Lammermuir Festival reviews: The Hebrides Ensemble & the Red Note Ensemble

The Hebrides Ensemble. Picture: Sussie Ahlburg
The Hebrides Ensemble. Picture: Sussie Ahlburg
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BY ACCIDENT or design, Wednesday was new music day at the Lammermuir Festival – and it offered two brilliantly persuasive events featuring music by composers with deep connections to the East Lothian event.

The Hebrides Ensemble, Pencaitland Parish Church *****

The Red Note Ensemble, Loretto School, Musselburgh ****

First up, in Pencaitland’s splendidly quirky Parish Church – with the sizeable audience semi-surrounding the performers across the building’s three naves – was the second of the festival’s three Prometheus-inspired commissions from composer in association, Edinburgh-based Stuart MacRae, given by the Hebrides Ensemble in an afternoon concert. Setting a text of his own creation, I am Prometheus was virtually an operatic scena, cunningly scored for string quartet, harp, flute and clarinet, plus tenor Joshua Ellicott giving a restless, questioning, deeply human performance as the eponymous Titan. There was an enjoyable Britten-like directness and clarity to MacRae’s writing, in which even the simplest of gestures could take on huge significance as the music developed, and an otherworldly beauty to his ghostly microtonal harmonies. But most impressive was the work’s handling of time, the slow-moving semi-repetitions towards its conclusion delivering a memorable sense of damaged grandeur. It was a major achievement, and nestled in nicely among a pleasingly complementary programme featuring a fresh, spontaneous performance of Britten’s Death of St Narcissus for tenor and harp, and a sensuously supple but gloriously gutsy account of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro

Down the road that evening, in the intimate theatre of Loretto School in Musselburgh, the Red Note Ensemble offered an equally illuminating collision of music by John Adams and young Liverpool-born composer and clarinettist Mark Simpson, the festival’s artist in residence. Simpson’s dense, hyperactive Nur Musik got a muscular, energetic account, though oboe soloist Jennifer Brittlebank occasionally struggled to make herself heard above Simpson’s teeming ensemble textures. Far more introspective was his lyrical Straw Dogs, and he closed the concert as clarinet soloist in Adams’s eccentric Gnarly Buttons – perky and spiky in its off-kilter hoedown, rapturous and heart-on-sleeve in its closing love song, compelling and captivating throughout.