If anything marks the BBC SSO out as distinctive in Scotland – and there have to be certain benefits to that in a climate where strangulation of the arts is an existential threat – it is surely its commitment to the most challenging outposts of contemporary music. No other orchestra would or could place such unapologetic emphasis on it, let alone take the commercial risk.
Thursday’s programme was specifically designed, and recorded, for BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show, yet it was also a weirdly entertaining revelation for a sizeable audience curious to discover who composers Stefan Prins and Øyvind Torvund were, and how a concerto for electric guitar and a reworking of 1950s pop “exotica” might brighten up a drizzly Glasgow evening.
It probably wouldn’t have done so without SSO principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, whose track record in exploring and communicating the wilder horizons of the contemporary landscape is second to none. With a few words of welcome, and an invitation to enter a psychedelic twilight zone, madcap ideas were transformed into stimulating sonic experiences.
Both performances were UK premieres, and both were delivered with utter commitment and consummate skill, right down to violinists bowing over aluminium foil-clad fingerboards in Prins’ 2021 concerto, under_current, or the simultaneous virtuoso whistling that cast an anarchic, playful mystique over the opening of Torvund’s The Exotica Album.
Such were the bracing novelties of these substantial works. The visual power of under_current was awesome, electric guitarist Yaron Deutsch using his instrument more as a generator of effects facilitated by the pedals, cables and signal processing units surrounding him, and the totemic presence of a towering thunder machine centrally positioned behind the large orchestra.
There wasn’t a melody, hardly even a motif, in sight. With guttural explosions from the guitar, wailing responses from the orchestra, Prins’ 40-minute work consciously defies conventionality, perhaps over too long a time scale. But so visceral and purposeful was the playing that Deutsch silenced the audience during the final applause to say this was the best orchestra he’d ever played with. It was a tough gig for all of us, but Volkov’s self-belief turned this seeming jumble of nuts and bolts into something organically akin to a kinetic sculpture.
Where Prins’ music is uncompromising, Torvund’s The Exotica Album (Sinfonietta with modular synthesiser and saxophone) is a triumph of exaggerated nostalgic indulgence. Taking its lead from the origins of late-1950s “exotica” – Martin Denny’s album Quiet Village – Torvund sharpens the concept of seriousness versus kitsch to such the point it transmits as the musical equivalent of an LSD trip.
Set in ten short movements – with titles like Starry Night, Wind up Paradise Birds, Rainbow Crystal and Jungle Alarm – the overriding sensation was one of escapism, where soaring Hollywood-style strings vied with synthesised birds and frenetic electronic bloops, courtesy of Jørgen Træn on “modular synthesiser and noise”, and the pungent, provocative sax of Kjetil Møster.
It was enormously pleasant to listen to, those whistlers in the opening Ritual 1 initiating a prophetic sense of the surreal, later moments where you might imagine noted bird-enthusiast Messiaen encountering the Clangers, the occasional confectionary spillover into wacky cartoon land, the sassy honking polyphony of Jungle Alarm, but altogether a feast of titillating excess that proved the perfect complement to the earlier concerto, and transformed a journey into the unknown into an invigorating night of discovery.
Recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3’s New Music Show, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds.
Ryan Wigglesworth, the BBC SSO’s newly appointed chief conductor, will open the orchestra’s 2022-23 Season with a programme on 22 September dominated by Ravel’s complete ballet score Daphnis et Chloé. The following evening Wigglesworth will appear as pianist with a trio of BBC principals in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, part of a wider Messiaen theme next season to mark 30 year’s since the radical French composer’s death.
Wigglesworth, who succeeds Thomas Dausgaard in the SSO conductor hot seat, will spearhead a further six programmes in the season, including a performance of Messiaen’s The Sermon to the Birds from his opera St Francis of Assisi, a Bach/Stravinsky double-header in which Wigglesworth will also feature as piano soloist in Bach’s E major Keyboard Concerto, and a closing concert in May 2023 featuring the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Cello Concerto (soloist Laura van der Heijden) and Elgar’s Symphony No 2.
“Ryan is a compelling musician – whether as conductor, composer or pianist – and his warmth towards our players will be evident in all the varied programmes he’s bringing to audiences across Scotland,” said SSO director Dominic Parker, presiding over the launch of the orchestra’s first full season of performances since the pandemic hit two years ago.
The orchestra’s other associated conductors are also back in force. Conductor emeritus Sir Donald Runnicles tackles Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in February. Alpesh Chauhan, associate conductor, takes on two programmes, one with Rimsky Korsakov’s richly-coloured Scheherazade, another with Shostakovich’s hard-hitting Fifth Symphony that also goes to the Sage in Newcastle.
Principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov’s particular penchant for modern repertoire is reflected in two season programmes that range in repertoire from Ligeti and Xenakis to the rarefied sounds, and UK premieres, of Norwegian composer Oyvind Torvund and Belgian Stefan Prins. Volkov will again co-curate the annual contemporary music festival Tectonics in May.
The newly-announced SSO appointment of Danish-born modernist Hans Abrahamsen as composer-in-association is marked by the world premiere of his Vers le silence in November, a month before he celebrates his 60th birthday. Wigglesworth, who conducts that concert, will also direct his own distillation of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, “A Symphonic Journey”.
Other world premieres include a new BBC commission from genre-bending South African cellist/composer Abel Selaocoe and the former BBC Young Composer winner Jonathan Woolgar.
Among the many guest conductors returning to the SSO are Joanna Carneiro, Hannu Lintu, Matthias Pintscher and Michael Sanderling. Tabita Berglund, in Scotland this month to conduct the RSNO, is joined by pianist Stephen Hough for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Long-time favourite Martyn Brabbins contributes to the Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary celebrations with a performance, alongside Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, of his Symphony No 5. He also directs a screening of Charles Frend’s 1948 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, complete with live performance of Vaughan Williams’ haunting soundtrack.
In a late season afternoon concert (April) Brabbins curates “The Sound of Scotland” which features the world premieres of his own Aduos and James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas alongside music by Judith Weir, Iain Hamilton and William Wallace’s Creation Symphony.
The SSO are alluding to this as their A-Z season, with the wildest possible range of repertoire, from Thomas Ades to Alexander Zemlinsky, by way of Bartok, Chopin, Debussy, Elgar and much more. Guest artists include pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Song), violinist Elina Vähälä (Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 2) and the BBC Singers (in the opening Ravel concert and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms).
Regular favourites include the seasonal Christmas Classics and Christmas at the Movies with singer/presenter Jamie MacDougall. Most concerts will be recorded for BBC Radio 3, valuable thereafter on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer. The announcement of further concerts is due in the coming weeks.
In their own way, Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss thought a lot of themselves and expressed as much in their music. While that might seem a gross understatement where Wagner is concerned, and a potent but pleasant truth when it comes to Strauss, for Mozart it was expressed in terms of honestly-intentioned free-spiritedness with a capacity to express the frivolous and the wretched with almost unrivalled humanity.
This was a BBC SSO programme, combining all three composers, that was right up veteran conductor Sir Mark Elder’s street. He is a Wagnerian par excellence, capable of eliciting maximum intensity with minimum interference. He translates that naturally to the emotive excesses of Strauss, wisely so in an approach that guards against a potentially riotous free-for-all. In Mozart – in this case with the slimmest of reduced forces – his respect for classical tautness and proportions is flexible enough to accommodate dramatic fire.
He was joined in the last – the rarely-heard concert aria “Ah, lo previdi” dating from the end of Mozart’s Salzburg period in 1777 – by the soprano Sophie Bevan, wife of the SSO’s newly-appointed chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, who, incidentally, will replace Marin Alsop in charge of next week’s Thursday Series concert.
Bevan’s performance, a pseudo-operatic narrative based on texts from a libretto by Vittorio Cigna-Santi on the trials and tribulations of the woeful Andromeda, was one of passionate engagement, stopping short of melodrama, but with a vocal range that freely explored the score’s volcanic vicissitudes. Elder gleaned empathetic support from the orchestra, bringing principal oboist Stella McCracken front stage for her gently persuasive solo obbligato in the final Cavatina.
The opening Wagner – a coupling of the Prelude from Act I and Good Friday Music from Act III from his opera Parsifal – took time to settle. While a degree of timelessness informed the slow, aching unfolding of the Prelude, it bore a fragility that undermined its intensity, its sense of expectation. Intonation malfunctions in critical woodwind chords merely added to the unease. Elder’s magic took root in the second extract, however, the orchestra now onside with a heart-felt performance oozing soulfulness and sublime warmth.
It was the latter qualities, plus the curbed temptations to overindulge, in Strauss’ 1899 self-serving tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) that proved the outright hit of the evening. Philosophically bound to the Nietzschean concept of man as a hero whose self-overcoming struggles lead to inward fulfilment, and vividly applied by Strauss to aspects of his own life, the musical journey is a whirlwind of impassioned extremes.
Elder shaped those with masterful reserve, leaving much of the initiative to the significantly inflated SSO ranks – among them 8 horns no less, and 6 trumpets – yet always there to draw a red line. That was imperative in matching the explosive magnitude of the battle music to the modest hall, which he impressively achieved; and brilliantly effective in articulating the cacophonous carping of the critics, which Strauss must have had enormous fun in writing.
But central to this performance, and to a great extent defining it, was leader Laura Samuel’s extended solo violin role, opening reservedly with awe and wonderment, but soon adopting a full-blooded bravado that harnessed the tempestuousness of the composer’s wife, a manic concoction of the sensual and the irrational. It’s unlikely Strauss was out to make too many friends in the references he bravely pursued.
Available for 30 days after broadcast on BBC Sounds
Vaughan Williams’ plaintive and popular musical depiction of avian levitation, The Lark Ascending. is, without doubt, a beautiful piece of writing, the solo violin soaring heavenwards over the orchestra’s dreamy pastoral landscape. What really helps, and which counters its tendency these days to overexposure, is a violinist who can look at it with fresh eyes. I rather liked the way Dutch soloist Rosanne Philippens imbued her BBC SSO performance with a subtle, enhanced degree of animation.
There was a chirpiness to this lark, spontaneous rhythmic frissons capturing a scene more alive, more instinctive, than the many misty-eyed performances we’ve become used to. The whimsical unpredictability of Philippens’ interpretation, alertly backed up by conductor Mark Wigglesworth, was a refreshing surprise.
As was the ensuing, unscripted performance of Ravel’s flirtatious Tzigane, which turned the encore spot into another fully-fledged, quasi-concerto experience. In this swashbuckling single-movement pastiche, fired by the same extrovert virtuoso spirit as Liszt’s gypsy salon pieces, Philippens could really let herself go, in the rhapsodic swagger of the unaccompanied opening and the accumulating pyrotechnics that fuelled the final, action-packed adrenalin rush.
It was in the latter, too, that Wigglesworth and the SSO found more solid, common ground. Previously, in Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, uneven entries had lent unease at the start, though soon found a surer footing en route to the unfolding ecstasy of the Liebestod.
That excitable compatibility carried over to the second half, and a power-packed performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 1. It’s a work that has defined much of the SSO’s past – intense and fiery under Jerzy Maksymiuk in the 1980s, steely and electrifying under Osmo Vänskä in the 1990s – and here they responded immediately to the more heated and outwardly passionate vision of Wigglesworth.
The first movement, some iffy solo intonation in the slow introduction aside, bore a self-contained satisfaction, defiant and fulminating. The lower-grade tempestuousness of the slow movement, and the pounding rhythmic energy of the Scherzo created a suitably heightened expectancy for the thrusting turbulence of the Finale, and its surprise pizzicato sign-off.
Everything these days has a tendency to harbour subliminal resonances to the turmoil on Russia’s borders. It was hard not to read something into the nationalist zeal implicit in this symphony, given Finland’s neighbouring geographical position. This performance hit a powerful, if unintentional, note in that respect.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available for 30 days after broadcast via BBC Sounds. The programme is repeated live at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Sun 13 March at 3pm.
Alpesh Chauhan set himself a mighty challenge in a BBC SSO programme that receded from the tipping point of Austro-German Romanticism in the first half to its full-blown meaty excess in the second. It was in the mountainous journey of the latter – Bruckner’s “Romantic” Symphony No 4 – that the SSO’s young associate conductor had the biggest opportunity to really flex his creative powers.
The first half was anything but a simple warm up, though the opening bars of Webern’s Op 1 Passacaglia bore the distinct uncertainty of a cold start. After the theme’s initial pizzicato statement the tempo wobbled, the instrumental coordination disconcertingly slack. Chauhan establish rhythmic control quickly enough to capture the inevitability of the work’s post-Wagnerian ebb and flow. Climaxes surged, but the missing factor in this performance was the vital detailed dovetailing of instrumental colours. That’s where the soul and momentum of this music lies.
The arrival of Scots mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill for Schoenberg’s passionate Song of the Wood Dove from his epic cantata Gurrelieder, presented here in the composer’s reduced chamber version of 1922, was a moment of instant transformation. The work is a perfect fit for Cargill’s gloriously versatile voice, whether in the rich lower depths of the opening and much beyond, or in her topmost notes as the work reaches its emotional peak.
Her integral position within the small instrumental group did nothing to limit the expressive breadth and intensity of her performance. Indeed, it helped cement the overall cohesiveness and nuanced precision of the delivery, Chauhan underpinning Cargill’s high-voltage opulence with the neat, harnessed incision of the tight-knit chamber ensemble.
Then the massed ranks for Bruckner’s Fourth, brass splayed across the upper balcony somewhat threateningly but also excitingly. Chauhan’s approach was mostly clinical, which certainly facilitated the efficient flow of the symphony, and allowed its many build-ups to shake the rafters and tingle the spine. There were plenty notable moments, whether in the melancholy poise of the Andante or the rapture of the Scherzo’s outer sections.
The problem with Bruckner, though, is combining the engineering of a performance with the overriding realisation of its soul and purpose. There was a prevailing sense here that the latter was sold short. As with the Webern, Chauhan’s grasp of the big picture was tenuous, with too many psychological hiatuses and a resulting tendency to stall the momentum and invoke nervousness in some of the orchestral response. That was inevitably disappointing.
This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 1 March, and is then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds
Does the BBC SSO have its eye on Alpesh Chauhan as a possible successor to Thomas Dausgaard as principal conductor, whose contract ends next year? He’s certainly an interesting prospect – young, determined and confident – though Thursday’s appearance with the SSO revealed once again that, while he ignites a spark in certain areas of repertoire, his mastery of such core Romantic repertory as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, the “Pathétique”, is still work in progress.
Chauhan opened this live broadcast programme with Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No 2, a work completed by the composer three decades after leaving it unfinished, which consequently bears the post-Romantic excess of his pre-dodecaphonic music but with the ultra-clean textural discipline of his maturer style. A reduced SSO ensemble made the most of the challenge, producing a gritty, precise and virtuosic performance.
But it was the calculated insistence on Chauhan’s part that characterised it. The initial journey from soft teasing woodwind phrases to the seething tumult of the first big climax was as much a result of pumped adrenalin as clear thinking. And where the first movement wrestled with its dense emotional heat, the second – initially an assertive, jaunty Con fuoco – pinned its outgoing exhilaration on a combination of Schoenberg’s stabilising old-style rhythmic regularity and the elusiveness of its post-Romantic language.
This was the big hit of the evening, with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill’s pre-interval encore of Richard Strauss’s idyllic Morgen well up there with it. The latter followed Cargill’s official contribution to the programme, Erich Korngold’s achingly beautiful Absecheidslieder (Songs of Farewell), which suited the characteristically molten, earthy quality of her lower voice.
In the opening song the mood was one of reflective seduction; the powerful Wagnerian in Cargill coloured the ensuing Dies eine kann mein Sehen with a thrilling euphoric glow; the more mystical Mond, so gest du wieder auf, with its otherworldliness and ethereal religiosity, gave way to the deeply personal Gefasster Abschied, sumptuously Straussian in mood and manner.
It was hard at times to catch all of Cargill’s performance above the wholesome orchestration, and the higher reaches of her voice seemed a little less comfortable than usual, but there was no escaping the emotive connection she has with this music, and with the exquisite Morgen that followed, featuring also the poised, poignantly understated solo violin of SSO associate leader Kanako Ita. It was just a shame that no-one saw fit to give her the curtain call she so thoroughly deserved.
Chauhan’s Tchaikovsky was a curious combination of fluid efficiency and heavy-duty indulgence. The latter turned the opening movement into a journey plagued by too many wrong turnings – agonising extremes of tempi, especially the slow ones, that jarred with the overall flow and which effected audible signs of insecurity at key attack points. When he let the music express itself in the central movements, however, things made much more sense. From that, the finale emerged with convincing gravitas, albeit susceptible – as in several previous instances – to a brass section given too free a rein at the expense of the modest string forces.
The perfect lunch is one that satisfies the midday hunger pangs without weighing you down for the remainder of the day. In that sense, this second programme in a week of lunchtime concerts broadcast live from Perth Concert Hall by BBC Radio 3, though more remarkably attended by a limited live audience, served its purpose perfectly.
It featured locally-born pianist Alasdair Beatson in partnership with violinist Maria Włoszczowska and Philip Higham of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the sum total of its content – trios by Haydn, Helen Grime and Fauré – was one of edifying and fulfilling contentment. Crowning that, it had a casual, summery appeal that made up for the mixed weather we’ve currently been enduring.
Haydn’s late Piano Trio in D set the scene. Restrained and serious from the outset, Beatson and his string colleagues emphasised its delicate surprises, puffs of energy grounded within rich-grained tone and a comforting tempo. Beyond the pervading sadness of the short slow movement, its dotted motifs like gentle sniffles, the innocent tittle-tattle of the finale lifted the spirits only to disappear finally and unexpectedly into the distance.
What made this such a delight was the unpretentiousness of the ensemble playing, an emphasis on blend and integration without suppressing the option for each player at any given moment to make a worthy point. Such opportunities further presented themselves in Scots composer Helen Grimes’ Three Whistler Miniatures, written 10 years ago and inspired by three chalk and pastel portraits by Whistler.
They are, says the composer, impressions rather than musical portraits, immediately apparent in the opening piece, The Little Note in Yellow and Gold, where the ambient lustre established by blurred piano chords is injected by flashes of hot string colours. Together with the more agitated contours of Lapis Lazuli and increasingly exotic textures of The Violet Note, these are sharp and scintillating pieces, heard to full effect in this insightful performance.
Another late Piano Trio completed the programme, this time by Fauré, his Op 120, composed near the end of his life. And again, it was the generosity and warmth of the playing that allowed the essence of Fauré’s signature style to fully emerge: the endless and effortless melodic flow; the irrepressible sense of natural momentum; the intoxicating and imperceptible shifts in key; and the restful fluidity that, in the closing moments of the finale, rises to Olympian heights.
Beatson and his SCO friends served it all to perfection. Ken Walton
As Scotland looks forward to the possible return of some live performances over the summer, following this week’s announcement at Holyrood by the First Minister, the East Neuk Festival in Fife has come sprinting out of the blocks with a programme of online, on air and outdoor activity.
Running over the weekend July 1 to 4, the Festival, directed since its inception by Svend McEwan-Brown, will be providing pop-up performances by its Band-in-a-Van in the pretty coastal villages.
Its regular sand artists, Jamie Wardley and Claire Jamieson, will be creating work on Elie beach, and the grounds of the National Trust-run Kellie Castle at Pittenweem will see the installation of a labyrinth based on the contours of the Fife Coastal Path, cut into a wildflower meadow.
The programme that will be available online includes many artists who have visited the festival in the past, alongside some making their East Neuk debuts. The Tallis Scholars mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin with a performance of his Missa Ave maris stella alongside music by Gibbons, Byrd and Tallis. The Castalian String Quartet will play Beethoven’s late String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 alongsideJanáček‘s The Kreutzer Sonata and pianist Llyr Williams will perform Chopin’s 24 Préludes, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, and Mozart’s Sonata No. 13 in B flat major, K333.
BBC Radio 3 will collaborate with the festival on four concerts. Ranging from Adès to Zacharias, the performances will be recorded on Saturday 3 July and Sunday 4 July for future broadcast. Musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and guitarist Sean Shibe will be joined by composer and conductor Thomas Adès, in his first visit to the festival, in a performance of two of his works – Court Studiesfrom The Tempest and Habanera from The Exterminating Angel – along with music by Poulenc, De Falla, Janáčekand the UK premiere of Francisco Coll’s Turia for ensemble and solo guitar.
Pianist Christian Zacharias returns to Fife to perform a programme of Bach, Haydn and Schubert’s Sonata in G, D894 – a work he performed by candlelight in his first ENF recital in 2005. The Castalian Quartet pair Beethoven’s early string quartet, No. 3, Op.18, with Dvořák’s final string quartet, No. 14, Op. 105, whilst violinist Benjamin Baker and guitarist Sean Shibe, both currently embarking on ENF Retreat residencies, will perform as a duo for the first time in a programme that will include Bach, Cage, Piazzolla, Pärt and Steve Reich. At present the festival is unable to offer tickets to these recordings but should it become possible to invite an audience, the festival will make event details and tickets available.
“We know not everybody will feel comfortable coming to a festival this year, so we hope that by giving the opportunity to visit digitally, and – in partnership with BBC Radio 3 – on the radio, we can offer the joy of ENF to as many people as possible,” said McEwan-Brown.
General Manager Ian Gray added: “Following yesterday’s announcement by Nicola Sturgeon we welcome the possibility of a return of performances with audiences indoors, and will respond swiftly to announce more events in Fife 1- 4 July once we have the full details of how this will work.”
Glasgow-born James Dillon talks to KEN WALTON about his latest new works and his unorthodox route to becoming a composer
The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has been good to James Dillon. As an unknown 28-year-old in 1978 the Scots-born composer submitted a work that was adjudged the best of the bunch in the first ever annual Festival’s Young Composer Competition. Forty-two years on, Dillon’s 70th birthday is about to be celebrated in an online 2020 Festival programme that culminates with the world premieres of two of his latest works.
Dillon, it has to be said, is not a household name. Not unless you are a really serious new music buff. First impressions of his uncompromising musical style can often be of bafflement and alienation. His scores are famously esoteric and complex, his visions on a truly epic scale that can tax even the initiated.
On occasion such scepticism has infected the very musicians charged with playing his music, such as the infamous 2005 UK premiere in Glasgow of his 40-minute Via Sacra, a performance panned by the critics, not for the music itself, but railing against the RSNO and its then conductor who visibly and rudely demonstrated their disinterest.
Dillon recalls the occasion sanguinely. “The press blew it out of proportion,” he reflects. “But the whole experience got off to a bad start. The Russian conductor [Alexander Lazarev] didn’t even greet me at the rehearsal, cutting me off from the players. But the last thing on my mind was to be critical of the orchestra.”
It was an isolated incident for Dillon, whose music is published by the reputable Peters Edition, who in the course of a singularly non-populist career has picked up seriously prestigious accolades including five Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, and whose reputation as an inspired teacher has taken him to Europe and the United States. All of that from someone who was essentially self-taught.
Dillon was born in Glasgow in 1950, but his family moved to South Yorkshire when he was ten. “Going through an English high school with a Scottish accent brings out the fighter in you,” he recalls. “I felt I had been dragged to England, which made me want to become more Scots.” As a guitarist he played in teenage bands, teaming up with local boy Billy Currie who went on to play in Ultravox. He was also writing poetry and painting.
Ironically, this was all happening in Huddersfield. “I couldn’t wait to get out,” says the man who was later to thank the Yorkshire market town for the vital springboard it gave him as a professional composer. Instinct led him back to Scotland and a place on the art and design foundation course at Glasgow School of Art, where his ultimate dream was to enter the School of Architecture.
“Going back to Glasgow was also about reorienting myself,” he reveals. “In terms of my health and everything else, though, it was a disaster. “I hardly turned up for classes because I was hanging around the Glasgow folk clubs, looking for anybody to jam with. I also learnt to drink!”
A year later, Dillon headed for Cornwall and a hippy commune “where I did take a lot of drugs and was just hanging around”. But it was who he was hanging around with that really made a difference. “I met a guy called Robert Lenkiewicz, an extraordinary painter who was way outside the establishment, who could talk intelligently about contemporary art, yet painted like Velasquez. He wasn’t interested in what was current in terms of style; he was simply interested in making images.”
“And he had this enormous library that covered everything from the occult to contemporary literature. For some reason he liked me and offered me the keys to the library. That in a way helped me focus.”
Dillon moved to London in 1970, and was immediately attracted to the Roundhouse concerts given by Pierre Boulez and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “I can’t for the life of me remember why I went along to one of these. I think probably I just saw a poster and was curious,” he recalls.
“But it was a turning point. Not only did I see amazing performances with Boulez conducting in his meticulous way. It threw me into a gloriously wonderful confusion about what I wanted to do musically. I didn’t know anybody in the classical music world, so just began to teach myself the rudiments of music.” In the course of that he met the composer Roger Marsh who suggested he enter the piano work that was to win him the Huddersfield competition. “I wasn’t even there to pick up the prize,” Dillon confesses.
The enduring prize, though, was confidence and recognition, and the start of a canon of substantial works that has defined his unschooled individuality, his penchant for the monumental, his unwillingness to conform to prevalent trends that make his music hard sometimes to appreciate in a single hearing. The most epic is Nine Rivers – a three-hour-plus sequence of choral, instrumental and orchestral works composed over two decades – which received its premiere (after many previous cancelled deadlines) in Glasgow 10 years ago in celebration of Dillon’s 60th birthday.
The Book of Elements for piano, written in five volumes over seven years, is equally exhaustive in illustrating the composer’s obsessiveness in drawing every ounce of musical possibility before he declares a work finished. “I wanted this overarching idea where I take motivic material for different disparate things and gradually conflate them towards the final book, which itself is a single movement that almost becomes like the great Liszt B Minor Sonata,” he explains.
This weekend’s new Huddersfield premieres are further significant additions to Dillon’s catalogue: the hour-long ensemble work Pharmakeia, performed by the London Sinfonietta under Geoffrey Paterson; and the 30-minute echo the angelus for solo piano, featuring the composer’s partner and dedicated exponent of his keyboard works, Noriko Kawai.
Pharmakeia started off as a single piece, Circe, a commission from the Köln-based Ensemble Musikfabrik, who stipulated a scoring for 16-piece ensemble including two pianos. Dillon’s initial reaction was, “Oh my God, that’s going to limit the possibilities, practically-speaking, for future performances”. But as ideas formed on how to capitalise on the group dynamic in a spatial sense, so too his mind turned to the inner meaning of the work and a larger vision way beyond Circe, which was eventually to form the centrepiece of a final five-part structure.
Commissioning of the complete Pharmakeia was picked up jointly by the London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Intercontemporain.
“Titles of works are always problematic for me, because my first instinct is not to lead the listener in a certain direction,” he explains. But driving it from the outset was Dillon’s belief in “music as a kind of sorcery”. Pharmakeia, linked to the word pharmacy, literally means sorcery, so became the overall title.
More helpful, he says, is the associated concept of “pharmakon”, as articulated by the 20th century French philosopher Jacques Derrida. “He’s drawing attention to the fact that actually in terms of medicine, often the cure means poisoning the body in the first place, so there’s this strange relationship between being poisoned and being cured.
“This fascinates me in the sense that thinking about tonalities, the function of dissonance in terms of tension, the way that you can take a drug which is basically a poison to the system but trying to trigger things beneficial to the system, is very relevant today.”
Unlike Pharmakeia, echo the angelus is one of those works Dillon simply felt compelled to write. “I’m often working on things outside the commissioning process, having to re-oxygenate what I am doing away from the pressure of deadlines’” he explains. “So this is just something I was originally footering around with.”
The end result is anything but frippery, more the hard-earned product of the “exhaustibility” that drives Dillon’s creative process. “I find a frustration with the idea of finishing something. That’s why I write these big cycles. Are there beginnings and ends to things? I don’t know.”
In that respect, don’t be surprised if spectres of The Book of Elements surface in echoes the angelus. He suspects there may be subliminal links. “One of the slightly appalling aspects of looking back on a body of work is how you find your fingerprints all over the place. And maybe you’re moving towards gestures that you’re imprisoned within,” says Dillon, alluding in this case to “certain kinds of finger gestures from which I created three basic kinds of material, one quasi-scale, one chordal, another to do with resonance of the piano itself, shooting them around unpredictably until I’m happy with it. That’s basically the piece, which is very challenging for the pianist.”
Beyond the Huddersfield premieres, Dillon is already engaged in his next project, and it’s in Scotland for the Red Note Ensemble. The original commission was for a set of miniatures using some of the players as soloists. “It’s turned into a much larger work,” Dillon confesses. Who’d have thought?
The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival’s Dillon@70 concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3, Sunday 22 Nov, 10pm. Details on the full online Festival programme (20-22 Nov) available on www.hcmf.co.uk
In the same season as BBC Radio3 has dumbed-down its annual carol-composition competition to a simple melody-line task (“you can just sing it into your phone” as presenters have been encouraged to exhort listeners), Scotland’s path-making Nevis Ensemble has announced its own two-strand commissioning initiative for new songs that will be broadcast over the festive period.
The first is open to young composers under the age of 18 living in Scotland and the selected young person will be mentored by top Scots composer Stuart MacRae to write a new work setting a text in Scots. The results of that will be seen on Christmas Day.
The second is open to submissions of an existing score by composers anywhere in the world, with the winner receiving a £1000 commission to set a new Scots text for voice and orchestra, which will be recorded by mezzo Andrea Baker and the Nevis Ensemble.
Baker has just been named as the orchestra’s second Ambassador, alongside trumpeter John Wallace. She toured to 20 community venues with the Ensemble in December 2019, an experience which she says “brought me back to why I became a singer, the capacity of live music to bring people together through a shared experience”.
Full details on how to apply for the carol competitions are on the Nevis Ensemble website, and the closing date for entries is Tuesday November 10.