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REVIEW: Oboe and Electronics

Christopher Redgate: Oboe
Pete Stollery: Electronics

This year’s featured instrument chosen to be highlighted by sound is the oboe. Britain’s foremost expert on the instrument, not just in performance but in design and future development too is Christopher Redgate. Before today’s very special performance with Professor Pete Stollery in the Big Sky Studio, Redgate had already given two performances for sound, one with Quatuor Diotima in King’s College Chapel and one in the Phoenix Hall at Newton Dee. On Friday morning he also gave a workshop for Aberdeen University students in the MacRobert Building at the University.

When we came into the Big Sky Studio today, the first thing we noticed was Redgate’s revolutionary Howarth-Redgate oboe with its dazzling multiplicity of shining keys sitting on its stand in the middle of the platform. Professor Stollery, the other performer, was firmly ensconced at his desk in the middle of the studio giving his full attention to the electronics which were to become such a crucial part of the performance. Soon Christopher Redgate in his bright red shirt took the platform to a torrent of applause from a full-house audience. We were all agog to hear the performance that was on offer.

The first piece was Edwin Roxburgh’s ...at the still point of the turning world... . The programme note explained: “Roxburgh creates a sound world which emanates from the oboe as a central sound source which is ‘circumnavigated’ by other sounds. The other sounds are taken from the live oboe and are sometimes modified by the electronics.”

This was spot on as a description of what we were about to hear. To begin with, I have to say that Redgate’s whole performance radiated confidence and purposefulness with complete control of his instrument and of the music—this was the very epitome of cool precision in playing and interpretation. With some performers who use advanced techniques you might think, ‘is this guy really in full control of what he is doing or is he just letting the instrument or the music take the running?' Not with Christopher Redgate, though. In his hands (on his oboe keys) we knew we were totally safe, and so were the composers.

In the performance of this first piece, there were many special advanced techniques: multiphonics, the use of keys as percussion, later on, almost honking low notes, the bending of notes both upwards and downwards—everything done in such a clear and purposeful way. Pete Stollery’s electronics, also employed with expert precision and understanding of the music, expanded the performance so that at times there seemed to be a host of oboe players around the studio. Little sections of what Redgate had played were seized upon and projected at the audience. Towards the conclusion of this piece the live performer and the electronics created what sounded like a marvellous fugal section  which brought the music to a climax.

At the opening of David Gorton’s Erinnerungsspiel, Christopher Redgate took the audience on a marvellous thrill ride of oboe virtuosity. Torrents of notes were fired like bursts of musical fireworks over our heads. Some sections were like a host of twittering birds. I wondered what Messiaen would have thought of Redgate’s magical aviary? If Redgate paused on a single note Pete Stollery’s electronics would take up the flight in a precise way. There were lots of multiphonics in this piece and later on the music slowed and the oboe hypnotised us with deliciously meandering melodic passages. Towards the conclusion of the piece, the music took flight at high speed once again.

Heinz Holliger is a Swiss oboist, composer and conductor who celebrated his 80th birthday in May this year. His piece, Cardiophonie, was described in the programme note as 'a very dramatic and theatrical work'. It was certainly that and then some! Throughout the music we could hear the thud, thud of the performers heartbeat. He removed his reed and blew and breathed into the instrument. I was fascinated to notice that the use of the keys on the instrument altered the pitch of the breathy sounds. There were also groans and moans from the performer and finally, after thumping on his chest, he rose to his feet and tore round the platform and the studio before charging out of the rear door. After that, we were left with the echoes of the past sounds supplied by the electronics. I found the end of the piece a little alarming as a result of past health problems in my late twenties.
As I left the concert to move on to the Lemon Tree for We need to talk/Il faut qu’on parlewith cellists Noémi Boutin and Matthew Sharp, I encountered Kevin Leomo, one of the composers from the lunchtime Red Note event. He told me how much he had enjoyed Christopher and Pete’s performance. That should count for a lot!