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.
In an earlier era – one without, perhaps, the baleful influence of Richard Wagner – it is intriguing to wonder if Robert Schumann might have composed more than one opera. Certainly, in her performance of his song cycle Frauenliebe und Leben, international opera star Karen Cargill suggested a sensibility to create something less epic than the big German Romantic projects he contemplated.
For Cargill, Clara Schumann’s Sechs Lieder, Opus 13 and Robert’s Opus 42 set of eight are both the work of the couple together. This was something of a change to the pre-announced programme to open Sir James MacMillan’s returned long weekend of performances in East Ayrshire. The published brochure lists a showcase for female composers, with Clara followed by Fanny Mendelssohn, Pauline Viardot and Amy Beach.
Only Beach’s Three Browning Songs survived of the others, following the Schumanns with big Broadway renditions that rounded off the recital in grand style. The major loss was of five of Viardot’s Russian songs, in their German translations, which might have been something of a bridge to Cargill’s new Linn disc of French repertoire, Fleur de mon ame, none of which she sang here.
Her partner on the recording, Simon Lepper, was also her foil in Cumnock, the familiar foundation for her first performance in front of an audience in 18 months, something she clearly found an emotional experience.
In that time, as well as releasing that acclaimed recording of Debussy, Duparc and Chausson, the mezzo has been appointed interim head of vocal studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the Schumann songs are, as she pointed out, bedrock repertoire for young students. Cargill gave a masterclass in their performance here, alternating power with tenderness, communicating both sequences as narrative arcs of the rewards and pain of love, and persuasively presenting the settings of Chamisso’s popular verse cycle as the answer to the questioning note on which Clara Schumann’s Die stille Lotosblume ends.
This was, beyond argument, a superb way for the Cumnock Tryst to open its return, with Scotland’s major opera star making her debut at the event in an intimate recital a million miles from her high-profile life at the New York Met and elsewhere. If those Beach songs are as new to her as she said, she gave a definitive performance of them just the same, and then encored with a nod to her host in a William Soutar setting by MacMillan. Live-streamed from its first performances, the concert is available via the Tryst website for seven days.
Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival is expanding into new venues as well as embracing digital streaming over its four days at the end of September and start of October.
Alongside the usual range of church and other venues – and there are performances at Trinity, St John’s and Cumnock Old Churches as well as in the Town Hall and Dumfries Arms Hotel – the Tryst will this year use the new Barony Campus Hall in the Ayrshire town and the Morphy Richards Engineering Centre on Dumfries House Estate.
The festival runs from September 30 to October 3 and opens on the Thursday evening with the first appearance at the Tryst by Scotland’s star mezzo, Karen Cargill. With Simon Lepper at the piano, she will perform two concerts back-to-back, at 6.45pm and 8.30pm, to allow for maximum audience in a safely-managed environment. Her performance will also be live-streamed and available to watch for seven days.
Pianist Steven Osborne returns to the festival, this time in the company of Paul Lewis, to perform a programme of 20thcentury piano duets, mainly by French composers.
The festival’s artist-in-residence is saxophonist Christian Forshaw. He will be joining the singers of Tenebrae in a programme of early music for Passiontide and in a trio with singer Grace Davidson and Libby Burgess at the keyboard, as well as appearing with Sir James MacMillan and the Robert Burns Academy Concert Band in a public workshop entitled Improvise!
That is only one facet of an education programme that also includes the launch, at the Barony Hall, of a new book by MacMillan and Tryst chief executive Jennifer Martin, Creative Composition for the Classroom.
The new venue at Dumfries House Estate will welcome the returning Hebrides Ensemble. Like Cargill and Tenebrae, they are also performing twice, in their case at 2pm and 4.30pm on the Sunday.General booking for this year’s programme opens on Monday August 9. www.thecumnocktryst.com
News that Sir James MacMillan has launched a major new initiative to establish Cumnock as a global centre of excellence in the learning and teaching of composition should come as no surprise.
MacMillan’s preeminent worldwide reputation as a composer, allied to his establishment of the annual Cumnock Tryst Festival, with its formidable record in fostering new compositional talent and associated schools and community initiatives, positions this latest initiative as a bold and natural advancement in the widening impact and influence of his expanding East Ayrshire project.
The new scheme, a partnership between The Cumnock Tryst and Trinity College London, aims to support composers at crucial stages in their development: those just embarking on a career; those teaching composition in schools; and those studying composition either at school or in higher education.
“It has long been an ambition of mine to take all the experience and learnings we have built over many years of teaching composition in the schools around Cumnock and East Ayrshire and make those available to teachers and students further afield,” said MacMillan, who will be assisted on the ground by fellow composer Jennifer Martin.
The new Tryst-Trinity partnership will kick off this year with a project for Advanced Higher music students at the new Robert Burns Academy in Cumnock, and the launch of a supporting publication for music teachers and young composers, written by MacMillan and Martin, timed to coincide with the 2021 Cumnock Tryst festival in October.
MacMillan, whose new hard-hitting Christmas Oratorio is reviewed this week in VoxCarnyx, added: “The resources we create will not just be focused on teachers, but also support students studying composition at a higher education level or even self-taught. As part of our work to date we have mentored many emerging composers and supported some incredible talent nurtured here in Cumnock, such as Jay Capperauld and Electra Perivolaris, through commissions for our festival.”
“I really believe that here we have the skills and resources to create an internationally recognised centre of excellence which will benefit the potential composers in the area, but also those around the world.”
Future Cumnock Trysts are also set to benefit from a substantial new auditorium in the Robert Burns Academy that can seat upwards of 500 people. MacMillan is confident it will become an important venue, not just for the festival, but for performing groups in the community, in schools and from further afield.
A gala opening was planned for last year’s Cumnock Tryst, featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but had to be abandoned due to Covid-19. “It is our intention to mark the new space with a celebratory event as soon as we are allowed,” MacMillan promised.
If recent Christmas celebrations turned out to be something of a damp squib for so many of us, thanks to Covid, the festive season’s fundamental message found a belter of belated expression in a new Christmas Oratorio by James MacMillan. Its world premiere, broadcast live from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the composer’s direction on Saturday afternoon, was nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
Bombastic, seraphic, theatrical, esoteric, original, assimilative, introspective, extroverted, spiritual, down-to-earth: the list of opposites worthy of its description go on and on. That fact their compounded power seemed undimmed via radio says everything about this 90-minute work’s mesmerising impact, and of a performance, complete with soloists Mary Bevan (soprano) and Christopher Maltman (baritone), that hit just about every emotional button.
It’s a work that consumed the composer for over a year, completing it in January 2020 before the pandemic hit, which consequently played its part in quashing the intended London premiere in December by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, one of several co-commissioners of the oratorio that also include the Dutch orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Dutch may have won the world premiere rights by default, but the others hope to have staged their own countries’ premieres by the end of this year.
What they all have for their money is something of enormous value. In the compositional sense MacMillan has pulled out all the stops. Forget the obvious spectre of the most famous and joyful of Christmas Oratorios, that of JS Bach. Yes, it was in MacMillan’s mind as he wrote his own response, but here is a version of the story that pits joy and childlike innocence against a murkier backdrop of turbulence, foreboding and fear.
Distant clarinet trills signal the start of the opening Sinfonia – there are four such instrumental sections framing each of the two halves – before a jaunty, carol-like melody casts its infant spell. Transferred to celeste, with its music box charm and just a hint of surreal menace, the spell is rudely broken by an ominous timpani solo. These elements recur in various guises throughout.
But that’s just the scene setter. The entire work consists of two large palindromes, each with a central Tableau guided by gospel narrative and surrounded by a reversed sequence of choruses and arias. The physical structure is unshakeably robust, but the content is a seething, visceral swarm of contrasts. Even the chosen texts place early English poetry by Southwell, Donne and Milton in potent contrast with the biblical.
That’s familiar ground for MacMillan, and nothing exemplifies it more than the juxtaposition of his signature a cappella choral style – sumptuous echoes of Renaissance polyphony and polychoral density – and the unfettered ferocity and mind-blowing theatricality of his orchestral writing. There were moments in this absorbing performance – the setting of O Magnum Mysterium with its muted whirlwind of scales and glissando harmonics for one – that were transcendently heart-stopping.
Equally, the full-blown venom of Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents did not pull its punches, nor did the chorus setting of Hodie Christus Natus Est, its febrile rhythmic electricity owing much to the minimalist glitter of John Adams, hold back on its ecstatic intent.
There is unadulterated sweetness too: in the Brittenesque fragility of Mary Bevan’s opening aria, a setting of Robert Southwell’s “Behold a Silly, Tender Babe”; in the warm intensity which Christopher Maltman attaches to a responding setting of John Donne’s Nativity; and most of all in a final chorus, an idyllic arrangement of a Scottish lullaby and one of those transformative moments where MacMillan’s sense of time and place borders on theatrical genius, beyond which the calming valediction played out by the orchestra in its closing hymn-like Sinfonia strikes a magical conclusion.
To say this is one of MacMillan’s crowning achievements to date is not mere hype. Evident even from this broadcast premiere was a sense of effortless technical assurance servicing the needs of infinite expressive possibilities. His is a style that draws honestly on multiple influences – a Bruckner-like scoring for lower brass, a Britten-like sensitivity to achieving simplicity out of harmonic guile, an adherence to the subliminal power of 16th century choral techniques, the density of the Wagnerian peroration – but remarkably assimilates these into a personalised wholeness that speaks entirely for itself, by itself, and without pretension.
This Christmas Oratorio is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Scottish orchestras ought to be queuing up to give the Scottish premiere once regulations allow. Ken Walton
A new Christmas Oratorio by James MacMillan looks back to Bach and ahead to cheerier times. KEN WALTON reports
Assuming he is allowed out of the country, Sir James MacMIllan will be a happy chappy. He’s scheduled to conduct the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus on Saturday 16 January in the world premiere of his epic Christmas Oratorio at the world-famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
But when we spoke there was no guarantee. “I’m slightly wary about what may happen in the next few days. I’m going for a Coronavirus test on Saturday [9 Jan] at Edinburgh Airport. It’s a special arrangement where I get the results on Sunday night. All being well I fly to Holland on Monday [11th], so it’s quite tight,” he says. “If I can’t get there, there’s a deputy standing by.”
He desperately wants to be make it. The new 90-minute oratorio – co-commissioned by the Dutch orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic – has been a true labour of love, but has already fallen foul of Covid when the originally-intended world premiere in London last month had to be abandoned.
“I’ve been pestering the Dutch about whether the Amsterdam performance will actually happen. They assure me it will,” says an optimistic MacMillan. “There have been concerts in the Concertgebouw constantly since August, some with socially distanced audiences. But they’re being very strict about this one, and there will be no audience as such. It’s going out on live stream.”
Being there to conduct will mark the culmination of a major creative process that preoccupied MacMillan’s thoughts throughout 2019 and into the early months of 2020. “A whole year of my life went into this piece but I’ve heard nothing of it, only the thoughts in my head or by plonking the odd few notes on the piano. In my work that represents a big gap at the moment.”
Like the sacred Passions he has written in recent years, the Christmas Oratorio is part of a long-term aspiration by the composer to complete a series of large scale religious compositions that summarise his lifelong interests in Catholicism, theology and spirituality as expressed in worldly contexts through his music. There is also, in these works, the unavoidable ghost of JS Bach, whose own Passions and Christmas Oratorio are totemic within the genre.
Did Bach’s oratorio – a progressive package of six cantatas – weigh on his mind? “I know the Bach quite well”, he says, having played third trumpet in a Troon church performance as a 17-year-old Ayrshire schoolboy. “I suppose there was a ghostly memory of it, which the four orchestral Sinfonias that top and tail each of Parts 1 and 2 exemplify, but I wanted to present the vocal material in different forms, so the choruses are mostly Latin liturgical text, apart from the last which is an arrangement of a Scottish lullaby.”
What MacMillan presents structurally is a major coupling of complementary palindromes. Both constituent parts open and close with the orchestral movements. At the heart of each is a lengthy tableau setting biblical text, the first from the gospel of St Matthew, the second from that of St John. Each tableau is preceded by a chorus and aria, followed in reverse by an aria and chorus. The composer describes the lead up to each central tableau as three short “hors d’oeuvres”.
Equally personalised is the choice of texts, more comparable to, say, Britten’s 1962 War Requiem than to Bach. Like Britten’s juxtaposition of the sacred and secular, Latin and vernacular, MacMillan includes settings of Christmas poetry from the 16th/17h century by Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton.
“I spent a long time sifting and looking, trying to decide what I wanted”, he explains. “I wanted a wide range of different texts so there would be some narrative. But the choice of poetry was important. I eventually closed it down to this wonderful period of English poetry, especially that of Southwell, a Jesuit who was hung, drawn and quartered. That’s an amazing story in itself.”
Another shift from the direct influence of Bach is in the “mood” of the piece, not least the sense of mystery encapsulated in the Christmas Matins text, O magnum mysterium. This is not all joy and gladness. “There are some really dark moments,” he reveals. “Once you get into the Christmas story, especially St Matthew’s account, it’s pretty stark, like the slaughter of the innocents. Some of the moods are quite ambiguous from the start, looking forward to later events in the life of Jesus. But there’s joyousness too, and a kind of childlikeness in a setting of Hodie Christus natus est that has some of the most joyous music I’ve written.”
Expect, too, a nod to the secular carol tradition, “the same dancing rhythms you find in Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day and The Holly and the Ivy”. At which point, MacMillan confesses to some mischievous thoughts. “Should I have a quote from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or When Santa Got Stuck Up the Chimney”? I even thought of throwing in some sleigh bells, but took them out.”
Above all, he adds, this is “a very personal” response. “But I think the shared nature of Christmas, whether you’re a believer or not, was a primal motivator in me doing this piece at all. It’s something everyone can share in, in the way we all do before Christmas, which is as much a great secular festival as a religious one.”
The irony there, by dint of the pandemic, is that the London premiere never happened before Christmas as planned. “That would have been lovely, but in Europe, where they keep their Christmas trees up till early February, the Feast of the Presentation, the timing is perfectly valid. We don’t think that way.”
Certain consequences of Covid have inevitably made their mark on the Amsterdam performance. The normally 80-strong Dutch choir – a professional group attached to the national broadcasting orchestra – will be cut to 38 voices. “There are a lot of a cappella and gently scored sections, so I don’t see that being a problem with these trained voices,” says MacMillan. “There will be moments, though, when we’ll need to be careful with the balance.” Such caution won’t apply to the two colossal soloists, soprano Mary Bevan and baritone Christopher Maltman.
With any luck, the follow-up performances in Melbourne, New York and a rescheduled London premiere, all now planned for November/December 2021, will present the work in its fullest glory.
But MacMillan is no less seized by the significance of next week’s world premiere. “I’ve been obsessed with this piece and preparing it for months. This represents a huge symbolic gesture in trying to bring new music back at a time when there’s a genuine despair in the musical world about what’s going to happen.
“Yes, it will be strange to perform to an empty hall, but the audience has the potential to be huge as a result of the live streaming. In that sense, it’s really exciting.” And subject, of course, to MacMillan getting on that plane.