Scottish Ensemble leader Jonathan Morton fell into the trap, perhaps unwittingly, of introducing Philip Glass’ String Quartet No.2 as “American minimalist music” before launching the group into complex layers of intense, highly concentrated and, at times, feverish activity. The Yanks like to do things big, even when it’s written for a small canvas like Glass’ work, or a simple hymnal with humble origins in a Shaker Church. The outcome is that less is indeed considerably more when its performed with such gusto.
It’s not often 1320Radio cuts along to a classical concert, but this hugely enjoyable programme of music from the colonies promised a reading of (among many other fine things) Aaron Copland’s tall-treed, big skied Appalachian Spring. Moreover, the Scottish Ensemble (SE) offer by far the best value for a concert of music where great musicianship combined with informed affability is guaranteed.
The evening began with a smile on every face as school students from Angus and Dundee were joined by SE members to perform James Redwood’s piece Tempest, which was specially written with mixed ability groups of players in mind. It is a sweet piece of music that starts off in magical place and journeys through changes in temperature and tempo, without ever getting gratuitously violent. Redwood himself conducted, and ‘the bairns’ (ranging from primary to secondary school age) responded with exceptional maturity and musicianly discipline to his engaging manner and sure leadership.
The SE consistently create a tremendously full sound, and even in the smaller permutations they gave lie to the alleged shortcomings of the room’s acoustic properties. I heard every note in complete surround-sound, and if one thing was keenly felt, then it was the complex interplay evident on Nico Muhly’s pleasantly neurotic Motion which the composer himself has described as a “messy grid of anxious quavers.”
Philip Glass isn’t a personal favourite by any means, but the piece selected was absorbing, elemental and surprisingly visceral. It also set the tone for the a first half performance that was more classical trance than classical gas. John Adam’s Shaker Loops now seems astonishingly prescient given the tolerance of endless repetition in popular culture. In the case of Adams’ popular score it is the musical equivalent of getting pleasantly lost in a delightful dream while the world spins giddily around you. It’s also here that the combined melodic resonance of folk and church music takes shape as trace elements which are heard throughout the night’s performances.
The great humanity of 20th Century American music lies in the rich mix of its musical DNA, which contains lashings of roots music, gospel, hymnal and even musical theatre and cinema. That DNA permeated inspired programming by SE that presented American music to the ingénue and aficionado on equal terms, with all of its finest, most humane qualities on show. Those choices were emphatically (and dancably) validated by the inclusion of James Manson’s Meeting at Nisqueunia, a vivid re-imaginging of Shaker hymns as modern folk tales.
I’m sure others will review SE’s scaled-down version of Appalachian Spring, and observe that it sounded like there were an awful lot more of them on stage than could be counted. I can confirm that this is the experience you will have if you are lucky enough to hear them play Copland’s tremendously warm portmanteau of folk forms, beautifully framed as of American music’s finest pastoral suites.
1320Radio thoroughly recommends the SE programme American Life, featuring works by Mark Stewart, Nico Muhly, Philip Glass, John Adams, James Manson and Aaron Copland.