Review: Red Note Ensemble Lunchtime Concert






Saturday 27th October, 2018

One of the special themes of this year’s sound Festival is the music of woman composers. This was celebrated generously at Saturday’s lunchtime concert in St Andrew’s Cathedral. The entire programme was devoted to works by five young female composers. The pieces were very different, each exhibiting quite divergent and individual strands in contemporary composition.

The five works were all performed by three superbly talented members of the Red Note Ensemble, Ruth Morley on flute, Felix Tanner on viola and cellist Robert Irvine. Our young composers could be certain of getting the very finest performances of their works from these musicians. In her introduction to the concert, Festival Director Fiona Robertson informed us that the composers had all attended a weekend of discussions and ideas at Logie Coldstone in upper Deeside. All five were at today’s performance to introduce their works and explain some of the things that had inspired them in composing their pieces.

First off was the American born composer Sara Rimkus who has just completed her PhD at Aberdeen University. Sara leaves Aberdeen at the end of November to return to the States. This has presented her with a certain emotional dichotomy. She will be happy to be going home but at the same time, sad to be leaving Aberdeen which has become a second home. Hence the title of her piece ‘In two minds’.
Her piece began with a strong and portentous chord on viola and cello. Just for a second it sounded like the chord that often introduces Scottish dance music. However the chords were repeated on the strings and matured into something quite different. The harmonies were daring and just a little stark. The viola then the cello had short almost skeletal twirls then the flute entered with a kind of bitter sweet melody. These sound worlds were made to contrast with one another making the music live up perfectly to its title.

Lisa Robertson’s piece also had a dichotomy but of a quite different sort. She told us that her music brought out the contrast between pure sea air and the far less pure air of the city – its title was ‘the inimitable brightness of the air’. She employed advanced techniques for all three instruments at the beginning. The flute was breathed into without tone and both viola and cello stroked their strings so lightly that they also produced a similar breathy sound. Wind and fresh air no doubt. Later, the viola produced swooping effects which melded into sounds like the cries of sea birds. The music was slow moving and mostly delicate – quite atmospheric and very suggestive of its subject.

Lucy Hollingworth gave her piece a quite traditional musical title. It was called simply ‘Chaconne’. She told us that the music would indeed follow the usual Chaconne dance formula with, in this case, around 15 repetitions, but she warned us that perhaps the dance floor was not as safe as it seemed – could there be broken glass on the floor?

The piece was very well constructed as a trio, basically quite traditional with fine contrapuntal writing and later on splendid well spaced pizzicatos on the strings. There were just enough unusual notes and bowings in the piece to suggest the danger that Lucy had mentioned. Being more traditional in its sound world, it received a very warm reception from the audience.

Aileen Sweeney’s inspiration was possibly the most amazing, as in some ways was her music. She told us that some scientists believe that trees can talk to one another. Didn’t Prince Charles always say that? Anyway, Aileen had mentioned that glissando motifs were to play a powerful part in her piece ‘The Wooden Web’ and indeed they did, almost all the way through. The sound world that she drew from the trio was clear and transparent – attractive, quite euphonious in fact. I was particularly impressed by the way in which Aileen had written pianissimo low passages here and there for the flute, so that its sound blended perfectly with the strings.

The most amazing effect came in at the end when the three musicians sang in harmony so that we would think that, yes indeed, the trees are talking or even singing to one another.

‘Chessmen’ was the title of the final work in the programme by Electra Perivolaris. She based her work on the discovery of stone chessmen found in 1831 near Uig on the Isle of Lewis. They are believed to be Viking and date from the 12th Century. Rapidly bowed shimmers on the strings played a colourful part throughout her music delicately matched by flute trills in places. This created a powerful atmospheric quality throughout the work. It was in several sections, possibly representing the passage of the various eras of time following the original abandonment of the chessmen.
One of the movements opened with delightful light-textured whiffles on the flute. This was not a concerto and yet the flute played a prominent part and was allowed to disport herself in a cadenza-like passage – a real high point in the work. Later, the violin and cello sang out together with real warmth before the flute too joined them. Electra’s music verged towards the more tuneful or melodic end of the contemporary spectrum. I and many others found her piece thoroughly captivating.

There have been woman composers dating back at least to Hildegard of Bingen in late 12th century Germany, possibly near contemporaneous with Electra’s chessmen. On the other hand they are few and far between and none have reputations that match the men like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart or Richard Strauss. It is marvellous though that today, many more girls and young women are thinking about musical composition as a career. Today sound introduced us to no fewer than five of them.