First published in The Herald on 24 February, 2014
Reviewing work in progress always present a bit of a quandary. What exactly is up for critique here? Is it the process, the potential outcome of that process, the concept behind that process, or more simply (as is the case with most reviewing) the calibre of the on-the-night performance? To my mind, when tickets are priced rather than free then the last factor still comes first. And it’s on that basis that this concert didn’t hold up.
It was the culmination of four days of improvisation workshops led by composer Peter Wiegold with members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It was also the first outing of what looks set to become a regular RSNO contemporary music ensemble. The programme was a collection of one-page scores composed for the project by James MacMillan, Aidan O’Rourke, Oliver Searle, Matilda Brown and Wiegold himself. Each was in some way inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, extracts from which were read (rather imperiously) by a drama undergraduate from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Emily-Jane McNeill. The scores provided written material for the ensemble as well as the basis for group improvisation; some of this improvisation was pre-prepared, some was spontaneous.
Altogether it sounded like what it was: a new ensemble trying out new techniques. The playing was competent but the improvisation was flaccid and clichÃ©d. MacMillan’s contribution was quintessentially him, with a misty string threnody and chunky brass. Brown, who also sang, pitted her breathy, fragile voice against sugary chorales and flimsy jazz riffs. Searle had fun with Calvino’s image of ‘termites gnawing’ â€“ toe-curling strings, lumbering syncopations â€“ while O’Rourke’s was perhaps the most effective, undercuting quaint pizzicato tunes and double-stopped fiddles with eerie, wordless vocals.