Nevis Ensemble – an orchestra reaching new heights

28 August, 2018

On a rainy day at the foot of Britain’s highest mountain, 40 orchestral musicians alighted a bus and began to question their sanity. ‘Who wants a black bin liner for their instrument case?’ a cellist called out, who’d one tied round the waist of his own. Sealed in anoraks and walking books, we walked across the parking lot, slowly; sleepily. (Some of us had been up since 7am making sandwiches.) Ben Nevis took no notice of us under her silvery white blanket; born of mother Earth; an eternal monument luring in explorers from around the world.

Ben Nevis Cellos

We were born a week ago and this was concert number 27. Ideals aside, not everyone was able play at the mountain peak which, at 3.C and dominated by rain coming at you from above, the sides and below, would have been the end of the tour for our wooden stringed instruments. But Nevis Ensemble did climb to the top, and in the space of a fortnight and a half did what no other ensemble had done before.

Holly and Jon
Holly Mathieson and Jon Hargreaves conquering Ben Nevis.

In two weeks Nevis played a total of 72 concerts across the country – in farm fields, care homes and refugee centres, local community theatres, libraries, museums and more. At the heart of this enterprise is the belief that live music of any kind can change the world. Every performance was free and open to anyone to attend. Instead of waiting for people to book seats in a concert hall, we worked from the outside in, bringing the gift of music to the people, everywhere we could. Some audiences had never heard a live orchestra before. Either they lacked the means, or belonged to a different milieu. And until they had heard us play, some people had little course to smile – the homeless people or resident asylum seekers in Glasgow Night Shelter, as example.

Nevis Ensemble
Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The ensemble comprised 40 performers of mixed ages (18 to 70) and experience, though most of us were conservatoire students or recent graduates. As a leader I was stretched in all dimensions – artistic, musical, physical and personal – and acted as point of contact between the Artistic Directors (the incredible power-duo Holly Mathieson and Jon Hargreaves), the management team (Jamie Munn, Duncan Sutherland and Judith Walsh) and the orchestra.

Our first priority was to initiate and foster team spirit. To undertake a tour and be able to perform in such challenging and unpredictable circumstances, an orchestra has to have members who can trust and rely on each other whatever the weather. We were a brand new group and had 4 days to bond through intensive rehearsals, and well-being sessions in Tai-Chi, Yoga and Mindfulness before hitting the road.

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow. Photo: Nevis Ensemble

Musically we had to break out of our comfort zone to play works of diverse styles. Each gig was tailored to location from our vast repertoire list, which included Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Purcell and Debussy, as well as pop (ABBA), folk (Chris Stout), and modern (Judith Weir; Matthew Grouse) works. Non-classical music is often not taken seriously for being less complex. However I firmly believe that any style of music, for it to be executed with confidence, conviction and abandon, requires mastery of its requisite elements; and by mastering one form we can extend our techniques and emotional depth in another, such as classical music.

Then there was the mammoth tour itself. In Nevis Ensemble (and other street orchestras like Ricciotti Ensemble and Street Orchestra Live) every single member has a non-musical role, whether it’s unpacking the percussion gear from the bus every gig, or playing a wake-up call to get people up in the morning. With up to 6-7 performances a day, the tour demanded relentless energy and flexibility. Every evening we had to recharge willpower to embrace a new day of uncertainties; a kaleidoscope of programmes, people and weather conditions.

What makes Nevis Ensemble special is not only what it does for audiences, but how it helps a musician to develop incredibly important skills that are often overlooked in music education. How to curate a programme that chimes with the atmosphere and audience, or one which challenges them? How to speak into a microphone in front of a crowd? Expanding one’s musical vocabulary through diverse repertoire, and (most importantly) overcoming your inhibitions and getting out onto any kind of stage playing your best like there’s no tomorrow.

Nan Mckay Memorial Community Hall, Glasgow. Photo: Nevis Ensemble

Rarely musicians have the chance to practise improvisation in salsa, swinging like a folk fiddler, singing a pop melody or hitting a jazz rhythm with razor precision. The opportunity to dance in performance not only helps to express the music in a way more visceral to the audience, it increases a performer’s awareness of her body and completely frees her up as a player. Everyone breathes and moves more together, which can only increase impact of the music. Performance thus becomes more organic; more intuitive. For me this completely transformed my attitude to the violin, shifting the focus away from mere music-making towards a whole new plane of music-being.

To conclude I leave you with a remark made by someone who, after seeing us pop up in Tesco said, ‘This is a supermarket not a f***ing theatre!’ And my response is as follows: a concert hall is just one place where we can give life to music – a convention to which heavy stigma has been attached steadily over time. Taking the words of Shakespeare, I say that all the world’s a stage. Moving forward we should ask ourselves how far we are willing to go to spread the joy of music, and whether there really is anything to fear when we go out to perform.

Horn player Molly with kids from Refuweegee in Kinning Park Complex, Glasgow. Photo: Nevis Ensemble

Browse the highlights of the tour on the Facebook page.

To help Nevis Ensemble continue with its mission and reach new audiences, please donate here.

First published on the blog of the Royal Philharmonic Society on 28 August 2018.