Review: Red Note + Orchestre d’Auvergne at Sound

First published in the Guardian on 26 October, 2014

Aberdeenshire’s estimable Sound turns ten this year and has plenty reason to celebrate. This is a festival that clinches that most elusive of ideals: it’s a genuine meeting point of community engagement and contemporary music. The programme happily blurs genre lines in the name of inclusivity but doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting new work. Over the past decade it’s done energising things for arts in the North East of Scotland; hopefully double digits will bring the wider recognition it deserves.

The festival has been canny at tapping into various funding pots – municipal, academic, business, whatever’s going. This concert feted the twinning of Aberdeen and Clermont-Ferrand with a collaboration between Sound’s associate ensemble Red Note and Clermont’s string ensemble Orchestre d’Auvergne. Three new works had been commissioned as part of the First World War centenary; also on the programme was Thierry Pecou’s arresting violin concerto Nawpa, its solo part commandingly played by Leonie Delaune. Orchestre d’Auvergne isn’t strictly a contemporary music outfit but it mostly matched Red Note’s cool precision and added lushness to the combined sound.

Inevitably the theme made for an earnest, discomforting evening with few moments of light relief. Brian Irvine’s Of the Breathing Land opened with matt, earthy winds, chugged through a motoric section (all clenched teeth, little contour) and subsided into pastel Reichian pulsations. Laurent Cuniot’s Just Before rather painstakingly imagines the mind of a soldier about to climb out of a WWI trench into battle – thoughts first muted through fear, then wild panic, then white lucidity. The most striking work was William Sweeney’s Absence. Trademark of this underrated Scottish composer are the tangled clarinets, the strands of pibroch, the haunting, gutsy textures and big-boned elegies for cellist Robert Irvine. The elements are woven in a way that is evocative and heartfelt but never kitsch.