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Max velocity: reflections on a modern musical master

There has recently been an unusual amount of activity in the career of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, largely coincidental, I suspect, but drawing attention to the grand old man of British music, and suggesting that some broad consideration of his stature, status and significance might be due.

Now that is an immense task, such is the volume and variety of his work over the past four and a half decades, complicated by the fact that, at different times and in different ways, he has so polarised opinion.

The man who was a political and musical firebrand, fearless in his trashing of Margaret Thatcher and any political party that restricted or ignored the essential requirement of any society to provide a decent music education for the country's children, and who so shocked the musical establishment in the late sixties with his vividly explicit and confrontational music theatre pieces, laced and lashing with parody, is now a venerable and venerated figure in British society, and holder of the most illustrious post in the land: Master of the Queen's Music (now drawing towards the close of his tenure).

Where to start, in what will take two columns to even thinly cover the ground? Well, some of the recent activity to which I referred gives a pointer. Max was here in November for the world premiere performances of his latest SCO commission, Ebb Of Winter. Then in January, his Tenth Symphony was premiered. Meanwhile, the record company Naxos has decided to reissue the recordings of his 10 Strathclyde Concertos, written for SCO principals and the orchestra (originally issued on Collins Classics). Now that was a seminal project of immense significance and impact, and a strong place to focus on.

One way and another, Max has been involved in music education all of his adult life, from his early days in teaching, where he wrote uncompromising works for the children to play and sing, right through to his move to Orkney more than 40 years ago, since when his compositional output, while maintaining its thrust with symphonies, concertos, string quartets and every other musical form, expanded immeasurably with the mass production of compositions for the young members of the Orkney communities to perform, including compositions from instrumental and vocal cycles to opera.

Back in central Scotland, in the early to middle eighties it became clear to me that something major was cooking when my phone rang one night and it was a senior figure on Strathclyde Regional Council, calling privately to suss out what I might expect The Herald's reaction would be to a major project that was under consideration right across and through the region. Max was to be commissioned to write a series of 10 concertos for the SCO with its principals as soloists.

That was the tip of a huge iceberg. Integral to every concerto would be the biggest education project ever staged in the region. Within schools in every division of Strathclyde Region, projects involving the cultivation of practical creativity and composition by young school children would be staged. Actual compositions by the children would be played in a concert before the premiere of Max's latest Strathclyde Concerto.

It was mind-boggling, but it was extremely well-structured: in each of the region's divisions, a young composer on the way up would be employed to mentor, monitor, stimulate and help structure the work of the children. The young composers included figures now at the top of the league, such as James MacMillan and William Sweeney. The Scottish Arts Council came on board to support the education projects, and the results are a matter of historical record.

It was the biggest example of joined-up musical, educational and political thinking in the modern history of this country. It ran for 10 years, with the first concerto, for oboe, premiering in 1986, and the 10th, a Concerto For Orchestra, winding up the series in 1996. And without Max, his philosophy, his work up to that point, and the seismic influence he developed, it would not have happened.

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