Nevis Ensemble: music for everyone, everywhere

Nevis Ensemble on St Kilda | © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Nevis Ensemble was founded in 2018 on the premise of bringing music to everyone, everywhere. In less than two years, the award-winning, headline-hitting Scottish orchestra has brought music to care homes and community centres, to prisons and beaches, to the outer reaches of the highlands and even to the summit of Ben Nevis itself.

My love for Nevis goes beyond professional admiration, however. I was privileged to join Nevis as a violinist for their very first tour in my summer before coming up to Oxford. On that first tour we did indeed scale Britain’s highest peak and perform to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, but what will stay with me forever is the sheer joy that Nevis bring to every performance. Running out of the tour bus, instruments in hand, and making incredible music five minutes later to unsuspecting crowds, is enormous fun. These guerrilla style performances are at the heart of Nevis’ Scottish soul, complete with pensioners waltzing on the street and people at work craning their necks out of their windows to hear the music.

Chief Executive Jamie Munn is the visionary behind this amazing orchestra, and works closely with Artistic Directors Holly Mathieson and Jon Hargreaves to bring it to life. Jamie talks about the beginnings of the Nevis Ensemble. He says:

“Back in 2017 I was asked to work with the Ricciotti Ensemble (a Dutch orchestra) on their tour of the Netherlands and Scotland, and after seeing the way the musicians work, and the reaction of audiences – both in Scotland and then Netherlands – was really inspiring. It was only a few weeks later that we decided to start a similar initiative in Scotland, and our first tour happened in under a year! Ricciotti has been going for about 50 years, so we were able to draw on their experience when setting up, which has been really useful.

“The initial ‘seed’ was actually very fortuitous; my former boss at Live Music Now Scotland, Carol Main, had met Ricciotti’s then-Artistic Director, Leonard Evers, at a drinks reception in Rio de Janeiro during a British Council conference on orchestras. She suggested to him that the orchestra tour Scotland, and then put me in touch. So, you could say that Nevis Ensemble exists directly because of a cocktail in Brazil!”

Nevis have gone from strength to strength in the last two years. In 2019 they toured the Hebrides, playing on beaches and for tiny communities and even making it to the remotest outpost, St Kilda, staging its first concert ever. Nevis has been nomitated for awards at the Scottish Awards for New Music for the last two years and won the ‘Making in Happen’ award last year. I ask why there is such a clear need for the project.

“I think that’s a difficult one to really pin down. I guess we fulfil two functions. Firstly, to provide performances for communities and groups that usually don’t have access to live music – particularly orchestral music, or indeed those that wouldn’t consider orchestral music as being ‘for them’.

“But it’s also for musicians and their development as artists. Whilst we have musicians from all backgrounds and of all ages, many of the players in the orchestra are artists at the beginning of careers as orchestral players and/or teachers. There is much literature at the moment about mental health issues in orchestral players with questions being asked about why there are such high rates in the industry. There are lots of debates as to why this might be the case, but we have the immediate aim of helping to produce musicians who are happy, flexible, adaptable, thinking and creative, whilst seeing how they can fit into their wider communities outside of the music world.”

Nevis Ensemble on St Kilda | © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Nevis’ mantra is “music for everyone, everywhere”. I ask Jamie to elaborate on their main aims and goals with the orchestra.

“Whilst the large public performances are fun and get a really good vibe, some of the most fulfilling performances are those in community settings, such as day centres, care homes, hospitals, prisons and homeless centres, with small audiences, where the musicians can really connect with people, and we have time to chat, have a cup of tea or share dinner with audience members.”

“One of the aims of the organisation is to organically break down the barriers (it’s a cliché, but the barriers are still very much in place) between musicians and audiences. In some ways it’s really easy to do this. We strip away all of the unnecessary ritual of standard performances; our musicians wear their ‘normal’ clothes, they – not the conductor or written programmes – introduce performances, we play a wide variety of styles, and the overarching aim to connect with those we are playing for; what that means in practice varies from context to context.”

Nevis’ rise has been exponential, with the orchestra performing all over Scotland and reaching communities who would never have heard live classical music otherwise. I ask how they’ve managed this.

The response has generally been really great. The smaller communities around the Hebrides during our summer tour last year were often really touched that we had made the effort to travel through such remote communities to perform; many people shadowed our route, travelling with us up the islands, which was really lovely.

No group is more important than another to perform to. A performance in a crowded train station during the morning commute, can be just as affecting to someone as a concert in a psychiatric ward or a night shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Certainly, some of those more ‘closed’ settings for vulnerable groups can be really wonderful and rewarding for everyone, and we might approach some settings slightly differently, but we love all of our audiences equally!

One of the aspects of the orchestra that really sets Nevis apart is the intense schedule on tour. The orchestra will do up to seven performances a day to get to as many communities as possible, and in about 18 months they have given 200 performances to audiences all over Scotland.

Since the introduction of the measures such as the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) suite of subjects (which do not include music), musical education is being squeezed out of the curriculum in England. Music teaching is also in decline; the number of postgraduate students choosing to train as music teachers has shrunk by over two-thirds in the past decade.

It’s clear there’s also huge inequality in provision for instrumental teaching, with children from families earning under £28,000 a year half as likely to learn a musical instrument as those with a family income above £48,000.

Jamie says: “It is really saddening to see the decimation of music education, but it’s also important for us to see the wider context, and target the right people with our arguments, I think. Local authorities – which are responsible for music education in their areas – have seen their funding from central government fall by up to 60% after a decade of austerity. They really are at the stage of making hard decisions between providing statutory services on depleted resources for communities and vulnerable people, and everything else.”

“No local authority I know of, wants to cut music education, but in this context, there is often little choice, which is really sad. In Scotland, though there are still threats to many music services, and fees have been introduced by many, the Scottish Government has helped to mitigate this a bit more than in England; there remains, for instance a statutory requirement for schools to provide music education, including instrumental tuition, but provision varies widely. But the situation will only worsen so long as central government in Westminster continues on a premise of funding reduction for local authorities.”

Nevis Ensemble on St Kilda | © Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

As with all new projects and innovations, there are inevitably pushbacks and critics, as well as champions. I ask Jamie what the response has been like from both the wider orchestral community, and the musicians themselves.

“There are of course nay-sayers, especially as we operate on a fairly unique model, but I think we see that as a positive. There is some criticism from purists in terms of the variety of genres, and imperfect acoustics, but I don’t think that classical musicians should be afraid of being flexible and adaptable. On our first tour we tried to introduce a bit of improvisation, and as classically trained musicians, the vast majority were very sceptical and – dare I say – afraid of trying it out, especially in front of peers. Fear of getting things wrong and a narrow focus on what is ‘right’ are failings in the training of classical musicians, and we’re trying to veer away from that, and show it doesn’t have to be that way.”

In the current crisis, we’re going to see the creative industry get hit incredibly hard with the cancellation of live concerts, and orchestras will no longer be able to meet in person for a while. In response, Nevis has launched the “Nevis Living Room Ensemble”.

The Living Room Ensemble asks people to submit videos of themselves either playing their instrument, singing, dancing or even banging pots and pans to the same piece of music, with footage then mixed for a special online performance. Musicians and non-musicians are all invited to take part, and sheet music can be downloaded from the group’s website. First up is a Nevis classic ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ by the Proclaimers..

Jamie says that “our aim is to take music to everyone everywhere; where people are and when they are there. At the moment, everyone is in their living rooms, so it makes sense!”

Nevis have clearly gone from strength to strength, and, crisis apart, I ask Jamie what’s next, and where they’ll be in five years time.

“We’ll have to wait and see how things work out this year, but we had two big tours planned as part of the Scottish Government’s Year of Coasts and Waters, taking in the isles of Eigg, Rùm, Mull, Iona and Arran, as well as Aberdeen, Glasgow, the Lothians and Ayrshire.

“We also have a tour, supported by the Scottish Government and British Council, planned for mainland Europe, going to the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, France and Belgium, so we’re very much hoping we’ll be able to go and share the Nevis sprit there!

“Five years is a long time in Nevis terms, but we very much hope that we are still, here continuing to take music to everyone, everywhere!”