James MacMillan: Viola concerto | Plus January’s premieres across the UK
Writing a concerto for viola is something James MacMillan has been meaning to get around to for some time. While he has composed many chamber works and has a number of concertos under his belt for other instruments ‒ three for piano, and one each for violin, cello, trumpet clarinet and percussion ‒ this is his first for viola.
It was fortunate, says MacMillan, that the commission came in 2011 when he was conducting Walton’s Viola Concerto, which he worked on closely with Lawrence Power, for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. ‘The Walton is really the only viola concerto I’ve studied and it’s a marvellous, practically sculpted work but is nothing like my concerto. Sometimes it’s useful to look back at the canon but other times it can get in the way and confuse things. However, it may have had an indirect influence especially given Lawrence and I worked on it in so much detail. I also listened to some Bartók, Schnittke and Mozart’s double concerto for violin and viola, mainly to hear how Lawrence played it with Vengerov, so Mozart is certainly a point of reference for me.’
Apart from working together on the Walton, MacMillan has known Power for many years through his compositions for the Nash Ensemble, in which Power plays ‒ so he was familiar with his extraordinary musicianship. ‘Lawrence has a very beautiful rich, full, soulful sound that I wanted to gear the music towards. You’ve always got to be careful to score any concerto, but particularly ones for string instruments, in a way that places the solo sound so it’s not obscured. I’m also interested in trying to draw out the chamber dimensions from within the orchestra, so while the LPO is a reasonably large orchestra, and there are moments when the full panoply of sound takes off, there are also chamber moments for smaller groups. For example Lawrence is accompanied by a little quartet of two violas and two cellos who play with him in the more intimate movements of the piece, in both the fast and slow movements.’
The 25 minute concerto is written quite conventionally in three distinct movements ‒ fast, slow, fast ‒ with a strong sense of a home note or key to establish the tonal route, says MacMillan. He adds that while there is a memory of traditional forms throughout the work he has not used sonata form in the first movement and there are no extra-musical references. Indeed, MacMillan says his music has become more abstract in recent years. ‘Whereas in the past I was interested in the idea of music representing other things or telling stories, music is essentially an abstract form and I’ve always enjoyed that aspect so now it is more to the fore. In this case, the music is purely the notes on the page.’
MacMillan is looking forward to hearing the performance of the concerto, which he believes will provide an interesting contrast to Mahler’s 80 minute Symphony no 6 in the second half.
BEST OF THE REST…
The Park Lane Group’s annual New Year Series runs 6-10 January, helping London-based fans of contemporary music to get over the new year blues by making them too busy to notice. Five days of post-work concerts, masterclasses and illustrated talks are performed by this year’s cohort of outstanding young performers with a focus on contemporary music. Each evening’s music is based around the work of an established ‘frontline’ composer ‒ George Benjamin, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Nicola LeFanu, Giles Swayne and Cristóbal Halffter ‒ with a 6.15pm event with the composer present to discuss his or her work with help from PLG Young Artists. The presentation sets the scene for a 7.45pm main concert programming the composer’s work next to two others: one older, influential and established ‘linked composer’, and one younger, developing composer, or ‘composer’s choice’.
George Benjamin is the first frontline composer on 6 January, choosing Schumann as his influential ‘linked composer’ and Ed Nesbitt as his voice for the future in a programme also including a Park Lane Group commission from Blai Soler.
Mark-Anthony Turnage, perhaps unsurprisingly, chooses Richard Rodney-Bennett as his influential figure, with Shiva Feshareki his pick of the next generation including the premiere of her work for clarinet and piano Manic Pixie Dream Girl (7 January). Nicola LeFanu chooses Janáček and 30-year-old Christian Mason, whose recent work On Love and Death (Five Rosetti Songs) complements Lefanu’s own Two French Songs on the programme (8 January); Giles Swayne highlights former teacher Elizabeth Maconchy and Graham Ross, who presents a first work for saxophone (9 January); and Cristobál Halffter chooses Zemlinsky and Berg as his influences, with Lithuanian composer Vykintas Baltakas having his work performed in the UK for the first time as Halffter’s ‘composer’s choice’, in a programme also paying tribute to Justin Connolly, who turned 80 in August last year.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra continues its season’s focus on France with UK premieres of Gerard Grisey‘s Mégalithes (composed in 1969 but not known to have been performed until 2009 at Lucerne, its 15 brass players placed around the concert hall for what Tom Service described at the time as ‘clusters of gigantic dissonance thrown around the auditorium which coalesce into huge sonic pile-ups and then break apart with ear-splitting energy’) and Hugues Dufourt’s piano concerto On the Wings of the Morning (22 January, broadcast live on Radio 3). The UK premiere of Gérard Pesson’s Ravel à son âme continues the Gallic theme on 29 January, also live on Radio 3.
THE REVIEWS ARE IN…
THE CRITICS ON LAST MONTH’S NEW MUSIC
The London Sinfonietta’s New Music Show was ‘not London Fashion Week’ but held the attention nevertheless, said the Times’ Geoff Brown: ‘A useful snapshot of current trends … and displays the Sinfonietta’s virtuosity too. These people would make beautiful sounds from a pile-driver.’
It was ‘at least a partial overview of current trends’ for the Guardian’s George Hall (aware of some vogues in contemporary music which went unsurveyed).
‘Notable was the level of technical accomplishment in works conceived in diverse styles and mostly produced by a younger generation of composers,’ wrote Hall, picking out Edmund Finnis’ Seeing is Flux for its ‘layered textures and ambiguous blend of innocence and sophistication [and] neat and effective structure’, Marko Nikodijevic’s Music Box, ‘equally assured’, and Rebecca Saunders’ ‘evanescent’ Stirrings. Saunders’ work offered ‘musical debris of declining interest’ for Geoff Brown, for whom highlights were Mark Simpson’s Straw Dogs and Francisco Coll’s viola concerto Ad Marginem, played by Paul Silverthorne. Four-star ratings for both reviewers suggested they both found plenty to enjoy.
Coming too late for December’s issue was the one new piece in the Britten centenary concert at Snape Maltings, Ryan Wigglesworth’s Locke’s Theatre. Wigglesworth deserved ‘a gold-leafed short straw’ for taking on the commission, according to The Times’ Richard Morrison. Wigglesworth told CM that, rather than face the challenge of Britten head-on, he had taken inspiration from the 17th century composer John Locke. But having heard the piece, Morrison wondered if this had been ‘a smokescreen’. Whether the composer’s ‘postmodern riff on the phantasmagorical sounds in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream’, or the way the work ‘irresistibly recalled the haunting tenor aria, “Now the Great Bear”, in Peter Grimes’, was intentional, subconscious or just the culmination of a year’s worth of Britten getting to a reviewer, Morrison couldn’t tell.
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