BBC Radio Scotland’s rumoured plan to axe a huge swathe of its specialist music programming has now been confirmed. A news exclusive this week by the Scotsman’s arts correspondent Brian Ferguson extracted a response from the press office at Pacific Quay that neither denied BBC Scotland’s intentions nor offered a convincing argument for the controversial decision.
Widely discussed over the festive season, Ferguson’s story confirmed that both Classics Unwrapped, presented by tenor Jamie MacDougall and Jazz Nights, fronted by singer and violinist Seonaid Aitken (pictured), had been “decommissioned” in response to the freezing of the licence fee and a shift from broadcast to digital output.
Added to the news that pipe music programme, Pipeline, was to lose its broadcast slot – revealed to writer and piper Rab Wallace before Christmas – the changes amount to the cancellation of the BBC Scotland’s commitment to much of its weekend broadcasting of traditional and classical music, opera and jazz.
Although BBC insiders believe that the cost-cutting measure is unlikely to be reversed, political condemnation of the organisation has been swift and widespread. Two of Scotland’s best known musicians, tenor saxophonist and educator Tommy Smith and composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan, have started online petitions opposing the decisions to cut Jazz Nights and Classics Unwrapped.
The new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, violinist Nicola Benedetti, quickly added her voice, and the campaign has also been supported by Creative Scotland’s Head of Music, Alan Morrison.
The justification for the axing of the programmes has looked desperately thin, with Smith and others pointing out that the programmes’ budgets will represent a small saving and Ferguson speculating that sports coverage has been ring-fenced at the expense of the arts.
It certainly looks like an abdication of responsibility on the part of BBC Scotland to curtail its support, reporting and discussion of areas of music that are a distinct national success story and whose funding is built into the political settlement of devolved government in Edinburgh.
Although its main paymaster is BBC Radio 3, it is also true that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is a local asset paid scant attention by BBC Scotland itself, and whose long-term future is hardly helped by the decision.
Few will also be persuaded by the BBC Scotland spokesperson’s glib statement about a shift towards digital, when more thoughtful strategies of parallel development are being pursued elsewhere in the BBC. As the range of formats and platforms employed for recorded music has long demonstrated, consumers do not follow such a linear path but prefer to be able to choose and use the full range of what is on offer.
That it has been left to an un-named press officer to justify the cuts also speaks volumes of a decision that has been made to achieve savings without affecting BBC Scotland’s narrow definition of its core activity and staffing. A senior management representative should be called to account in the face of the vociferous opposition to the changes.
TO the ears of those who have heard John Butt whisk the Dunedin Consort through Part One of Handel’s Messiah in well under an hour, Sir James MacMillan’s conducting debut of the work will not have sounded very pacey at all.
Truth to tell, the older members of Edinburgh Royal Choral Union – a choir that now boasts a healthy number of younger faces – have probably been asked to sing their annual New Year staple faster in some pre-pandemic performances. But if the unhurried approach MacMillan took denied his stated intention when he spoke to VoxCarnyx before the concert, that was probably for the best. What we heard was a very expressive, but never bombastic, Messiah where the story-telling took precedence over any darker liturgical message.
The choir can take a great deal of the credit for that, dispatching the trickier choruses with panache, only coming apart slightly in Part Two’s penultimate one, Let us break their bonds, but recovering quickly. Edinburgh’s Pro-Musica Orchestra were also a crucial factor in the light touch, fielding RSNO and Scottish Opera players alongside the freelances under the leadership of the Grit Orchestra’s Greg Lawson, and with ERCU director Michael Bawtree at the harpsichord and John Kitchen in a telling supporting role on the Usher Hall organ.
But the key ingredient for many in the completely filled hall on Monday afternoon was the quartet of young soloists, three of them – soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Catherine Backhouse, and baritone Paul Grant – born in Edinburgh, and, alongside Royal Scottish Conservatoire-trained tenor Kieran White, all representatives of a new generation of highly-accomplished young voices.
For them, the old distinctions between big choral society Messiahs with hundreds of singers and historically-informed chamber choir recitals of the work are ancient history. What they have learned to do is give their own best performance of the oratorio, individually and collectively, in the most communicative way possible.
That is exactly what happened for the rapt audience in the capital from White’s gently-crooned “Comfort ye my people” onwards, Grant upping the ante with his sharply-enunciated shaking of all the nations, before Backhouse’s run of arias foretelling the birth of Christ, rich in her lower register with a delicious flourish at the end of Malachi’s “refiner’s fire”.
The narrative stepped up another notch with the shift to the Gospel texts and soprano Hewitson, who delivered the story as if she was announcing the good news for the very first time to an intimate circle of friends.
The flow of nice interpretative detail continued after the interval in Backhouse’s He Was Despised and the sequence of choruses from the same chapter of Isaiah. This choir demonstrates a dynamic range that is a rare skill among large amateur choruses, and MacMillan made full use of that.
Hewitson’s How beautiful are the feet was a little jewel amongst those choruses, and both she and Grant – on Why do the nations? and The trumpet shall sound – gave excellent accounts of the best known arias in Parts Two and Three.
With all the usual cuts to the full score, this was not an epic Messiah, and nor was it an especially “authentic” one, but it was a performance that everyone in the capacity house savoured from start to finish.
The conductors of Handel’s Messiah in Glasgow and Edinburgh on January 2 talk to Keith Bruce
As young musicians they came to Handel’s masterwork as a trumpet player and a flautist, but this year James MacMillan and Nicholas McGegan are on the podium for the New Year concerts of Messiah in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. For one it is a conducting debut, while the other has been part of the revolution in historically-informed performances of the work for more than four decades.
“I went to performances of it as a boy in Cumnock,” remembers MacMillan. “The local choral union was the Kyle Choral Union and they used to put on performances of Messiah and other oratorios. In fact one of my earliest trumpet memories is of playing third trumpet in a performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in New Cumnock when I was 12 or 13 with the Kyle Choral Union. So they performed Messiah as well, with amateur players from around Ayrshire.”
McGegan recalls playing flute in the Prout orchestration of the work when he was at high school in Nottingham, and then being disappointed to find out that Handel had not written flute parts at all.
He was at the harpsichord when he played it in a seminal performance at Westminster Abbey in 1979, under the baton of Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music.
“It was about zero degrees and I was wearing fingerless Bob Cratchit gloves, and soprano Emma Kirkby had thermal underwear underneath her Laura Ashley dress.”
Understandably, however, McGegan recalls that era as a thrilling time when baroque repertoire was being re-thought.
“I ran intro Chris Hogwood at Cambridge in 1970. He was living at the top of a house owned by Sir Nicholas Shackleton, whose collection of wind instruments is now at Edinburgh University. I was loaned an 18th century flute and I went to the library and got hold of a treatise to learn how to play it, so I ended up playing second flute on the first recording of the Academy of Ancient Music.
“It was an exciting time; Trevor Pinnock was also around and a lot of this music was being done for the first time in many years. I was a slightly junior member of the team: Chris and Trevor and John Eliot Gardiner were all about ten years older than me. I played the harpsichord for them and, when necessary, the flute, and I was part of the project.”
It was in the USA that McGegan graduated to conducting the work, in the middle of the following decade.
“I remember directing my first Messiah absolutely to the day. It was December 1986 with the St Louis Symphony and the soprano, as she was then, was the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it was her first Messiah too. She was a remarkable artist and in 91 I was able to record it with her.”
This year McGegan is once again at the helm of the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, with soloists soprano Mhairi Lawson, counter-tenor William Towers, tenor Jamie MacDougall and bass-baritone Stephen Loges. On the same afternoon, composer James MacMillan conducts the work for the first time for Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, where Catriona Hewitson, Catherine Backhouse, Kieran White and Paul Grant are the soloists.
“I sang bits of it later in my student years,” says MacMillan, “but a lot of the music I sang at school and university was earlier and I never sang the big choral union sort of pieces. So preparing for this performance there has been a lot that felt like seeing and hearing it for the first time.
“Some of the arias I really didn’t know and the breadth that Messiah travels over its three parts is incredible, not just from Christmas to the Crucifixion but as a piece of music drama. It really takes you on a journey with a whole range of emotions and moods. I can see now why it established itself as a deeply loved masterpiece.
“The hinterland now is the difference of approach from the big choral union tradition to what the early music world has brought to it, with smaller choirs and a tighter, more authentic instrumental approach.
“All that has to be taken on board and that might be the reason why I’ve never conducted it before, because there is a specialism and scholarship to Baroque and Pre-Baroque music that puts barriers up for the rest of us. My choral music was earlier, unaccompanied music, but most of the orchestral music I’ve conducted in the last 20-odd years or so is later, so coming to Messiah for the first time is a new thing for me.”
At the same time, MacMillan’s own composing life has moved from smaller, unaccompanied motets toward exactly the shape of work that Handel undertook after his operas.
“In recent times I’ve written a lot of big oratorios – the Christmas Oratorio, the St John Passion and the St Luke Passion – and I suppose they acknowledge the historical hinterland of Handel’s oratorios and Bach’s cantatas and passions – it’s all there in the mix. You grow up with this music and it leaves an indelible mark, sometimes subliminally, on a composer’s mind.”
The Covid pandemic had yet to silence choirs around the world when McGegan last conducted in Glasgow, where he thinks he counts as a local boy because of his years as Principal Guest Conductor at Scottish Opera, and the flat he still has in the city’s west end.
“New Year 2020 was the last time I was with the RSNO, just before the pandemic, so a lot of the same people will be playing in the orchestra and I hope some of the audience will be the same too.
“What I do is bring my own orchestra parts, with my bowings, the dynamics and articulation written in. I’ve worked with nearly all the soloists before, either in Messiah or other projects – people like Jamie MacDougall and I go way back, Will Towers and I have done opera together as well as Messiah – so it is like organising a dinner party for friends.
“I first came to Glasgow in 1991 and did The Magic Flute with Scottish Opera two years running. My father was an Edinburgh boy and I had a clutch of rather terrifying great aunts in Morningside, who were horrified that I wanted to work there!
“I had the best time at Scottish Opera, I always enjoyed it. I’ll be 73 next month, but I hope I’ve still got a few Figaros left in me. I did Figaro, Giovanni and Cosi at Scottish Opera and loved every second of it.”
MacMillan may be making his Messiah debut in Edinburgh next week, but he has other concerts of the work upcoming.
“This time is very experimental for me, but I get to do it again a couple of times in December next year in Australia. I have been asked to conduct it with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the week before my Christmas Oratorio. I think they thought if they were having me for one week they might as well have me for two!
“So it is something that will grow as I get to do it a few times. Keeping the pace lively is important and that is something we have all learned from the early music revolution. I’ve taken a couple of rehearsals now and I’ve been delighted how chorusmaster Michael Bawtree has trained the choir. It is very lithe and very light on its feet.
“I’ll bring a composer’s inside view to the process, and whether that’s valuable is for others to decide! I haven’t had a conducting lesson in my life, but I did have a consultation with Sir Colin Davis, who said that I should keep doing what I do, because there is something about a composer’s perspective that is unique. He thought that a contemporary composer’s view of the music of the past is valuable, and I was always encouraged by that.
“And the more I have lived with Messiah, I think there has to be a sense of through-composed travelling and of drama in the performance. I am wondering about whether some of the stopping and starting is really necessary and I might want to push on, so there’s not much hanging about between arias and choruses, and a non-stop feel to where the music is going.”
It is the non-stop sequence of performances of Messiah that McGegan identifies as one of its unique characteristics.
“It is one of the very few pieces I know that has been in more or less continuous performance since it was written. I know some musicologists would disagree, but I just see the basic story of the prophecies surrounding the birth of Christ, Christ’s life and passion and the resurrection, with the basic tenets of the religion without delving too deeply into the tricky stuff.
“It’s unusual for Handel because nearly all his oratorios have people singing roles. Jesus does not appear as a singing role and in some ways I think that makes it easier for everybody. It is not a portrait of Jesus, it is a portrait of the idea of the religion.
“Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, chose the texts very carefully to find the words that were easiest to sing and Handel sets those words very carefully. Handel is a master of writing for choirs, but the choruses are actually much more difficult than people who don’t sing realise. It is a masterpiece of very varied choral writing. That’s why people love it so.”
MacMillan also notes the way the work appeals as much to those of no faith as to the devout.
“When Messiah was first performed in the 1700s, I wonder what kind of mood there would have been in the hall. Would people want to applaud?
“How secular was it? How sacred was it? It seems to be a hybrid form that brought together the sacred and the secular in the world of music.”
The Edinburgh Royal Choral Union Messiah begins at noon in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on January 2. The RSNO and RSNO Chorus perform the work from 3pmon the same day at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
The day after a scratch orchestra had played film music to a reportedly packed house in a concert organised by a commercial promoter, it was disappointing that the RSNO was greeted by a half-filled hall for a programme of equally attractive concert music with the bonus of a Scottish premiere from the country’s best-known living composer performed by an international star.
That soloist was mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and the Three Scottish Songs were new orchestrations by Sir James MacMillan only previously heard in March this year, when the singer was Ian Bostridge and the orchestra the Britten Sinfonia.
Superficially, they make an odd trio, the first two in Scots and intimate words of love and loss composed by MacMillan to sound akin to folk songs of an earlier era. The third, The Children, also sets words by William Soutar, but written in English and a harrowing evocation of the war-time loss of innocent lives, written during the Spanish Civil War. Its sound-world is entirely different, distinctly in the composer’s style, and as explicit as the text.
There is, however, a consistently spare style to all three, Cargill beginning the first two unaccompanied and singing solo for most of the first stanza of The Children after an initial chord. The composer uses only strings and percussion, and the instrumental silences are often as eloquent as the music in his arrangements, with the focus always on the singer, at least until the cataclysmic percussive conclusion.
Who knows how Bostridge, whose Englishness makes him a great interpreter of Noel Coward’s songs, coped with the linguistic transition inherent in the set, but it presented no difficulty to Cargill and there was in her interpretation a clear line from the personal to the universal. What links all three of William Soutar’s poems is the veracity of their emotional truth and MacMillan and the mezzo masterfully communicated that.
The concert was to have been conducted by Maestro “Sasha” Lazarev, the orchestra’s Russian Conductor Emeritus, whose presence was impossible because of the global situation. Perhaps his absence was linked to the number of empty seats, but if so, those who stayed away missed a debut on the podium that was worth witnessing.
Austrian conductor Patrick Hahn is still in his 20s, and already has a list of senior posts in Germany on his CV, and apparently sings cabaret songs and plays a mean jazz piano as well. Taking over the existing RSNO programme this week, the spare essence of the MacMillan was bracketed by huge orchestral stuff – three movements from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4.
A diminishing number of folk must now hear the former and see a tall ship in full sail battling the waves, thanks to its use in the BBC TV drama The Onedin Line, and that will certainly not be the case for the young conductor. That theme was presented here at the centre of a suite that started quietly but swiftly unleashed the full power of the symphony orchestra and concluded with a triple-time section to rival the Armenian composer’s other great waltz, which the touring RSNO played as an encore under conductor Peter Oundjian, and a great brass climax.
Tchaikovsky 4 also featured in an Oundjian touring programme. Hahn took the work at his own very measured pace, a quietly deliberate way with the dramatic opening that paid dividends later. I don’t think I have heard the orchestra play quite so quietly before the first clarinet’s entry. There was a very precise ebb and flow in the pizzicato Scherzo too, and a full range of contrasts and dynamics in the Finale – and another huge finish. I’d wager that the whizz-kid from Ganz will be back.
From its first announcement, back in October 2013, Sir James MacMillan’s intention for The Cumnock Tryst has been that it serves and reflects the community where he was raised. Inevitably there have been times, however, when the programme of music performed by professional visitors and the inclusion of contributions from local amateurs have seemed some distance apart.
On the last day of this year’s programme, in the august surroundings of the restored splendour of Dumfries House, that was emphatically not the case.
On Sunday afternoon, in the lovely recital room in the house itself, Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane fulfilled a promise to herself and to an amateur composer from nearby Troon when she played a recital that featured the music of Douglas Munn alongside that of Debussy and Martinu. Munn, who died in 2008, and his wife Clare, who was present, had supported Arnicane as a student and now she is returning the favour in championing his compositions, which also feature on a recently-released recording.
She opened with Martinu’s Butterflies and Birds of Paradise, a trio of pieces that would also be unfamiliar to many listeners, but a glorious discovery. Akin to French Impressionism at the start, the final work also had hints of Mussorgsky’s Pictures and segued beautifully into a Nocturne by Munn from 1944, written when he was just 15 years old.
Unlike some of the other pieces on the Toccata Classics album, it was not revised by Munn after his retiral from a stellar career as a mathematician, so any minor corrections to the score were the pianist’s own. The teenage composer was clearly modelling his work on Chopin, but his own talents were considerable.
Following three of Debussy’s Estampes – La soiree dans Grenade played with special finesse and the Ayrshire rain returning to the grounds of Dumfries House for Jardins sous la pluie – Arnicane played three of Munn’s Preludes. The most substantial of these, in D major, could, as the pianist said, equally have been entitled “Ballade” and dates from the end of his years composing, before the maths took over, when he was still just 18. It and its predecessors are the work of a young man with a remarkable gift for melody who must have been a pianist of considerable technical prowess himself.
The “Pavilion” at Dumfries House is a semi-permanent structure so far from being a marquee that gilt-framed mirrors and pictures hang on two of its walls. Alongside the function suite at Cumnock’s Dumfries Arms Hotel, where the Tryst’s closing ceilidh would happen, it gives the festival a fine new space, large enough to accommodate the amateur Ayrshire Symphony Orchestra and the Cumnock Tryst Festival Chorus.
They were joined by a second choir of members of the Cumnock Area Musical Production Society – a music-theatre group with the best acronym ever – for the Scott Riddex Memorial Concert, celebrating one of their members. Sir James shared conducting duties with the orchestra’s conductor John Wilson in a programme that was as diverse and entertaining as it was deeply moving, beginning with a movement from Greig’s Holberg Suite and concluding with a 28-minute version of Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet that included all the singers and players.
With principal oboe Joanna Senior the soloist in Ennio Morricone’s music from The Mission soundtrack, the orchestra’s first violin was a crucial instrumental voice in the two new songs by MacMillan that the chorus premiered. Part of the Tryst’s evolving celebration of the area’s mining heritage, Blackcraig Hill and A Fire of Ages set poetry by a soprano, Maggie Broadley, and a bass, Allan McMillan, from within their ranks. Those, and the Bryars that followed, were the sound of the Tryst making its own precise, individual and remarkable mark – and a nonsense of any distinctions between music-makers of all ages and commitment.
Featuring a full complement of the Scottish orchestras, the presence of Scottish Opera, quality string quartets and more top drawer pianists than is quite decent, one of the few things the 2022 Lammermuir Festival is not about is debuts. Or perhaps it is.
With The Marian Consort, Sansara, The Orlando Consort and Dunedin Consort still to come in the chamber choir line-up, that strand began with the first public concert by the newest ensemble under the capacious umbrella of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.
Long in the planning, or at least in the aspirations of NYCoS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the NYCoS Chamber Choir takes his example of the pursuit of excellence with the young musicians of Scotland to another level. If the full forces of the senior choir have already impressed some of the world’s top conductors in performances in Edinburgh, London, Europe and the United States, this elite unit of between 20 and 30 young voices is a refinement of that success.
What Bell has done with the formation of the Chamber Choir is select the finest voices within the current cohort – and possibly recent graduates who are beyond the stipulated age-range in future incarnations – and created a group that can tackle specific repertoire. Who knows what that might be in the future, but this first concert set bold, contemporary parameters – putting, perhaps quite deliberately, clear distance between the NYCoS Chamber Choir and the other vocal groups at this year’s Lammermuir.
With Michael Bawtree at the organ for Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the recital, and the piano for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, which concluded it, the other two works were a cappella – James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow.
Only the Dove, which dates from 2000, could be described as a secular work, although some of the poetry he sets – Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson among the texts – is faith-inspired. It was an especially appropriate work, not just for an unintended allusion to the death of the Queen, but also because the setting of Dickinson’s Answer July seemed to be a mature version of the sort of songs NYCoS has commissioned as part of its invaluable training of young musicians over its 25 years.
That coming to maturity of the organisation is perfectly celebrated in the birth of this choir. If Britten’s fascinating 1943 work – commissioned by the same clergyman responsible for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and setting texts by troubled 18th century poet Christopher Smart – is not heard very often, it is because it is far from easy. Here too, though, step-outs from soprano Emily Kemp and alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith take the listener into a child-like world of cat and mouse, while tenor Alexander Roland and bass Christopher Brighty each made powerful solo contributions.
Kemp then supported fellow soprano Lorna Murray in the exquisite close harmony passages of the MacMillan, while all the female voices provided an ethereal underscore to solo tenor Lewis Gilchrist. With alto Morven McIntyre and tenor Jack Mowbray the solo voices in the Dove, this was a chance for individuals to shine, but mainly about the meticulous performance of the ensemble of young men and women whose musical abilities far transcend any “youth choir” or “non-professional” categorisation.
The group also gives Bell access to a whole realm of repertoire, including the newest piece in this programme, the setting of verses from Psalm 84 by America’s composer-of-the-moment, Caroline Shaw. And the swallow is a gorgeous piece which seems to take the sound-world of Whitacre or Lauridsen into a more sophisticated sphere, not least in the imaginative and specific vocal techniques it demands.
Two premieres from the pen of Sir James MacMillan and a focus on the work of Brahms by Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev are the headline attractions in the new season unveiled by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
The first of the MacMillans will be his Second Violin Concerto, with soloist Nicola Benedetti, for whom it has been written. The world premiere will take place at the end of September, shortly after the violinist has taken up her new post as director of the Edinburgh International Festival. It will be conducted by Emelyanychev in a concert that also includes John Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony.
The other new Macmillan work is a short piece on a football theme that had its world premiere in Antwerp last week as part of the repertoire the SCO took on its European tour. The first UK performances of “Eleven” will be next March in concerts Emelyanychev is directing with himself as soloist on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 22, K482.
The conductor is at the harpsichord for a programme of “Baroque Inspirations” in November that teams Vivaldi with Grieg, Hindemith and Gorecki. At the end of February he conducts an all-Brahms concert with the Symphony No. 1, preceded by the Violin Concerto with Aylen Pritchin as soloist, and at the start of March an all-Mendelssohn one with the Italian Symphony and the Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The season concludes next May with Brahms’ German Requiem, Sophie Bevan and Hanno Muller-Brachman the soloists and Gregory Batsleer’s SCO Chorus concluding a busy year. The same two singers are joined by tenor Andrew Staples for The Creation by Haydn in October, with Emelyanychev again conducting, and Richard Egarr directs Handel’s Israel in Egypt in December, with Rowan Pierce, Mary Bevan, Helen Charlston, James Gilchrist and Andrew Foster-Williams the soloists.
Other familiar faces conducting and directing concerts include Clemens Schuldt, with a November concert that includes Alban Gerhardt giving the Scottish premiere of the cello concerto written for him by Julian Anderson, Peter Whelan with music of the Scottish Enlightenment, Andrew Manze, Joseph Swensen, Joana Carniero, Francois Leleux and violinist Anthony Marwood.
Next Spring, Bernard Labadie directs an evening of music Handel wrote for Royal occasions, joined by singers Lydia Teuscher, Iestyn Davies and Neal Davies, following a fortnight residency by Finnish violin maestro Pekka Kuusisto who has singer-songwriter Sam Amidon and tenor Allan Clayton, singing Britten’s Les Illuminations, as soloists and composer Nico Muhly featuring in both programmes.
The star names keep coming at the season’s end, with mezzo Karen Cargill singing Berlioz and cellist Laura van der Heijden playing Shostakovich in April and Lawrence Power giving the Scottish Premiere of Cassandra Miller’s Viola Concerto, under the baton of John Storgards, in May.
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.