In its 31-year history, ecat (Edinburgh Contemporary Arts Trust) has commissioned over 80 new works and introduced countless emerging performers and composers to the new music public. The excellent programme notes for this closing event of their 2010-11 series opened with a note of concern over funding uncertainties and a note of optimism that a new funding agreement can be found with Creative Scotland.

Photo courtesy of Queen Hall's Flickr photo stream
Photo courtesy of Queen Hall's Flickr photo stream

The over-arching theme of the event – music's place in myth and ritual – built as the evening progressed, leading to a magnificently theatrical finish.

One astonishing piece of information about the opening work was that it was one of eight pieces composed over a period of four days by Claude Vivier (1948-83) for the 1975 Concours de Musique du Canada. His Piece for Cello and Piano, excellently played by Robin Michael (cello) and Peter Evans (piano) was a showcase of textural variety, as one might expect in a competition piece, whose raison d' être is to bring out the most in performers in limited time. Yet, somehow, the transitions from sparse, edgy, repetitively rhythmic moments to those of expressive lyricism and complex, beautiful harmonies seemed completely natural. Any competition entrants who had displayed the near-telepathic rapport of Michael and Evans would surely have been runaway winners.

Described by its composer, Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-70) as a work of “solitude, stillness and pure musical thought,” Sonata for Cello-solo (1960) is nevertheless a virtuoso work. Organised in five sections – each containing numerous fragments – the piece features many artificial harmonics and frenetic passages. In his entertaining introductory remarks, cellist Robin Michael quoted Zimmermann in saying that the piece was organised on a tonal structure, which no musicologist would ever uncover. He then proceeded to outline for us the piece's founding tone row in the hope that we might get more out of the work. This performance, for me, pulled off something all too rare in music – the ability to generate excitement at low volume.

The elements of myth and ritual seemed truly to get off the ground in Frederic Rzewski's To the Earth: for speaking percussionist and 4 flower pots. Intoning the text of the titular Homeric hymn, Joby Burgess accompanied himself on what sounded exotically like ceramics from a Balinese garden centre. Perhaps I was reading too much into the performance, but I couldn't help feeling that both the music which seemed to span the globe, and the text which spanned centuries, served as a reminder that we are all involved in this pact with Earth, and the consequences of breaking it.

The remainder of the programme was given over to the works of a true statesman of new music in this country – John McLeod. The first of these was the world première of The Song of Leda (2011) for cello and piano. It draws its inspiration from the Greek legend wherein Zeus, taking the form of a swan, seduces Leda, resulting in the birth of Helen of Troy. In his programme note, McLeod refers to the poem, Leda and the Swan, in which Yeats “dramatically illustrates how a single event can change the face of history.” Some years passed between the first suggestion of a commission and the arrival of this “tour de force,” to quote Robin Michael. I certainly felt it to be worth the wait and, judging from the warm audience response, I was not alone in this view. I look forward to a further hearing of this engaging work.

The sole work in the second half was the Scottish première of McLeod's truly theatrical, Thrashing the Sea God: a little Chinese Opera for solo percussion. The atmospherically lit stage was laden with percussion – of all the Western orchestral sections, surely the express-way to other cultures. Jilted Jing Yanfa Dan visits the Temple of the Sea God, where she and her faithless husband once pledged love and, as a prelude to her suicide, berates the Sea God for allowing this fate to befall her. With painted face and dressed in a dramatic costume, which seemed to highlight every stroke of stick, hammer and mallet – and every male soprano line - Joby Burgess illicited rapt attention throughout this 25-minute work of explosive virtuosity, colour and creativity. The affectionately grateful audience response could easily have outgrown the three curtain calls for performer and composer had it not been for modest hints by the former and lighting cues by the house.

This was an evening of exceptional music and performance. If the future of ecat depended solely on audience reaction there would be little cause for concern.