SCO / MacMillan
City Halls, Glasgow
Those familiar with the work of young Ayrshire composer Jay Capperauld will recognise that he finds inspiration in his eclectic taste in other, non-music related, art, often with a scientific dimension.
That tendency may explain his new work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the culmination of a concert programme conducted by his mentor, Sir James MacMillan, but it doesn’t make the journey to his composition, Death in a Nutshell, any less bonkers.
The well-to-do American Frances Glessner Lee was a pioneer of forensics as a route to solving crime, and as a teaching aid she created little models of real crime scenes, like rooms in a doll’s house of death. The clues to the mystery are all in the little dioramas, of which the focal point is the corpse.
Exhibited at the Smithsonian a few years ago, Capperauld has taken six of them and created a 20-minute suite of soundtracks to the macabre pictures, which were helpfully reproduced in the SCO’s online programme, with a fat caption beneath outlining each case.
Which is all very curious and fascinating of course, but what about the music? I’ll go out on a limb and say that Capperauld’s colourful composition could happily be enjoyed without any knowledge of the background to Death in a Nutshell, although any listener would guess that there is something cinematic going on, especially if they are also watching the players.
Opening movement Malleus Dei (in the Parsonage Parlour) had percussionist Louise Goodwin wield a steel claw-hammer down upon a sheet of metal, and she and her section associate Ally Kelly were kept on the move throughout the work, on every form of tuned instrument, bass drum, blocks and tom-toms, a full kit and a selection of empty bottles. For the final movement Hanging upon your every word (in the Attic) they were joined by their neighbours in the trumpets on paper-shuffling duties.
There was also a full range of sinister effects required of the strings, as well as delineating every step in the fourth movement’s Interlude pour l’esprit de l’escalier (on the Stairs). The kit and the bottles featured in the preceding A Drowned Sorrow (in the Dark Bathroom), which was dominated by the bluesy alto sax of Capperauld’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland associate Lewis Banks, whose instrument was integral elsewhere in the score, alongside William Stafford’s bass clarinet and Alison Green’s contrabassoon.
Sir James was all over every detail of this, ensuring a performance that understandably had the composer beaming when he took his bow. For the sort of musician who enjoys the challenge of new music, it also looked enormous fun and that infectious enthusiasm transferred easily to the audience.
The skill of Capperauld’s orchestration was particularly appreciable because of the company it was keeping in following a reverse chronological journey through Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.
Think of any of these works and it is big string chords that come first to mind, but the other elements are just as crucial: the horns, wind ensemble and solo oboe in the Idyll, En Hudson’s harp in the Mahler and Peter Franks’ trumpet, high in the choir stalls and the vibrant wind quartet in the Ives.