Dunedin Consort head into 2020/21 season with defiant, can-play attitude

The Dunedin Consort hope to be able to perform as much of their new season live as possible, with online shows a Plan B if things don’t work out

Thursday, 1st October 2020, 6:57 pm
Updated Thursday, 1st October 2020, 8:52 pm
The Dunedin Consort
The Dunedin Consort

We knew we were taking a risk. But I didn’t exactly have a fishing boat planned, that’s for sure…” The Dunedin Consort’s chief executive Jo Buckley is looking back on the ensemble’s unconventional – and hurried – return from France a few weeks back. The Baroque and early music ensemble had been in Normandy with music director John Butt to perform at the Heures Musicales de l’Abbaye de Lessay festival, and was then forced to dash back – via a specially chartered fishing boat – to beat the newly imposed 4am quarantine deadline.

Did it ever occur to them not to go? “I’m very against this pre-emptive cancellation idea,” Buckley explains. “If we can possibly honour the work for our musicians, and the commitments we’ve made with festivals and promoters – who are all having just as tough a time as we are – then I think we have to do everything we can to do that.”

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It’s a compelling story, and one that gained the group quite a lot of media coverage (including a story on the front page of The Scotsman). But step back from the specifics, and the Dunedins’ French trip is just one example of an ensemble devoted to making music, and determined to continue to do just that.

They announced their 2020/21 season at the end of July, for example, when guidance on live performance was still very uncertain (and when other groups were keeping their cards close to their chests). And according to Buckley, they have every intention of honouring it. “What we announced is what we’d always have planned to present this coming season. And if we can’t do a live performance, we’ll record it and put it out online.”

There have, Buckley admits, been a lot of plan Bs and plan Cs, and plenty of last-minute contingency planning to make the programme adaptable to short-notice changes to coronavirus guidance. In the light of recent restrictions, their season opener – called Nature’s Voice, and featuring music by Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi and Scarlatti with soprano Rowan Pierce – will be streamed online. “We’re going to be filming it in Greyfriars Kirk,” Buckley explains, “and they’ve been really supportive of the project. It’ll be free to watch. It’ll be recorded as live, and we’ll treat it as a concert, but we’ll be using multiple cameras and try to give people something they wouldn’t see if they were sitting at the back of a concert hall. We’ll probably include some interview material and looking behind the scenes at what we do, too.”

Their second lot of concerts are all-choral events, which poses their own particular distancing challenges. “We want to keep the live option open as long as we can,” Buckley says, “but if that doesn’t prove possible, then we’ll do another online performance. But we’re also looking at using the distancing as a positive thing – maybe singing in the round, or in different groups of singers opposite each other. I think we owe it to ourselves to be creative and make the best of it.”

Looking further ahead, there’s quite a bit of new or at least recent music in what’s essentially a Baroque ensemble’s programming – from a companion piece to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by Errollyn Wallen at London’s Barbican in June, to Arvo Pärt’s sublime Passio planned for Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in April. One standout project is the Dunedins’ answer to Valentine’s events in February, called A Lover’s Discourse, which spins together madrigals by Monteverdi, Gesualdo and de Rore with musings by Roland Barthes and a brand new soundscape by Pippa Murphy. “The idea is that we perform these early madrigals in a new context so that you start to get inside the words and think more intently about what they’re trying to say, rather than just seeing them as distant objects from the past.”

With a Gramophone award nomination, acclaimed performances at the BBC Proms and an ongoing semi-residency at London’s Wigmore Hall, the Dunedins are a group with a fast-growing national and international reputation. And with their sparky, illuminating, exceptionally vivid performances, it’s understandable. How does Buckley feel that the ensemble retains its Scottish identity?

“Our commitment is first and foremost to our Scottish audiences,” she says. “But I guess the more we do elsewhere, the more I hope our Scottish audiences might be proud to think that we belong to them.”

Nature’s Voice will be streaming on the Dunedin Consort website from 14 October, www.dunedin-consort.org.uk

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