Review: Lunchbreak Concert with Garth Knox


In association with THE SOUND FESTIVAL 2018



Thursday 1st November, 2018

Thursday’s Lunchbreak concert starring viola virtuoso Garth Knox in collaboration with the sound Festival was a selection of five contemporary items superbly well chosen to appeal to today’s large audience in a nearly full Citadel. As Dr Roger Williams said at the outset, some contemporary music can be ‘challenging’ even off-putting (Roger did not say that)  but Garth Knox proved that it can also be both fascinating and more importantly, hugely entertaining. A very happy audience left the Citadel feeling that they had indeed been royally entertained and had made friends with two different sorts of viola, their exponent and some of its very modern music. This, of course, is exactly what sound is all about!

Those who attended the pre-concert talk in which Garth Knox was in conversation with Dr Roger Williams learned a great deal more about why a musician should choose the viola as their instrument, how it works, both as a solo instrument or in the orchestra, what is the difference between composition and improvisation and how contemporary, often experimental music is scored and should be interpreted.

The first piece in the programme was entitled ‘Woulda Coulda Shoulda’ by the English songwriter composer, multi-instrumentalist, improviser and above all talented guitarist Fred Frith (b. 1949). There were several ‘advanced’ techniques in the music, bowing behind the bridge and spiccato (bouncy bow) for instance. There were short sections of melody interrupted by single strokes or pizzicato, different every time. There were fingerboard slides and leaps and galloping rhythms. There was a touch of a jazzy feel in there too. It went down well with today’s audience.
Garth Knox’s introduction to the following work, two of the ‘Tre Nocturni Brillante’ by the Palermo born composer Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947) helped give it an attractive context when he mentioned sparkling starlight. Sound regulars will be familiar with this composer’s work for flute through many performances in Aberdeen by Richard Craig but Garth Knox assured us that today’s piece was very different, composed with the viola completely in mind. The bow was used lightly and delicately almost throughout giving the music a skeletal sound, almost like gentle whispers. The second piece featured lively fingerboard leaps and slides. This piece too was warmly received by the audience but it was the following three short pieces by Garth Knox himself that really had everybody completely entranced. Entitled ‘Viola Spaces’ the first section used no bowing, just fingers in different colours of pizzicato – I had not realised there were so many. Starting with just one finger and moving on to all nine (one thumb had to be kept round the back to hold the viola up) this piece was a lively dance-like experience. The second used glissandos suggesting what Garth had referred to as an underwater waltz – perhaps it could also have been called a ‘tipsy’ waltz. The final short piece called ‘Up, Down, Sideways, Round’ used the bow in all these ways. As he played, I became totally aware of just how much in control of every aspect of his instrument Garth Knox was. It was not surprising that the audience vigorously applauded each of the pieces. They were absolutely wonderful show pieces.

Hora Lunga’ by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923 – 2006) was composed to use only the low C string of the viola throughout. It was quite melodic taking that melody and moving it constantly upwards so that it ended on a very high harmonic – very difficult indeed to play, unless of course you are Garth Knox.

The final work was four out of the five short pieces once again composed by Garth Knox and entitled ‘Petite Entropies’ for viola d’amore. Garth had already explained this instrument in his pre-concert talk and just before the performance he mentioned the ‘sympathetic’ strings and what their purpose is. In the first of the four pieces, their sound really came through, almost like echoes. In the second piece, there were moments of bowing above the bridge and lots of left hand pizzicato. The third piece which had been named Pluie used a variety of pizzicato techniques, one for instance in which Garth seemed to just tickle the strings. The fourth piece had bowed leaps and jumps gradually coalescing into a recognisable melody. Each of the pieces started relatively simply and then developed in complexity reaching towards chaos which is what the word Entropie suggests.
The music all had a high level of attractiveness but above all it demonstrated Garth’s almost gymnastic virtuosity on his instruments and that is, I am sure, what excited and delighted today’s audience. He got an explosive ovation.