Birth of musical miracle from a lowly Aberdeenshire cattleshed
DRIVE eastward out of Banchory on the main Aberdeen road and it's easy to miss Woodend Barn. These days, it's a simply appointed, delightfully compact arts centre capable of mounting small exhibitions, theatre performances and small concerts. When I dropped in last week, Through the Letterbox - an exhibition based on Elizabeth Blackadder's illustrations for a book of haiku by Scots poet George Bruce - was the main attraction. Ten years ago, though, Woodend was nothing but a derelict cowshed.
Funding its rebuilding and the development of a busy arts programme has been a struggle, fired by passionate individuals. Next week it will be at the centre of one of the most daring musical initiatives to hit the North-East, if not all of Scotland, in recent years. sound - which runs from 8 to 27 November - is a brand new festival dedicated to contemporary music. Some of its larger events, such as the Scottish premiere of a new percussion concerto by Sally Beamish for Evelyn Glennie, take place in the city of Aberdeen. But the real character of this festival will come from its use of small town and village venues in Aberdeenshire - especially in this former Banchory cowshed where the whole idea took root.
The line-up - around 30 events - is both impressive and broad-ranging. "We decided that the contemporary music we would include should encompass more than simply classical music," says Mark Hope, a former oil industry executive whose single-minded chairmanship of the Woodend Arts Association has been the driving force behind the original barn project, and now the festival.
So, alongside appearances by the Hebrides Ensemble and composer James MacMillan will be performances by traditional fiddler Paul Anderson, jazz group mckenzie medboe and experimental electronic musicians Christ and Frog Pocket. Hope and his colleagues have been careful to put together a mix of contemporary styles that will not alienate local interests, and which enables the widest-possible collaboration with local groups. With limited resources he and festival administrator Fiona Robertson have been clever in turning pennies into pounds. "We've tapped into the musical bodies and societies in the area, asking them to mount a programme that fits the criteria of the festival, which we would then embrace within the framework and publicity of the festival. All we asked was that these programmes should have at least one contemporary work."
Those who jumped at the chance range from Aberdeen University and Aberdeen Jazz to various rural music clubs and arts associations. The majority of the performances are in a classical vein. The Hebrides Ensemble will perform both Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and a new work by Haflidi Hallgrimsson. In Aboyne, the Barbican Trio performs MacMillan's 14 Little Pictures.
Music by Naresh Sohal and Kenneth Dempster features in a double bill by the Edinburgh Quartet in Aberdeen's Cowdray Hall and Maritime Museum on 17 November. A gathering of various Aberdeen University ensembles perform Arvo Pärt's delicious Frâtres and music by Varèse, Lyell Cresswell and Monteverdi, and the Glasgow String Quartet (front-desk musicians from the RSNO) mix a sparkly cocktail of Beamish, Debussy and Beethoven at the Monymusk Arts Trust.
Unsurprisingly, there's great anticipation surrounding the appearances of local girl-made-good Glennie. Her main appearance (one of five events initiated exclusively by Sound) is with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Aberdeen Music Hall, in Beamish's Trance o'Nicht. She will also feature in educational workshops and in the first screening in the North East of Touch the Sound, the film by Thomas Riedelsheimer examining the Glennie phenomenon and how she copes, as a musician, with her deafness. After the viewing in Aberdeen's Belmont Picturehouse, Glennie will take questions from the audience.
The ambition of Sound is impressive, but unsurprising considering the tenacity with which Hope has pushed to make Woodend Barn work in the first place. The story goes back to 1992, when Jamie Bennett, the laird of Crathes, came up with idea of mounting a celebration for the historic estate. A community play was put together with a cast of 120 locals using the empty barn as a rehearsal space. Its popularity fed enthusiasm to make the facility permanent.
Hope steered the push for funding to convert the building and establish it as a viable arts centre: "The Scottish Arts Council was sceptical at first, saying it was 'a nice idea, but won't work'." Eventually persistence paid off and a £223,000 funding package - including Lottery funding - signalled the go-ahead for the arts centre. Its part-time staff - some of them voluntary - now run a series of events and exhibitions that attract up to 8,000 people a year, and have made imaginative links with local schools.
"We don't operate on a big budget. It has been a struggle to secure funding for operational costs," says Hope. The network formula has been the answer. As well as exploring every trust, local authority and sponsorship opportunity, Hope and his team built sustainable collaborative links with local music societies. "We don't allow ourselves to go into overdraft. If we need additional money for a project, we go out and find it," he adds.
For sponsorship of the new festival, Hope's former business links proved invaluable. "Both Shell and the Wood Group have committed significant amounts of sponsorship," he says. "Having a flagship event featuring Evelyn Glennie was the magnet. We've then been able to build the rest of the festival around that."
Whether or not Sound will succeed in attracting sufficient audience support to make it viable as an ongoing festival Hope - as his name suggests - is ever optimistic. Anyway, Sound wouldn't be the first miracle to come out of a lowly cowshed.
• Sound runs in various venues, 8-27 November. More information and programme details are at www.sound-scotland.co.uk