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Vox Carnyx Review: UNBOUNDSOUND, ABERDEEN

If you consume every morsel on your plate and read books through to the acknowledgements, you will appreciate the thorough approach of Aberdeen’s “new music incubator”, Sound, seizing the earliest opportunity to finish what it began in its last programme before embarking on whatever is possible for its next one.

That meant putting on the North East’s first concert in front of a live audience on Saturday night in Queen’s Cross Church, with Red Note Ensemble and soloist Richard Watkins, and then taking full advantage of the glorious weather the following day with two outdoor performances at Footdee, to give the area known locally as Fittie its Sunday name.

Until pandemic restrictions were lifted, Sound’s recent focus on the French horn had lacked Watkins’s performance of Philip Cashian’s Scenes from the Life of Viscount Medardo. Although the soloist had performed the piece previously with a pianist, this was the world premiere of the original scoring for a chamber ensemble, bringing together top players from Scotland’s orchestras with freelance specialists under the Red Note banner.

Cashian regularly finds inspiration in literary sources, and there is a huge amount going on in this sonic realisation of an Italo Calvino novella from the middle of the last century. The coincidence that its central battle between Italy and Turkey had been paralleled by a football match the previous evening went happily unremarked. With Ruth Morley switching to alto flute and Maximiliano Martin on bass clarinet, phrases were batted across the platform, with the virtuoso soloist using the reverberation of the church acoustic as part of his performance.

The piece was preceded by two works by young composers Sound has mentored, written for the same group of players, minus the horn. Aileen Sweeney’s Feda explores the medieval arboreal alphabet in three movements corresponding to birch, rowan and aspen, with the central one exploiting the combination of harp and violin. Rylan Gleave’s UNSUNG II; even from a loved one, is an extract from a longer, personal work which utilises the classic combination of flute and harp over a rocking two-note bass figure.

What all three pieces shared were fine, upbeat, ensemble finishes, that allowed the socially-distanced audience to bask in the delight of live performance once again.

Down by the dockside on Sunday afternoon, the French horn was to the fore again in the debut of Call, composed by Sound chairman Pete Stollery. Andy Saunders led a gradually-assembled group of seven players on one side of the entrance to the harbour, exchanging calls with two more on the far bank, and ultimately with the horns of vessels in the port.

The score resolved as an overlapping chorale of the old Alexander Brothers hit The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, surprisingly moving in itself but entirely upstaged by the Cyprus-registered offshore supply ship Normand Surfer, which added its own horn as it sailed out into the North Sea.

Stollery’s work, long in the planning and superb in execution, was preceded earlier in the day and a few yards away, by Esther Swift’s The Call, a three movement work which she was refining for the forces to hand that very morning. With two fiddles, cello, electric bass, bassoon, trumpet, flute, soprano sax, her own harp and a couple of singers, it included some very creative collective improvisation and ended on a lovely song of her own composition that spoke directly to the later commission.

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