Quercus Ensemble's Songs, Games and Dances

1920s Parisian café culture is recalled in the group's immersive new touring production

‘A cat wearing a hat made out of spaghetti.’ It’s fairly definite that French composer Maurice Ravel did not have that particular image in mind when writing the String Quartet he completed in 1903, while still in his 20s

It is, however, a bona fide description, voiced by one of the children listening to Ravel’s masterpiece at a workshop given by the Benyounes Quartet.

Derry~Londonderry-born Kim Vaughan is cellist in the Benyounes, and says the ‘spaghetti hat’ incident is typical of the totally unexpected responses you get when the fresh, unprejudiced imaginations of young people are exposed directly to classical music in live performance.

‘It’s amazing how open children are,’ Vaughan comments. ‘You can present them with anything, and they have no preconceptions. Sometimes you get absolutely crazy, off-the-wall answers, and at other times very poignant, emotional responses.’

Vaughan and her Benyounes Quartet co-players are core members of the Quercus Ensemble, a Derry-based chamber music collective which over the past three years has been developing programmes enabling younger listeners to access and experience the world of classical music, which, to the uninitiated, can seem intimidating and daunting.

‘We’ve been gradually building up and exploring our work with young people,’ explains Vaughan, founder of the Quercus Ensemble. ‘In one project, Inspire- Aspire!, we had a week of workshops, taking the Ravel String Quartet out into primary schools.

‘We incorporated lots of lovely games and activities, to develop the children’s listening skills and use their imagination. Painting pictures with music, for instance, and games developing a sense of rhythm. That went down really well.

‘Then, at the weekend, we had a string ensemble course for local players from the Derry area. We had eight professional string players from Quercus Ensemble playing within an orchestra of young people, and we learnt pieces by Purcell and Britten with them. A lot of parents came along to the concert, and it’s been a really lovely progression and relationship, getting to know them and their children.’

By no means are all professional classical players interested in this kind of evangelising outreach activity, but it is clearly central to Vaughan’s view of what it means to be a practising musician, sharing what inspires her personally with a new and rising generation of young listeners.

‘What drives me in music is making connections,’ she says. ‘Personally I love reading, art, social history and language, as well as music. And I think when you make all those connections – whether that’s understanding the composer’s personal circumstances, or the time that they were living in, the social changes of that time, or other artistic movements of the period. Something that might seem inaccessible can have meaning for you, and help you connect a bit more deeply.’

It is also clear that the innovative approach being developed by Quercus in its educational projects has also spilled over into what might be called the ‘adult’ strand of its concertising activities, playing complete works from the classical canon in a recital context.

The interactive, workshop influence is certainly evident in Songs, Games and Dances at the Café de Paris, the new chamber music evening that Quercus is currently presenting at selected venues across Northern Ireland. The production is supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's Music Touring Programme.

On paper it looks like a straightforward enough selection of pieces by French composers, including Ravel, Chausson and Debussy. What is not on offer, though, is the extremely formal setting of a typical chamber music concert – with the audience ranged passively in symmetrically aligned seating, as though attending a quasi-religious service or ritual.

‘The idea is to draw together lots of different elements, and make the concert experience a bit more immersive,’ Vaughan comments. ‘The initial starting-point is that the Parisian café at the turn of the century was really a melting-pot of ideas and a place for creative exchange.

‘And although a lot of this music wasn’t performed in the café, this is where all of the artists and writers would go and meet. It was a very social place, and maybe the inspiration for a lot of these pieces originated there. Also, the atmosphere was quite fun and laid back, so a nice combination of high thinking, ideas and relaxing.’

Taking their cue from the headily stimulating café culture of early 20th century Paris, the venues where Quercus is playing will have tables laid out in raggle-taggle cabaret style, with refreshments – vin et fromage is, I’m told, a distinct possibility – available to complement the musical friandises being served up by the players.

Alongside music of the period, Songs, Games and Dances will also feature two modern pieces: one a new commission entitled 'Cros' by Derry-born composer Patrick Brennan. ‘The idea behind this,’ explains Vaughan, 'is that one of the central pieces in the programme is Debussy’s 'Danses sacrée et profane'.

‘Patrick took inspiration from the soundworld and the ideas of the sacred and profane in this piece, and also Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, which has some similar ideas but explores them in the very different context of rural Irish society. It’s a really wonderful work, and works brilliantly for the whole ensemble of players involved in the evening.’

The other contemporary work in the programme is 'Scènes de bal', by French composer Thierry Escaich. ‘It’s a kind of post-modernist piece,’ says Vaughan.

‘This café culture of Paris, when you go into the 20s, you have this real influence of jazz. It really inflitrated music. So in this work you have lots of short movements, drawing on the influence of tango, jazz, disco and ragtime. It really is some piece.’

The aim of facilitating a deeper connection to classical music for audiences of all ages – of finding ever more imaginative and helpful ways into it – will continue to be a guiding principle for Vaughan and her fellow Quercus members, as the ensemble makes plans for the future.

Northern Irish audiences and art organisations need also, according to Vaughan, to re-engage with more of the spontaneity, informality and sense of fun that classical music can engender. The classics can, she argues, be pleasurable, relaxed and entertaining, as well as ‘improving’ and good for the character.

‘People used to clap between movements if they liked the music, and not have this reverence until the end of a piece. I think it’s nice for people to see that when they go out to a concert event it’s also a social occasion. So we’d love to stage more of these immersive evenings, if we can get the financial support. I hope we do.’

Quercus Ensemble perform Songs, Games and Dances at the Café de Paris at the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh on November 6, Market Place Theatre, Armagh on November 7 and St Columb's Hall Ballroom, Derry~Londonderry on November 8.