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James MacMillan: reviews of new Viola Concerto

(April 2014)

January brought three MacMillan premieres: his new Viola Concerto for Lawrence Power and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and two early orchestral works performed in Glasgow.

Lawrence Power gave the first performances of James MacMillan's new Viola Concerto in January with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Southbank Centre in London and in the Auditorio Nacional de Musica in Madrid, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Performances are planned next season by the co-commissioning orchestras, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

"The pantheon of great viola concertos is not overcrowded. So it may seem a backhanded compliment to declare that James MacMillan’s should go straight to the top of the pile, alongside the Walton and perhaps Berlioz’s Harold in Italy... As delivered by the terrific Lawrence Power and the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski, the Scot’s new Viola Concerto was an enthralling half-hour. So many enigmas to unpick! I immediately wanted to hear the piece again."
The Times

"It's not every day that a new viola concerto is added to the repertoire, and such is the reputation of composer James MacMillan and dedicatee Lawrence Power that four orchestras wanted a stake in the latest, given its world premiere by the LPO last night. In several respects, MacMillan’s concerto refuses to conform to expectations. Muted, brooding timbres make for a surprising opening but suit the viola very well, and a frequently recurring quartet of two violas and two cellos enhances the atmosphere. Similarly resourceful scoring occurs in the finale, where a solo flute invokes the sound world of the Japanese shakuhachi. Also unconventional is the explosive opening of what is otherwise a lyrical slow movement and the viola’s disappearing act at its close."
Evening Standard

"...a hugely ambitious piece, which summoned starkly opposed worlds of feeling, and forced them into anguished confrontations. In the first movement, a sinister little march kept subverting the violist’s yearning melodic line, played with heroic assurance and expressivity by Power. Later a small island of grave, Elizabethan-style tranquillity appeared in a quartet of low strings, but it was constantly overwhelmed by waves of distress. MacMillan is now a very experienced composer, and the confrontations between these things seemed interestingly subtle... In all it was a powerful experience, but a puzzling one."
Daily Telegraph

"Lasting nearly 40 minutes, this inventive, three-movement piece exploits fully the lyrical qualities of the instrument, launching with a rhapsodic solo ascent and finding bold colours via some hushed string harmonics, dissonances and glissandi. Bright sounds of harp, xylophone, vibraphone and tubular bells offset some more mellow string sounds... The work, a major contribution to the repertory, is full of musical debate, not least between the solo viola and the four front-desk players of the viola and cello section..."
The Observer

January also welcomed the belated premieres of two works from James MacMillan's earliest compositional years, played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the composer's baton:

"Symphonic Study (1981) was his first orchestral attempt and it opens brilliantly. Energy seethes from the depths of the orchestra and erupts into hectic outbursts with shimmering halos. Sure, the second half wears its influences heavily – there's a very Shostakovian string elegy and a diligent nod to Stravinsky – but in those opening few minutes the young MacMillan creates a glittering, fearsome sense of space. The Keening (1985-87) was inspired by traditional vocal laments and is shot through with classic MacMillan string writing: urgent, tangled lines that ebb into clammy dissonances and flow into stark tonality."
The Guardian

"...The Keening, written half a decade later, and revealing a composer less reliant on obvious derivative influences, but clearly on the threshold of true creativity. The subject is mourning, based on an old vocal traditional style of Scottish/Irish lament; the music momentous, in the way its central spine, like some inexorable slow-motion machine, gives airspace to the eruptions of sensitised colour that envelop it."
The Scotsman



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Photo: Philip Gatward

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