Hebrides Ensemble set for St Magnus Festival

The Hebrides Ensemble. Picture: complimentary
The Hebrides Ensemble. Picture: complimentary
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THE Hebrides Ensemble’s long association with the work of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies takes another important step when they play the world premiere of his Oboe Quartet at the St Magnus Festival

If there’s a single wish that unites everyone involved in this year’s St Magnus Festival, it’s that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – the man who helped create the event back in the 1970s, now Master of the Queen’s Music – will actually be there to hear the work he has completed especially for the occasion.

The problem, as has been widely reported, is that Max is suffering from acute leukaemia, has undergone major chemotherapy, and may or may not be in a position to be in Orkney for the world premiere of his Oboe Quartet by the Hebrides Ensemble, which commissioned the work in collaboration with the St Magnus Festival.

“At this point, we just don’t know,” says Alasdair Nicolson, the festival’s artistic director. “The general feeling we are getting is that he wants to be there.” Whatever happens, though, his music will be.

The person who knows best what the new work will actually sound like is William Conway, artistic director and cellist of the Hebrides Ensemble – not just because he’s seen the score, but because he himself has long been associated with Max’s music. As principal cellist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the 1980s, he was the dedicatee of, and soloist in, the Cello Concerto, one of ten Strathclyde Concertos Max wrote for the SCO at the time.

When I spoke to Conway last weekend, the score had only just arrived. “We haven’t started rehearsing it yet, but the bits I have looked at have signature Max all over them – the same augmented fourths and Scotch song rhythms you get in the Piano Trio, the String Trio and the Cello Concerto, but never to the extent of plagiarising himself. As always, the voice is distinctive, the artistry is consummate.”

“It’s difficult to describe a piece when you haven’t actually heard it, but it seems to me to possess those wonderful clear lines that may sound austere when you’re not used to hearing his music, but really, when you get on top of it, it comes over as a completely individual voice, very poignant, very sad in places, but one that really knows how to make music.”

For the new work, which features in the first of several festival performances the Hebrides will give as part of their week-long residency in Orkney, the key player will be Swiss oboist Emanuel Abbühl. Conway met him years ago when they both played in the European Chamber Orchestra. “He’s an amazing player, who went on to become principal oboist in the London Symphony Orchestra, and still comes in to the LSO as Valery Gergiev’s favoured oboist,” says Conway.

The Hebrides Ensemble’s associations with Max and the festival go back a long way. “It was a few years ago, when we performed Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, and had commissioned the String Trio, that the idea for this new commission took root. But in our wider work, we’ve been working through all of Max’s 1960s and 1970s works, including our recent successful tour of the Eight Songs for a Mad King.”

The Oboe Quartet is one of several highly anticipated highlights of this year’s festival. There’s also the first visit to St Magnus of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “I’ve known this would be happening for some years,” says Nicolson. “They’ve not been before, they’re one of the flagship orchestras of this country, so it’s a great thrill to have all 109 of them taking up every accommodation space in Kirkwall, and to be giving us such fantastic programmes.” They come with ex-Bolshoi conductor Alexander Vedernikov and world-class soprano Christine Brewer for a series of concerts that include Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Berg’s wonderful Seven Early Songs, a popular choral concert with the St Magnus Festival Chorus, and the world premiere of Nicolson’s own Shadows on Wall, featuring the Scots mezzo soprano Rowan Hellier, currently with Berlin’s Deutsche Oper.

“It’s a piece about ghostly presences,” says Nicolson. “That fits in neatly with one of the themes of his year’s festival, which is fairytales, folk tales, myths and legends, and which has allowed us also to programme works like Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Stravinsky’s Firebird.”

There’s also a new opera – An Eye for an Eye by David Knotts and Jessica Walker – written jointly for St Magnus and the Bath International Music Festival, of which Nicolson is also artistic director.

Premiered last month in Bath, it’s the true story of the French Papin sisters: two maids who, fed up with life downstairs, murdered their mistress and her daughter in the most grotesque way, including gouging their eyes out.

“It’s done rather in the way of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, a few soloists inhabiting a world of pure theatre,” explains Nicolson.

In another shared experience with Bath, Nicolson appears as pianist alongside singer Jessica Wallace in Cabaret B, which celebrates the French chansonnier tradition of the 1960s, featuring songs by Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens. “We unveiled them in Bath last Sunday, and had a standing ovation”, he says.

Orkney, of course, has its own unique programme – appearances by the entertaining percussion twosome O Duo, guitarist James Boyd, Christine Brewer in recital with pianist Roger Vignoles, the Randers Chamber Orchestra from Denmark, the locally based Mayfield Singers and the regular Magfest, Conductors Course and Composers’ Course add-ons.

But there’s clearly pressure on Nicolson and his festival team to find ways of maintaining the regular level of activity against ever-decreasing funding. “Things are very tricky either end of the UK,” he says, with reference to the equal challenges he faces in Bath. “But when you consider that bringing every artist to Orkney is not a case of 50p on the tube, but a significant air fare, you can understand how the current deterioration in funding hits us more than elsewhere.”

Nor, he believes, have we seen the worst. “It’s not easy, it’s not getting easier, and I still think we’re waiting to see it hit the bottom before it gets any better.” Yet somehow, people like Nicolson find ways to make it happen.

• The St Magnus Festival runs from 20-28 June, see www.stmagnusfestival.com