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Raising the bar

It has become almost a truism that Scottish musical organisations are raising their game, upping the ante and challenging themselves to rack up their quality and profile ever higher.

The Scottish Ensemble, whose new season was announced last week, has achieved spectacular results and set in train certain developments which could well have a profound impact on the international profile of the group.

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It’s not unfamiliar for the 12-strong string group to welcome occasional guests into its circle: just this season tenor Toby Spence, who has a close and long-standing relationship with the Scottish Ensemble, was back with them singing Jacques Brel. (And we haven’t quite heard the last of that one, by the way.)

And only last month they were joined by the choir Tenebrae for two special Easter concerts focusing on James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words From The Cross.

But look at the line-up they have unveiled for next season: they will be joined by the great Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelway in the UK premiere of a new work by leading Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen. They will be joined by cellist

Natalie Clein in a performance of John Tavener’s iconic piece, The Protecting Veil, which will form part of a minimalist evening in Kelvingrove Art Galleries organised by Svend Brown, new artistic director of Glasgow Concert Halls.

In a spectacular coup, the ensemble will be joined by superstar trumpeter Alison Balsom in the world premiere of a new work by James MacMillan – London performance only, first time round.

And not only are they being joined by top English violinist Anthony Marwood in a rare performance of Schumann’s Cello Concerto in an arrangement for violin and string orchestra, Scottish Ensemble artistic director and leader Jonathan Morton is handing over the entire programme to Marwood, whom he has invited to guest direct the ensemble.

Everywhere you look in the new Scottish Ensemble season there is a sense of something fresh in its ambition, something pushing the bar steadily higher. In the 40th birthday season which concluded at the weekend, one of the dramatic highpoints was a side-by-side event with top string players from the RSAMD on an equal footing with Ensemble players in a killing programme of Berio’s Coral and Tippett’s Double Concerto, a project where there was no room for passengers, no hiding place and no prisoners taken.

The exercise was a triumph, so they are going to repeat it next season. Up goes the bar, by two notches this time – the students will have to play Tippett’s murderously difficult Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli. The programme also includes the world premiere of a new work by Joe Cutler for solo violin, ensemble and electronics, as well as the multiple composer Aldeburgh Variations known as Sellinger’s Round.

The second notch in the bar comes when the core of that programme transfers to London’s Wigmore Hall where the Scottish Ensemble will be joined by top students from the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Academy Soloists, in a programme that will also feature the world premiere of the MacMillan with Alison Balsom.

Even when it comes to the ensemble’s December concerts, there’s a wee push on the bar. In a programme singularly devoid of Yuletide sweetmeats, the Scottish Ensemble will play Dvorak’s big Serenade for Strings and, in a daring artistic enterprise, a version of Janacek’s First String Quartet – aka the Kreutzer Sonata – which Jonathan Morton is arranging for large string ensemble.

It is a remarkable season, brimming with the confidence that a 32% increase in subscriptions inspires and spearheaded artistically by securing cellist Pieter Wispelway to open the season. “He is a catch,” said Jonathan Morton.

“You can’t just approach someone like Pieter. He doesn’t know us. He doesn’t know the kind of work we do. And we couldn’t have afforded him. He’s the first major international instrumental soloist we’ve had come and work with us.

“It’s just lucky the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, a commissioner of the new Sallinen piece, had asked him to play it. That delivered him to us as co-commissioners. He does Baroque, Classical, Beethoven and Britten: he has an amazing versatility. He’s astonishing; an extraordinarily open musician.”

Wispelway, who was in Glasgow recently for a solo recital in the City Hall, will demonstrate that versatility by playing a Vivaldi Concerto after the Sallinen.

The official winter concert season represents only the peak of the pyramid in Scottish Ensemble activities. The group has a fascinating education programme which sees it currently working with young offenders in prison, written about in last Saturday’s Arts supplement by my colleague Keith Bruce.

Morton revealed that next season he will be teaming up with pianist Alasdair Beatson in a duo to give recitals in Perth and Glasgow, about which the Scottish Ensemble director is clearly excited.

“Alasdair and I meet, musically and artistically. I cannot think of another pianist I’d rather play with. He’s got a totally unique musical brain, and people like Alasdair absolutely fit into the ensemble atmosphere and ethos. We want to record Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings.”

There is already a Scottish Ensemble recording with trumpeter Alison Balsom playing Italian Baroque trumpet concertos, recorded on EMI and released in Germany, which has rocketed into the classical charts. That recording, which features Balsom’s partner (and father of her new baby, Charlie) Edward Gardner as conductor, will be released in the UK later this year.

And, revealed Morton, there is a Scottish Ensemble plan to have all of their concerts recorded. The group has hooked up with Signum Records, who specialise in live recordings, to explore the potential.

Last weekend the company recorded the group’s Edinburgh performance of the Eight Seasons by Vivaldi/Piazzolla as a first project.

“This is a brand new development,” said Morton. “It’s a new strand for us. You buy in their services for the project you want to do. There’s no contract. The company – Steve Long and Mike Hatch – specialise in recording live concerts. They’re very flexible.

“It’s a very good deal. If you want them to distribute it for you, they will. Or you can buy the masters from them and it’s your own. You can do your own design, your own branding. You buy in the level of service you want. We’re going to let them distribute it for us. They’ve got this fantastic network of contacts and distribution. They have really spotted a gap in the market.”

Morton stresses that this is “a trial” and doesn’t want to be “premature”. Nor does Scottish Ensemble chief executive Elizabeth Andrews; but she’s clearly simmering away with something she cannot resist letting out: “It’s a toe in the water, but I have every expectation of it being a great success.”

Visit www.scottishensemble.co.uk

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