After huge dollops of modernism over the weekend for the Pierre Boulez birthday celebrations, it was a relief to encounter a refreshing, off-beat programme by Vaganza, courtesy of the Contemporary Music Network. The Network has lately been criticised for touring music that seems all cutting edge and no substance. This programme - an amalgam of a Northumbrian piper and a chamber orchestra - risked such an accusation, but it was a delight.
Kathryn Tickell is a celebrated folk star, Vaganza the Northern Sinfonia's new music group. It must have been hoped that the two would attract one crossover audience. It didn't, which was a pity because the programme is an intriguing mix of folk and dance in many guises.
Tickell plays the Northumberland smallpipes, an instrument dating back to the late 16th century or even earlier. Intriguingly for a pipe, it is not blown; air reaches the reservoir through the action of bellows. Tickell began with a couple of traditional tunes. Her gentle swaying contradicted the rhythm of her right elbow pumping the bellows strapped to her waist, in an intricate cross-rhythm. She appeared to be nursing a goose tucked under her left arm. But the sounds - doleful drones, modal melodies - were magical and timeless.
As her sound ceased, the clanking of a cimbalom began - a dance inspired by folk from Stravinsky. His cheeky "Ragtime" dates from 1918, the same year as The Soldier's Tale, and bristles with "wrong note" harmonies and restless syncopation.
John Casken's Piper's Linn is for tape and Northumberland smallpipes. First performed in 1984, it shows its age. The twittering and sizzling emerging from silence could have passed for annoying feedback until Tickell entered, keeping generally close to a traditional path. Her own delightful new work, Lordenshaws, cunningly imposed the harmonic plane of the drone with faint wiffs of Stravinskian syncopation and minimalism.
Messiaen's Sept Haikai, demanding a much larger group, provided a complete contrast in sound, even if there was plenty of clanking from mallet instruments. Huw Watkins despatched the ferocious piano solos with aplomb. And what do you get when you cross Arnold Schoenberg with American cartoon music - John Adams's Chamber Symphony. Vaganza romped through, guided by conductor Thierry Fischer in a display of considerable virtuosity. Catch this tour!