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Seen and Heard Festival Review


Mendelssohn on Mull: 27 June – 3 July, 2004 reviewed by John Warnaby


The Mendelssohn on Mull Festival must be counted among the more unusual events in the British festival calendar. Your reviewer first made its acquaintance in 2003, when there was sufficient funding to enable the organisers to stage a concert in Glasgow. This was excellent publicity, even if a critic, who shall remain anonymous, suggested that the event should be confined to the island. This year they were able to mount a concert in Oban Cathedral. In fact, the outstanding work achieved by Mendelssohn on Mull deserves maximum publicity, as well as financial encouragement.


Mendelssohn on Mull was the brainchild of the violinist Leonard Friedman, who founded the Festival in 1988 and was Artistic Director until his death in 1994. Several Artistic Directors followed, with Levon Chilingirian – founder of the Chilingirian String Quartet and musical director of the recently formed Swedish ensemble, Camerata Roman – assuming the role in 2003. He was supported by five additional mentors: four experienced string players plus a pianist who was also a trained singer. They guided fifteen specially invited young professionals at the start of their careers through a repertoire of 14 works by 8 composers, ranging from Haydn’s String Quartet op. 42, of 1772, to an arrangement for string orchestra of the slow movement of Shostakovitch’s 10th Quartet of 1964. This year, there was actually no Mendelssohn, who made way for Dvorak, commemorating the centenary of his death.


The mentors and their younger colleagues were divided into three groups for the majority of the 13 concerts distributed among three castles plus various churches and community centres spread around the island. The repertoire comprised string quartets by Haydn and Mozart; string quintets by Mozart and Dvorak, plus Schubert’s "Trout" Quintet; Dvorak’s Sextet and Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht in the string sextet original.

After four days of strenuous activity, the three groups were beginning to assume distinct identities. Each offered a quartet by Haydn or Mozart, but it was in the other works that their particular characteristics were most apparent. The group led by Marcia Crayford – former long-term leader of the Nash Ensemble – was possibly the most refined in the two sextets; the ensemble guided by Levon Chilingirian faced the intellectual challenge of Mozart’s String Quintet in C, K. 515, together with Dvorak’s String Quintet in E flat, op. 97; while the group led by Gaby Lester was particularly active, adding Schubert’s "Trout" Quintet to their string quintet repertoire. In view of Dvorak’s debt to folk music, their vigorously rustic interpretation of his string quintet with double-bass, op. 77, was especially appropriate.


During the latter stages of the week, the three groups were also combined to form an impressively cohesive string orchestra. They presented a sequence of slow movements in Iona Abbey, taking advantage of the resonant acoustic.


However, the strings were at their best in the final concert in Tobermory, when they participated in three of the items. The mentor accompanist, Richard Jeffcoat, sang three of Dvorak’s Biblical Songs in Czech, having arranged the piano part for string orchestra; the young Estonian composer, Mihkel Kerem – who was present as one of the violinists – provided a string orchestral arrangement of an early octet; and the concert concluded with a powerful reading of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.


With one exception, the various small venues were filled to capacity, and the programmes were greeted with genuine enthusiasm by a mixture of locals and tourists. There was also an outreach educational programme for which the Festival received a small grant from the Scottish Arts Council. The emphasis was on primary schools, and it is notable that they were able to form more than one string ensemble. The Government’s indifference to music education is such that equivalent schools in our big cities would be hard put to muster a single instrumentalist, let alone an instrumental group.


In fact, the entire Festival should be regarded as an outreach programme for funding purposes, as there are few other opportunities for the 3000 inhabitants of Mull to experience ‘live’ music of a comparable standard. Above all, the participants undoubtedly benefited from being able to prepare and present concerts in a relaxed environment. It would be surprising if their careers as chamber and even orchestral musicians have not been enriched by the whole venture.


John Warnaby

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