This concertante work for organ and orchestra was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the BBC, for the BBC Philharmonic. It is in two movements, and follows in a tradition of musical portraiture set by Elgar, Saint-Saëns and Moussorgsky, as indicated in the sub-title of the work. Since the first performance takes place in the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, I was motivated by the great American cartoon makers who represented human characters in animal form. A Scotch Bestiary is inspired by human archetypes and personalities encountered in Scottish life over the years.
I. THE MENAGERIE, CAGED
The book is opened. Moussorgsky’s ‘Promenade’ from Pictures at an Exhibition provides the model here for this recurring refrain.
The book is closed.
- Ode to a cro-magnon hyena. Duetting melodic lines on organ, violas and cellos are accompanied by laughing trumpets, lolloping trombones, howling clarinets, and little ticking rhythmic figures on percussion and horns.
A page is turned. The refrain material is now presented on the woodwinds.
- Reptiles and Big Fish (in a small pond). Large, slithering and lumbering melodies are presented on the organ pedals, tuba and double basses, which lead to an ungainly waltz, doused in watery textures.
- Her Serene and Ubiquitous Majesty, Queen Bee. A buzzing organ solo emerges from the depths, interrupted by violent and shrill interjections, before a grotesque Scottish reel winds its way through various fluttering textures. The section ends regally and serenely.
Another page is turned. The refrain material is now carried by the strings.
- The red-handed, no-surrender, howler monkey. A military strain is overlaid by a jabbering organ, tootling flutes and cackling trumpets and clarinets. Horns blare out an obsessive two note motif.
- Uncle Tom Cat and his chickens. Sleek, surreptitious, prowling clarinets and nervous strings and woodwind predominate in this section.
Yet another page is turned. This time the refrain is presented on percussion, harp and electric piano.
- Scottish Patriots. A discarded fanfare for the opening of the new Scottish Parliament receives appropriate transformations on trombones, accompanied by bagpipe-like drones and snuffling on the organ. Later it is accompanied by a vamping piano and jazz-like pizzicato bass.
- The Reverend Cuckoo and his Parroting Chorus. A high clarinet represents the obsessive cuckoo and the other woodwind instruments parrot their eager responses. The organ accompanies this with a hymn.
- Jackass Hackass. This is a moto perpetuo movement, where the organ rushes and flies virtuosically, accompanied by a bodhran (a celtic drum) and braying hee-haws on strings and brass. A couple of noisy typewriters improvise a fast jig over a vamping piano and bass.
A coda for the solo organ, and a tentative dreamy final chord.
II. THE MENAGERIE, UNCAGED
This is a freewheeling, through-composed fantasy on all the major ideas from the first movement. All the animals are now unleashed and rampage in chaotic, violent abandon. New animals appear – elephants, horses, cows, dogs, lions and more birds, with some added grunting and rooting. The materials are all predominantly fast and frenetic, rushing to a virtuosic finale for soloist and orchestra.
(The work is dedicated to my good friend, Gillian Moore MBE, Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta).
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer
“A sonically spectacular concerto for organ and orchestra… The sense of whimsy inspired by the sight of pickup-sticks organ pipes bursting forth behind the stage led MacMillan through a stage of mental associations: Disney, cartoons, the Warner Bros classics, their daffy Carl Stalling soundtracks. What MacMillan has come up with is a two-part, quirkily animated concerto... a musical book of fanciful animals impersonated by organ and orchestra... MacMillan seems at times almost a Scottish Ives. But what sounds he gets from both orchestra and organ!”
Los Angeles Times
"The piece was certainly fun: riotous, at times cacophonous, wittily orchestrated and cleverly structured. It also brilliantly integrated the organ into the orchestra proper. Reptiles and fish were conjured on organ pedals and tuba, with percussion and other brasses lending texture. Buzzing from the organ effectively suggested a queen bee, and a snare drum gave the howler monkey his martial personality... All these things (and more) merged in the work's second half, a crazy but exciting amalgam..."
Los Angeles Daily News