@ The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on Sat 16 May 2015
It’s an absolute deluge of treats that the Scottish Ensemble has prepared for its Songbook concert in Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, one that celebrates a distinctive ten years of the group’s work with Jonathan Morton at its artistic helm. In an elaboration of prior ‘tea dance’ concerts, the ensemble unfurls this ballroom theme in Glasgow to offer a full evening’s worth of American Songbook and Music Hall classics arranged for strings, with sleek dancers from Dance Glasgow flitting through the audience, and West End star Anna-Jane Casey dazzling centre stage for the vocal numbers.
There is aplomb in every detail of the night’s event, from the ‘Musical Menu’ atop every cabaret table to sartorial touches including tails, and of course, those stunningly delivered arrangements: it’s easy to see why this ensemble have garnered a reputation for pushing things to the hilt. The Old Fruitmarket, its balconies festooned with dimly glowing red bulbs, provides the perfect backdrop with an understated glamour vying with a touch of louche. If not every musical nuance reaches those seated towards the back, then there is an easy remedy; take heed of Morton’s many entreaties to dance, and dive into that often bustling space at the foot of the band. This is not the type of event for quibbling over acoustic intricacies.
But, it is an event to revel in dancing opportunities, and it really is unusual to hear such accomplished musicians playing at this level to an audience that feels free to move. Morton, in fact, repeatedly and enthusiastically encourages it, exclaiming (with ever gallant cheek) “it’s amazing what an interval bar can do”, once that opportunity has wheedled the shier dancers from their seats. This liveliness doesn’t dampen the audience’s capacity for hush when required though, as descends with the deliciously subdued warmth of Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do, in which alternating string soloists intone as much sweet nostalgia and regret as any human voice could muster.
Each time Anna-Jane Casey – the night’s actual star vocalist – glides onstage, the ensemble mutes their sound with nimble ease. Her voice has a pearly roundness that, though not wildly loud or idiosyncratic, has a reserved and understated power. That’s Amore (Harry Warren) gets the most spirited delivery of Casey’s numbers, prompting a few outbursts of jubilant audience sing-along, while the string players finally let-rip (shedding their carefully accompaniment-tempered sound) for a rapturous I Only Have Eyes For You (Harry Warren).
Morton leads the band throughout with the charismatic dance-like movements that characterise his playing, and demonstrates his versatility with solos that range from the aptly tender playing of Tenderly (Walter Gross) – a slow waltz in gorgeously restrained arrangement – to snippets of virtuosic string-crossing that are approached with folksy, carefree abandon (Sous Le Ciel, Hubert Giraud). Equally, he knows when to let other players take precedence. Double bass player James Manson, who is responsible for the majority of the evening’s arrangements, often seems to propel things along from the back of the ensemble with his bubbling and elastic loquaciousness (most noticeably in Tea For Two by Vincent Youmans), demonstrating his ease in this style.
A programme that spans these ballroom and American jazz classics should give the audience free reign to drift with the ebb and flow of their danced, tapped, or still responses to each song. Scottish Ensemble must be applauded for creating an event with the freedom, space and attitude to foster this, and expertly delivering each musical number. A delightful evening, awash with glamour, elegance, and the joy of dancing to live music.