It sounds like a Scottish literary euphemism for Hell. Mr McFall, the fallen one, and his chamber of horrors; a fiery anteroom, possibly, presided over by a kilted Lucifer, playing the bagpipes for All Eternity.
Of course, nothing could be further from the reality of McFall being a slightly crumpled gentleman from Morningside who runs a band of talented maverick classical musicians, looking to escape the formal strictures of their day jobs as members of Scotland’s various tie n’ tux ensembles, by playing arrangements of Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix numbers, tango songs and wonky commissions from the lunatic fringe of the contemporary music fraternity.
I came across them in November 2002. I was planning a day out for my Dad, whose 58th birthday we were celebrating. My mum had died in October of the previous year, and my brother had moved to Cardiff, so it was just the two of us. The Sunday Herald ran a pretty comprehensive gig guide in those days, and this was listed as a free event at St Andrew’s in the Square, a gorgeous 18th century chapel in the Calton, just off Saltmarket, which had recently been renovated and turned into a stunning new venue.
The concert was in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, so perfectly timed for me to meet Dad out of his Spanish class and get some lunch beforehand. I had no idea what to expect. My Dad’s pretty open-minded when it comes to music like this, so I wasn’t worried about that; myself, less so. I’d read a review or two that praised them for the adventurousness of their programming as much as for their performing pedigree. But reviews can be subjective. I put it to my Dad and we agreed that even if the music was rubbish, there was always the venue to admire.
For some reason, the first week in November always seems to show the best of the autumn. If you’re lucky, if the rain stays away, the colours, the light, the stillness can be as beautiful as anything you will see. We turned up, in good time, and filed our way in, not quite trusting our luck that this was a free gig. Outside, it was a perfectly still day. Cold, crisp, a little overcast. But as we took our seats and became more aware of the splendour of the church’s interior, outside the sun began to shine. And through centuries old glass, ripples of light drifted in, bringing autumn colours of bronze and gold from the trees in the square, lighting up the glorious interior with its gilded motifs and stark white walls.
It became apparent as soon as everyone had taken their seats that this concert was for the benefit of a BBC recording. There were mikes and desks and people with enormous headphones everywhere. And standing out in front, introducing the proceedings was a man who possessed the voice of BBC Radio 3’s breakfast show presenter, Sandy Burnett. So that’s what he looked like! And even if thought him a bit of a dry stick, I always enjoyed his voice: richly timbred and unfailingly precise – and sadly missing from the schedules these ten years or so.
Sandy introduced the first song, a fittingly seasonal Astor Piazzola composition called Otoño Porteño, by asking us to listen out for the first few notes which are scratched on the strings behind the bridge of the violin, giving a rasping sound. Unheard of in classical repertoire, these sounds are idiomatic to Argentinian tango music where they could be said to represent the sound of the cicada – indeed, the notation of this device is often represented by its Spanish name, chicharra. And at that, McFall’s bow launched us into a gorgeous recital of Piazzola arrangements and tango songs, as warm and sumptuous as our surroundings, as clear and bright as the day outside.
It’s one of my favourite concerts, and for many reasons. Partly it’s the element of surprise: I was already a fan of Piazzola – having discovered him through a Mexican celllist friend of A-‘s in Perpignan in the mid 90s – and I was hearing him anew in Mr McFall’s ingenious bandoneonless arrangements. Surprise, too, from the tango songs, a genre new to me, and delivered with fabulous panache by the band, particularly their singer Valentina Montoya Martinez and her elemental interpretations. Partly, it was the air of theatricality brought by the RECORDING lights and various bits of radio paraphernalia. Partly it was that place, that light. Partly cos it was a freebie (and Dad loves a freebie).
It was a thing for my Dad and I, a perfect serendipitous gift of an afternoon and one I would dearly love to relive. It made me a lifetime fan of Mr McFall and his chamber of wonders.
I saw them again soon after at the Concert Hall’s Strathclyde Suite. I had raved about this concert in the church to my girlfriend C- who was keen to hear them too, so we went at the next available opportunity. The one thing I remember was a performance of John Cage’s Water Music for solo piano, a virtuoso display of timing – musical and comic – by pianist Graeme McNaught, which seemed to capture the essence and spirit of John Cage at his best. Played straight and taken seriously, but clever and funny and brilliant and like nothing else you’re ever likely to hear. Another perfect little gift.
I saw Mr McFall’s Chamber once more, at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh. That gig is mostly memorable for me because of some music I heard over the PA before the concert started and which transfixed me in exactly the same way as Ana fil houb had done five years earlier. I asked an usher, who directed me to the front of house manager, who directed me to the sound engineer, who gave me the name of a CD that he had been playing during the tour.
But that all seems like a whole other chapter.