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'The Pheasant's Eye - Dancing the Scottish Baroque'

Over the last few months, Ensemble Hesperi has been busy researching the wonderful world that is Scottish Baroque music, showcasing its unique charm, and introducing it to new audiences as often as we can. In June, at the Stroud Green Festival in London, we launched our new collaborative project, ‘The Pheasant’s Eye’, which brings the infectious dance rhythms of Scottish Baroque music to life through a collaboration with fantastic Highland dancer Kathleen Gilbert. Throughout the project, we’ll be performing as a newly expanded ensemble, with our good friends Magdalena Loth-Hill (Baroque Violin) and Florence Petit (Baroque Cello) – we’re delighted to have them on board! We’ll be offering a feast of new (to the 21st century at least!) repertoire by our favourite Scottish composers, including gorgeous trio sonatas by the Earl of Kellie and William McGibbon, as well as some new James Oswald airs, featuring a second part written specially for his enthusiastic subscribers.

Following the success of our duo programme at the Utrecht and Brugge Early Music Fringe festivals last year, we were determined to explore this relatively undiscovered repertoire further. In April, Thomas Allery and I travelled to Dundee to visit the Wighton Collection, a fantastic collection of Scottish 18th and 19th century music. We were warmly welcomed by the Friends of Wighton, who showed us around, and let us root around the collection to our heart’s content! We only scratched the surface of the gems there, but already discovered some unusual and unperformed repertoire - watch this space! And it was a wonderful treat to see a manuscript copy of James Oswald's Airs for the Seasons, in his own hand. But although research is fun, and endlessly fascinating, we do believe that performance is the only way to preserve musical traditions for the future. We want our audiences to be able to experience the strong folk traditions which are at the roots of Scottish Baroque music, and to see for themselves the link between music and dance, which is inherent in all Scottish music. After all, many of our Scottish-born composers were inspired by the lyricism of the folk and traditional music that they heard around them, and James Oswald himself began life as a dancing master. So, the only way forward was to combine traditional Scottish dance and Scottish Baroque music to create a fantastic fusion!

We are incredibly lucky to Kathleen Gilbert on board for this project; Kathleen is an expert Highland dancer based in West London, who is also highly experienced as a teacher and workshop leader – a perfect fit for our project! Working with a dancer has been a wonderful and very rewarding experience – and something which has certainly enhanced our understanding of the music itself. We were initially a little apprehensive, but after our first meeting with Kathleen, we quickly worked out roughly what the project was going to look like, and most importantly, what shape our pre-concert dance workshop might take.

First, we had to select parts of our repertoire suitable for Kathleen to choreograph. In many ways, we were spoilt for choice. Even when writing in ‘Baroque style’, much of our composers’ writing reveals Scottish dance forms: jigs and hornpipes take the place of traditional sonata movements. However, despite their heritage, it turned out that James Oswald et al. didn’t always considerately prioritise writing the ideal number of bars… Fortunately Kathleen was able to adapt existing dances very skilfully to suit our irregular (!) music, and we soon identified two catchy Scottish dance movements which were just perfect for our two audience participation ‘numbers’. The first is a ‘Giga’ from a sonata by John Reid, an Edinburgh-based composer, who was part of James Oswald’s mysterious ‘Temple of Apollo’ in London. This movement, masquerading as an Italian Baroque, is really a Scots jig - fantastically catchy, perfect for dancing. The other piece is a fantastic variation set by Robert Bremner, which has an earworm of a melody which is guaranteed to get stuck in your head for a week or two…

So, to rehearsal for our launch in June! In order to test our collaborative material, we hired a dance studio for a few hours, and Kathleen showed us the amazing dances she had choreographed, including a fantastic Sailor’s Hornpipe for the ‘Hornpipe’ in James Oswald’s Air ‘The Tulip.’ Of course, it was very important for us to get a feel for the Highland dance steps, and to make sure that the dances for the workshop were possible even for those with very little or no prior dance experience (such as ourselves!). So here is a little clip of our harpsichordist Thomas Allery, having great fun learning the basic Highland ‘Shedding Step’:

We were very happy with our showcase workshop and concert at Stroud Green Festival in June. Our pre-concert workshop was well-attended, and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves under Kathleen’s guidance! It was wonderful to see dancers of all ages there – and to encourage those who might not have otherwise been interested in Early Music to learn a little about what we do. We have applied for Arts Council Funding for ‘The Pheasant’s Eye’, and we’re waiting to hear the outcome as I write…

So, to keep up with our news, and find a concert near you in 2019, head to, and subscribe to our newsletter. We’d love to see you, and to introduce you to our little piece of Scotland. And if you’re London based, you can always get ahead of the game, and try some Highland dancing at Kathleen Gilbert’s dance school: Here’s a little inspiration from Stroud Green….

Mary-Jannet Leith - Ensemble Hesperi

Pictures and videos with kind permission of Robert Piwko Photography

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