Music review: Tectonics (Day One), City Halls, Glasgow

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani
Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani
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Has Tectonics – the Glasgow contemporary music festival that set out to challenge the status quo, shock us with the experimental and defy comfortable expectations – succumbed itself to the curse of predictability? Walking into the City Halls for the start of this year’s two-day event, I was hit by its cosiness. The issuing of the same old wristband pass (difficult as hell to remove); nomadic improvisers in the foyer; a live installation in the Recital Room (Environmental Music by Lucie Vitkova); and the ping-pong processions between alternating events in the main concert hall and the Old Fruitmarket: it was as comfortable and familiar as Christmas.

Tectonics (Day One), CityHalls, Glasgow ***

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, some might argue. Or is it the old story, perhaps, of the insurgents, once the revolution is won, becoming the new establishment? The ultimate question, though, is whether the music itself challenged, confronted or altered our thoughts in any significant way? Strangely, there were too many moments caught in a safety net of nostalgia.

Genevieve Murphy’s newly written Calm in an Agitated World, with the Dundee-born composer narrating its throwback psychedelic text in an Old Fruitmarket performance involving the wind, brass and percussion of the BBC SSO under Ilan Volkov’s direction, sought musical comfort in a pseudo-Stravinskian instrumental groove, albeit a compatible energiser to the haunting pipes of folk musician Brighde Chaimbeul, Murphy’s enigmatic intonations, and grungy electronic effects. Artful but safe. Similarly Andrew Hamilton’s C, its UK premiere closing Saturday’s main orchestral concert, took us to familiar places, a rat-tat-tat minimalist crossfire fuelled by an energy form spent years ago by the likes of Andriessen or Martland. Fun for five minutes, it went on considerably longer.

Even Christian Wolff’s new commission – Old Shoe, New Shoe – bore minimal offence. Orchestra-lite in texture, and spotlighting the easeful cool-headed soloing of drummer Joey Baron and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, its impact was delicate and silken, a kind of pleasurable anti-virtuosity. The real kick-ass moments came in Jennifer Walshe’s ballsy The Site of an Investigation, her own faux-naïf performance style – part-sung, part-spoken, always compelling – giving vital edge to a punchy, unconstrained score; and in Mahan Esfahani’s anarchic solo harpsichord programme, where the delicate instrument of Bach and Couperin – especially in George Lewis’ Timelike Weave – became a liberated voice of rebellion. A genuine tectonic shift. - Ken Walton