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Reviews / A unique introduction to classical music

SCO's Big Ears, Little Ears concert: 'a unique, interesting and genuinely important experience, for the parents and kids alike'. Photo: Alex Garrick-Wright

THE Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s series of concerts in Shetland has been a little different than usual – two shows in local halls (Aith and Burravoe), a concert aimed at young children and parents, and one ‘traditional’ concert in Mareel.


Alex Garrick-Wright spoke to the SCO’s chief executive Gavin Reid, violist Felix Tanner and manager Louisa Stanway about the orchestra’s programme.

“The Scottish Chamber Orchestra is one of Scotland’s five national companies,” Gavin said, “and as such, we’re to visit as many parts of Scotland as often as we possibly can.

“So, as well as our regular venues in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth and others, every year, in the summer, we spend five weeks touring around other venues in the highlands and the borders of Scotland.

“It’s important to us that we not only play the great concert halls… but also smaller community venues and take our music to everybody and be as accessible as we possibly can.”

“From a player’s perspective,” Felix added, “it’s often the best place to play, because you feel a different warmth from the audience.

“The reason for the SCO’s visit to Shetland this summer, Felix said, was down to Louisa.

“I visited a couple of years ago with a friend,” she responded. “I was very excited to visit the island and I thought ‘Gosh, we’ve got to bring the SCO, got to come back.’ So, here we are!

“Shetland Arts have been completely amazing, we phoned them up to see if they would be interested in us coming up and got a very, very enthusiastic response.

“There are players with us,” Gavin added, “who were talking last night about their first time here in the 80s, so we have quite a history of coming to Shetland.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the visit was the Big Ears, Little Ears concert, aimed at parents and small children.

“[The music] is chosen by the group themselves,” Louisa explained. “They pick arrangements of well known music – on this occasion, it’s a string quartet.”

“It’s very much designed as an engaging introduction to music,” Gavin said. “These are for very young children, so we have toddlers wandering around. It’ll be lively, engaging, interactive…”

“Noisy,” Felix interjected, with a laugh.

On Saturday morning Mareel’s lobby was seething with a crowd of chatting parents and excited children, who seemed to range from barely-newborns up to four years old.

Walking into the auditorium, it was obviously not a regular concert. Instead of on the stage, the musicians’ seats were on the floor, just a few feet from the large throw cushions that scattered across the ground for the little ones to sit on. Behind this were rows of chairs for the parents, and at the very back of the hall, an impressive collection of push-chairs and prams had amassed.

One solitary musician came out, introducing himself to the eager children who crowded the floor, and wondering aloud where the other players were, in a very pantomimey fashion. Seemingly alone, he struck up Pachelbel’s Canon, soon to be joined by his other three colleagues, who wandered in playing along, taking their seats without missing a note.

Although it could easily have been chaotic, the SCO clearly knew how to hold the kids’ attention. Most of them were rapt with attention, soaking up the perfectly-played tunes in awed silence; others danced happily through Bach’s lively Gigue; and one could be seen at the front, straining on his wee harness, as his father held him back from running right up to the cellist.

The parents were grateful for the freedom that this kind of concert encouraged. It was fine to get up and wander around the back of the hall with a baby, or to go and sit at the front, or to change seats as required, in a way that’s impossible (or, at least, frowned upon) in a regular classical music setting.

The players were fantastic at speaking to the children; talking to them warmly and engagingly, without being either patronising or going over their heads. The actual music was, as expected, exquisite, with the choice of tunes clearly aimed at being accessible to wee ones. When the concert ended, a few of the smaller children burst into tears as the music stopped – they must have been really enjoying it.

The musicians invited the curious youngsters to come and see the instruments up close, only to each be swarmed by kids desperate to get a good look at a cello up close. All four musicians sat for some time after the music ended, explaining and demonstrating their instruments to wide-eyed little folk.

The concert was barely over half an hour long – long enough to be satisfying, but just within the attention span of a two-year old. It was a unique, interesting and genuinely important experience, for the parents and kids alike; a brilliant concert, and a perfect distraction for a summer morning. Parents can only hope this isn’t a one-off.