How the remotest outpost in the British Isles staged an orchestral concert

Forty miles from its nearest Hebridean neighbours, St Kilda has just had its first orchestral performance. Claire Jackson finds out how they did it

Craggy mountains watch over pale sands and turquoise seas. At times, the beach could be mistaken for a tropical resort; except visitors are far more likely to be wearing trekking gear rather than trunks. And there are no sun loungers or cocktail bars – in fact, local pub the Puff Inn recently closed its doors. St Kilda, the far-flung Scottish archipelago some 40 miles from its nearest neighbour in the Outer Hebrides, is a place of isolated beauty. The islands have been virtually uninhabited since 1930, when the population was evacuated. Hirta, the largest of the cluster, is home only to military personnel, visiting conservation workers and scientists. It is not an obvious location to include in a musical tour, but then, Nevis Ensemble are not your usual musicians.

The orchestra has performed across Scotland, from the summit of its namesake, Ben Nevis, to Edinburgh Airport, alongside dozens of community venues. Over the summer, Nevis Ensemble embarked on the biggest ever tour of the Hebrides by an orchestra and made history by becoming the first classical group to perform on St Kilda. The band, travelling on four chartered boats, reached the island on August 24, where they performed Rebecca Dale’s Soay, and James MacMillan’s Hirta. The two pieces feature on The Lost Songs of St Kilda (Decca; 2016), a collection of traditional songs passed on through St Kilda resident Trevor Morrison.

Glasgow-born Morrison had learned the folk tunes when he lived on the Isle of Bute. In his final years as a resident of an Edinburgh care home, Morrison played the melodies at informal concerts. A&R executive Fiona Pope heard about the works and transcribed the songs, which were then reimagined by Scottish composers including Francis MacDonald and Craig Armstrong. Sadly, Morrison did not get to see the album’s success, as he died in 2012. (The Lost Songs of St Kilda went on to become the fastest-selling posthumous artist debut in history.)


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Nevis Ensemble, led by Holly Mathieson and Jon Hargreaves, also visited Barra, Vatersay, Eriskay, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Berneray, Harris, Lewis and Skye. This autumn, the group embarks on a series of new community music projects, including working with those with experience of homelessness, young carers and older people living with dementia.

Back inside the concert hall and there are equally groundbreaking developments afoot. The BBC Philharmonic has launched Notes, an app that updates audience members in real time during a concert. Now, before you start tutting – also my initial reaction – the software uses a darkened screen, with notifications just a soft glow. To ensure that this does not impact on other concert-goers’ enjoyment, the BBC Phil’s regular venue, Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, encourages Notes users to sit in a specially dedicated section. The notes comprise short snippets of information about the piece played by the orchestra, adding an additional layer to the experience. They are intended for newcomers to classical music, to guide the uninitiated through the quagmire of movements, opus numbers and foreign-language words.

The app had its first public outing at the Relaxed Prom last month, where visitors to the Royal Albert Hall were led through excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini via digital notes dispatched at regular intervals. The app will never replace the long-form programme notes that so many of us enjoy reading, but they do offer an immediacy that will be welcomed by screen-savvy generations. Sample Notes at the next BBC Phil concert, featuring Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, on September 21, followed by Mahler’s Symphony No.5 (October 24) and Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale (November 2), all at Bridgewater Hall.