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Swept away by this unique opportunity to meditate

Donald Smith's new analysis of the state of play in Auld Scotia, Freedom And Faith, was still fresh in my mind (my review of it is on page 10) when I visited the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh for a meditation session this week.

Among the book's other attributes is a chapter on Statehood and Culture which concisely relates the development of the Scottish Arts Council and then Creative Scotland, a tale I know well but on which a new perspective is welcome. Smith is particularly hot on the arts council's role in perpetuating a false distinction between high and low art in the post-war years and beyond.

How far we are from those days of genuine elitism was aptly illustrated by the event at the library, promoted jointly with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Meditations On The Sea took its title from the programme the SCO will be playing in Edinburgh and Glasgow on Thursday and Friday of the coming week, under the baton of Garry Walker. The two pieces that give the concerts their title are by living composers, South Africa's Kevin Volans and our own James MacMillan.

Volans was inspired by reflecting on trading vessels and a Cape folk song, There Comes The Alabama, about a Confederate vessel putting in at the South African port. MacMillan's searing Tuireadh, originally for string quartet and clarinet, is a lament for the 167 dead of the Piper Alpha rig disaster in the North Sea in 1988. All of this we learned from Herald columnist and reviewer and SCO violinist Rosenna East in an event that was chaired by Lucy Forde, who is in charge of the orchestra's outreach arm, Connect, and which also featured principal clarinet Maximiliano Martin (who will be featured soloist) and traditional musician Mairi Campbell.

All of which makes the session sound a bit like a pre-concert talk with a little added musical value, but in fact I doubt that anyone in the library's busy boardroom was expecting the event that unfolded. We have some fairly fixed ideas about what the sea sounds like orchestrally, and that might involve a Romantic Hebridean Overture, some Debussy and those interludes from Peter Grimes. To say that the quartet on stage took a more oblique approach would be to underestimate the distance they put between themselves and the obvious over the course of an hour that was informative about the works, embraced a good deal of musical illustration and explanation, and contained some lovely poetry.

The latter was culled by Rosenna East from Andrew Greig's latest collection, Found At Sea, a work that documents an Orkney sailing trip and which has already found theatrical expression in a version directed by playwright David Greig (no relation I'm sure) at the Traverse - and will be revived later this year. As she read, Mairi Campbell improvised an accompaniment on viola and vocals in premiere performances that opened and closed proceedings. With Campbell adding a song by herself and David Francis about the disproportionate number of victims of the 1881 Eyemouth Fishing Disaster from the tiny village of Cove, and Martin performing an extract from his part in the MacMillan, it was a rich feast of marine music, but all of it never likely to be heard again, at least in the form presented here.

Perhaps some in the audience were discomfited by the cutting-edge nature of much of the performance, but I doubt that anyone thought much about why "classical" and "traditional" music were sharing a platform at all. With the BBC SSO part of three concerts at Celtic Connections, beginning with a collaboration with Mary Chapin Carpenter on Friday, perhaps that is not so remarkable, but I could not help but be struck by the fact that an hour was spent in meditation on the sea in orchestral music - and in Scotland - and no-one mentioned Mendelssohn once.

Garry Walker conducts the SCO at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh on Thursday and Glasgow City Halls on Friday.

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