Royal Conservatoire of Scotland/Red Note Ensemble

Cottiers, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

five stars

A SHOWCASE for three of the current Leverhulme Conducting Fellows at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, this programme of music was played by an edition of the Red Note Ensemble augmented by half a dozen students from the RCS MusicLab.

In the first half two works by student composers for a quintet of violin, trumpet, bassoon, oboe and cello bracketed works by clarinettist and BBC Young Musician of 2006 Mark Simpson and by Harrison Birtwistle, for a 14-piece chamber group.

While none of the others had quite the propulsion of Birtwistle’s Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum, there was much to savour in the pairings Sean O’Callaghan used in his Shapes, following a very Nyman-esque opening, the competing and combining sonorities of Simpson’s Straw Dogs, and the different moods of Ryan Gleave’s three-movement I could, which concluded with a haunting oboe melody.

Those works were directed with assurance by Sergej Bolkhovets and Joel Sandelson, sharing the duties equally, but their conducting colleague Teresa Riviero Bohm had a rather more participative role after the interval in Mark Hathaway’s clever staging of Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies.

In what was a tour de force performance from Alexander Gibson Opera School student Oskar McCarthy, the baritone emerged from the audience to harass the front-of-house staff as well as the conductor, in his persona as a 20th century incarnation of King George. Comprehensively demolishing the “fourth wall”, McCarthy and the musicians demonstrated just how relevant Max’s depiction of mental torment — originally based on the trauma of soldiers in the First World War — remains today. With long, furrowed vowels, and a dialogue of percussive utterances with flautist Ruth Morley, McCarthy’s performance was mesmerising, equal to the demands of shrieking noise and quotations from 18th century repertoire, including Handel’s Messiah, and disrobing from great coat to underpants along the way, before he was huckled out of the auditorium by two student policemen.

There was surely far too much good work in this staging of a fifty-year-old masterpiece for it to remain a one-off.