Saturday 14 September 2019

An interesting and illuminating mix: I chat to Ensemble Hesperi about combining Scottish Baroque music with Highland dance:

The Pheasant's Eye - Ensemble Hesperi & Kathleen Gilbert - St Marylebone Festival
The Pheasant's Eye - Ensemble Hesperi & Kathleen Gilbert - St Marylebone Festival
The young Early Music ensemble, Ensemble Hesperi, is in the middle of a tour of a programme called The Pheasant's Eye in which they combine rarely performed 18th century Scottish Baroque music with dance from Kathleen Gilbert who is a Highland dancer. Ensemble Hesperi is Mary-Jannet Leith (recorders), Magdalena Loth-Hill (baroque violin), Florence Petit (baroque cello) and Thomas Allery (harpsichord), and I met up with the four musicians and dancer Kathleen Gilbert to chat about the programme and the idea of combining Scottish Baroque music with Highland dance.

The ensemble started as a duo, with Mary-Jannet Leith and Thomas Allery and as Mary-Jannet is Scottish she was keen to explore the Scottish Baroque repertoire, some of which she had grown up with. Then in 2018, they were joined by Magdalena Loth-Hill and Florence Petit, continuing to have a strong interest in Scottish classical music. The core of Ensemble Hesperi's current programme is Airs for the Seasons, a series of 96 short movements by the Scottish composer James Oswald (1710-1769), with each movement named after a flower. These are a series of remarkable miniatures, and though they sound Scots they do not in fact use Scottish melodies and were very much written for the London market.

Beyond James Oswald, much of the surviving music is inspired by Scottish folk songs, what Mary-Jannet refers to as a fusion style, combining Scots folk melody with the classical figured bass. Composers like the Scot, William McGibbon (1690-1756) and the Italian, Francesco Geminiani created such pieces for  publication in London, but a lot of the material is unpublished and manuscripts are still being discovered in castles! As recently as 1989 a manuscript of music largely by the Earl of Kellie (1732-1781) was discovered, and Thomas is sure that there is plenty more to be found. As a Scottish aristocrat the Earl did not need earn a living and he was prone to writing pieces and giving the manuscripts away, often composing the music on the spot. So, though he is known to have written wind music, none so-far as turned up. He was, though, far more than an amateur and had studied in Mannheim. One of his larger pieces is a Sinfonia which Ensemble Hesperi have their eyes on for a future project.

Ensemble Hesperi
Ensemble Hesperi
For The Pheasant's Eye the ensemble has been joined by Highland dancer Kathleen Gilbert. The group admits that their approach is a bit 'irreligious' and essentially they selected pieces which are dance-like and asked Kathleen to dance to them.
It is perhaps important at this point to explain the differences between Scottish country dancing and Highland dancing. Scottish country dancing is a group activity danced to folk tunes, whereas Highland dance is a separate genre and is generally a solo dance which has its origins in the dances performed by Gaelic warriors, though modern Highland dance was very much codified in the 19th century. Kathleen points out that Highland dance's choreography is extremely energetic, very different to Scottish country dancing.

The Pheasant's Eye in rehearsal - Kathleen Gilbert & Ensemble Hesperi
The Pheasant's Eye in rehearsal - Kathleen Gilbert & Ensemble Hesperi (Photo Robert Piwko)
Working with a dancer very much affects the way the instrumentalists play the music, they can't pull the tempos about as much as they might on their own. And the group very much worked together on the pieces, with Kathleen Gilbert choreographing suitable tempo changes. The musicians also found that performing with a dancer meant that they could not get so obsessed with musical details as they might otherwise. The whole process proved easier than they had first thought, and as all lot of the 18th century pieces were originally dances it is helpful for the instrumentalists to learn how to accommodate dance. Kathleen found it fun to dance to live music, which has character and personality so that as she was dancing she was responding to the challenge of the colours of different instruments and made the choreography reflect this.

In performance, Kathleen tries to dance around the players, rather than simply placing herself in front of them, but this very much depends on the venue and some of the spaces in which they have performed have been rather a challenge. Audiences are often attracted to something visual, so many performers are experimenting with visuals in different areas to bring the music to life. Kathleen is able to comment on the music or heighten important moments via dance and choreography, and she feels it is rather nice for the audience to have something moving and not to be looking in the same direction all evening.
Ensemble Hesperi - Pheasant's Eye Highland Dance Workshop (Photo Robert Piwko)
Ensemble Hesperi - The Pheasant's Eye Highland Dance Workshop (Photo Robert Piwko)
Given the strong folk origins of the musical material, some groups when performing 18th century Scottish Baroque music have incorporated folk musicians alongside Early Music performers. The group thought about this and in fact, Mary-Jannet has had folk lessons (whilst Thomas has had some Highland dance lessons). But Mary-Jannet points out that there wasn't such a distinction between folk and classical musicians in the 18th century.

Whilst composers wrote the Scots melodies down over figured bass and expected them to be played in a genteel way, there was also an element of wishing to preserve the melodies. But a composer like William McGibbon wanted to move the music from the raucous folk tradition into more refined art music. Though the group points out that some of the melodies simply do not really lend themselves to being transcribed with figured bass.

Oswald first published his Seasons as simply a tune and a figured bass, but later added a second part to it though the members of the ensemble point out that sometimes these second parts are a bit strange and don't really work. But both the bass line and this second line are completely secondary to the main melody line.

Whilst Highland dance was effectively codified in the 19th century, many of the dances that Kathleen does stem from the 18th century, though few if any written sources survive, so combining with this music has a certain synergy. And there would have been a great variation in the dances, being very regional with dancing masters travelling about the regions playing the fiddle and teaching dance. In fact, James Oswald's first job was as a dancing master in Dunfermline before he moved to Edinburgh, and thence to London.

Royal College of Music, some as undergraduates and others when doing their masters. And it turned out that Kathleen Gilbert's dance school is near where Thomas and Mary-Jannet live! Kathleen's background is not just in Highland dance, she has done choreography since she was a girl and did a masters degree in theatre and dance. She has also been a school teacher, so she had all the different strands necessary for the project enabling her to take Highland dance and choreograph it to the music, and to take workshops.
Ensemble Hesperi - Mary-Jannet Leith (recorders), Thomas Allery (harpsichord), Florence Petit (baroque cello) and Magdalena Loth-Hill (baroque violin)
Ensemble Hesperi: Mary-Jannet Leith (recorders), Thomas Allery (harpsichord), Florence Petit (baroque cello) and Magdalena Loth-Hill (baroque violin)
The members of Ensemble Hesperi all met whilst they were studying at the

The ensemble has been taking The Pheasant's Eye on a pretty extensive tour of the UK and to come are performances in Totnes (Totnes Early Music Society, 21 September 2019) and at the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) on 6 November 2019. At BREMF, as well as the concert at St. George's Church, they are giving a Highland dance workshop (on 5 October 2019 at St George's Church), something they have done at a number of other places on the tour. These workshops are given by Kathleen Gilbert, with live music from the ensemble, and are proving popular with everyone from six-year-olds to pensioners. Kathleen teaches the workshop participants some of the dances from the show and, if the venue is suitable, there is scope for workshop participants joining in the dance during the main concert! An additional one-off event at BREMF is a ceilidh (at St George's Church on 5 October), very much a Scottish country dance event rather than Highland dance, with and experienced caller but with 18th century tunes from the ensemble! They all feel that this is going to be fun, as the BREMF audience has a strong participatory element.

Kathleen and the ensemble want to continue collaborating, they already have dates booked for The Pheasant's Eye for next year and work on the programme has inspired them to collaborated on other ideas.

Full details of Ensemble Hesperi's performances from the group's website.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Prom 63: A 'nice mountain to climb', Yuja Wang, Dresden Staatskapelle, Myung-Whun Chung at the BBC Proms  (★★★) - concert review
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