When a composer announces he’s been clearing out his drawers and had rediscovered works from his youth that “I kind of forgot about”, you inevitably ask yourself why they were forgotten about.
BBC SSO/James MacMillan - City Halls, Glasgow
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But this is James MacMillan, now 54, established as a foremost internationally-acclaimed composer, with a uniquely recognisable musical language, and a canon of works that is already of lifetime proportions.
So the value in hearing such early orchestral compositions from his student days in Edinburgh and Durham is as valid in the contextual sense as appreciating the revealing early outputs of, say, a youthful Britten or Webern.
Both works – the retitled Symphonic Study from 1981 and The Keening from 1987 – were the framework to Saturday’s fascinating Hear and Now concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, acting as bookends to a programme, conducted by MacMillan himself, which also included revised versions of more recent works – an eerily throbbing string orchestra reworking of his string quartet For Sonny, and the pungent fanfare for brass and percussion, Exsultet – and the Scottish premiere of his 2002 concerto for violin, ensemble and tape, A Deep but Dazzling Darkness.
The last of these, written for the London Symphony Orchestra, spotlighted SSO leader Laura Samuel as its inspirational soloist, her virtuosic interplay with the integral ensemble groupings ranging from the mysterious and ethereal to the terrifyingly grotesque. In this all-encompassing, arch-like representation of Henry Vaughan’s poem, MacMillan explores infinite possibilities of texture and technique, from wailing voices on tape and distant low-pitched primeval wind and brass tremors, to wild explosions of demonic parody, even a lilting Berg-like Ländler waltz. This was a powerhouse performance.
But what of the rediscovered works? It was genuinely fascinating to hear the undergraduate Symphonic Study, on the one hand borrowing mercilessly from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, while on the other, bearing tangible seeds of the mystical harmonic shrouds that, even today, weave a spectral miasma around MacMillan’s centrally binding melodic threads.
Then The Keening, written half a decade later, and revealing a composer less reliant on obvious derivative influences, but clearly on the threshold of true creativity. The subject is mourning, based on an old vocal traditional style of Scottish/Irish lament; the music momentous, in the way its central spine, like some inexorable slow-motion machine, gives airspace to the eruptions of sensitised colour that envelop it.
So what an intriguing night, and a glorious opportunity to marvel at three things: a realisation that MacMillan’s music is remarkably diverse, despite possessing an elemental commonality in motivic purpose that seems always to have defined its colourful style; a revelation that, as a composer, he is now at the top of his game; and a reminder, too, that if you want difficult modern orchestral music played with ultimate skill and enthusiasm, the BBC SSO is, without doubt, your first orchestra of choice.