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Lammermuir Festival: Hebrides Ensemble

at Pencaitland Parish Church

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A challenging afternoon, both weather wise and musically.

Image of Lammermuir Festival: Hebrides Ensemble
Photo: Sane Seven/Geoffroy Schied

James Waters, the director of the Lammermuir Festival, congratulates the audience on making it to this afternoon’s concert: Storm Ali has hit Scotland and the road to Pencaitland Church is blocked by a large tree! Fortunately, the Hebrides Ensemble arrived earlier to rehearse, so are well prepared to give us a gentle musical diversion while the storm rages around us! The six members of the Hebrides ensemble, led by William Conway on cello, comprise: Charlotte Ashton, flute; Maximilliano Martín, clarinet; Daniel Bell, violin; Sarah Bevan-Baker, violin; and Jessica Beeston, viola. They are joined by soloists Joshua Ellicot, a very fine tenor, and Emily Hoile, an internationally acclaimed harpist.

The concert begins with Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane, written for harp and strings, which provides a gentle melodic respite from the storm, and demonstrates the skills of Hoile on harp. This is followed by a quintet for strings and harp written by Arnold Bax, who was apparently very influenced by Debussy. This work was written when Bax was in Ireland, and he incorporated some Celtic themes into it. He also became very sympathetic to the Irish Republican movement, and the sad ending to the quintet reflects his feelings about the death of many of his friends. It is beautifully played by Hoile, with some delicate backing from the strings of the Hebrides Ensemble.

The first half of the concert concludes with a world premiere: the first performance of Stuart MacRae’s Lammermuir Festival Commission, I am Prometheus, a vocal meditation on the thoughts of Prometheus as he lies in chains. Ellicot has a very fine tenor voice, and he gives great power and meaning to MacRea’s work, ably backed up by the Hebrides. MacRae’s work is not easy on the ear, but the audience listen attentively, and give the composer a warm welcome at the end.

After the interval (during which few brave the elements outside!) the concert continues with Debussy’s sonata for flute viola and harp, followed by a chance to hear a more melodic use of Ellicot’s voice in Britten’s Canticle V: The Death of St Narcissus, based on T S Elliot’s poem. Britten wrote this soon after his heart surgery when he knew himself to be near death, so it’s not exactly a cheerful work, but Ellicot’s powerful voice compels us all to listen carefully.

The concert concludes with Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, for harp and ensemble. After a challenging afternoon, both weather wise and musically, it’s a pleasure to hear Ravel’s well-known and lovely melodies. The concert is well received by the audience in a packed church, but there is no time for encores as we all have to rush out to find out whether the roads have been cleared, and whether we can get home!