Isla Quartet

Premiere of Ronald Center's String Quartet No. 3

Saturday 16 November 2013 • 7.30pm
Tin Hut, Gartly (map)

Review by Alan Rogers

First let me declare an interest; I'm part of the Music Centeral team which promoted this concert, so if you think that disqualifies my opinions you need read no further!

Glad you stayed. The Tin Hut (aka Gartly Community Hall) is a traditional rural village hall with few concessions to the 21st century, but it has become a much loved venue for music promotions in an area which has surprisingly broad tastes. Emily White plays 2nd violin in the Isla Quartet, and has been a prominent tutor at the annual Huntly Summer School for the development of local instrumental talent. The Quartet presented the first Tin Hut classical concert a few years ago to great acclaim. This may help explain how a concert where three-quarters of the programme was composed post-1969 had an enthusiastic capacity audience of around 100, with ages from under 10 to over 80.

The Hut has a lovely acoustic and an intimate atmosphere, ideal for chamber music. A ripple of applause greeted the players as they emerged from the dressing room (unheated kitchen), but they needed to warm-up and tune before opening with David Ward's concise 7th Quartet. This premiere, commissioned by Music Centeral, with subsidy from Creative Scotland and dedicated to James Naughtie, was probably the most highly-crafted piece on the programme. Intense from the start, filled with changes of tempo and character, it packs a lot into its 12 minutes, and the players clearly relished its challenges.

Mendelssohn's Quartet No.2 provided the classical meat in a very contemporary sandwich, quite the opposite of more usual programming, but the event was promoted as part of the Sound festival of new music.

Almost all of the second half was devoted to the works of Huntly composers, beginning with Rachel Stott's Instead of the Today Programme for violin and cello, written by the Quartet's viola player and obviously named for the man seated on the front row. Song for Violin and Viola by David Ward's pupil James East followed. A complete contrast next, ten very short tunes from primary 4 pupils at the Gordon Schools, introduced by Emily White and played by her and Phillipa Mo in turn. If they were all recognisably similar in ambition they were all quite charming, I doubt I could have written anything like them at that age. Eight short quartet pieces by older students next, five of them S4 pupils at Gordon Schools, mostly very melodic, with many varied influences, I wondered where their authors' musical talents would take them.

Patron James Naughtie gave an entertaining reminiscence of his former music teacher before Ronald Center's 3rd String Quartet received its first complete performance by the players who premiered his 2nd Quartet in 2008. They gave a committed rendering which drew a long and enthusiastic response at its close. Each of its seven movements were introduced by poems from local writers Maureen Ross and Brian Nisbet, influenced by Center, Huntly and his music, and very ably presented by Anna Lavigne. Perhaps this aided the digestion of some quite demanding material, but may have made this quartet feel a little like a series of movements rather than an integrated whole. I enjoyed it very much and was glad to have the readings, I hope they will be included in any future performances and recordings, for the last of Center's output deserves a wider hearing.

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