St Mary’s 50th

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Some end-of-term concerts are grander than others, and this one, in terms of its participants and musical content, was certainly top of the class. Featuring an orchestra that teamed the current cohort of students with alumni whose schooldays ended as long ago as the early 1980s, under the baton of cellist, teacher and leader of the Hebrides Ensemble Will Conway, and a choir that involved the entire school singing a new work by Sir James MacMillan, the star soloists included a trio for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto of violinist Colin Scobie, cellist Philip Higham and pianist Steven Osborne, all former pupils.

Yet there was a sense that the event needed to be grander than it turned out. It felt constrained by the dimensions of the venue, both physically and aurally, and the occasion – the Golden Jubilee of the establishment of St Mary’s as a proper academic establishment for the training of young musicians – seemed worthy of a bigger bash. The long saga of the school’s ambition to move from its present cramped accommodation in Edinburgh’s West End to a redeveloped Old Royal High School on Calton Hill, has perhaps taken its toll. Although that development is now on track, it is probably unlikely that even the youngest of the present pupils will still be around to see the move.

Nonetheless, St Mary’s cannot be accused of losing sight of the music in the course of embracing its bold building scheme. That campaign has been soundtracked by The Seven Hills Project, which commissioned seven composers to write a diversity of pieces, the common thread being new verses, themed on Edinburgh’s seven hills, written by Alexander McCall Smith. The 50th birthday commission was the new MacMillan piece, setting George Mackay Brown’s calendar poem The Flute in the Garden.

It is a challenging sing for a youth chorus, in which the orchestra is very much an equal partner, and the flute of the title a crucial voice. The loveliest moments occur, appropriately, in the summer months, with instantly recognisable evocations of the sounds of nature. It is not a long work, but surely one that other ensembles, vocal and instrumental, will be keen to get their teeth into.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise was a well-chosen work to follow the new piece, although also a tall order for young players, who rose splendidly to its challenges and enthusiastically added the required vocal punctuation. The concluding bagpipes appeared from the back of the hall in the hands of Brighde Chaimbeul, more usually a virtuoso on the bellows-powered smallpipes, and rarely seen playing standing up, never mind making a pacing entrance.

The concert ended with another world premiere in Judith Weir’s 50 Happy Bars, a measured fanfare/coda that revealed itself as an orchestration of the world’s best known birthday melody.

The first half of the programme had begun with the only piece that really suited the scale of the Queen’s Hall – Aaron Copland’s Quiet City. Conway’s small string ensemble was flanked by the two guest soloists – trumpeter Aaron Akugbo and the cor anglais of Katherine Bryer. As a piece it may have outgrown its theatrical origins, but it was the precision of this performance by all involved that made it such a good place to start.

The Triple Concerto, on the other hand, did seem a squeezed into the space, an impression amplified by an orchestral sound that was initially more (late) ‘Beethoveney’ than the work really wants. What was fascinating, so soon after hearing Benedetti, Kanneh-Mason and Grosvenor play it with the RSNO, was the very different approach of Scobie, Higham and Osborne. They were no less communicative as a trio, but there was no question that Higham had the leading role.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Brighde Chaimbeul by Steve Bliss