Belfast 30th June 1991
The Royal Albert Hall in London is packed to capacity – over three thousand people – all clapping to the music with dozens of them jumping up from their seats and dancing in the aisles.
No, it isn’t the last night of the Proms but the annual concert of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra (SFO) on June 22nd.
The orchestra was formed in 1980 and emerged from gatherings of fiddle players which are held regularly all over Scotland. Their stated aim was to have a group of approximately 150 keen and interested musicians who would play together consistently, provide a series of concerts in the main Scottish cities, and work together to create the finest possible standard of orchestral fiddle playing without detracting from the traditional strains of Scottish music.
The inaugural concert of the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra took place on March 22nd 1980, at the Music Hall, Aberdeen. Since that time the orchestra has settled into a sequence of six concerts each year – in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Dundee, and The Royal Albert Hall, London.
But it is important to remember that this is a fully fledged orchestra with a conductor, not a Ceilidh band or folk group. In the Albert hall there were 100 musicians on the stage, about 75 violins with ‘cellos, basses, flutes, accordions, pipers and percussion, most of them playing from written scores on music stands. They all wear formal dress, but in this case kilts and clan colours are considered perfectly formal.
It is also important to remember that even though their standards are professional, the SFO is not a professional orchestra in the sense that the members make their living from their music. Each member gives freely of his or her time without any financial reward and they play for a wide range of charities.. And what a mixed lot they are. Doctors, coalminers, retired policemen, bank officials, publicans, and the Musical Director is a solicitor.
But don’t get me wrong and do not think for a moment that the SFO is a formal group playing for a quiet, passive conservative drawing-room audience. Under their conductor, John Mason, they create an excitement and hilarity which we get from traditional groups like the Chieftans. The reels, jigs, hornpipes and strathspeys drive the listeners wild, and as I said drove a lot of them dancing in the aisles. One elderly lady ran up to the stage in the Albert Hall and looked up the conductor’s kilt “to see what she could see”. She didn’t report her findings.
The music of J. Scott Skinner is very much part of the SFO’s programme and this has an appeal far beyond the shores of Scotland.
In the Albert Hall we all joined in the Glasgow waltz selection and claimed in chorus that we belonged to that European City of Culture. With the drinks coming into our box (courtesy of Tennants, Ireland), we could almost claim on that Saturday night that Glasgow belonged to us. The great songs of Robbie Burns were sung by Mary Sandeman (mezzo-soprano) and James Nicol (tenor).
The conductor of the SFO is John Mason. But he is not your stiff autocratic Herbert von Karajan up there in his podium asserting his authority. Mason is certainly in charge but, in his bright kilt, at times he moves from the conductor’s spot and faces the audience as they join in the fun and light-heartedness.
Mason is also a composer in his own right, and doing for Scottish music what Sean O’ Riada or Shaun Davey, or Michael O’Suillibhain have done for Irish music. There is a close association between the SFO and Ireland which came about when John Mason and Dr Gerry Crean, one of the founding fathers of the orchestra, discovered Dan Larkin’s pub, the Barge Inn in Garrykennedy. This is a lovely spot on the shores of Lough Derg between Neagh and Killaloe in Co. Tipperary, and is very much traditional music country. The great accordion player, Paddy O’Brien, lived there, and Dan Larkin himself is a fiddle player, and is now an associate member of the SFO.
Dr. Gerry Crean is a native of Gorey, Co. Wexford and is the chief consultant in the gastro-enterology centre in the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. He reads learned research papers at Medical Conferences in different parts of the world, but never travels without his fiddle.
The SFO were very involved last year when Glasgow was the Cultural Capital of Europe. With Dublin taking over this title for 1991 the orchestra got the happy idea of a handing-over operation by giving concerts in Ireland.
They are in fact giving two concerts, the first in Belfast in the Ulster hall on Friday, August 30th, and the second in Dublin in the National Concert Hall on August 31st.
The proceeds of the Dublin concert go to Our Lady’s Hospice, Harold’s Cross. This concert is co-sponsored by the Lions Club of Ireland. On the Dublin evening the Orchestra will mix a lot of Irish with their Scottish music, and will be joined by Dan Larkin and the Garrykennedy Heritage Players.
One memory of the Albert hall evening confirms for me the common bond between Irish and Scottish musicians. When the concert was over we all went back to the Forum Hotel in the Cromwell Road. The music and the dancing started again and the last ones struggled off to bed at 5 o’clock in the morning. How often have I seen this happen.
Make sure to catch The Scottish Fiddle Orchestra in Dublin or Belfast. If you miss them you’ll be sorry.
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