A Classical Twist…

Doubling as a 300-seat lecture theatre for Edinburgh University’s Music Department, the 1859 Reid Concert Hall is an elegant performance space with deep red walls and a fine sound. On this particular evening an audience of around a couple of hundred gathered for a seven-item concert given by the Edinburgh Contemporary Music Ensemble. Founded in 2006, this orchestra comprises students from the university alongside musicians of various vintages from Edinburgh’s musical life, including Edinburgh Youth Orchestra.

The title of Tom David Wilson’s Estrif hints at the work’s crafted “strife” in uncovering a melodic theme. In this sense, along with its inconclusive ending, it shares some features with Ives’ The Unanswered Question, the difference being that this is a much more dynamic piece. Much of the dynamism was conveyed by excitingly crisp brass writing in which the ensemble’s trumpet section stood out.

Oliver Searle’s Harbour Dreams harked back to his childhood memories of daydreaming while fishing off the harbour wall in his home town of North Berwick. The parallel ideas of the harbour opening out to sea and a young mind looking out towards an unknown, but surely sunny future, was nicely clinched by the predominance of open-sounding perfect fourths. These calm, optimistic sounds were nicely contrasted with more rhythmic and percussive ones, which reminded me of the lightly clinking sound of moored boats in a calm harbour.

Despite having a master’s degree in composition, and having worked as a music engraver, Luke Drummond now works as a software developer and this transformational kind of outlook, I feel, must have influenced his The First, The Second, The Third, and so on in which he “transcribed” seven multiphonic pieces for alto flute by ECME’s own Richard Worth. Multiphonics occur when players of melodic instruments, obtain two or more notes from the harmonic series by, for example, overblowing. Drummond’s mathematical treatment (L-system transformation) of the stimulus resulted in what I can only describe as a mesmerisingly multilayered orchestral pointillism. I noted some intense concentration on the faces of some players in this piece which was impressively held together by prizewinning conductor James Lowe.

Transformation, in the form of translation also featured in Harry Whalley’s Jammerwoch. This work for soprano and orchestra translates lines from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky variously into Swedish, Latin, French and Italian. Soprano Peyee Chen attacked the work’s angular lines with quiet heroism and very impressive pitching. Just occasionally her sound was challenged by perhaps overly enthusiastic orchestral forces.

The interval, spent sipping complimentary wine in the adjoining rooms, which feature Edinburgh University’s impressive John Donaldson collection of instruments, was followed by a doubly collaborative work, Tinder. Composed by six members of Tinderbox, “a dynamic hub for youth music and arts in Edinburgh”, the piece was then arranged and orchestrated by Harry Whalley and oboist Alice Kelly, the latter of whom performs with both ECME and Tinderbox. Rock-orientated, but by no means predictably metric, this buoyant piece featured impressive drum and bass-guitar contributions from Sam Irvine and Ruairidh Morrison. Enhancing the blend of youth and experience already present in ECME, this piece shone with a sense of fun and I look forward to further collaborations between the two groups.

Simon David Smith’s Against All Things Ending is subtitled “elegy for orchestra.” His own programme note explained how although inspired by the book of the same name by American science-fiction writer Stephen Donaldson, the piece is without programmatic content and is more of a reflection of the “overall mood and feeling” of the book. Somehow, this notion made a great deal of sense to me, reminding me of books in whose language and locus I had so enjoyed residing that I delayed finishing. Smith is a phenomenal pianist and great exponent of contemporary music. However, this piece revealed a more romantic disposition, specifically a Wagnerian one present in references to Tristan. Although not overtly rhythmically difficult, this piece presented the orchestra with their greatest challenge of the evening and I was impressed by the steadying left hand of Lowe averting early entries at points where experience alerted him to such danger.

Unlike some contemporary music events, which can tend towards the earnest, this concert was all about fun and love of the music. All the composers mentioned so far were present and seemed delighted with the performances, as did the enthusiastic audience. I would certainly enjoy hearing these piece again. The orchestra seemed to be having a great time and this sense of fun was communicated in the closing item, a boisterous rendition of György Ligeti’s rousing 1951 Concert Românesc, which featured virtuoso Romany-style solo contributions from clarinettist Calum Robertson and orchestra leader Elizabeth Beeston.


Review by Alan Coady

Photograph by Trond Husebo

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