Music review: Plug Festival, Glasgow

THE Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s annual new music festival, Plug, is always an eye-opener.

Picture: Contributed

Plug Festival

Royal Conservatoire of Music

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This year’s series of daily concerts began last Wednesday with representation from undergraduate and graduate RCS student composers as well as the more experienced US composer Jay Richards.

The common factor was the red hot Red Note Ensemble, working with a six-piece mixed ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, percussion and piano under the batons of Leverhulme Conducting Fellows, Andrey Rubtsov and Holly Mathieson. Their steely precision and sensitivity ensured these new compositions were seen in the best possible light.

The sensitively textured sound world of Richards’ Isonzo, inspired by a poem reflecting the horrors of WWI, helped offset those quasi-tonal moments that almost got stuck in harmonic limbo. The more adventurous harmonic spirit and mercurial charisma of Thomas Brown’s Unabashed was a refreshing complement.

The final pieces were equally proficient: the clarity and sonic inventiveness of Robert Allan’s I Am Forever Staring at the Sky; Donagh Marnane’s Jux, with its infectious minimalist opening and folksy charm; and the gripping opening, sultry inflexions and flashes of virtuosity that gave gravitas to Nicholas Olsen’s Echoes of Empire.

That many of these composers still have areas to develop in their music, such as letting their personalities through, was emphasised by two very interesting works in Friday’s final concert: final-year undergraduate Rebekah Smith’s Lost Within the Labyrinth and recent RCS postgraduate Jay Capperauld’s Houdini’s Death Defying Spectacular. Both were performed by an amalgam of Red Note and the RCS’s own Music Lab players, a sizeable mixed ensemble working under the sharp direction of conductor Gary Walker.

I’ve heard Capperauld’s music before, and it is consistently unique and challenging. This work, centring on occultist attempts to contact Houdini after his death, combines elements of music theatre with recorded narration and acoustic ensemble. Most importantly, it is driven by an instrumental score of dizzying imagination, dark fulminating undertones and wild flashes of humour that imbue its intelligent structure with bags of character.

Smith’s more conventional work, with guitar as its main protagonist, was equally well-served by Walker and his performers. The energy of its outer movements, which toss melodic lines around like a musical pass-the-parcel, neatly embrace the melancholic mood of the central movement. All very promising.