Professional cellist wants people to help him form isles orchestra

If you have ever fancied playing classical music in an orchestra you may soon have a chance to do so if an idea from a professional cellist comes to fruition.

Donald MacDonald, who moved to Shetland with his GP wife Elaine in May, has played as soloist with several major orchestras, including the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

He started a community orchestra from scratch in the Borders and is now hoping to do something similar in the isles.
Mr MacDonald’s vision could take a number of forms. He is aware of Shetland’s wealth of musical talent and as a newcomer to the isles is keen to make contacts – but does not know quite what to expect.
Possibilities could include any­thing from a string quartet playing chamber music, to a larger chamber orchestra, which could be around 15 to 20 people, or a full orchestra incorporating an unlimited number of players. A training orchestra where complete beginners could learn to play is also envisaged.

Mr MacDonald would like to hear from anyone with any interest in these projects – and enthusiasm is more important than ability. “The main criteria is enthusiasm,” he said. “I don’t believe in auditions – we don’t necessarily need brilliant players, just enthusiastic players.”

Although expertise of around the Grade 5 level would be needed for the orchestras (to be able to cope with sight reading), no formal qualifications are necessary. Any­one with any experience and skills, no matter how rusty, is invited to get in touch. So are people interested in learning.

Mr MacDonald said: “Players can progress in their own comfort zone and be stretched without feel­ing intimidated. By having inexperi­enced players with experienced players we can build people up.”

This, indeed, is the very ethos of what Mr MacDonald hopes to achieve – bringing together keen amateur musicians, professional teachers and less experienced players of all ages and abilities.

The emphasis is on community music-making rather than on absolute perfection – of getting involved and having fun, as well as achieving something worthwhile. “I’m keen for the community to ‘own’ the orchestra as much as the players.”

He particularly wants to hear from string players, the string section being the basis of the orchestra in which any number of players can be accommodated. “You can’t have too many string players.”

In the Borders Mr MacDonald, 56, saw the orchestra he initiated go from strength to strength.

After a three-year “war of attrition” to access funding from the Scottish Arts Council, the Scottish Borders Community Orchestra (SBCO) grew to include more than 60 players, ranging from primary school children to octo­genarians.

It embarked on an ambitious first year programme of 25 concerts and developed off-shoots in the form of a flute choir, a wind ensemble, a cello club and a young people’s string quartet.

Playing everything from Bach to Britten to “huge audiences”, the SBCO attracted internationally-renowned soloists such as cellist Steven Isserlis (a former house-mate who could be persuaded to come to Shetland) and Peter Don­ohoe. The orchestra became so successful, thanks to community support “by playing or listening”, that it eventually created work in the form of a full time development manager and secretary, thereby attracting European funding.

In addition it developed an outreach programme, taking to the road to bring music to remote rural communities and to care homes and hospitals. Mr MacDonald believes something similar could take place in Shetland.

The SBCO also had links with local schools – an important aspect of its work which he hopes could be replicated in the isles. He would be especially keen to attract very young players between the ages of five and seven, which he deems the perfect age to start.

Plans in Shetland are in their very early stages and Mr Mac­Donald, who with his wife will shortly be moving from Hillswick to Burra, is in initial discussions with Shetland Arts.

“I want to learn and get a feel of what’s going on here,” he said. “[The orchestra] was successful in the Borders and the same thing could happen here.”


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