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A Brief History of the Consort

and the Glasgow International Early Music Festival

The Scottish Early Music Consort started in the early 1970s as the three-piece St Andrews Consort. It adopted its present name when Warwick Edwards joined it in 1973. In 1976 its founder-director Nigel Wilkins moved away from Scotland and Edwards assumed the leadership, soon afterwards to be joined by Christopher Field as associate director. The group immediately expanded and toured extensively in Scotland and England. Its subscription concerts in Glasgow began in 1979 and quickly became a sell-out success. Similar concert series followed in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. A concert tour of Israel in 1982 proved to be the first of many engagements abroad, and the Consort's highly successful recordings - Mary's Music: Songs and Dances from the time of Mary, Queen of Scots and Auld Scottish Sangs: Scots songs collected by Robert Burns have both been reissued in the Chandos Chaconne Early Music Series.

SEMC's activities took a quantum leap during Glasgow's year as Cultural Capital of Europe 1990. The company's year-long series of events included performances with international guests such as Anner Bylsma and Ton Koopman, a four-country staged medieval spectacle at Mayfest, The Feast of the Pheasant, and the first Glasgow International Early Music Festival involving performers from twelve countries. Subsequently the Consort succeeded in maintaining the momentum and went from strength to strength. The fourth Glasgow festival in 1997 was the biggest ever and produced record box office sales.

During its 25-year life the Consort gave concerts and workshops over the entire length and breadth of Scotland from Shetland to Kirkcudbright, from Benbecula to Fraserburgh. It also toured in Belgium, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, Portugal and the USA, as well as England, Ireland and Wales.

The repertory ranged from medieval to early romantic, and even included specially commissioned works from composers Judith Weir and Tan Dun. Sharply focused programmes were a hallmark of the group. Each was carefully researched reflecting the company's close ties with the University of Glasgow where Edwards is a Senior Lecturer in Music. But whether the work in hand was light-hearted or soul-searching the company preferred to conceal its learning. As one commentator put it: `We were led somewhere new, moved close to tears, and booted back, smartly, into laughter'.

Staged productions have long been a speciality, beginning with Monteverdi: Songs of love and war (Roger Savage, 1982) and The Songbook of Louis de France (Frank Dunlop, 1985). Subsequently a series of creations by Kate Brown secured for SEMC its indelible stamp, notably four acclaimed international opera productions at successive early music festivals (La Vita Humana, La Baltasara, The Indian Queen and La Didone), but also an array of smaller but no less telling projects.

The company took an active interest in the training of musicians in the specialist skills required for performing the music of different periods. It prided itself in seeking out young talented performers and giving them the opportunity to work alongside experienced hands. The process accelerated when violinist Gregory Squire joined the company in 1992, bringing a vast experience of conventional orchestral work along with a unique flair and enthusiasm for early music of all kinds.The Scottish Early Music Consort's wide ranging repertory, and its ability to cross over the traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines, placed it well to engage in educational activities. Its members relished working in schools and with the disadvantaged. The Consort was a Sainsbury's Arts Education Award winner for its music-theatre workshop project Opera from Scratch which the Company took to remote Scottish communities, linking with a Highlands and Islands concert tour of Monteverdi's music.

The company's unique Celtic Voyages project (1997) brought together specialist performers in both medieval and Gaelic traditional music and dance, and involved children from Mull and the Western Isles. Making this show proved to be a powerful experience for all involved, ranging as it did from ninth-century music through traditional Gaelic song to contemporary dance, in a flexible format that adapted itself successfully to many different venues and performers. Residencies were held on Mull and Benbecula, and also on Lewis at Stornoway. The children from Mull took part in the performances for the Glasgow Celtic Connections festival. We also performed in Milan, where the queues for entrance stretched round the church.

It sums up much of the essence of the SEMC throughout its long history - an ensemble never afraid of new ideas, ready to draw new performers from all disciplines into its ambit, concerned to present music - and dance and words - from a repertoire no longer familiar, but thoroughly researched and precisely performed in an innovative fashion that always endeavoured to reach as many people as possible.

It was a great loss to the music scene not only in Scotland when the Consort had to disband in 1998 after more than 25 years of continuous concert activity. The Glasgow International Early Music Festival, which the Consort instigated in 1990, was discontinued at the same time. A problem that virtually all Scottish small arts companies face is dependency on executive directors who require day jobs to keep going. During 1998, Warwick Edwards was obliged to withdraw from the day-to-day affairs of the company in order to devote more time to teaching and research at the University of Glasgow. Shortly afterwards the restructuring of Scottish Ballet led to a drastic reduction in the amount of guaranteed work for its orchestra, forcing its leader Gregory Squire to spend considerable periods working away from Scotland (for example, six months of the year with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). With stage director Kate Brown based in London, and with no prospect of sufficient core funding for her to relocate in Scotland, the decision to call a halt to the company's operations became inescapable.

In spite of much publicized cutbacks in funding from traditional government sources SEMC had maintained its level of activity through the backing of a wide range of private and public promoters and sponsors. Glasgow City Council's commitment over the years was impressive, as has that of corporate sponsors such as Morgan Grenfell Development Capital, who sustained our Edinburgh concerts for many years, and Scottish Nuclear who backed several notable Glasgow events. To the end, the Scottish Early Music Consort remained financially solvent.

SEMC's chairman, John Moreland, said at the time

`It has been a privilege and great joy to work with such a dedicated group of talented artists on what was for me a journey of discovery into the roots and origins of music. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Consort was their skill in uncovering treasures from the past and presenting them with integrity to the delight of contemporary audiences. This was indeed music making at its best. Let us hope that the circumstances that forced the demise of the Consort do not prevail for ever.'

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