.



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?


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!!

Photo 19

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!


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.


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!)


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.



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).



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!


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.


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.


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!


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.



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.


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.


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.


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!




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!



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.



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.