Classical review: New Music Biennial, Glasgow

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Picture: Sandro Schachner (CC)
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Picture: Sandro Schachner (CC)
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ONCE again, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall was a hive of weekend musical activity. And just like last week’s hugely popular Classics Marathon, this weekend’s New Music Biennial left you wondering what all the supposed fuss is over so-called elitism in classical music.

New Music Biennial

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

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OK, this was a two-day festival featuring 20 challenging new commissions, so economies of scale meant we weren’t talking thousands of attendees at each event.

Instead, this new music jamboree utilised more of the smaller GRCH performing spaces – the remodelled Strathclyde Suite, a bijou hi-tech studio, and various foyer areas – most of them filled, operating simultaneously and inviting the curious to roll up and try each for size: rather like a summer fete, everyone rushing out of one sideshow desperate to find where the next thrill lay.

Everyone lapped it up, from kids to elderly couples. It helped that these commissions – gathered together as part of the PRS for Music Foundation’s 20:14 project that asked 20 composers to write works lasting around 14 minutes – had been selected for their originality of presentation and looseness of style from jazz and Celtic to high-grade classical and electronic, that the composers were at hand to talk about their creations, and that after which we got to hear the performances all over again.

And you wonder, too, if the crowd-pulling performance outside the venue of Jez Colborne’s Gift – a funky stomp set both on and in a full-size shipping container, proved so much of an oddity that the curious by-passers were tempted inside for more of the unexpected.

There was one lovely moment out in Buchanan Street when an elderly lady danced into the action, pinched the bum of a performer, leaving you wondering whether she was actually supposed to be there. The gentle intervention of a security guard answered that question – only in Glasgow!

For most of us, it was a case of pot luck – so much to see that, inevitably, you ended up sampling what took your immediate fancy.

I was keen to hear Three Fables by Stephen Montague, the sharp imagery of whose writing, coupled with Red Note Ensemble’s virtuosic delivery and actor Crawford Logan’s colourful narration, turned these humorous animal-based stories – including a hilarious tale of avenging midges – into intoxicating music theatre.

And there were understandable queues for Matthew Herbert’s 20 Pianos, in which former Amy Winehouse pianist Sam Beste performed the 20 Story Pieces – all using sampled sounds from a variety of famous pianos, from John Lennon’s to Rachmaninov’s – on a specially-constructed virtual table-top piano. It was mesmerising and powerfully nostalgic.

Elsewhere, Arlene Sierra’s hypnotic Urban Bird’s for three pianos, Samuel Bordoli’s all-action film Grind in which the percussive clatter of skate-boarders vied intimidatingly with a clashing choral soundtrack, and the eclectic Gospel-infused Are You Worried About The Rising Cost Of Funerals, suavely performed by Mr McFall’s Chamber, epitomised the endless variety of approaches that made this enterprising event such an exploratory and explosive cocktail of free-thinking and originality.

• Seen on 01-02.08.14