SFO Members on Celtic Music Radio

Ahead of the SFO’s concert at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 15 September 2018, on 23 August 2018, Celtic Music Radio broadcast a discussion their Sandy Weir had with Blair Parham (Conductor) and Bob Diament (Front of House Manager) of the SFO.

If you would like to listen to their segment in the show again, you can go to the following link and listen from about 11 minutes into the recording.

There’s a chance to win a pair of tickets for the Glasgow concert – open until 12 September.

The chat was interspersed with several tracks from the SFO’s Live CD “A Selection from the Caird and Usher Halls”.

Opening with the tune Fiddlers to the Fore from that CD, Bob and Blair explained that this was a composition of the late, great John Mason and was the first tune played by the SFO at its inaugural concert at Aberdeen Music Hall in 1980. 

The SFO was born out of the fiddlers’ rallies of the 1970s, which started as an add-on to the annual Gaelic Mod. It was the SFO’s founder, John Mason – still a major influence on the orchestra – who recognised that there was an appetite among musicians, and also a desire amongst the public, for big set-piece concerts.

The discussion then went into the SFO’s many tours over the years.

The orchestra has been lucky enough to go to Canada, Australia – and China in 2012/2013. The SFO has also been to Ireland several times and toured closer to home, such as to the Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Noting this range “from Lerwick to Shanghai”, Sandy asked to what extent are foreign audiences as enthusiastic as audiences closer to home?

Blair said that, certainly in North America, the SFO being in town had generally been regarded by locals as “a big deal”.

With the tour to China, on the other hand, the audiences were perhaps not quite sure what they were coming to see when they entered the concert hall (!). However, they quickly understood that it involved a bit of audience participation, some dancing, and fun and games. This was reflected in the fact that, as the tour went on from its start on Hogmanay 2012 and into 2013, the audience sizes steadily increased, as the word got out.

Sandy asked about the make-up of the orchestra in terms of instruments.

Bob explained that it is a fiddle orchestra but there are other instruments as well. In fact, he said that, as between Blair and him, Sandy would probably get a couple of different answers to that question.

Bob, as a fiddler, would say that the fiddles were clearly the mainstay and the most important component. He described the SFO as the biggest country dance band in the country. Fiddles and accordion are key to the sound of the orchestra but the percussion section is very important and we also have flutes, cellos and basses as well. But we are the fiddle orchestra.

Blair agreed that fiddles are the mainstay. However, he sent on to explain that, while he is the conductor of the orchestra nowadays, he began his SFO journey as a cellist – in the back row of the cellos. So, he tries to put the flag up for the cello section at all concerts to make sure they get their share of the limelight.

Sandy also asked about the administration of the orchestra and its philosophy.

Bob explained that the members of the orchestra come mainly from Scotland but also from further afield. We do six main concerts a year.

As among its membership, the SFO has a fantastic “family” atmosphere. If our audiences enjoy our concerts as much as we enjoy putting them on, it’s a success.

Sandy described his experience of a Scottish Fiddle Orchestra concert as being like a Hogmanay party that just goes on and on.

Blair agreed that a lot of thought goes into programming the concerts, to make sure that there is a good mix of the slower pieces and the faster jigs and reels. He said that the SFO tries to appeal to all the emotions. Indeed, a lot of the music the SFO plays will bring back memories for audience members. Our singers also bring a variety of songs with them: some of which are very well known and which people can join in with; others might be less well-known but hopefully enjoyable / moving / haunting.

One of the many innovations which John Mason brought in was joint performances between the orchestra and pipe bands.

As Bob emphasised, that is quite a difficult thing to put together.

John wrote some wonderful arrangements of well-known tunes as well as arrangements of some of his own compositions for pipe band and orchestra. As Bob said, if you have been to one of our concerts, you will remember this experience.

We tend to finish the first and second half of our concerts with big set-pieces of this type. It’s a fairly unique type of performance. People are moved by it. According to Sandy, it stirs the blood.

Sandy then played a set of 2/4 Pipe Marches – “The Islay Malts” – from the featured CD.

The whisky theme was a cue for the conversation to touch on the SFO’s recent Northern Nights Tour – a tour of the Highlands and Islands.

Bob explained that we started in Elgin Town Hall and then, over the next six days, by coach and various other means, we went to Orkney and Shetland and back to Aberdeen. There were four major concert in indoor venues. But we also did four drop-in/pop-up concerts which were a real success.

The orchestra loved it but the main purpose of the drop-in concerts was to raise money for our charity partners, the RNLI. The first drop-in concert was at the Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain. According to Bob: “You can imagine what the attraction there was”. John Mason always described a ceilidh as “a distillery set to music”. The Glenmorangie concert was in aid of Invergordon Lifeboat. We then did further concerts in Kirkwall and Lerwick for their respective RNLI funds.

Sandy then played a lively set of Shetland Reels from the Caird/Usher Hall CD.

The tune composers featured – Tom Anderson, Ronnie Cooper and Ian Burns – comprised a real Who’s Who of Shetland fiddle music.

The first tune in the set was Hurlock’s Reel, composed by Tom Anderson. Tom did much to preserve and promote Shetland fiddle music. He was really the precursor to folk like Aly Bain. He brought Shetland fiddle music back from a fairly dark place.

When the SFO were in Shetland, we got the opportunity to go up to Tom Anderson’s grave. If you get onto the SFO’s Facebook page, you can see how we played one of a couple of his best-known slow airs at his graveside, on a beautiful sunny day in Shetland.

Sandy took the opportunity to say “hello” to renowned Shetland fiddler, Maggie Adamson.

And Bob then mentioned the fact that, if  you go on to the SFO’s Facebook page, you will find a photograph of Maggie, standing on the deck of  traditional fishing sail boat, The Swan, and holding a poster promoting the SFO’s Northern Nights Tour.

The SFO also owes Maggie’s Mum a debt of gratitude.

Fiona Adamson runs High Level Music in Lerwick. She provided the power for us to plug a keyboard in for our pop-up concert in Lerwick.

That is one of the great things you can do on tour: just turn up somewhere and play.

Blair explained that he had only been to Shetland once before – years ago – with the orchestra. It did not rain but you could hardly see six feet in front of you, it was so misty. Blair had been told that Shetland was a stunningly beautiful place but he had had to take other people’s word for it until he saw it for himself on the Northern Nights Tour.

If the weather had not been so phenomenal, the atmosphere at the outdoor concerts would not have been the same and these concerts may not even have taken place at all.

The High Level Music concert was certainly memorable. According to Bob, we only lost one pedestrian to a car accident – it was only a minor abrasion (this is an exaggeration – no one was injured). We had people “dancing in the streets” of Lerwick at the Market Cross.

Bob went on to say that, in general, it was quite daunting for us to be playing in Shetland because you’re playing to a very talented and knowledgeable audience. He thought that, by the end of the concert (at Clickimin Leisure Centre) we had kind of convinced them that we knew what we were doing. They are a tough audience but they have every right to be so because the standard of fiddle playing in Shetland is so high.

They then discussed the Competition to win a pair of tickets to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall concert on 15 September 2018.

For more details of the competition – which is open until 12 September 2018 –  go to this page on the Celtic Music Radio website. All you have to do is answer a simple question in order to enter.

Sandy played a couple more tracks from the SFO CD. Firstly, Willie Kidd’s Welcome to Orkney – a tune written by John Mason for one of our stalwart accordionists and an SFO founder member. And, secondly, Highland Cathedral, which rounded off the chat.

Tickets for the SFO concert in Glasgow can be obtained direct from the Royal Concert Hall or via the RCH website.

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