sound festival 2019 review: EXAUDI and Tutti Voices

Image credit: Colin Black

EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, conducted by James Weeks

Tutti Voices, conducted by Pauline Black

Today’s concert in The Lemon Tree, West North Street, Aberdeen was the opening event in this the 15th soundfestival. It was a sensational celebration of vocal music by contemporary composers representing Scotland, England, Canada and Switzerland. The youngest of these, Allie Robertson is composer in residence at this year’s soundfestival and her composition entitled Motherhood was receiving its World Première at today’s special event.

Motherhood was for me an astounding revelatory experience, not just musically, but dramatically and in lifestyle too. Never having been a mother myself, or even a father, I had never given a moment’s consideration to all the different emotions that affect or even inflict women when faced with motherhood or have to face the censure of certain members of society if they reject motherhood, or are perhaps unable to attain it. In preparing to compose Motherhood, Allie Robertson, as she explained in her pre-concert discussion with Festival Director Fiona Robertson (no relation), recorded some fifty interviews with different women on every aspect of motherhood. Their words were an integral part of the performance. Every word used by the three female singers from EXAUDI, sopranos Juliet Fraser and Amanda Morrison and mezzo-soprano Lucy Goddard were taken verbatim from the recorded interviews. 

It was here that Allie Robertson wove a special compositional magic, taking the words out of the realm of documentary (in itself a considerable achievement) and transforming them into musical and dramatic (could I say almost operatic) Art. The contrapuntal vocal writing throughout the work was amazing and at times the singing would morph into spoken word matching the recorded voices controlled by Allie Robertson sitting on stage at a desk. There were special touches of percussion, sounds like a music box and near the end of the piece, the three singers had water glasses that they made to sing along with their voices.

I am old enough to remember the first twelve years of my life when we had no television in our family but I spent much time listening to the radio and my imagination would conjure up pictures from the voices, the music and sound effects which I heard. Allie’s piece, Motherhood had a similar effect on me, but the few choreographed visual moments on stage, being few, had a special extra power. There was one moment when the all-woman chorus, Tutti Voices directed by Pauline Black, took to the stage and skilfully projected the quite complex music given to them by the composer.

It was interesting that all the performers on stage and in the recordings were women. Three out of the five composers in today’s concert were women. At the pre-concert talk I did ask Allie Robertson what she thought of the reputations of women composers today and in her reply she said that she looks forward to the day when no one says ‘woman composers’ but just ‘composers’.

The following four works in the concert brought the male voices of EXAUDI on stage with the girls. In Uncertain by the Canadian composer Linda Caitlin Smith, the full eight voices were two each of sopranos, altos including male alto Tom Williams, tenors and basses. Based on the words of Virginia Woolf, soprano Juliet Fraser had a significant solo role although later tenor and basses had their moments too. Beneath the soprano solo, the choir poured out soft ever-changing clouds of multicoloured harmony. It is interesting that even the more challenging of these harmonies can sound beautiful when they are delivered by such refined and carefully balanced voices.

Out of Chorales by the Swiss composer Jürg Frey presented its music and its text like a series of detached daubs of contrasting harmonies. The delicacy and subtlety of the singing made thoroughly seductive listening.

Song (24.iv. 1916) by Christopher Fox used fragments of the poem Easter 1916 by W. B Yeats as its text. It had elements of freedom of expression for the singers. It received a powerful and intense performance by a smaller group of singers – quite angry really.

The final work in the programme was by another Canadian composer and the second youngest, Cassandra Miller. For her piece entitled Guide, the choir was divided into three groups, on the right and the left – three singers each, soprano, alto and tenor with the two basses in the middle. It used as its basis the hymn, ‘Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah’, shifted between the groups and individual singers. It was an extraordinary listening experience. I was reminded of Gaelic psalm singing, of field wide spirituals in the southern United States and even some of the music of Charles Ives. Actually it did not really fit any of these things but in listening tonight it was those ideas that came to mind.

What an amazing concert it was. All five pieces were real eye and ear openers. At my age, I thought I had heard everything, but tonight I was proved wrong and that surely is what sound is all about.

After the concert there was an opening reception downstairs in the Lemon Tree introduced by Festival Chairman, Professor Pete Stollery. He introduced a video in which it was announced that our Festival Director Fiona Robertson had been chosen by the Royal Philharmonic Society to receive the Leslie Boosey Award, given primarily to those ‘back stage’ toilers who are so important in keeping music alive. Fiona has certainly done that – and then some. The award was presented to her by Juliet Fraser, soprano from EXAUDI. Fiona gave her thanks and went on to mention some of the marvellous events to come in this years festival. Following that, six of the eight singers (no sopranos) gave a performance of another piece by Christopher Fox which they dedicated to Fiona.

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