A couple of weeks ago, on short notice – and if my decision to go to the concert was not quite spur of the moment then the day off that facilitated it certainly was – I discovered that the Scottish Ensemble were playing in Inverness and decided to go. Held on the actual stage of Eden Court’s Empire Theatre – with the safety curtain firmly down, the ensemble gathered at the front of the stage while the audience sat further back in the depths of the stage, on the kind of staging that you might normally expect a choir or orchestra to use, in a strange almost reversal of roles. The show is a collaboration with Radio 6Music’s Nemone Metaxas, and used both music and compelling spoken mediations on psychotherapy, music theory and the lived experiences of both audience members and musicians to explore what live performance in front of an audience means to both the performers and the audience.
It was a particularly intimate experience as a concert. There can’t have been more than sixty people in the audience with the ensemble barely further than social distancing rules require away from the front row. I wasn’t in the front row – and I think that I agree with the usher who suggested that it might be a little overwhelming to sit there – but even from a couple of rows back I could see clearly the expressions on the players faces, concentration and intensity certainly, but also the changing emotions provoked by the ideas and responses shared by Nemone between performances. (The heady mix of pride, embarrassment and delight flickering across a young violinist’s face sticks with me in particular.) I was both surprised by the location and also unsurprised, knowing their penchant for playing concerts in less usual venues – the first time I saw them perform it was a free concert in Leakey’s Bookshop with the players scattered around the shop’s balcony.
The last time I saw the Scottish Ensemble live, they were doing a programme of Baroque music, which at the time I’d just rekindled my interest in – always having been fond of it as a hold over from it being my favourite style to work in when we had to do composition exercises in Standard Grade music at school – thanks to The Early Music Show. It seemed fitting then to find – amid a programme of largely modern classical music – to find a piece by François Couperin nestled in amongst them, a composer whose work I only recognise from being a regular listener to that radio show.
A particular pleasure for me was hearing them play Caroline Shaw’s Plan and Elevation, even if I did spend most of the duration of the performance trying to place what that wonderful piece that they were doing such a lovely version of was exactly. (I know this piece, I love this piece, what on earth is it?) In my defence I’d only ever heard it played by a string quartet – the Attacca Quartet, who commissioned it, if I remember correctly – and it’s a very different experience performed by a full string ensemble, it’s a very powerful piece in it’s original form, but in this variation it was almost overwhelming in a good way. It was definitely something special to see that piece performed live to be able to see the skill involved in rendering that music in reality. Even the pieces that weren’t quite my thing, were a fascinating watch, precisely because you could see close up, the effort and innovation required to make those pieces work for strings.
It feels remiss of me not to note, that for readers who would still be uncomfortable attending indoor concerts – even small ones such as this – or who live too far from an urban centre to be able to go and see them in person, the Scottish Ensemble do still have some online performances available on their website. In particular I’d recommend their collaboration with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, of Philip Glass’ Symphony No.3: Travelling Dreams. A really lovely virtual train journey through a fantasy landscape, it’s only sixteen minutes long – comprising in truth just the third and fourth movements of the symphony – but well worth digging out the good headphones to get all those lovely nuances and richness of sound that both they and Glass do so well.