Credit Mairi Crosby

The Kelvin Ensemble’s Voyages of the Sea

By Jeevan Farthing

Culture Editor Jeevan Farthing attends the Kelvin Ensemble’s bi-annual concert, and speaks to its chairperson, Nick Baughan.

No one quite knew where the queue started and ended. The endearing chaos of Hunter Halls – a charmingly functional but far less elaborate version of Bute Hall – was the result of a sold out concert from the Kelvin Ensemble: the University of Glasgow’s student run orchestra. Its chairperson, Nick Baughan, spoke to The Glasgow Guardian before the event, and emphasised the “challenges in getting a venue that’s big enough for us all in previous years”. Though evidently a problem not quite resolved by the move to Hunter Halls, it attests to the success of the orchestra.

The audience were crammed into an assortment of ill-fitting classroom chairs, frantically scrambled together to fit as many people into the experience as possible. Nick described the double sellout – with even an extra round of tickets being snapped up almost immediately – as “overwhelming, but in a great way. It’s lovely there’s so much interest in classical music”. This was surely even more apparent coming out of the pandemic period: the year before they had to restrict their audience size to 60, and the year before that they couldn’t have one at all. I asked Nick what happened to Kelvin during Covid-19, and he said they were “keen to keep Kelvin as we thought Covid-19 would only last 6 weeks (as most of the country did) – it was a difficult year as we couldn’t perform in person, but it was important that we met up as a society on zoom. Even if it wasn’t like what it normally was, it was great for our collective mental health to still protect a time once a week to see friends and still try and make music. We did live stream concerts, recording in our own bedrooms and mixing it all together.”

A sweet endeavour, for sure, but incomparable to a live audience of 300 people. This one was a genuine mixture of students current, past, and future, friends and family of the players, but also members of the public who enjoy classical music. Diversity stretches to the members of the orchestra, too, which Nick said is “one of my favourite things about the whole society. Almost every age and course at the uni is covered for, from first years to postgraduates, and from music students to science to languages to engineering. It really encourages us to build friendships and work alongside people we wouldn’t otherwise meet.”

Eventually, this collection of students made their way down the aisles – instruments in hand – and onto the stage. A few family members were enthusiastic (or shameless) enough to capture the march on camera. Some students gave a tentative wave with their bow strings, another was on crutches. “Stand up and wave!”, one parent instructed another (to no avail). It must have been a proud moment, though, made all the more intimate without the seamless flow of musicians out of dark enclaves you see in concert halls. It was then time the bricolage of the pre-tuning kerfuffle; an amalgamation of individuals producing mere noise. There was music in there somewhere, but it wasn’t not Mendelssohn, or Smyth, or Korsakev. The theme for this concert was “Voyages of the Sea”, and I wondered how Kelvin came to choose their repertoire. Nick said that we “reach out to the rest of the orchestra for suggestions, as we’re really keen to have involvement from as many people as possible. We also have the input of our conductor, John Grant. We have to choose what pieces work well together, and get feedback from members on whether the repertoire in previous years was too hard or not hard enough.”

The first piece, Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Op. 26, was, according to the programme, “inspired by his excursion to the Scottish island of Staffa, with its basalt sea cave known as Fingal’s Cave”. It was a beautifully tranquil – but perhaps somewhat forgettable – opening, with the delicacy and sweeping grandeur of the strings depicting the calm and serene sea we idealise and romanticise. Perhaps most impressive was the intricacy of the degree of pressure applied by the bow on the strings, while some semi-intense thumping was never enough to overwhelm the complete stillness of the quiet moments.

While Mendelssohn’s piece offered a private retreat, Ethyl Smyth’s Overture to “The Wreckers” – inspired by a walking holiday in Cornwall – was more akin to the bumpy and messy reality of life at sea. The piece stops and starts: it’s a bit chaotic, a bit here and there. The triangle and tambourine were afforded their five seconds of glory, although even these sweet moments were nowhere near as lush and dreamy as in The Hebrides. Mendelssohn’s piece was the Mediterranean, Smyth’s was the Clyde on a wet and windy winter morning; Mendelssohn’s the Paddle Steamer Waverley, Smyth’s the fishing boat. What’s so fantastic about the choice of the sea as a theme is its complexity; offering both an escapist wonderland, as well as harder and sterner moments which really showcase the breadth of talent and effort on stage.

The first half of the show went by extremely quickly, thus accommodating an interval that felt longer than both sections of the performance, only emphasising the social nature of the occasion. It had to incorporate a raffle, too, reminding the audience that the orchestra putting the concert on for us is, after all, self-funded. Nick said in our conversation that they “do really rely on income from concert tickets, but also bake sales on university campus, and membership fees, which we try to keep as low as possible”. I asked him how students could get involved: “we host auditions every September and we have a series of marketing stunts before then, such as at the freshers fair or through our social media, to encourage people to join […] We generally manage to recruit quite well which we’re fortunate to be able to. Each year there are certain sections which are lacking – this year we found that we struggled to find basses – but after promoting things a bit more we found enough for the concerts […] Alongside this are a committee of 18 students who have a variety of different roles from organising concerts to the players and publicity. As chairperson my role is to coordinate everything and make sure everyone is happy with the roles and bring them together.” It was almost unsurprising to hear that it’s Nick’s fifth year involved in the orchestra and his fourth on committee – there’s a clear love for it which allows him to ably balance his duties as chairperson with the intensity of medical placements. 

After much mingling and chatter it was time for himself – and the other hundred-odd members of the orchestra – to return to the stage for Rimsky Korsakev’s Scheherazade Op. 35, undoubtedly the main showpiece of the event. Despite opening in unison, the piece was particularly effective in shining a light on the individual abilities of each of the musicians: the harp had its time to shine, there was an oboe solo, a double stopped violin solo, to name a few. This piece required especially intense conducting, but Nick described John Grant “as so passionate and enthusiastic with our society. He’s knowledgeable and very experienced, conducting and playing flute in high profile orchestras around the world.”

On the sheet in front of Grant’s dark suit – an especially vivid shade of black – were captivating (if not pleasant), fragments of melodies, sitting alongside each other rather than flowing into one another. Some parts were mischievous, others ethereal, but there seemed an inherent solemnity to Korakev’s fascination with the sea, inspired by a voyage to America undertaken in his youth. The metre of the piece changed constantly – indeed we started clapping too early at least once – and it seemed astounding to even think about breaking something like this up in rehearsals. Nick said that they started rehearsing in early October, which really doesn’t sound like a long time. “It has been a busy 6-ish weeks”, he explained, “with a lot of hard work every Tuesday evening in the main concert hall and all day weekend rehearsals.” Texturally, the Scheherezade really captured the full capacity of the orchestra. While the strings overpowered with ease, even tuned percussion managed to sneak its way into the mix, while the cymbals complemented in moments of high drama. The high high E played on one of the violins near the end was flawless.

While more substantial than the Mendelssohn or the Smyth, the Korsakev also ended very quickly, and before long each section started to stand up to rapturous applause. However this was not, in fact, the end, with the conductor announcing a surprise encore (Nick kept that one quiet). Apparently this was a break with tradition, but as the distinctive rhythm of the Pirates of the Caribbean theme started, the smiles and nods from the audience rendered it worth doing. It was almost the most impressive performance of the lot, being completely unexpected, and I can only imagine all members were told to keep it a secret from their friends and family during rehearsals. It’s especially hard to establish an artist-crowd relationship in classical concerts – sonority and vibes have to do the work of charisma and audience pandering – but it’s pieces like this, that everyone can enjoy, which make orchestras accessible to those with little knowledge of the classical canon, and are the most conducive to a real connection being forged between the performer and the spectator.

A student-run orchestra produces a concert experience like no other: a first-rate performance, but accompanied by the sweet amateurness of parents craning their necks to catch a glimpse of their wonderkids marching down the hallway, or intensely turning the pages of their scores. The Kelvin Ensemble were sharing a programme with us, not performing to us, and while Nick said he’d be really keen for the orchestra to return to playing outwith the confines of campus, they don’t need a world tour to love what they do.
Find out more about the ensemble here.


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