Festival Music

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/

Scottish Chamber Orchestra

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

five stars

AS the composer himself has said, the survey of his music that the Edinburgh International festival has presented to mark the 60th birthday of Sir James MacMillan has covered a lot of varied ground and involved a great many musicians.

With the RSNO having opened the series, in partnership with Edinburgh Festival Chorus, a week previously, Saturday saw Scotland’s other two professional orchestras in the Usher Hall playing music that had mostly not been heard in Scotland before.

The earlier concert, by the SSO under Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, was of music first heard in California – in the case of the opening work, A Scotch Bestiary, played by this year’s first Festival guests the LA Phil to hansel their new Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

That detail is far from incidental in an organ concerto that owes a debt to the cartoon-soundtracking music of Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott. Constructed in the manner of Mussorgsky’s stroll round a picture gallery, that work’s Promenade here becomes the turning of a page, signalled by a recurring tune that begins on the trombones (who had a busy time of it on both works) and has its most beguiling expression in a later version for harp, percussion and electric piano. The characters on those pages begin in the animal world, but, after Uncle Tom Cat and His Chickens, take satirical human form in sound pictures of Scottish Patriots and then The Reverend Cuckoo and his Parroting Chorus, both far from reverential to the composer’s homeland. This kitsch circus music is a side of MacMillan that may surprise, and perhaps even offend, a few people, and it was played with real vigour by the SSO with Stephen Farr finding some great effects on the Usher Hall organ.

Woman of the Apocalyse, premiered in Santa Cruz by Marin Alsop in 2012, is another brilliant showpiece for orchestra, beginning in very gentle sensuous mode on strings and percussion, and building over half an hour to a finale as grand as the opening and closing of the Bestiary. Again pictorial in inspiration, and quite filmic at points, it is often what is going on behind the themes on the surface that is most fascinating. When the violas have a simple outline, the winds, percussion and other strings are filling the background with colour, and a later feature for string quartet, perhaps the most spiritual section of the work, is as fascinating in its underscore as the busy writing for the soloists.

The Symphony No 2, with which the SCO began their concert in the same space two hours later, was the exception in an evening of premieres. Written for (and recorded by) the orchestra and first heard on the composer’s home turf in Ayr Town Hall in 1999, it was the only piece conducted by MacMillan himself. Many of the MacMillan ingredients heard in the more recent music were already present here, like the combination of cor anglais and violas, and the fondness for militaristic marches and fanfares. With both orchestras featuring a fair number of guest musicians in key roles, it was particularly apt to have Ursula Leveaux back in the principal bassoon chair which she occupied when the work was first played, and which has some lovely solo work for her instrument.

Oddly perhaps, after this feast of orchestral music, it would be easy to argue that MacMillan’s three-movement Symphony No 5 is not really a symphony at all. Entitled “Le grand Inconnu”, and explicitly concerned with attempting to define the nature of the Holy Spirit in music, it follows on from his last piece for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, the Stabat Mater, and the focus is on its choral content for the 50 minute duration. If the composer describes his newest work as “a choral symphony” then that is what it is, but many may hear a piece for choir with orchestral accompaniment.

That chorus of 60, surely the largest The Sixteen has fielded, added 40 voices from the Genesis Sixteen project training young singers to the 20 Christophers had directed at the Queen’s Hall recital earlier in the week. Required simply to breathe at the work’s opening, the singers have texts in Hebrew, Greek and Latin that voice the elemental expression of the Holy Spirit as wind, water and fire, on the road to a lovely closing passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians in the New Testament. This is some of the most accessible music MacMillan has written and sits more happily alongside some of the popular choral work of his peers than we have perhaps come to expect.

Beyond any doubt, and however is comes to be seen in the vast scope of the MacMillan canon, “Le grand Inconnu” needs to become well known, and widely heard.