Alan Cooper reviews soundfestival 2018: Viola Viola

GARTH KNOX: Viola and Viola d’amore

Saturday 3rd November, 2018 

Being that the viola was one of the special themes of this year’s soundfestival, Saturday’s lunchtime concert in the Lemon Tree entitled Viola Viola was the very apotheosis of the viola. At least two of the pieces demanded no fewer than six violas although in the final work ‘Ockeghem Fantasy’ by Garth Knox, the principal instrument was actually a viola d’amore.
Both the first and last pieces in the concert were compositions of Garth Knox and both used the music of much earlier composers as their starting point. Marin Marais (1656 – 1728) was a French composer and viol player who was a pupil of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Garth Knox used Marais’ ‘Variations for Four Violas’ producing his own variations on the variations by Marais. As a result, the melodic and harmonic style of the earlier composer came through but in Garth Knox’s seven variations, modern styles triumphed strongly as well. In the first there were broken melodies with considerable complexity. There followed harmonics, pizzicato, glissando slides, spiccato (bouncy bows) deliberate out of tune playing via quarter tones on some of the instruments and a certain skeletal sounds. One or two of these might have been familiar to Marais but many others not at all. One of the splendid holding points of Knox’s compositions is both a sense of lively good humour and, of attractiveness in the music something that was never lost in the embrace of advanced techniques. The four players were obviously enjoying themselves even although some of the playing styles were technically demanding. I am sure the audience were enjoying themselves every bit as much.

The well known composer Sally Beamish is also a talented viola player. In her post concert discussion, she described the viola as her instrument. ‘A Farewell for six violas’ was receiving its World Première on Saturday. The piece was commissioned by sound with support from soundbytes investors Pete and Catherine Stollery and Judith Taylor. This work is the first of a series of six chamber pieces which are to be musical ‘farewells’ to Scotland because Sally is currently moving back to England. She told us that she is emotionally conflicted by the move and invited us to find evidence of that in the music. The influence of the kind of Gaelic psalm singing found in certain Scottish Island parishes was to be a central part of the music. I was once passing a lecture theatre in Aberdeen University on a Sunday when such Psalm singing was in full flood. Perhaps this congregation was not very good but I have to say that Sally Beamish’s music sounded way better than that. Her music was more like a kind of delayed counterpoint in which her melody always shone through. There was a second section of the piece where rhythmic juggling took over and the counterpoint sounded even more impressive. In the third part of the work pizzicato playing was set against a melody that sounded both sad and slightly disconnected. Rhythmic jabs led towards the conclusion of the work. I enjoyed it and so I reckon did the large audience too.

Sir George William John Benjamin (b.1960) was the composer of the work which gave the entire concert its title, ‘ViolaViola’. Garth Knox and Claire Merlet were the performers in this fascinating piece. The coming and going by the two players at the top of their form of technical competency was a delight to behold. Actually the scores of each would have on their own made a fascinating piece but with the two bouncing off one-another or else coming together this music was technically delicious with an underlying sense of good humoured musical banter between the two players.

The final piece in the concert was the other composition by Garth Knox, this time featuring the Viola d’amore. Once more Garth explained the sympathetic resonating strings of his instrument but the other five players were stood at the back of the performing area divided into two groups which Garth labelled the good and the bad. ‘Okeghem Fantasy for viola d’amore and five violas’ took as its starting point the music of Johannes Ockeghem the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School. Ockeghem was born somewhere between 1410 and 1425 and he died in 1497.

The three good players were to be playing notes used by Ockeghem himself – the two bad players and possibly the viola d’amore were to be playing notes not used by Ockeghem. Gradually the players at the rear of the stage came forward to join Garth whose playing hit amazing heights of virtuosity. Although Garth’s music was challenging in its technical brilliance it was always thoroughly digestible for the audience. It was great to see many children in the audience and those I asked said they had really enjoyed the concert. I am sure they were telling the truth and not just saying that to please me. Well done Garth. You have encouraged Aberdeen audiences to make friends with the viola and with contemporary music. I wonder how many of the children who attended this concert will be standing there in twenty or so years playing a viola?           


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