Angels, demons and doubts
SCO: MacMillan's Symphony No 5, Usher Hall * * * *
BBC SSO: A Scotch Bestiary, Usher Hall * * * *
One composer dominated Saturday’s Festival music programme: James MacMillan. He turned 60 this summer and the EIF has been marking that milestone with key performances of his music, none more eagerly anticipated than these two back-to-back orchestral concerts.
One featured the BBC SSO, under Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, in two Scottish premieres, including MacMillan’s viciously satirical A Scotch Bestiary, scored for organ and orchestra, written in 2004 for the inauguration of the new organ in Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.
The other, with the resplendent combined forces of the SCO, crack choral group The Sixteen and larger choir of alumni from its training programme Genesis Sixteen, culminated in the world premiere of MacMillan’s highly-anticipated Fifth Symphony.
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The latter – subtitled “Le grand Inconnu” (the Great Unknown) – was epic, both in scale (an hour long) and in its multi-faceted, exhaustive exploration of what MacMillan considers uncharted territory: a symphonic response to the mystical complexities of the Holy Spirit. Mahler gave it a go in his “Symphony of a Thousand”, MacMillan acknowledges in a cautious and questioning programme note. But composers of our own time, he believes, have shied clear.
He certainly has not, and in a performance expertly handled by Harry Christophers, there was no mistaking the outflow of ecstatic passion that drove the compositional process. It opens in surreal territory, amorphous intakes of breath that turn to specific words, eventual pitched sounds punctured by microtones and harmonics paving the way for a turbulent three-movement adrenalin rush of all that MacMillan is known for.
There are mind-blowing catharses, such as the vast vocal blanket climaxing the second movement, and the sudden delicate music box combination of piano, harp and violins that quell it. There are those signature gut-wrenching cohabiting extremes of expression and style. There is, quite simply, everything of the composer piled into what he himself tellingly refers to as “a stream of consciousness”.
And that’s the rub. No mistaking the scorching emotional heat that roused this audience instantly to its feet. But is there too much going on, symphonic cohesion stretched to near-bursting point? Despite this electrifying performance, I still find myself asking that question.
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Especially compared to the succinct expression of the Second Symphony, which MacMillan conducted in the first half. Interesting, too, to see a revision of the original 1999 programme notes, excising his previously bitter references to the “spiritual desolation” of Scotland. Without that, the music spoke potently for itself, the dissolving Wagner quotes in the short finale symbolising one of these typically enigmatic MacMillan tantalisers.
Can the same be said for A Scotch Bestiary, written after MacMillan’s falling out 20 years ago with factions of the Scottish establishment after his challenging Scotland’s Shame lecture at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival, and hardly disguised as a ferocious tirade in response?
Written with specific but unnamed targets in mind – we now know that Kirsty Wark is “Her Serene and Ubiquitous Majesty, Queen Bee”, and Richard Holloway is “The Reverend Cuckoo and his Parroting Chorus”, besides others too sensitive to mention – MacMillan paints his targeted “menagerie” as grotesque caricatures.
The organ is the ultimate instrument of abuse, soloist Stephen Farr blasting out its frenzied discords like a madman possessed, egged on by the cartoonesque virtuosity of the SSO.
The other Scottish premiere, Woman of the Apocalypse (2012), a dramatic tone poem inspired by plantings by Dürer, Rubens and others, was an altogether warmer and comforting antidote to the demons of the Bestiary.