Review: Red Note Ensemble at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

First published in The Herald on 21 November, 2013

Red Note Ensemble
St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield

Red Note’s residency at the 2013 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is a major feather in the cap for Scotland’s five-hear-old contemporary music outfit. They’ve done plenty of excellent community and education projects (Framed Against the Sky; Noisy Nights), daft music theatre (Pass the Spoon) and ambitious site-specific one-offs (songbirdsongs; 1000 Airplanes on the Roof; Tantallon!). Now these three Huddersfield concerts were a declaration, before the great and good of the contemporary music world, of their international calibre as a ‘serious’ new music ensemble.

The first concert included the UK premiere of an important new work by Glasgow-born composer James Dillon and the world premiere of a striking quasi viola concerto by Glasgow-based composer David Fennessy. Called Hauptstimme, Fennessy’s 17-minute score is an ear-grabbing blast of fat, grungy ensemble sound with electric bass and loose, pounding drums. Harmonies circle and energy simmers as individual voices rise from the throng. Eventually the urgent viola line – played with ferocious drive by Garth Knox – silences the rest and holds the final few minutes captive in a fitful, resolute elegy.

Dillon’s 40-minute New York Triptych is the last of the composer’s three-part city triptych series and it’s a treasure trove of musical ideas: a flighty, shimmering first tableau; an enchanted landscape in the second; the menacing tinkle of a music box; sirens rooting us in here-and-now urbanity; a solemn chorale from a phony organ. The language is less willfully thorny than Dillon’s signature style and conjures haunting visuals. Garry Walker conducted with cool authority and the ensemble played with deceptive ease, making relaxed work of very difficult music.

The opener was a touch of Red Note’s playful side: Bruno Mantovani’s D’un reve parti is a strident shock of techno-inspired rhythms that set even Huddersfield heads bopping. Quite a coup.