Tramway, Glasgow

Amid the myriad events of a stimulating Sonica Glasgow 2022 festival, composer Gavin Bryars’ expected presence to conduct the RSNO in his own works (and one of Arvo Pärt’s) held a certain cult status. The substantial bustling audience was testament to that, the late start simply heightening the anticipation. All that was missing was Bryars himself.

It was given over to Cathie Boyd, artistic director of the festival organising body Cryptic, to explain that Bryars couldn’t be with us in person, due to testing positive for Covid, but that he would speak to us virtually from his Glasgow hotel room. The asymptomatic icon, writ large on a massive rear screen, duly engaged between performances. All was not lost.

His place on the rostrum was taken last-minute by Robert Baxter, a frequent trumpeter within the ranks of Scotland’s orchestras, whose crisp and authoritative baton technique saved the day. 

He wasn’t needed for the opening work, the most iconic of Bryars’ ruminative output, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Written 51 years ago, it is memorable for its looped recording of a homeless old man incanting, with haunting simplicity, a religious song, around which the orchestra  weaves a harmonic wrap of increasing density. Saturday’s performance was self-generated by the orchestra. 

That, in itself, generated a fragile intensity to match the old man’s voice, a solo string ensemble creeping in with tentative delicacy before growing gradually in number and amplitude to the point where the harmonic riff took on a life of its own. If some of the ensemble’s cohesion teetered on the brink – the angelic valedictory chorus of high strings, for instance – its accidental potency was weirdly moving.

Baxter’s presence was welcomed when it came to Pärt’s more complex 1970s’ curiosity If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper. Originally composed for harpsichord, small ensemble and tape, and ironically (for the then Soviet subjugated Estonian) subtitled Portrait of a Musicologist Against the Background of a Wasp Nest, it has since undergone several adaptations, including this last on in 2019 for larger ensemble. 

Not only did this performance embrace the textural busyness of the score, in which adapted Bach motifs and quotations vie with buzzing string effects and volatile piano incursions, but its meaning was usefully amplified by the first of digital artist Alba G Corral’s live visual projections, a restlessly mercurial landscape, vividly detailed yet unobtrusive.

The concert ended with the UK premiere of Bryars’ Viola Concerto, subtitled A Hut in Toyama and inspired by the long, dark Australian nights of the southern winter solstice during which he composed it. Completed in 2020, it was premiered the following year in Tasmania by its dedicatee Morgan Goff, a long-standing violist in Bryars’ own ensemble, who also starred in this Glasgow performance.

Its writing is typical of Bryars, faintly morose in character, but with a carefree composure that plays to both its advantage and its disadvantage. Yes, there’s a lugubrious charm to a concept that pits the warm-hearted viola against predominantly low-set orchestral textures, but when the lyrical momentum and character is constantly subdued by the flatness of the compositional contours, the task is all the greater. 

That may have been why Goff’s performance seemed so frustratingly laid back, in extreme cases awkward and uneasy. Baxter also faced his own challenge in addressing a work that probably needed more time to bring fully to life than he was given. Nor was it all down to Corrall that her added visual illumination, for all its crafted eloquence, seemed less purposeful than in the Pärt.

Ken Walton