Mini-maestros of the Isles

13th July 2007 at 01:00
THE SCOTTISH Chamber Orchestra spends the summer months bringing music to the parts of Scotland that other orchestras don't reach. By the time the orchestra's winter season opens in early October, it will have toured the length and breadth of the country, from the Borders to the Highlands and Islands, playing in locations as diverse as Stornoway and Strathpeffer, Langholm and Lerwick.

It isn't just the orchestra that takes to the road; its education arm travels too, bringing the projects that are an integral part of its work to a wider audience. Before the concerts on the Western Isles, a couple of players and a composer visited two of the islands' secondary schools. They spent a day-and a-half in each for a music composition project.

"The sessions were based on the Music Factory project we do as part of our core education work," explains Louise Martin, the orchestra's education projects manager who ran the Western Isles ones.

"This, in turn, is attached to the Masterworks scheme, where we put music under the microscope for older secondary school pupils," she says.

In Masterworks, pupils look in depth at a single work, often a challenging modern masterpiece, rather than an established classic. The coming year's project will focus on the Partita for violin and orchestra by 20th-century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.

Having looked in detail at the piece, the children then go to hear the orchestra giving a special performance.

In the final part of the project called the Music Factory the children work on writing their own compositions, based in some way on the piece they have been exploring.

This project takes four full-day sessions and involves the whole orchestra, "so, unfortunately, it's not something we could recreate on the road," says Ms Martin. "Instead, we took the idea of the Music Factory and condensed it into three half-day sessions."

Composer Alasdair Nicolson, violinist Lorna McLaren and cellist Ali Lawrance visited the Sir E Scott School in Tarbert on Harris and Lionacleit School, Benbecula, to work with 16 upper-school pupils during three half-day sessions.

"As with the Music Factory, Nicolson and the players give the children the musical tools and ideas as well as the encouragement to write their own compositions," says Ms Martin.

The children were asked to write a duet for the two instruments on hand violin and cello and they had the great advantage of hearing their music played right back to them by the orchestra players.

What were the pieces like?

"I'd say we had as many styles of composition as there were kids involved in the project," says Ms Martin. "This is exactly what we're aiming for we don't want 30 identical violin and cello duos."

There's a strong continuing history of traditional music on the islands, but the teachers were keen that the composition project would stretch the children beyond territory with which they were familiar.

"Some of the children's pieces were accompanied melodies in the manner of traditional music," says Ms Martin. "Others were chordal and basically tonal based, while a few explored somewhat more adventurous territory."

Having written their own music, the children got the opportunity to hear the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in action when the players visited the Western Isles last week on a tour that used both schools as concert venues. Alongside works by Bartok, Sibelius and Grieg, the programme included Stramash by Nicolson.

"It means that having worked with him on the composition project the children got to hear one of his works in concert," says Ms Martin.

"This gives them a nice connection with the SCO, as well as the fact they'll know Ali and Lorna and have had them play their own works already."

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