Music review: Thea Musgrave at 90, City Halls, Glasgow

Thea Musgrave
Thea Musgrave
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At 90, and despite the seemingly reassuring need of a walking stick, Thea Musgrave is as sharp as a tack. The Edinburgh-born composer, who has lived in America most of her life, was in Glasgow for a celebratory birthday concert by the BBC SSO, an event punctuated by a personal onstage graduation ceremony in which Professor Jeffrey Sharkey, principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, conferred on her an honorary doctorate. Her response to the honour was both pithy and wise.

Music review: Thea Musgrave at 90, City Halls, Glasgow ****

But the focus of the evening was her music, four works dating from between 1970 and 2005, interspersed with music by Aaron Copland and Richard Rodney Bennett.

What struck me most about the Musgrave works we heard was the enormous warmth and emotion contained within them. This was no more so than in the gorgeous Song of the Enchanter, written as a homage to Sibelius and certainly sharing that composer’s sharply defined sense of colour and mood, never mind the unashamed quotes.

Under Jac van Steen, the SSO sounded its old self, self-assured with a sense of unanimous spontaneity and thrill of the chase. The opening cast a mystical, impressionistic spell; the whole performance bristled with shimmering detail and pungent delight.

Copland’s Symphony No 2 – a brilliantly abstract into manner of Stravinsky – acted like a palate cleanser before percussionist Evelyn Glennie and oboist Nicholas Daniel joined the orchestra for Musgrave’s double concerto, Two’s Company.

This was pure theatre, Glennie opening onstage with the SSO, while Daniel entered from the rear of the hall, throwing seductive musical phrases in her direction. The wooing continued as they found new positions in and around the orchestra before musically embracing front stage. Again, delicious colourings from Musgrave, and a work that never loses direction or consuming interest.

The second half opened with Rodney Bennett’s Celebration (if you didn’t know the composer, you’d have sworn it was by Walton), serving as a fanfare to the final two Musgrave works.

First up, the earliest to feature, the 1970 Memento Vitae, another composer homage, this time to Beethoven. It served to remind us of Musgrave’s younger, more austere style, but equally her penchant for the dramatic.

The colliding extremes of dynamic and idiom struck me as intoxicating pre-echoes of James MacMillan.

The evening ended with a storming performance of Phoenix Rising, its gutsy all-embracing language serving as an apt summation of Musgrave’s fertile creativeness.