Review: Nordic Viola






ANNA APPLEBY: Electronics


Friday 26th October 2018

Although the UK is reasonably wide ranging in its programming of composers from all round the world, nevertheless, if you visit various different countries you will find in each one a large number of composers you have probably never heard of. So the sound Festival is to be congratulated in bringing to our notice a whole range of contemporary composers from different countries whose music will be quite new to the general audience. Friday’s late lunchtime concert in St Machars Cathedral entitled ‘Nordic Viola’ introduced us to the music of a raft of still living composers from the Faroes, Greenland and Denmark. Oh! And there were a couple of younger English female composers in there too.

Our three gifted performers are all currently members of the RSNO and they were led today by viola player Katherine Wren. The viola, and female composers being special themes of this year’s sound Festival this concert ticked both of these boxes.

The performance opened with a work entitled ‘Vár Trio’ by Kári Bæk. He is a Faroese composer born in 1950.

The Trio was tonal but modern in its melodic and harmonic writing. It was, I thought, particularly well-crafted, the lead melody being taken by each of the three instruments in turn and with telling imitations between the instruments. I have been to many hundreds of thousands of concerts over the years but as far as I can remember this was the first time I have heard the trio of viola, flute and bassoon playing together. The sound blend worked particularly well in Bæk’s composition and there was more to come and not just from him.

Kristian Blak was born in Denmark but is now resident in the Faroes. His piece entitled ‘Drrunnn’ was for solo viola with prepared recording operated by Anna Appleby. Before the performance itself Katherine Wren read out what I could call a very atmospheric prose poem conjuring up the stormy weather that surrounds the Faroes in winter. The sounds of the sea and more significantly wild geese and other birds were prominent in the recording. To begin with the viola had just little stabbed notes jelling with the cries of the birds. Later on the viola developed strands of melody played very delicately as if able to take flight. The work was in three movements. In the second, the viola had whispers of melody, fitful and fragmentary as of course are also the cries of the birds and the gusts of the wind. In the third movement the viola mirrored the bird calls on the tape then moved on to more jointed and languid playing.

Poul Ruders, born in 1949 is a Danish composer. His piece, for solo unaccompanied viola perhaps took us inside, away from the stormy weather. ‘Prelude’ from ‘Autumn Collection’ was happy sounding dance music. Perhaps we in Scotland would feel at home with this music, like something from our ceilidhs which often also take place in winter to warm us up and shelter us from our own storms!

Anna Appleby born in Newcastle in 1993 is now based in Manchester. Visits to the Northern countries have inspired her to compose her new piece called ‘Hrakningar’ a co-commission from sound. It was having its World Première in St Machars Cathedral today. It was written for the trio of viola, flute and bassoon along with recorded tape. Its inspiration came from the coming of Autumn when the geese come together to prepare to fly south, often to Scotland to avoid the worst rigours of Winter farther North. Sounds of the geese and of water were prominent on the tape and to begin with, the three instrumentalists painted little dabs of musical colour over the sounds of the birds. Gradually the trio coalesced playing together in attractive and very poetic sounding music. Towards the end there was a resurgence of the geese and the water. The whole piece was very colourful in its evocation of the northern landscapes or should I say seascapes?

Lillie Harris was born in Canterbury in 1994 but is now based in London. Her piece entitled simply ‘AND’ was for solo unaccompanied viola. To set the scene for us, Katherine read out another evocative piece of prose. This piece explored the entire range of sounds of which the viola is capable. It was energetic, muscular and at the same time beautifully detailed.

Arnannguaq Gerstrøm is a flautist, conductor and composer. She was born in Greenland in 1977. Her piece entitled ‘Ukioq’ had the trio begin in entirely percussive mode with taps on the body of the viola, and just pure empty blowing on the other instruments. When they began to play in fully sounded mode, the music was also percussive with the idea of rhythm remaining paramount. Later on, the bassoon reverted to key tapping to remind us that this idea of percussive playing was important. Before the performance Katherine read out another piece to let us know that the inspiration of this piece was ice – its freezing, cracking, melting and refreezing.

The performance ended as it had begun with a second piece by Kári Bæk. ‘Fragment’ was actually more than that. It was for the full trio once again. As promised by Katherine it was bright and sunny suggesting the Faroes in summer. Rhythmic and jolly it had a moment where the flute was exchanged for piccolo and bassoonist David Hubbard finally played the triangle which had been hanging enticingly from the music stand making me wonder when we might hear it.

All this music painted brilliant pictures of the Nordic seascapes perhaps suggesting that a musicologist could write a tome on the effects of weather and landscape on music. Outside on the way home, the Aberdeen weather had picked up on the theme of the concert. This is not really for me. I think I will look out some hotter music before heading out to this evening’s concert in the Lemon Tree – Island in the Sun, perhaps!