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Why Rory Macdonald’s baton is in high demand

Michael Tumelty makes a case for the best Scottish conductor of his generation.

I’m going to stick my neck out here. I want to make a strong statement about the young Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald, pictured below, who recently conducted two concerts in Glasgow with the BBC SSO.

The second of those was a nightmare of a programme.

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It was part of the BBC’s Hear And Now series, devoted to contemporary music. I’ve been deeply interested in modern classical music for over 40 years. I know my way around the repertoire and the language reasonably well. Even so, the SSO’s Hear And Now programme that Macdonald had to conduct was a tough one, including as it did Elliott Carter’s Adagio Tenebroso, which, though transparent in its own way, was difficult to bring off the page.

Transparent is not a word I would ever use about the music of James Dillon, whose 40-minute orchestral canvas, Via Sacra, was always going to be the nut to crack. Dillon’s music has the reputation of impenetrability, and Via Sacra is not that different from other works in his canon, though Rory Macdonald did tell me that he detected more potential approachability in this piece than in earlier Dillon works.

There is a contextual point: Via Sacra has been attempted here before. I must have been off the planet at that point, or in hospital, as I don’t recall it. Apparently there was an attempt to record it for BBC Radio 3 with the RSNO and Alexander Lazarev. I won’t go into it (as I don’t think I was there) but I understand it was not a success and proved un-broadcastable by the BBC.

At the end of Macdonald’s huge concert, I was awestruck and remarked to somebody that what I had just experienced was one the best performances of difficult contemporary music I had heard in 40 years of listening to the stuff.

Apart from the SSO’s playing, what struck me forcefully then, and continues to resonate, was the sheer intelligence of the young Scottish conductor.

From a long conversation with him before the concert it was clear that he had a serious grasp of the music, intellectually. More than that, however, what he did on the platform during the show suggested to me that he has both the technique and the musicianship to transmit what he wants the orchestra to do in playing music that is, potentially, an ocean of notes and a quagmire of incomprehensibility.

What emerged in the Dillon was a piece that had great structural clarity and, following from that, a strong sense of purpose and direction. It wasn’t easy on the ears, but by God could I follow it. And it made total sense.

Now then, since that concert I’ve bumped into a few musicians who had the usual criticisms: “Oh, he’s too young; he’s following what we do…” and so on. I always listen to them, and then pay no attention, preferring to trust my own instincts; apart from which, musicians have their own prejudices, don’t hear what they’re doing from the audience’s perspective, and are anyway very busy on stage doing what they’re doing.

So here’s the point. Based on what I heard during Macdonald’s short residency, both in the heartrending slow movement of Schumann’s seriously underrated Violin Concerto and, later that week, in that gobsmacking set of Hear And Now performances, I think Rory Macdonald might be the best conductor coming out of Scotland in a generation.

He’s in demand in the opera house, where he’s happy. He’s doing The Pearl Fishers for ENO in the spring, and Chicago Lyric Opera has booked him to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But he’s keen not to be typecast; and he wants to build up the orchestral work.

Frankly, from what he achieved in the rarefied and specialist world of Hear And Now, I would suggest his card is well and truly marked in that department.

If I was a BBC Controller with a contemporary music brief, I would have my eye fixed on this young man.

He has seriously got it.

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