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James MacMillan's new miniature orchestral tone poem, The Death of Oscar, travels from Germany to the USA and Scotland.

Stéphane Denève led a three-way commission for James MacMillan’s most recent orchestral work, The Death of Oscar, premiered by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in July. First performances in the USA and UK are planned by the Seattle Symphony next April and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a future season, all with Denève conducting. The ten-minute orchestral work is a miniature tone poem, drawing upon the legend of the bardic poet Ossian and the death of his son Oscar.

As well as Stéphane Denève’s musical collaborations with MacMillan while Music Director of the RSNO, they both shared the experience of sitting for portrait busts created by the Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddardt. MacMillan became aware of Stoddardt’s project to create a monumental sculpture of The Death of Oscar, to be carved from a Scottish granite hillside in the Western Highlands, and this inspired the current score for Denève to conduct.

In the legends of Ossian, his son Oscar challenged the High King Cairbre to single combat and, though victorious, died of his wounds and was mourned by his father and lover. These tales collected by James Macpherson in the 18th century have long been subject of hot debate about their authenticity, but what is not in doubt is the massive influence they had on perceptions of Scottish and Celtic culture, particularly overseas – admired by political figures such as Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson and inspiring Romantic artists from Mendelssohn in Fingal’s Cave to Goethe in Werther.

MacMillan’s ten-minute score opens slowly and darkly, building a mood of mythical lamentation with horns sounding the threnody above low strings and tolling drums and harp. The central fast section is militaristic, perhaps recalling Oscar’s final battle, with trumpet fanfares derived from the opening theme, and increasingly jagged elaborations. The closing section sees a return to the slow tempo with the cor Anglais presenting the unadorned, sorrowful melody above simple string accompaniment.

MacMillan’s recent concertos continue to attract attention, with the Violin Concerto toured to six countries by Vadim Repin, the Oboe Concerto receiving its Australian premiere this month with Nicholas Daniel, and Piano Concerto No.3 championed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and returning to Scotland next month after 17 overseas performances. The next concerto to be premiered is a new work for violist Lawrence Power, to be unveiled by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski on 15 January.

>  Further information on Work: The Death of Oscar

Photo: Philip Gatward

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