2 Violas – Concert at Mengi, Reykjavik

Charles Ross

Back in September 2016 I met Charles Ross at Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland. I confess to feeling a little nervous. We’d never met, let alone played together, and we were about to do a free improvisation gig! Luckily, we really clicked musically and that concert still ranks as one of the real highlights during my six-month sabbatical.

I’m therefore really excited about performing with Charles again, this time in the capital city on 27th March 8pm at Mengi.  Mengi is an operation created and managed by artists in Reykjavik. It hosts diverse art events, releases music by some of the nation’s most ambitious musicians and operates an art and record store.

We’ll be playing violas, a few percussion instruments and using electronics. Inspired by landscapes and sounds of the Far North, we’ll be performing a mixture of improvised and semi-improvised pieces, featuring Canadian composer Emily Doolittle’s “Social Sounds of Whales at Night” (you can hear it on this link in the version for oboe d’amore), Faroese composer Kristian Blak’s “Drrrunnn” for viola and recorded seabirds as well as original compositions by Katherine and Charles.

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Recital in Iceland with Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir

Arnhildur Valgarðsdóttir, who comes from Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland, is a freelance organist, choirmaster and pianist working in Reykavik. She studied at what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now RCS) alongside a mutual friend of ours, Paul Medd, who works with me in the RSNO. We first met in Reykjavik in September 2016 and we’re really excited about performing together for the first time.

The centre-piece of our programme will be the sonata for viola and piano “Qaanaaq” by Adrian Vernon Fish, composed in 2000. Adrian describes his sonata as follows:

“The sonata was composed in late 1999 and early 2000 for Sarah-Jane Bradley and Jonathan Ayerst. The inspiration for the work is drawn from the immense vastnesses of the Qaanaaq area of Northwest Greenland, a municipality as large as Texas, yet sustaining a population of just 650.

Looking out from the hills behind the village of Qaanaaq, the vistas open up to Inglefield Sound, an enormous geological gash in the coastline. Numerous glaciers tumble down to the sea, and the location gives one a feeling of utter insignificance.”

It is a work brimming with melody, drama and a jaunty scherzo. I’m really excited about performing this piece live for the first time.

We will also play two works connected with Orkney, the previous stop on Nordic Viola’s journey. First of all, “Joy”, a piece for solo viola by Gemma McGregor and then Peter Maxwell Davies’ famous piece “Farewell to Stromness”. These are followed by “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt. Whilst Pärt is a Baltic composer, his music is reminiscent for me of the space and stillness of the Far North.

Our final piece celebrates the heritage of Iceland, our host country on this stop. It is “Kvinnan Fróma” by Oliver Kentish. Oliver Kentish was born in London and studied the cello at The Royal Academy of Music where his teacher was Vivian Joseph. In 1977 he came to Iceland to play in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. From 1978-1986 he taught at the Akureyri Music School and so he forms a nice link between my home country and Arnhildur’s home town! He now teaches at Nyja Tónlistarskólinn in Reykjavík and is also active as a choral and orchestral conductor. “Kvinnan Fróma” is based on an Icelandic folk melody and is a theme and variations by turn reflective, wistful and vivacious.

Concert in Kirkwall Orkney

Nordic Viola concert at King Street Halls.16/11/18 Tom O'Brien
Anne Bünemann, Katherine Wren and Peter Hunt

Concert day in Kirkwall dawned bright and clear. A morning at Scapa Beach was enjoyed by all before heading down to King Street Halls. It was an absolute pleasure to play in the wonderful acoustic of this beautifully converted building, which works equally well as a church and a concert venue.

The first half of the concert featured music by composers from Orkney (Gemma McGregor, Fiona Driver), Shetland (Margaret Robertson) and the Faroes (Kári Bæk) as well as music about these islands by British composers Lillie Harris, Judith Weir and Adrian Vernon Fish.

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We have so enjoyed playing Gemma’s “Betrayal” (click on the link to listen). It is such passionate music, vividly portraying the conflicting emotions of St. Magnus as he contemplates his betrayal and eventual death. “Yellow Gorse” was a last minute addition but it is such a beautiful tune and suits the viola so well that it had to go in the programme.

It was the perfect foil to Lillie Harris’ tempestuous piece “AND”, which depicts the full force of a Shetland storm. Nice to play this in Orkney exactly two years since it received its premiere in Shetland.

Another Orkney/Shetland connection came in the pairing of “Weird Tune” and “Shaela”. Margaret and Fiona share the same fiddle teacher. Having got to know Margaret well, it was great to finally meet Fiona at the concert. We got to share ome tunes later in the weekend, too.

Meeting people and sharing stories of the North Atlantic is a vital part of the Nordic Viola project and all the musicians enjoyed meeting the audience in the interval, learning more about the region and talking about people we knew (Kristian Blak’s name always crops up). I’ve a lot of stories and music to follow up on now I’m home, particularly regarding the sharing of fiddle tunes on the old whaling trips up to Greenland.

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Greenland and Iceland were the focus for the second half of the concert with                      Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson’s wonderfully attractive arrangements of Icelandic folk songs, Fiðlufrænkur. We had hoped to premiere the whole of Adrian Vernon Fish’s “Sermitsiaq” Trio, which depicts the eponymous mountain in Greenland. Sadly a late and unavoidable change of cellist meant we only performed the Finale, but it’s given us a real taste for the piece and we will perform the whole work soon!  

Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s joyful depiction of winter in Greenland, “Ukioq”, composed for us in 2017 was the cue for some dance music to end the programme. Both Greenland and Orkney have many polkas, so we played a Greenland set and then ended the concert with the famous  Orkney polka, “Maggie Watson’s Farewell to Blackhammer.”

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Joining me for Nordic Viola in Orkney were Gemma McGregor (flute and piano), Anne Bünemann (violin) and Peter Hunt (cello).

 

 

We are very grateful for the support of the following organisations who enabled us to put on this concert in Orkney:

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Nordic Viola plays Orkney, November 2018

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Supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland

Following our successful tour of the Faroe Islands in July Nordic Viola is excited to announce that we will be travelling to Orkney in November.

Concert King Street Halls, Kirkwall 7:30pm

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The main event of the week will be a concert for string trio in which we will be joined by Orkney composer and flautist, Gemma McGregor.

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Our programme will feature Gemma’s intensely passionate string trio, “Betrayal”, drawn from her opera “The Story of Magnus Erlendsson”, which was premiered at the St. Magnus Festival in 2017.

We will also play traditional music by Orkney fiddler Fiona Driver alongside that of her friend and colleague Margaret Robertson from Shetland. A few other traditional Orkney tunes will creep into our programme, alongside folk music from Greenland.

Lillie Harris’ piece AND shows us Shetland in stormy mood, with Adrian Vernon Fish’s Uyeasound Nocturne depicting the calm after the storm.

 

Iceland and Greenland

cropped-dscn3777.jpgThe second half of our concert features music from and about Iceland and Greenland. We start with Sigurbjörnsson’s delightful arrangements of Icelandic folk tunes, “Fiðlufrænkur.”

This is followed by the Finale from Adrian Vernon Fish’s string trio, “Sermitsiaq”, which describes the iconic mountain of the same name that towers over Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. I know from my own long stay in Nuuk that this mountain’s moods are many and varied: by turns a benign guardian of the city or an imposing monolithic presence. Adrian depicts this perfectly with a lively fugue before the piece ends in quiet, reflective tones.

We end the programme with Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s engagingly beautiful description of winter in the Far North, “Ukioq”. We were lucky enough to have Arnannguaq join us in Glasgow earlier this year when the piece was premiered in the RSNO Chamber Series and she shared many stories with the musicians about life in Greenland which helped us bring this beautiful music, which so vividly depicts the joy of a crisp, snowy landscape, to life.

 

Workshops

Following on from my previous trips north, I will once again be working with young people in Orkney’s schools on creative projects and in school orchestras. Hopefully we’ll be able to show you some of our work after the trip.

I’ll also be learning more about Orkney’s music with Gemma McGregor and Fiona Driver. Gemma sparked my interest in the ancient musi of Orkney when I first met her at Sound Festival in Aberdeen last year and Fiona and I share an interest in the sounds of nature and how we can use that in our music. Again, I hope these ideas will feed into future programmes, not least when I travel up to Iceland in March!

Sponsorship

The project is generously supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland.

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as well as the Hinrichsen Foundation.

We are also grateful for help towards our transport costs from Loganair and Northlink.

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Anna Appleby – Hrakningar

Autumn has always a special time for me. The summer heat gives way to a softness with autumn mists and the first of the frosts. The nights lengthen and I enjoy that feeling of hygge, curled up with a book. The sound I associate more than any other with autumn here in Scotland is the geese arriving. In fact, I saw my first skein of geese of the year yesterday.

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All these sensory experiences are more poignant since my sabbatical and none more so than the sound of migrating geese. I was staying in Fellabaer located  across the Lagarfljót lake near Egilsstaðir in East Iceland, right where the geese were collecting to migrate south. Every morning I was woken in my tent by their noisy disputes. I found myself wondering who’d arrive back in Scotland first – them or me. Back home in early October, I remember stopping whilst I was on my bike to watch them land in a field near Flanders Moss, Stirlingshire. In my mind it was the Egilsstaðir geese following me home.

On the second anniversary of this wonderful experience we’ve just started rehearsing our latest commission, Anna Appleby‘s “Hrakningar”, which is a joint commission with Sound Festival  in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Like Lillie Harris, from whom I commissioned “AND” for solo viola, I first met Anna on the RSNO’s “Composers’ Hub.” The new piece grew out of a half joke: Anna was in Reykjavik and posted a clip of geese honking away on Lake Tjörnin. Somebody challenged her to write a piece including them – to which I responded with something along the lines of “go on then – I’ll pay you”.

“Hrakningar” is composed for flute/viola/bassoon with an electronic soundtrack and Anna describes it like this:

Hrakningar is an Icelandic word used to describe being buffeted by a storm or wind, blown somewhere against your will, and is also used to refer to dangerous events that happen to a person.

Hrakningar juxtaposes the freedom of migrating birds with the prejudice that refugees face when seeking a better life. The piece incorporates calls from the species of geese that travel between Iceland and Scotland as part of their yearly cycle, including Pink-Footed Geese, Brant (or Brent) Geese and Greylag Geese. They arrive in Scotland in Autumn and leave for Iceland in Spring each year. Geese face harsh conditions when travelling but their journeys are accepted and often celebrated while humans are expected to conform to imposed boundaries and borders.

I don’t want to give the game away too much before the premiere but I am absolutely blown away by the way Anna integrates the geese in the introductory soundtrack with some really delicate timbres from the instruments, picking up on the harmonics in the birdsong. I can’t really do it justice in words, so why don’t you come and hear it for yourself if you’re anywhere near Aberdeen on 26th October? We’re in St Machar’s Cathedral at 1:10 and you can get further info and buy your tickets here. 

In a concert exploring seasonality in the Far North, we’ll also be performing our other commissions, “AND” by Lillie Harris, which depicts a Shetland storm and “Ukioq” by Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, describing a Greenlandic Winter.

SUMMARTONAR CONCERTS, FISH SUPPERS AND A TOUR OF THE ISLANDS

After visiting the Faroe Islands alone in 2016, it was a great pleasure to perform with my Nordic Viola Ensemble in 2 concerts as part of Sumartónar on 5th July. This time we were Janet Larsson (flute and piccolo), David Martin and I (violas) and Joost Bosdijk (bassoon).

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SUMMARTÓNAR

Beginning in 1984, Faroese composers started organizing concerts of their own music together with works by international composers. After establishing the Association of Faroese Composers (Felagið Føroysk Tónaskøld) in 1987, these concerts became more regular, especially with the annual Spring Concert and a series of concerts over the summer in collaboration with the Listasavn Føroya (the Faroese Art Gallery). In 1991 a concert with works by several Faroese composers was presented at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney. After participating in a festival in a community comparable with the Faroe Islands, the Faroese composers decided to establish a similar festival the following year in the Faroes. Since these early years, the musical scene in the Faroes has gone from strength to strength and the festival reflects the diversity and creativity of today’s musicians who bring Faroese music to the world and international music to the Faroes.

FAROESE MUSIC AND MUSIC INSPIRED BY THE FAROES

Our programme contained works by Faroese composers Kári Bæk and Kristian Blak as well as pieces inspired by Faroese music by me and Arnannguaq Gerstrøm. We also played a piece based on tunes from Orkney by Judith Weir and a set of Shetland tunes inspired by fishing and whaling trips to Greenland and the Faroes in days gone by. (For more details, see blog below).

I met Kristian back in 2016 and spent a lot of time talking to him about his solo viola piece “Tístram”. It was a real pleasure this time to meet Kári Bæk and rehearse “Vár Trio” and “Fragment” with his input.

When I visited Shetland in November 2016, I composed a piece in conjunction with Margaret Robertson’s fiddle students at Anderson High School. We took as our basis a fragment of a Faroese tune and imagined it seen through the mists over the sea between Shetland and the Faroes. Many a time on my travels people have mentioned how frustrating it is that these archipelagos, with their shared heritage, have no direct transport link. This slightly wistful piece is my response to this.

We were joined on this occasion by two students from Tórshavn music school, Nancy Nónskarð Dam and Bergur Davidsen. We met and rehearsed together for the first time two days before the concert and they fitted in wonderfully with us – a real credit to their teacher, Jona Jacobsen. You can hear their performance here. One day I hope to perform this piece with students from both sets of islands.

THE NORDIC HOUSE

It was an absolute pleasure to perform in the beautiful “Klingran” space in the Nordic House. There are views over Tórshavn through the big glass windows and the performing space is separated from the foyer and café by a glass panel. I love the fact that the space is lit by natural light and that there is no big barrier between the concert and people casually walking into the building. All these things increase the accessibility of music. The acoustics are brilliant, too. It’s an intimate, warm sound that lets every detail shine through. As in my previous concert in the Havnar Kirkja in 2016, the wind was determined to play its part, joining in with the wind effects at the beginning of Arnannguaq Gerstrøm’s “Ukioq”!

We enjoyed playing to an almost full house including Kári, Kristian and many of our friends from the music school. I don’t know whether the Faroese chain dance is to thank for this, but there was some particularly energetic foot stamping in the encore!

RITUVIK

2013_far_sundini_brFortified by a good old fish supper (well, we are from Scotland!) we drove up through the island of Streymoy and over the only bridge over the Atlantic to Esturoy. (This is a Faroese claim – the residents of Kylesku and Skye may wish to dispute that one!) We then drove down through Esturoy to the small village of Rituvík, population 256. (One of the features of Summartónar is that it’s not confined to the capital city, but rather visits many small communities around the islands – something that is also central to the ethos of Nordic Viola.) The journey took one and a quarter hours. Once the new Esturoy tunnel (complete with a subsea roundabout!) is built, this journey of 40 miles will be reduced to 17 miles.

Rituvík church was also beautiful to play in. It was a small, intimate space with a small, intimate yet appreciative audience!

A very long and busy day but much enjoyed by all the musicians. My thanks to Janet, Joost and David and to Dًávur for being our roadie for the day!

A big thank you to the Nordic House and Fróði Vestergaard, not only for looking after us on the concert day but also for providing beautiful accommodation in the conference suite for David and I.

Most of all, thanks to Kristian Blak for organising Summartónar each year. With concerts from May to August, it is a massive undertaking. We hope we’ll be back to play soon!

Concerto Grotto

Two years ago I visited the Faroe Islands for the first time. Just like last time, I hit the ground running. No sooner had I landed than I was in Tórshavn Music School (before I’d even seen my digs!) carrying on where I left off: working with Jóna Jacobsen and her students. (You’ll find out more about that in my next post.) On an evening stroll through town, we bumped into Kristian Blak and popped in for a quick chat. It really felt like I’d never been away.

I woke up the next morning buzzing with excitement. Ever since I’d heard Dávur Juul Magnussen’s CD Cesurae, I’ve been desperate to do a Concerto Grotto.  Usually these concerts take place in Klæmintsgjógv in the island of Hestur, but due to sea conditions we were off to the east side of Nólsoy. Notwithstanding that, we had bright blue skies and a calm sea as we set off on the schooner Nordlusið, feeling dwarfed by the massive bulk of Cunard’s Queen Victoria. For all her luxury, I’d never have swapped her for the journey we were on.

As we rounded the north coast of Nólsoy, my eyes were peeled for our cave. Dressed in life jackets, Dávur, Emily and I carefully transferred viola, trombone, amp and battery into a small dinghy – a delicate operation!

Dávur received a quick driving lesson and we were off! Shivers ran down my spine as I started playing. It was magical watching the audience float towards us in their dinghies as I played Tvisöngur, the piece I wrote in Iceland and the Faroes 2 years ago, inspired by Seyðisfjörður’s eponymous sound sculpture. I’d been dreaming of doing this for ages. Dávur joined me as I played “Soay”, a beautiful tune from Scotland’s St. Kilda islands and we moved into some free improvisation. The concert finished with Dávur’s rendition of the Faroese national anthem.

It takes a little bit of time to get accustomed to using the cave as a musical partner. There are the natural sounds of waves and water splashing on the boats as well as the echo, but the moving soundboard of the sea’s surface also adds to the music. Gradually I found what sounds were most effective. Glissandi are particularly good, eerily evoking whale song, perhaps. It was fun playing with merging the timbres of trombone and viola. On the face of it they’re unlikely partners, but both instruments have a wide range of colour and a big overlap in pitch range and it’s interesting to explore how their sounds complement and contrast with each other.

The cave was visually beautiful, too. The water was aquamarine and I kept finding myself focusing on a thin band of red rock just on the waterline, formed from volcanic ash I learned later. The eroded roof had flashes of vivid green moss or algae contrasting with the black basalt.

Concerts over we scrabbled back into the big boat – people and instruments all present and correct. Phew! Birgir the skipper then treated us to a circumnavigation of the island. We watched the birds busily feeding their young on the cliffs and saw several seals sunbathing on a tightly-packed rock.

As we rounded the southern end of the island I saw the lighthouse I’d hiked to with Paige Klugherz on my last visit and the famous eye of the needle through the island. And then we had the sails up, Dávur showing his sailing credentials and helping to hoist them.

DSCN5082A bit of banter on the ships horn with the Queen Victoria, off on her way to her next port and suddenly we were back in the harbour. I’m not going to rest now until I’ve done it all on the bigger stage of Klæmintsgjógv. I’ve played in the Albert Hall, London and the Musikverein in Vienna, but never on a platform so beautiful as that sea cave!

If you’re in the Faroes in the next month or so, there are more Concerti Grotti (if that’s the plural) so do give it a go – it’s special. http://www.nordlysid.com/trips If you’re not lucky enough to experience it for yourself, then have a look at the video Emily Nenniger kindly made for us. https://www.facebook.com/royalscottishnationalorchestra/videos/10157008796601323/

 

Summartónar in the Faroe Islands

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(Poster designed by Chris Wesley)

The Faroe Islands were my first port of call on my sabbatical and they will also be the first place that I return to to perform (I visited Shetland on holiday last summer). I can’t believe that that was nearly two years ago.

Concerto Grotto

I am particularly excited to be playing in the cave “Klæmintsgjógv” in Hestur with my Faroese friend and RSNO colleague, Dávur Juul Magnussen. I have wanted to do this ever since I first heard Dávur’s fabulous CD, Cesurae. Buy it – you’ll be blown away by it!

Music from the Faroes…

I’m also really proud to take my Nordic Viola group, this time composed of Janet Larssen (Flute), Joost Bosdijk (Bassoon) and David Martin and me (Violas).

Summartónar exists primarily to promote the rich and varied music of the Faroes and Faroese composers will be at the heart of our programme. We start with my arrangement of William Heinesen’s “Variations on a Faroese Hymn Tune”.

20e159_a0f122b6a9ba4ae487460b54c71ed21e~mv2Back in September 2016 I spent a lot of time working with Kristian Blak on his solo viola piece “Tístram” and I’m excited to be performing this in Tórshavn and Rituvík. Kári Bæk’s “Vár Trio” has been with us since our very first concert and we’ve added his “Fragment” to our programme as well.

 

 

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…and Greenland

When I was in Greenland, I askedArnannguaq Gerstrøm to write a piece about winter inspired by, and to complement, Bæk’s “Vár Trio”. “Ukioq” shares the first piece’s energy and joie de vivre and it’ll be interesting to perform the two pieces side-by-side in these two concerts, especially as Summartónar this year is also shining the spotlight on the music of other countries that straddle the 62-63 latitude. Listen out for Arnannguaq’s wonderfully effective ice sounds!

Music from the Northern Isles

We’re also bringing some music from our home country of Scotland, or more specifically, from the Faroes’ neighbours, the Northern Isles of Scotland. David and I will play Judith Weir’s Orkney-inspired “Sleep Sound ida Mornin'” from “Atlantic Drift”. We’ll send the audience away dancing with some Scottish tunes inspired by the Faroes and Greenland, written by the fishermen who plied their trade in the North Atlantic.

I’m so looking forward to seeing my Faroese friends again and to sharing music from their homeland and ours. I also can’t wait to see a bit more of the islands  and to take home some more inspirations for our future work. If you’re travelling in the Faroes, please do come and listen to us. We’d love to meet you and share musical tales of our travels!

Kinbuck Concert 25th March

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Once again it seems the weather gods are setting the scene for the next Nordic Viola concert, which will take place in the Kinbuck Centre on Sunday 25th March at 4pm. As I write, it is still snowing in Dunblane and I’m all set to take a little more Nordic inspiration cross-country skiing in the woods.

Kinbuck holds a special place in my heart as it’s where Helen, David, Dave and I performed the first ever Nordic Viola concert, just before I set off for Iceland in 2016. I have experienced so much since then and met so many wonderful people as well as seeing many wonderful sights, and so I thought that I’d make this concert a very personal journey through North Atlantic music.

We will be performing 3 pieces that I wrote myself whilst travelling:

“Tvisöngur” for solo viola, which was inspired by a set of acoustic caves above Seyðisfjörður in East Iceland.

“Sikusimanerani” for flute, 2 violas, bassoon and recorded sound from Greenland. This piece represents the time of ice. It incorporates real sound and conveys the brittleness and space of the icy landscapes around Nuuk.

“Mjørkaflókar” for flute, 2 violins and 2 violas. The title means “Foggy Banks” and is a reflection from Shetland (it was written in conjunction with pupils at Anderson High School in Shetland) of the Faroe Islands (the theme comes from a Faroese folk song).

We’ll also perform pieces by some of the wonderful composers I met whilst travelling:

There is a commission from Greenlandic composer Arnannguaq Gerstrøm, “Ukioq”, which is a playful description of Greenland in winter and music from Margaret Robertson, one of Shetland’s best fiddlers.

No concert with Faroese music would be complete without something from Kristian Blak and I’ll be playing  “…tað heila gongur av lagi”. This uses the same tune as “Mjørkaflókar” and means “everything has gone awry”. Some strange things happen in this humorous piece!

There’s inspiration from the music of old from the Northern Isles and Iceland and we’ll finish with a good old knees up from the Shetland whalers of the nineteenth century and their Greenlandic hosts.

Tickets

It’s been a real joy to us that children have enjoyed our concerts so much, so, as it’s an afternoon concert, we’ve decided to offer U16s free entry. Tickets will be available on the door, or you can reserve them through messaging me on Facebook or via the contact form on the blog.

We look forward to playing for you.