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MacMillan's A Scotch Bestiary: from LA to Manchester

(November 2004)

MacMillan's A Scotch Bestiary: from LA to Manchester

James MacMillan’s fantasy menagerie for organ and orchestra was unveiled in Los Angeles in October and travels to Manchester in December.



James MacMillan's new organ concerto, A Scotch Bestiary, receives its European premiere on 11 December in Manchester. Wayne Marshall is soloist on the organ of Bridgewater Hall with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by James MacMillan. Following the performance, the work is recorded by Chandos for future release in its ongoing series of MacMillan CDs.

The world premiere of A Scotch Bestiary took place on 7 October with Marshall and the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Described by the LA Times as "sonically spectacular", the new work provided a highlight in the series of concerts inaugurating the new organ at Disney Hall. The work was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the BBC Philharmonic.

MacMillan has already created vivid and imaginative organ accompaniments in such works as Cantos Sagrados and Mass, and his first concerto-style work for the instrument experiments still further, casting the organ as a satirical menagerie of animals. The composer writes of the new work: "A Scotch Bestiary is in two movements, and follows in a tradition of musical portraiture set by Elgar, Saint-Saëns and Mussorgsky, as indicated in the subtitle of the work, ‘Enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition’.

The first movement, The Menagerie, Caged, takes us on a promenade to view a sequence of human characters in animal guise, including the ‘cro-magnon hyena’, the ‘ubiquitous queen bee’ and the ‘red-handed, no-surrender, howler monkey’. In the second movement, The Menagerie, Uncaged, the animals are released and rampage in what the composer describes as "a freewheeling, through-composed fantasy".

"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! And with Marshall, we finally get an organist with big-time flair and technique... to have one's ears seduced and trampled by this musical monster, an ever-transmogrifying musical trickster, is an experience not to be found anywhere else."
Los Angeles Times

"The piece was certainly fun: riotous, at times cacophanous, 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


> Further information on Work: A Scotch Bestiary

Photo: the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ, for which MacMillan composed A Scotch Bestiary (Federico Zignani)

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