John’s orchestra has had the world reeling for 25 years.
Sunday Post, May 22nd 2005
John Mason has heard all the jokes about lawyers and fiddling, but he can’t complain – he’s one of Scotland’s greatest fiddlers.
The former solicitor is musical director of the world-renowned Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. He’s conducted the orchestra since it began in 1980 and, with co-conductor Andrew McGarva, will have the baton again this week for their Silver Jubilee concert at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.
Under his guidance the SFO has raised more than £1 million for charities, toured the globe and performed many times for royalty. Not bad for a wee lad from the Orkney Isles who didn’t like to practice the piano. John was brought up in Kirkwall by musical parents. He was given fiddle lessons by his uncle, and was sent off each week for piano lessons. “I never practised when I was at home” he laughed, “but my piano teacher was always ready to rap me with a ruler”.
At the age of 11 John’s family moved to Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway, and it soon became evident he was a natural fiddle player. “I listened to Radio Scotland and tried to learn tunes by ear”. “I played the fiddle at school and was always called up to play at school country dances. But when I went to university, my father banned me from taking my fiddle. He wanted me to concentrate on my work”.
While John was studying for his law degree at Edinburgh University, his father died. John found comfort in his music and started playing again. He formed a band with fellow students and played a number of concerts. “We got a regular gig at a bingo hall where we played as the ladies came in and out”. After university, John got a job practising law in Newton Stewart, then in Troon where he still lives with wife Hilary. He took on his first conducting job with the local Strings of Scotland orchestra. During the 1970s they took part in a large number of fiddler’s rallies.
“In 1978 we played a rally in the Royal Albert Hall and the recording was called “John Mason conducts The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. That’s where the talk began to form a proper national fiddle group. In 1980 John led the inaugural concert at the Music Hall in Aberdeen. He’s never looked back. There are 120 members in the SFO and a waiting list of Scotland’s best musicians to get a place. The SFO play 5 concerts a year in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, York and London, and have toured in Russia, India and New Zealand.
There are few conductors like John who can lead an orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall one week, and play the same show for the Women’s Institute in Monckton Village Hall the next. “After one song I got a tap on the leg and a wee lady asked, “Can you take a break so we can raffle the sponge”. That never happened at the Albert Hall.
In 1987 the Queen awarded John the MBE for services to music. In 1983 Princess Anne agreed to become patron of the SFO and in 2000 he joined the orchestra at Windsor Castlewhere they played for the Princess on her 50th birthday. Again he had the chance to meet the Queen. “She told me she was enjoying the music, and suggested it’d be nice if we could just clear the floor and have a dance”.
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