WHEN, two years ago, John McLeod turned eighty, I felt it incumbent on someone who had made their living as a music critic to celebrate the event in writing. Not dulled at all by age, McLeod was creatively on the crest of a wave, a famously fecund Scottish composer with plenty of special, often unexpected ideas still to express.
Finding new things to say about him has never been difficult. So when concert promoters, a London music magazine, the BBC, McLeod’s own excellent website as well as this newspaper all showed interest, I got down to writing.
And now, two years on, with his 82nd birthday already three months behind him, comes another reason for celebration. On Saturday he became a CBE in the Queen’s 90th birthday honours, with a ceremonial visit to Buckingham Palace in the offing and the chance to exchange at least a few words with Her Majesty.
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The announcement, he says, had come as a great surprise. Good composers work hard for the acclaim and respect they deserve, but they do not usually earn it in isolation. When I asked him for his reactions to receiving the award, he replied that it belonged not just to him but to his family, friends, colleagues, artists and orchestras who have shown belief in him.
Yet his forthcoming encounter with Her Majesty, when it arrives, will not be his first. That took place on Coronation Day in 1953, when he was Clarinettist No 25 in the RAF Central Band and, as a national serviceman, he marched 17 miles and stood to attention in her presence.
Nor is it his second, for that was in 1983, when the Queen visited Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh on its 150th anniversary and McLeod, as music master, composed an anthem for her.
But he must surely hope, this time, that he may have the opportunity – however momentary – to champion the cause of British composers and their efforts. That is something about which McLeod has always been diligent. He has praised British musical progressiveness while lecturing at the Royal Academy of Music in London, the RSAMD in Glasgow, and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester – choosing Harrison Birtwistle, for one, as a composer worthy of any number of lectures. As an educator as well as a composer, McLeod has seized every opportunity afforded him to champion his art, in his native Scotland as well as in England.
Leading fellow members of the Composers’ Guild into action, he brimmed with ambition on their behalf. Once, coming upon Peter Diamand in the Waverley Station, he accused the great Dutch impresario of doing too little Scottish music in the Edinburgh Festival, of which he was, at the time, director. Diamand soon famously mended his ways, but what does the veteran McLeod think of the Festival’s more recent attitude to serious Scottish music? On that topic he is, for now, silent. Words, we can perhaps suppose, fail him.
Yet, through McLeod’s vigilance, performances of his own works mount up around the country. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, having commissioned Out of the Silence, his recent tribute to Carl Nielsen, have now invited him to compose a Viola Concerto for Jane Atkins, their principal viola, to perform in 2018, when LcLeod will be 84.
Though the viola, being neither a violin nor a cello, tends to be the subject of verbal jokes among orchestral players, viola concertos are rare and special things. McLeod sees the instrument as a source of inner energy among the rest of the strings. It was not for nothing that Purcell, Bach, Mozart, Dvorak and Britten all played the instrument, and Edmund Rubbra’s concerto, as well as Walton’s magical one, stand out in his personal memories. So we can be sure he will be treating such a commission with passionate seriousness.
His latest song cycle, Songs from Above and Below, based on the words of old people visited by the composer in care homes in Central Scotland and South Wales, has been going the rounds, with performances at the Cardiff Millennium Centre, the Royal Museum of Scotland and Howden Park Centre in Livingston, with perhaps slightly surprising but notable success.
And he is still talking about “that opera,” the work he has never composed, which continues to nag him even although he knows that it could eat into too much of his time to fully embrace the form.
Yet his works, with titles and inspirations often guaranteed to puzzle or startle, are moving in ever more surprising directions. What are his Chinese Whispers for brass ensemble, which must have stretched the ears of Linlithgow listeners? What are Haflidi’s Pictures?
The forthcoming White Bird Rising, after a picture by David McClure, sounds simpler, but what, longer ago, was The Shostakovich Connection, through which Neeme Jarvi steered the RSNO? It turned out to be a Scottish response to the eloquence of the Russian composer’s Fifth Symphony – and may now be one of the subject of some ambitious new recording plans.
Born in Aberdeen, where his parents wanted him to find a “safe job,” McLeod has lived for almost half a century in Edinburgh, from where, with his wife Margaret, a distinguished piano adjudicator and examiner, he travels the world.
Asia and the Pacific, coast-to-coast America, he has done them all, finding inspiration where he can (in Java it was the chance to play gamelan music). Next, he says, it is to be a journey from Amsterdam to the Black Sea, if that opera does not get in the way.