Classical review: Tectonics: Day 1, Glasgow

Ilan Volkov took charge at the opening orchestral concert on Saturday. Picture: Alex Woodward

Ilan Volkov took charge at the opening orchestral concert on Saturday. Picture: Alex Woodward

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There are moments in every Tectonics Festival – the annual celebration of contemporary music’s twilight world, dreamed up and co-curated by the intrepid adventurer of uncharted musical territory Ilan Volkov and his trusty sidekick Alasdair Campbell – when you seriously begin to question your sanity.

Tectonics: Day 1 | City Halls, Glasgow | Rating ***

Take ranting violist Ivor Kallin, a diminutive eccentric whose performance style is a manic outburst of vocalised frenzy and physical abuse of a string instrument. He was on stage in the Old Fruitmarket as part of Saturday’s opening day programme, with frenetic Trembling Bells drummer Alex Neilson and howling “avant-folkist” Alasdair Roberts. They performed Ane Unquietatioun, a turbo-charged cocktail of collaborative insanity that scored high on energy and freak entertainment value, but little on comprehensibility.

Self-belief has always been Tectonic’s strength: Volkov’s unshakeable enthusiasm for the weird, the unquestioning support of the BBC SSO (even when a cabbage is introduced into the orchestral mix), and an audience faithful to the cause.

Yet Saturday’s opening orchestral concert hinted of self-doubt. It opened in the Fruitmarket with a world premiere – Catherine Kontz’s surround sound assemblage of market noises – which took two goes to get right. It was fun, but it was clear from Volkov’s face and gestures that keeping widespread forces together was anything but a smiling matter. The fragility was infectious.

We trooped into the main hall for the remaining mixed bag. Laurence Crane’s Cobbled Section After Cobbled Section set off in trite fashion with forcefully reiterated cadences, but as its “cobbled together” ingredients evolved into a cohesive tapestry of referential soundbites, its mischievous irony hit home in a fulfilling way.

Richard Emsley’s Strange Attractor struggled to make its point – something to do with creating loose imaginative associations between “never-resolving musical oscillations and haunting, butterfly-like images of ‘strange’ attractors”. In reality it was thin, sketchy and played with wavering conviction.

Howard Skempton’s Piano Concerto gave pianist John Tilbury his second outing of the day (having earlier duetted a timeless improvisation with fellow pianist Sebastian Lexer in tribute to Cornelius Cardew, who would have been 80 on Saturday), but this was a less engaging performance. Skempton’s simplistic music comes alive when rhythmically incisive. Tilbury’s playing was too often listless.

It all ended on a high with Jessika Kenny and Eyvind Kang’s Concealed Unity, a more successful surround sound experience enhanced by the evocative vocal shimmer of Kenney herself and the rock-solid Glasgow Chamber Choir.

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