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Reviews / Food for the soul: Scottish Ensemble mesmerises audience with ‘astoundingly beautiful’ music

The UK’s leading string orchestra on stage at Mareel on Thursday. Photo; Jonathon Bulter

At this time of year, I get to feel I am living in Mareel what with student exams, submissions and student shows, the visit on Thursday night, though, was for a very different reason, writes Shetland News reviewer Carol Jamieson.

It was an evening of calm contemplation and resonant beauty provided by the Scottish Ensemble, the UK’s leading string orchestra.  This body of musicians have a growing reputation which has led them to perform in Taiwan, China, Brazil, America and across Europe.

The night’s entertainment started with an almost cinematic treatment beginning in nearly complete darkness, just the illumination of the players ipads for the sheet music, and a soft glow from the stage.  At first the double bass player was alone, an eerie sustained harmonic note rang out setting the scene for the stunning piece which followed as the rest of the players entered one by one.

This began 45 minutes of the most creative and thought-provoking music emerging from a collaboration between Ailie Robertson and five other Scottish composers, Sally Beamish, James MacMillan, Anna Meradith and John McEwan (all alive today bar McEwan).  Robertson is a highly accomplished and multi award winning musician and composer creating music for concert as well as theatre and film scores.  She has had works commissioned for the BBC Proms and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and was awarded the ‘Achievement in New Music” prize at the Scottish awards.

Everything about the first half was captivating from the enigmatic build up in the first movement to the crashing homophonic chords of the fourth and the clever scoring and dynamic changes of the fifth.  I must admit, during the third piece there was the glisten of a tear in this listener’s eye, it was astoundingly beautiful.

Although few in number, they managed to create an almost full Sakamoto (The Revenant) sound in the rich tensions with discord and resolve.  The five movements centre on five different characters, The Sage, The Villain, The Caregiver, The Shapeshifter and The Everyman.  These archetypal characters show up in folk tales across the centuries and across the globe.

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There was a thread of gentleness throughout the music which I put down to the strong feminine presence in the project, the women outnumbered the men two – one in both performers and composers.

Using clever orchestration and arranging, every instrument was effectively engaged to create threads of melodic lines and sumptuous harmonies weaving a rich tapestry of sound which, judging by the looks on the faces of the audience, everyone found mesmerising.

There is a tone with a very expensive instrument coupled with the astonishing level of ability to play it which adds another level again to the experience and enjoyment of the music.  I would have been delighted to have sat through those 45 minutes all over again.

Ensemble members had great fund during the rehearsals earlier in Thursday. Photo: Malcolm Younger/Millgaet Media

As part of the collaboration with Creative Lives, some art works were on display from artists from all over Scotland.  It was a nice way to spend the interval.

The second half was an informal session led by fiddler Alistair Savage.  The players came down from the stage and the house lights went up creating a more intimate setting.  This was the traditional part of the programme.  I would have preferred if the musicians had stayed on the stage as the previous cosy and private atmosphere was compromised by the brighter lights.

The idea in this half was to represent musically each of the areas the group visit on the tour, therefore some lovely reference to Shetland traditional tunes were involved, much to the delight of the locals in the audience.

I had been looking forward to the folklore aspect of the evening and although there was emotion and sincerity in the smattering of stories, poetry and music, I felt more could have been made of exploring the richness of Scotland’s storytelling heritage.

If music is food for the soul my soul was nourished on Thursday.  The lyrical sound of the strings resonated in my ears long after they had finished.

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