Monday, May 4, 2015

James MacMillan’s Viola Concerto

Continuing my series of program notes:

James MacMillan (born 1959)
Viola Concerto


Ever since the BBC Proms premiere in 1990 of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a symphonic ‘requiem’ for a Scottish woman thought to have been executed as a witch in 1662, Scotland’s James MacMillan has been one of the most sought-after of contemporary composers. He followed up ‘Isobel Gowdie’ with the percussion concerto Veni, veni Emmanuel for Evelyn Glennie and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which received nearly 300 performances within ten years of its 1992 premiere.

Tonight’s work, first performed in January 2014 by Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with its dedicatee, Lawrence Power, as soloist, is the 18th of MacMillan’s concertos. A second percussion concerto is on the way. Such is MacMillan’s drawing power that the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is one of four orchestras around the world that co-commissioned the work. 

The strengths of MacMillan’s music come from two sources according to British critic Michael White. One is his ‘great gift for melody’. The other is that his music is driven by ‘an extraordinary kind of fervour’ stemming from his religious and political beliefs. Other commentators may also point out MacMillan’s absorption of influences ranging from the Polish modernists Penderecki and Lutosławski (in his early years) to the local church congregation in Glasgow for whom he has written (weekly) responsorial psalms that can be taught before Mass.

While early works tended to be programmatic, MacMillan has become more and more interested in - proud even - of the abstract nature of music. As he told the Southbank Centre’s Gillian Moore, prior to the premiere of tonight’s work: ‘At a fundamental level, music communicates its beauties, its feelings through…organised sounds rather than words or gets into the crevices of the soul in a way that can be quite baffling to our contemporary culture.’

MacMillan’s own comments on this work (available on his publisher Boosey & Hawkes’ website) stick just to the notes. He outlines a three movement structure in the traditional pattern: fast-slow-fast, and sets out some markers that may be useful to first-time listeners. Each of the movements contains elements of its opposite. The first movement contains a brass ‘dance-like theme’ and ‘a terse little tune in semiquavers’ for the soloist, but only after a slow introduction in which the brass intone a cadence figure which becomes motivically important, that is: ‘the energy of the first movement is offset right from the beginning by something much more cantabile and singing’. Each of the sections of the song-like second movement are headlined by a violent ‘outburst’. The last movement is obviously ‘joyful, humorous, and fast’, but there is a ‘tranquil’ middle section where the soloist begins to declaim against a ‘cushion’ of two each of orchestral violas and cellos (like a Renaissance viol consort). A solo flute nods towards the influence of the Japanese shakuhachi.

It would be a shame, though, for the listener to tick off the structural signposts rather than let the proportions be naturally felt, or enjoy MacMillan’s 21st century mastery of the orchestral palette. MacMillan has previously commented on the number of great concertos (serving great soloists) in the modern repertoire and the question of the extent to which a composer should ignore or embrace the traditional form (‘near perfection’ in MacMillan’s mind). Perhaps the listener could consider how successfully MacMillan has added to this genre, and how wonderfully this concerto adds to the not overly-plentiful solo viola repertoire. 

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2015

This note first appeared in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Australian premiere of MacMillan’s Viola Concerto on 1 and 2 May 2015.

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