7 - 27 November 2005
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The Herald
9 November 2005

One Sound investment Evelyn Glennie, Sally Beamish, James MacMillan, the SSO ... an amazing programme marks the launch of a new, inspirational festival.

SOMETHING remarkable is happening in the northeast of Scotland. Throughout this month a range of towns, villages and venues across the area will play host to a festival of contemporary music.

Concerts will feature orchestral, chamber, instrumental, choral and electronic music. There will be world, UK and Scottish premieres. A stream of workshops, masterclasses and talks featuring composers and performers will be staged as an integral part of the festival.

Entitled sound, the festival is no mere amateur run at a tough proposition. It is the real McCoy, with some of Scotland's and the UK's leading composers being represented by their music, and, in many cases, actually being present.

Headlining the festival will be the biggest single event, the performance of Trance o'Nicht, Sally Beamish's new percussion concerto, written for and featuring Evelyn Glennie, local lass turned superstar. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will provide the accompaniment, which has led, in some parts, to the assumption that it is a BBC concert. It is not. It is a GBP25,000 event organised and staged by the sound festival. The SSO has been hired for the night by the festival.

Serious sponsorship has been found from industry, state and local authorities to promote this event.

Additional money has been secured to keep Ms Glennie in the area, where she will give three workshops with primary children and a masterclass with academy students.

Interactive workshops will, in fact, be a backbone of the festival. As well as those by Glennie, the Edinburgh Quartet, composer Kenneth Dempster and the blisteringly virtuosic pianist and composer James Clapperton will hold workshops. Sally Beamish, currently the busiest composer in Scotland, will give a talk, and will also feature in a programme by the Glasgow String Quartet (front desk RSNO players) who will play her quartet Opus California.

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh Quartet will give a double bill of premieres with new string quartets by Naresh Sohal and Kenneth Dempster, the peerless Hebrides Ensemble will bring their touring programme of music by Haflidi Hallgrimsson, Marina Adamia and Messiaen, the superb Barbican Piano Trio will bring James MacMillan's 14 Little Pictures, the musical forces of Aberdeen University will pile in with music by Lyell Cresswell and Sir PeterMaxwell Davies (the Max classic music theatre work, Eight Songs for a Mad King), as well as modern classics by Arvo Part and Edgard Varese. MacMillan himself will contribute a unique event entitled A Day with James MacMillan, when he will put together a day-long rehearsal session on his early orchestral work Into the Ferment - the superb and entertaining piece written in the late-1980s for the Ayrshire Schools Symphony Orchestra - which will culminate in an informal performance. All parts, including those written for a concertante group of professionals, originally played by members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, will be taken, I understand, by local musicians.

All of this just scratches the surface of sound, but begs several questions: What on earth is this festival? Where did it come from? Where exactly is it based? Who runs it? How is it financed? And why the north-east of Scotland? It would be tempting to suggest that the new festival was born in an old cowshed on a steading 20 miles west of Aberdeen. There's an element of truth in that romantic notion, as Woodend Barn (of which Evelyn Glennie is patron), is the spiritual home of one of the most innovative cross-arts associations in Scotland, which combines abstract art with dance, exhibitions with music, and is very big on workshops across all art forms. Chairman of Woodend Barn, Mark Hope, a part-time executive with Shell, is indeed one of the drivers of the sound festival.

But, as Hope is quick to point out, the foundation of the festival was a team initiative by a group including himself, composer Pete Stollery, and administrator Fiona Robertson, all of whom collectively hatched the plot.

"Basically, " says Hope, "we had been thinking: there is nothing of contemporary music in the northeast - and, for that matter, little elsewhere in Scotland, other than intermittently. It seemed a mad idea to do a contemporary music festival; but we do mad ideas."

One of the main strands of thought was to extend, through a festival, the type of workshop activity the organisers are all involved in and wholly committed to - "it connects with people, involves them, and it breaks down barriers." A further intention was to "knock down" another perceived barrier, between Aberdeen city and Aberdeenshire. "There's a bit of frustration with two different local authorities." So they started work to see "what could be achieved with a really small budget of GBP70,000".

Having secured Evelyn Glennie's residency, including the headline concert, with sponsorship from Shell, the Wood Group, and others, along with cash support from the arts council to help fund the Beamish commission, the next problem was how to make a festival out of it. "We thought: what about a network event? Don't direct everything from the centre, " says Hope. "Let's see who else we can corral into participating."

They contacted between 20 and 30 local arts organisations, including music clubs, music societies, the university and choirs. The criterion for coming on board was simple: organisations had to programme a contemporary piece; and if visiting artists were bringing their own programme, they had to change it to include a modern piece.

The response was astonishing, and from all areas of the region; which is why you will find the Barbican Piano Trio playing MacMillan in a community theatre in Aboyne, the Glasgow String Quartet playing Beamish in Monymusk, the Hebrides in Fettercairn and Banchory, the Edinburgh Quartet in the Maritime Museum, Sally Beamish in the Belmont Picturehouse, a sound installation in the railway station, a choral concert in Stonehaven, sundry events in Woodend Barn, a tapestry of poetry, song and story in Arbuthnott, a range of events in university halls. And so on.

"When we told people we were going to do a festival and it would be networked, quite a few rolled their eyes, and said: 'You're barmy; it just won't work.'Well, that's what we do, " says Hope. "We like mad ideas that other people say won't work. "We're really happy with the way it's turned out. The key now is: can we get significant audiences on to seats to experiment with us. That's the big unknown." The spectre of that unknown has not deterred funders, piling money in to meet the GBP70,000 festival budget.

As well as the big players and Scottish Arts Council, both local authorities have given support. FirstGroup has put in cash and - crucially, given the geographical spread of the festival - transport. A range of trusts and organisations, including the Hope Scott Trust and the D'Oyly Carte Charitable Trust (which is supporting the James MacMillan day), have boosted festival funding.

It all looks good. But is the sound festival a one-off, or will it return? "We are not thinking of a one-off, but it's an open question at the moment, " says Mark Hope. It might return next year, he says, but with more of a chamber music thrust and an aim to do a blockbuster the following year. Whatever, in the north-east of Scotland this month, there is everything - and everyone - to play for.



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