In the late 1980s in Aberdeen, a few folk took to meeting in each other’s houses and playing some “would be” chamber music. At that time there was little opportunity for very amateur musicians to play together, and it seemed there was an absence of friendly orchestras within the city. Ring leaders in those years, which preceded the beginnings of the Learig, were Joan MacDonald, Liz Duncan and Willie and Seonaid Primrose. With increasing enthusiasm and numbers moving beyond “ sitting room” capacity the orchestra was formally launched in May 1991. The name “Learig” came from Liz – the Learig being the “edge of the field” – in contrast to the better known Runrig, which is the main area for ploughing. Our first conductor was Joan, who was by profession a music teacher and who had some Queen`s Cross Church connections. Initial rehearsals and a very informal concert took place that autumn.
Under Joan MacDonald`s guidance we began to meet regularly at Linksfield Academy, where she taught. The orchestra grew in numbers and met on a Tuesday evening. Concerts twice or even thrice a year became minor goals, but the main raison d`etre was to provide an opportunity for erstwhile musicians to meet on a regular basis and have some fun. The concerts were initially just for family – either for children or parents, depending on the age of the player! The occasional very understanding supporter also came along. We also began to raise money for local or national charities who benefited from the small surplus from our concerts.
After initially launching the Orchestra, Joan was replaced by our next conductor Tara Leiper (nee Stuart). In those early years we performed in venues as varied as the gymnasium of the American School, and the Cowdray Hall (and at that time it was affordable to hire that fine hall). Those next few years included exciting diversions into improvisation with Kitty Watson, who was for a short time Aberdeen`s Musician in Residence.
With her assistance we created a celebratory piece called “Union Street 200”, in honour of this once wonderful street being two centuries of age. This work had its one and only performance in the Music Hall in 1994. Our rehearsal venue moved for a while to the unusual location of the Fire Station, through our connections with the late Rev Donald Rennie, who had been chaplain to the Fire Brigade. He was both a double bass and violin player (though not simultaneously!). He also conducted us for a number of sessions. With violinist Brian Priestley (who became renowned in the Learig for his “Mush Mush” technique summoning us back to play after our tea break) we became constitutional. David Jones, our loyal bass, helped generate our concert programmes, modest publicity and our website www.learig.org.uk. The roll call of further conductors over these years included, in order: Tracey Milne, David Grant, Graham MacDonald, Arthur Bruce, Alan Duguid, Dick Vote, Brian Gummee, Kirsty Robertson and Fraser Gale.
To all of them we are most grateful.
The Woodend Day Hospital became our rehearsal venue following our Fire Station sojourn and remained so until 2014. We were most grateful to NHS Grampian and local health service colleagues for tolerating our incursions, and the rearranging of the furniture on an almost weekly basis. The much appreciated mid-rehearsal cup of tea, frequently thanks to Sheena Leith and Sylvia Berrow, has helped maintain the ethos of the orchestra as a welcoming venue for all and sundry. In 2004 our most steadfast and appreciated conductor Paul Tierney took up the baton. Since then both he and the Orchestra have flourished with an exciting repertoire, the commissioning of new music, increasing numbers of players and a successful series of concerts.
More recently the orchestra has tackled a challenging range of works from diverse composers, ranging from Haydn and Mozart to Rossini, Mendelssohn and Britten. Perhaps our most ambitious effort to date was the Vaughan Williams` London Symphony which was performed in St Machar`s Cathedral in June 2009. That concert also saw us undertake a world premiere performance. Paul Tierney had composed a specially commissioned piece for us entitled “Black Triptych”, inspired by a painting by Francis Bacon. We were pleased to help Paul on his way to his PhD in Composition, the recording of the orchestra doing justice to a fine work. Over two decades the orchestra has generated more than £20,000 for a variety of local and international charities. We have also been delighted to receive small but essential grants from the Aberdeen City Council, and Fiona Thomson as Treasurer has helped collect the modest subscriptions and keep us afloat.
When Paul left us in 2012 the orchestra had developed significantly and was tackling more substantial works. Ronnie Gibson took over the baton (having previously been leader of the orchestra) and he in turn passed it on to David Hanton and Scott Wilson. Meanwhile the orchestra changed its rehearsal venue to the Rosemount Community Centre, nearer the centre of Aberdeen. The baton has now returned to Ronnie and we are looking forward to our 60th concert as the Learig orchestra celebrates its 25th anniversary.
This synopsis has not mentioned the large numbers of regular players who are the orchestra – of all ages from teenage to octogenarian, and from all continents, and with even some Aberdonians to boot! We are also indebted to a series of Leaders who have been happy to pitch in and take us on to our next concert and beyond. Socially the orchestra has enjoyed the occasional Burns supper hosted at Willie and Dot`s with music provided by an impromptu ceilidh band from our members and friends. There has also been some occasional 10-pin Bowling, as well as a more frequent post rehearsal libation enjoyed by a few of the regulars. Our concert venues have varied from scary outdoor venues such as the Portlethen Gala and even the more memorable (and never to be repeated) Union Street in December to many a Church or Hall. Although most of our concerts have been Aberdeen based, we have ventured to Westhill and even Inverurie and there is the potential of going further afield .We look forward to many more exciting times over the years ahead.