Glasgow Cathedral Festival: Sunrise / Canto Ostinato

It is no slight on the many fine performances at Scotland’s larger and better-known festivals this summer to say that two evenings spent at this year’s Glasgow Cathedral Festival will surely live in the memory as long as any of them.

Both were superb combinations of sound and vision and were crucially site-specific. This festival – the vision of a small team of enthusiastic musicians – is not appreciated enough for the way it animates one of the most important buildings in Glasgow and Scotland, and fills it with an audience, most of whom might be unlikely to show up for a Sunday service.

Those who are part of the regular congregation must be astonished to see and hear the building used in this way. Even the leader of that small team, organist and Director of Music at the Cathedral, Andrew Forbes, conceded on Friday that he had just heard the instrument he knows well produce sounds he had never previously heard.

The player at the console of the Willis organ that evening was Thierry Escaich, who succeeded Maurice Durufle as organist at Saint Etienne du Mont in Paris and whose career as a contemporary French composer and orchestral soloist sits alongside an improvising skill that he brings to the accompaniment of classic silent movies. They include Phantom of the Opera and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but on Friday evening the festival screened a sparkling restoration of FW Murnau’s Sunrise: a song of two humans, a nuanced melodrama that cinema fans acclaim as one of the finest movies in the history of the art form.

Made in Hollywood in 1927, the film had an orchestral soundtrack that borrowed from Gounod and Chopin on its release, but Escaich’s improvised accompaniment was a musical marvel that expressed the emotional lives of the characters as eloquently as it did the environment of the story, which plays the temptations and bustle of the city against the simpler charms – and natural dangers – of the country life.

It is a superb piece of film-making, full of ground-breaking cinematography, with some very fine acting from the main roles to the small character parts, and the vocabulary of sound Escaich found on the Cathedral organ was quite remarkable, ranging from tinkling delicacy to a mighty storm.

Saturday’s treat was a work that is universally known in the Netherlands in a way that it is almost inconceivable to imagine a contemporary composition being in the UK. Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato is heard there regularly, played by different combinations of musicians and of varying duration, its score permitting an infinite variety of ways its 106 musical “cells” can be performed, as long as it lasts for at least an hour.

The excellently-acronymed Piano Association of St Andrews (PAStA) was formed for a concert of the piece in May of last year and this performance featured a rolling cast of 13 students and recent graduates of the university to play and conduct the piece on four grand pianos for three hours. Once again, the musical students of St Andrews, all studying other subjects at an institution that does not offer a music degree, boldly ventured into territory unexplored by their professional peers.

Ten Holt’s work shares some characteristics and techniques with the American Minimalists, but is a great deal busier and plunders many other sources. A very florid section, at around one hour in on Saturday night, was “baroque” in the decorative rather than period sense, and used phrases that might have come directly from Chopin or Tchaikovsky. There was also a definite echo of prog-rock’s heyday, which fits with the work’s late-1970s composition, and especially, at one point around two-thirds of the way through, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

The visuals were in the hands of Edinburgh’s TrenchOne Industries, projected on the fabric of the building. Starting on the Cathedral’s singular stone screen between choir and nave, Ross Blair and his colleagues created a spectacle that quickly spilled beyond that and mirrored the range of the sonic ingredients, with imagery indebted to everything from William Morris to Manga comics. The use of aerial cinematography on the vaulted space with Ten Holt’s music inevitably recalled the Philip Glass-soundtracked environmental films of Godfrey Reggio and Ron Frickle.

The music was not flawlessly played (a mis-fingered note is very audible in the familiar tonality of this composition) but the skill and stamina of these young players in the execution of complex music was as admirable as Escaich’s solo turn in its own very different way. Heard (and seen) on successive evenings the sum of the two was genius programming by Forbes and his colleagues.

Pictures by David Lee