LAST year the people of Inverness became guinea pigs in a bold new experiment by the Scottish Ensemble.
The Highland Capital became the first city in Scotland to host a residency by the classical musicians, taking them beyond their usual venues into the community with concerts in nursing homes, shopping centres, art galleries and now even pubs.
The experiment obviously worked because this weekend Inverness hosts the first in a new series of Scottish Ensemble residencies.
"It was all quite new last time because it was our first time doing something like this, but we’ve learnt a few things since then," Ensemble director Jonathan Morton said.
"It’s great going into the second year. This time I’m purely looking forward to it. Last time there was a mixture of that and trepidation."
In the event, last year went well — with the possible exception of the Ensemble’s part in Inverness’s Halloween celebrations at Ness Islands.
"It was just so incredibly cold!" he stated.
"I was lucky — we did it two nights running and I was the second night and by then the players who were on the first night told us that we literally needed 25 layers of clothing if we were going to have any chance of moving our fingers.
"But as far as I can remember, that was the only challenge that was a little bit harder than expected."
Fortunately this year’s Inverness residency should offer no such challenges. Not only is this year’s residency taking place a month earlier than last year, the Scottish Ensemble’s musicians will not be expected to play outside on this visit.
As well as their main Russian themed concert at Eden Court’s OneTouch Theatre on Sunday and a more intimate chamber music concert within the Bishop’s Palace on Saturday afternoon, the weekend residency will also find the Ensemble’s players out and about playing community performances at the Corbett Centre in Merkinch, the Southside Nursing Home and Hilton Community Centre, as well as providing the music for an afternoon tea dance at Inverness Town House.
"Inverness was our first ever tea dance, so it will always have a special place in our memory," Morton added.
"We’ve done a few now and it worked so well, so yes, we’ll do it again."
If the Scottish Ensemble tea dance is by now a tried and tested element of a Scottish Ensemble residency, then this evening will see them step into new territory quite literally with a session at Hootananny’s on Church Street, better known for shows by traditional musicians rather than classical concerts.
"We are always looking to try new things," Morton said.
"In Aberdeen we did a late night event with some of the students and burlesque dancers and DJs and that worked really well. The idea is to go into somewhere that has a different kind of music going on and bring what we do to it. But of course, we are not just going to go in and do a straight gig. It’s been fun. The musicians are being given five minute slots and they are deciding what to play. It’s going to be very eclectic and very informal. It’s happening a lot in London where classical musicians go to a pub on a Friday night and play a Hayden quartet."
Among the musicians taking part is Alastair Savage, who leads his own traditional fiddle trio when not playing violin with the Scottish Ensemble, but other Ensemble members taking part will be offering samples of music as diverse as Eastern European folk and American minimalism, as well as some more familiar classical numbers.
Hootananny’s more regular traditional musicians will also be participating and Morton hopes there will be a chance for a trad/classical session later on.
Then there is the concert that Morton cannot say anything about as yet — the Scottish Ensemble’s surprise pop up performance.
"We have done those in every other city we’ve done a residency, but not Inverness," he acknowledged.
"They have been fun, so we are going to treat you."
If the aim of the Scottish Ensemble residencies was to extend the audience for classical music, it seems to have worked.
"Every time we went back to a city after a residency, it felt different," Morton said.
"You felt the warmth on stage. But that said, audiences in Inverness have always been good for us."
• The Scottish Ensemble’s second Inverness residency runs until Sunday.
It includes: afternoon chamber music in the MacLean Room, Eden Court, today, Friday 27th September, at 12.15pm; Tea Dance Inverness Town House tomorrow at 3.30pm; From Russia with Love concert in OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, on Sunday at 8pm with a pre-concert talk at 7.15pm and music from Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.
Scottish Ensemble members will also be in session at Hootananny’s Ceilidh Bar on Church Street from 8.30pm to 10pm this evening.