7 - 27 November 2005
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The Herald
3 December 2005

Rule No 1: never put down your viola

"I'VE lost my viola. Has anybody seen my viola?" called the plaintive voice of Fiona Robertson, administrator of Sound, the first festival of contemporary music in the north east of Scotland. The call from Robertson, her normally unflappable demeanour well and truly flapped, came during the final event of the festival as James MacMillan, looking at his most serious and intense, sharpened up his baton to conduct a workshop performance of his orchestral piece Into the Ferment with a 60-strong ad hoc orchestra that had never met until the day of the project.

The moral of this little anecdote is: don't ever put down your viola if you are a festival administrator, for, as sure as eggs are eggs, you won't be able to find it again.

It was the final scare for Fiona Robertson who, flushed with the exhaustion of administrating a new festival and saving the final concert from cancellation by the skin of its teeth, had unearthed her long-buried viola to join in the last performance, and was just about at the end of her rope.

Meanwhile Mark Hope, the festival director (he shuns titles, as they all did in this remarkable new event in Scotland's musical calendar, but someone's got to do it), was sitting in his cellist's seat looking catatonic with tiredness, his usually pale complexion chalk white. He was probably considering that his oil industry day job is child's play compared to organising a festival.

This week, as the shockwaves of the experience subside, they'll begin to consider the lessons learned in running a contemporary music festival. And the first issue they will have to come to terms with is this, the Sound Festival was an artistic success. By an intricate pattern of networking, which drew into the fold a wide range of visiting artists as well as local organisations including music clubs and societies, the university's musical forces, and a host of individuals, a festival was assembled that stretched throughout the region and was impressively more than the sum of its parts.

There were tons of contemporary compositions in the festival, from orchestral to chamber, from electronic to choral and instrumental, as well as music beyond the strict "classical" sphere. There was brand-new modern music and brand-old modern music, with contemporary classics.

Success went beyond artistic achievement. When the accounting for the GBP70,000 festival is done, it will reveal that Sound has not only come in on budget, but still has a few thousand in the bank, which will be music to the ears of the councils (arts, city, and shire) as well as industrial and commercial groups who supported the venture.

Perhaps the toughest lesson they learned was of tenacity in the face of unpredictable adversity.

The James MacMillan day almost didn't happen. As late as 48 hours before the day-long event, Fiona Robertson phoned to say she was going to have to "pull it" and cancel MacMillan. Finding enough musicians to put on the work, which requires two separate orchestral groups, had been a nightmare from day one.

The Sound organisers were faced with the fact that there was a huge brass-band event elsewhere, leaving the north east denuded of brass players.

The hunt was on. Everywhere they turned there were problems. Musicians were booked to do other things. Some were at auditions, some at rehearsals. Meanwhile, other players were falling ill.

They scoured every college, university, and academy in the UK, turning up musicians game for a challenge, including a young Canadian trumpet student in London who was flown to Aberdeen at the last minute to play the fiendishly difficult lead trumpet part.

Elsewhere, the administrators had to negotiate a minefield of diplomacy with Evelyn Glennie and her technical manager over the performance of Sally Beamish's percussion concerto, which had been amplified in its previous performances.

The festival team decided that amplification was inappropriate to the intimate scale of Aberdeen's Music Hall. They were right. They dug in and stuck to their guns, and the Glennie team finally acquiesced. The detail of the highly sensitive episode could fill a small book.

If the firm but delicate exercising of executive authority is a criterion for successful festival directorship, then the Sound team are off to a flying start. The big question is: what of next year? Will they do it again? At the moment they're saying nothing official. But Scotland needs this festival. Its backers should emphasise the point to these delightful, fearlessly enterprising people.



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