"There are clubs of this sort in England," explains Hugh Macdonald, president of Milngavie Music Club, "and countries like Sweden have regional concert-giving organisations funded by the government. But the Scottish clubs are all run by volunteers. If that's not big society then I don't know what is."
At 70 this year, Milngavie Music Club is among the oldest and most venerable of Scotland's chamber music outposts. Its history – from the visionary ambition of its founders to the challenges posed by centralisation and a saturated entertainment market – illustrates a story familiar to many of the clubs.
Remarkable in itself is that Milngavie Music Club was founded during the height of the Second World War, a time when most concert series in Edinburgh and Glasgow had been paused. One of the club's founders was Herbert Downes, a violist with the (then) BBC Scottish Orchestra, and a quartet made up of his colleagues from the orchestra gave the inaugural concert on October 16, 1942. Such a gesture of community faith only a year after the blitz on Clydebank earned the Milngavie club a sizeable and passionate audience from the outset.
It also helped that, thanks to the burgeoning record industry during the first decades of the 20th century, there was by this point widespread interest in hearing professional chamber music played live.
"In previous centuries chamber music was really only heard by people who played it themselves, "or by people with chambers big enough to fit a group in," says Macdonald. "But interest spread with the recording industry and you had groups like the Bush Quartet recording all of Beethoven's quartets."
Macdonald points out that this was an era when international soloists – great names like Yehudi Menuhin and Fritz Kreisler – were willing to play everywhere, not just the big concert halls. "A tour of Britain would include little clubs in Inverness or Falkirk. The aim was simply to make a living and to be heard by as many people as possible. Kreisler would do 30 nights on the trot, and enthusiasts around Scotland would find ways of getting him to their town."
To look through Milngavie's club annals makes for some serious celebrity-spotting. "They thought big once they got the thing going," says Macdonald, "and tried for the best musicians they could get." One of the earliest concerts was given by Frederic Lamond, the great Glasgow-born Beethovenian who at the end of his life returned to Scotland from Germany and taught at the (then) Scottish National Academy of Music. Over the years other guests included Pierre Fournier, Monique Haas, Julian Bream, Stephen Kovacevich, Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Wilhelm Kempff, Louis Kentner, the Smetana Quartet, the Suk Trio- the list goes on and on.
Milngavie also staged weekend-long festivals, the first of which, in 1947, was fronted by clarinettist Reginald Kell. (It seems there was a clarinet enthusiast on the board, because the 1951 festival featured Gervais de Peyer playing Brahms with the Amadeus Quartet.) But the 1953 festival line-up was the real eye-popper: the Amadeus Quartet, Denis Brain, Cecil Aronowitz, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. "In fact, that was the second time that Britten and Pears had been up," says Macdonald. "But this time they brought a piece that had been performed only once before."
And so it was that Britten's song cycle Winter Words, a setting for tenor and piano of eight poems by Thomas Hardy, was given its Scottish premiere in Milngavie by Britten and Pears themselves, only a week after the world premiere in Birmingham. The club's 1953 audience were treated to one of the composer's finest song cycles: sleek and chilling, searching and distilled, it culminates in a stark expression of Britten's recurring theme of innocence lost in the final song, Before life and after. With events of this calibre it's no surprise that, in its heyday in the early 1960s, Milngavie's membership hit around 550. Concerts in the Old Church Parish Hall were stuffed to standing-room only.
But audiences began to dwindle in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Music making in Scotland was expanding exponentially as the new Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Opera and Scottish Baroque Ensemble (now Scottish Ensemble) hit the scene. This wider range of options in the cities meant that music clubs in the regions saw their audiences dip. Some very distinguished clubs – Bridge of Allan, for example – fell by the wayside altogether.
Thanks to the efforts of enthusiasts around the country, the network, if not every outpost, has survived. These days the clubs receive subsidy from Enterprise Music Scotland, a body funded by Creative Scotland to support chamber music activity around the country. But it's the teams of volunteers who keep the clubs up and running. Different clubs regularly work together to share touring costs and give groups an opportunity to air their programme several times – something akin to the Kreisler touring circuits of yore.
And in Milngavie, membership has been picking up over the past few years. "Outsiders might see us as a suburb," says Macdonald, "and might ask why we need chamber music here when it's only 20 minutes to Glasgow. But there's a huge attraction of having music on your doorstep." He says the club's new venue really helps: after the closure of the Old Parish Church Hall, concerts were held in Milngavie Town hall, whose poor acoustics and dreary atmosphere dissuaded all but the club's hardcore. Then in 2010 concerts moved to Cairns Church. "The acoustics are great, and with candles and wine there's a lovely mellow feel to it. Clubs like these offer a comfortable communal listening experience that's hard to find in the city."
This year's programme at Milngavie is already going strong. Latvian pianist Oxana Shevchenko, winner of the 2010 Scottish International Piano, played on September 28. Steven Osborne plays late Schubert and Beethoven on January 11. The Maxwell Quartet plays a programme on November 26 that includes a new work by Milngavie composer Tom Harrold. The Danish String Quartet, whom Macdonald spotted at a quartet competition two years ago, plays Beethoven's Opus 132 on March 8.
But to mark its 70th birthday, the club returns to the most illustrious event of its history. This Friday the celebrated UK tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Anna Tilbrook perform Ravel, Bernstein, Purcell and Schubert. They end their recital, of course, with Britten's Winter Words.
James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook are at Milngavie Music Club on Friday. www.milngaviemusic.org