It's exactly six months since I was contacted out of the blue by Andy Saunders, a freelance French horn player whom I had not met, though he was a familiar face from his appearances with the SCO and the other Scottish orchestras.
He wanted to run an idea by me. It was at its earliest stage and, as I discovered only last week at our umpteenth meeting, had only been cooking in his mind for about six weeks. It was, it seemed to me at the time, at best idealistic, and at worst hopelessly unrealistic. But there was something in his manner – he is extremely laid-back and undemonstrative – that sparked an instinct which led me, following our first interview, to write a feature on his proposal, which we published on a Wednesday arts page in mid-December.
His proposal was multi-stranded. It included an intention to have his new chamber group, Daniel’s Beard (pictured), installed as resident ensemble in the newly refurbished Cottier Theatre in the west end; further, that Daniel’s Beard would host a large-scale chamber music project at the Cottier during the West End Festival; further still, the project would involve multiple Scottish chamber music ensembles. The proposal also contained an element that would focus on senior Scottish composers, with a special emphasis on Thomas Wilson, the 10th anniversary of whose death falls this month.
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But Saunders, who was hitting me with these strands one after another, wasn’t finished yet. He proposed, finally, that on top of everything else his group should make a CD recording that would feature the music of Thomas Wilson, plus other pieces.
One wee drawback emerged as he talked. He and his group had the ideas; and clearly, with his personal contacts, he had the musical resources to draw on, with multiple expressions of interest from Scottish groups; he also had expressions of interest from the Cottier management and Michael Dale of the West End Festival. But he would need £30,000 to get the project out of his head and on to the shop floor. The wee drawback? They didn’t have the money; that’s to say, they had raised about £2000, and they were stuck.
Well, we know what happened. They got the sponsors. They got the money, or most of it: they’re still about three grand short. By February Saunders was able to confirm that the mini-festival was definitely going to happen. And the Cottier Chamber Project, as it was christened, finished last night with a final set of performances by Daniel’s Beard.
In its three-week course, the project featured 23 concerts with music by 53 composers, 13 of them Scottish. The repertoire was fantastic in its breadth, with everything from Scottish dances to Messiaen, from new music to late Beethoven. Seventeen different groups and ensembles appeared at the festival, featuring a total of 86 musicians. All of them have been paid, and that is a lot of work generated for Scottish musicians operating in the hard-pressed freelance sector.
Attendances were modest, with an average of 50-60, though in the small Cottier Theatre that actually looks OK. Growing that audience next year – and the project will happen again next year – is a primary target. There were a few hiccups, naturally, and one disaster, reported here already, when a programme over-ran and the group was asked to stop playing and leave the building, which gave Andy Saunders what he called initially “the worst 15 minutes of my life”. He modified that later, though his embarrassment was acute.
The good news is that for next year, other groups and musicians who couldn’t be involved in the first project for reasons of scheduling and other commitments, have already expressed their interest; and those outfits include some big-hitters, with the Hebrides Ensemble, Red Note and musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra all wanting on board.
But Saunders, who has done an incredible amount of work, is the quiet hero of the moment; and I trust his colleagues lavished many pints on him last night, following the closing concert.