East Neuk Festival: Artists shine with the weather

The Elias String Quartet impressed with their musically persuasive playing. Picture: Benjamin Ealovega
The Elias String Quartet impressed with their musically persuasive playing. Picture: Benjamin Ealovega
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The final weekend of the East Neuk Festival was blessed by the brilliant weather.

For there was a huge risk attached to Saturday’s activity in the grounds of Cambo House, the centrepiece of which was an outdoor performance in the Estate’s idyllic walled garden of American composer John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit (* * * * *). In the event, it was a sensation. Effectively an hour-long installation – which is Adams’ key creative medium – 27 percussion players, directed by American percussionist Steve Schick, were stationed at various locations around the garden, playing all manner of instruments, from wailing conches to crashing tam tams.

With some lurking behind bushes, others visibly on the lawns, the odd one itinerant in a pied piper sort of way, the overall effect was a mystical wash of sound, whisked around by the strong breeze, which ultimately embedded itself in the natural ambience of this beautiful garden. Musically it had a tangible shape – a giant palindrome. But as an experience it was something you simply allowed to saturate the senses.

More nature-inspired promenading followed inside Cambo Barn, where members of the Red Note Ensemble – again mainly percussionists, but with two piccolos as the main protagonists positioned high on two leafy watchtowers – performed Adams’ songbirdsongs (* * * *). Again, this work is more to do with spatial context and shifting aural perception than anything compositionally complex. A tapestry of succinct motifs, like spontaneous bird calls, were repeatedly thrown around the various performance locations like some minimalist viral explosion.

Standing through another itinerant performance, this time in a stifling, dusty barn, was a bit of a physical challenge. But the evocative charm of the presentation offered enough distraction from the ordeal.

The weekend also saw two appearances by the Elias String Quartet, the first of which in Crail Church (* * *) on Saturday evening, was a wholesome cocktail of Webern, Schumann and Beethoven.

It was a heavyweight affair, all the more so for ending with Beethoven’s Op130 Quartet with its original “Grose Fuge” finale, which appealed to a side of the Elias’s playing that seemed more exaggerated than I recall from earlier occasions – a tendency for first violinist Sara Bitlloch to drive the ensemble forward with force of character and pulverising strength of tone.

While it galvanised the personality of three strong-willed performances, it also had a tendency – as in Webern’s Langsamer satz – to paint a more overwrought picture than the composer possibly intended.

I preferred their Sunday performance of Janácek’s Intimate Letters and Schumann’s Third Quartet in St Monan’s Church yesterday (* * * *), which saw this impressive quartet at its most musically persuasive, and with a greater sense of shared involvement.

Last night’s closing concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, under Christian Zacharias, in Cambo Barn (* * * *) was a perfect ending to a sunny weekend’s events.

With the evocative solo horn opening – the sensitive virtuosity of Alec Frank-Gemmill in Messiaen’s Appel Interstellaire – and the verdant orchestral warmth of Honegger and Ravel, and Zacharias’s perceptively clean and colourful reading of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the curtain fell on possibly East Neuk’s most imaginative festival yet.