Review: Tod Machover’s Festival City

First published in the Guardian on 29 August, 2013

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There had been a lot of chat around Tod Machover’s new orchestral work, Festival City. It has the technical might of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) behind it, the financial clout of an Edinburgh International Festival commission and a trendy composition process that blends interactive crowd sourcing and classical sampling. But at its premiere by Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra last night, the 11-minute novelty piece didn’t add up to all that much.

Machover, an American who trained with Elliot Carter and worked at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM, has called Festival City a ‘tone poem’ to Edinburgh. The term implies Romantic evocations of place, and in many ways that’s what it is: a fairly literal array of found sounds and primary-coloured slabs of orchestral atmosphere. It opens with gloomy low strings, perhaps the High Street on a rainy day or mist over Arthur’s Seat. Then there’s brass grandeur and several blasts of pipe music – a view of the Castle from Waverley Bridge? There are recorded clips of kids, football fans, more bagpipes, the one o’clock gun. A second section trots through a medley of music performed at the International Festival over the years: snippets of Bach’s Double, Beethoven’s Eroica, a Brandenburg or two. It’s cleverly put together and it’s gimmicky. That much of its material was suggested and shaped by listeners is a fun touch, but is this really the future of composition? I hope not.

Festival City was couched in more American music: Christopher Rouse’s The Infernal Machine and John Adams’s glittering City Noir, both played vibrantly by the RSNO. The concert’s first half was cartoonishly 19th century in contrast: a cheerful romp through Verdi’s La forza del destino overture followed by Pinchas Zukerman’s breathtakingly ponderous and indulgent performance of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Next to Machover’s inclusive music of tomorrow, Zukerman’s self-important approach seemed about as outdated as classical performance gets.