Review: Scottish Saxophone Ensemble

The Scottish Saxophone Ensemble present haunting psalms and whirling reels by contemporary Irish and Scottish composers Ian Wilson, Ross Ainslie and Eddie McGuire, and welcomes special guest Fraser Fifield, with his Traditions Suite for Saxophone Quintet.  Some of Scotland’s finest saxophone talent, they have performed in Strasbourg and Bangkok, as well as the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and Perth Concert Hall.  They were the hosts of the 16th World Saxophone Congress, St Andrews 2012 and were part of the 2013 Made in Scotland Music Showcase.  “A stirring heterophony” (Scotsman). “Impressive and diverse” **** (

I was a little intimidated about this gig.  Four saxophones?  No strings?  Hmmmmm.  I shouldn’t have worried though as the Scottish Saxophone Ensemble delivered an infectious, toe-tapping treat.  My only regret is this was a one-off and folk I know who would have greatly enjoyed it would miss out.  Tough, because fortune favours the brave and this was a marvellous chance to hear some of Scotland’s top brass players perform.

The gig opened with Eddie McGuire‘s Celtic Knotwork, which I’ve since discovered was written for three flutes, making it an unusual piece at the very least for a quartet of saxophones to play.  However, from the opening bars it takes you away on a lush, swooping journey that I’d happily experience again.  Following that, the Ensemble were joined by Fraser Fifield for his Traditions Suite, a piece commissioned for Celtic Connections 2001’s New Voices series.  The Ensemble’s leader, Sue McKenzie, explained that they want to take such commissioned pieces and ensure that they don’t gather dust having had their one airing.  My words, not hers.  Having heard the Suite, I completely agree.  Listening to it you could hear echo of what I feel are the piece’s ancestors, from Poor Paddy Works on the Railway and the Fields of Athenry, as well as close cousins such as Harry’s Theme by Clannad and the soundtracks for Local Hero and the Third Man.  At least to my ears anyway.  At times I could have sworn that there was a fiddle joining in with the brass instruments on stage but this was more a reflection of how well and skilfully the five musicians played.  For my money, that piece should be available in her library throughout Scotland so young aspiring musicians can learn where they are aiming for and the public can enjoy music that only a select few have heard so far.

The Ensemble then played Heaven Lay Close by Ian Wilson, accompanied by Sodhi on tabla.  Heaven Lay Close is a unique piece of music to say the least, given it is written by an Irishman for a sax quartet and Indian tabla.  I’m not sure what was consumed in Ian Wilson’s studio when he came up with that idea but I want some.  Not just because it is a mad combination but because it works so well together.  Actually, scrap that, it works brilliantly.  I dread to think how hard the four movements are to play given their complexity and the way they build to a passionate crescendo.  Then again, as my mate Tony always tells me, “If it’s easy, you ain’t doing it right.”  In this case, he’s damn right.  To finish, the Ensemble performed an arrangement of Ross Ainslie‘s Galore, which was lush and a perfect end to a wonderful hour’s worth of music.  My one complaint is that there was no opportunity to dance along with the incredible music the Scottish Saxophone Ensemble produced.  Given my history of dad dancing, that’s probably not a bad thing.

I can’t finish this review without commenting on the venue, St Andrew’s and St George’s West on George St.  One of the beauties of the Fringe is getting to visit buildings you would normally never set foot in, which this beautiful New Town church comes under.  The has a semi-circular nave, which makes for a great auditorium, with enclosed rows of pews at the back.  Once I realised these were available to sit in I jumped into one of the front booths, which gave me the freedom to jig about a bit without disturbing anybody else in the audience.  As my Lady KD will happily tell you, at times it’s like having jittery pony next to you and she once threatened to give me a pair of coconut shells so I could produce the sound of hoofs.  Sitting in a pew on my tod gave me to dance in my seat and further enjoy the music, which I was very grateful for.  The only down point from the whole evening was the grumpy volunteer who was on the door.  Now, I know one or two things about being a grumpy volunteer, at a venue or just in general, but I always knew that the paying customer should at least be treated in a civil manner.  This elderly gentleman did not and I can only presume that he was from the church’s congregation and resented the great unwashed entering it.  He certainly didn’t make me feel welcome on the two occasions I spoke to him and made me think twice about returning there.  He won’t stop me but I wonder how many others he might have put off seeing shows there.

About LothiansKen

I'm a middle classed kiddie, but I know where I stand.
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