James MacMillan’s new Viola Concerto and early works
January brings the premiere of James MacMillan’s new Viola Concerto for Lawrence Power, and first performances of his earliest orchestral works.
James MacMillan’s newest work, a Viola Concerto for Lawrence Power, is premiered by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 15 January under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. The work is co-commissioned by the LPO, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Following the London performance, Jurowski and the LPO tour the concerto to the Auditorio Nacional de Musica in Madrid on 19 January.
Cast in the familiar three movement concerto form, the work explores the role of the viola as a middle register instrument, sometimes accompanied by a dark quartet of two orchestral violas and two cellos as if an archaic viol consort, sometimes with the solo line moving expressively into the viola’s higher register. The first movement contrasts tense motivic statements with more cantabile writing, the second pits violent outbursts against hymn-like serenity, and the finale is humorous and playful building to a release of virtuosic energy.
The Viola Concerto is the latest in a series of recent concertos by MacMillan that are enjoying international success with high profile soloists. The Violin Concerto written for Vadim Repin has received 17 performances in 8 countries, the Oboe Concerto for Nicholas Daniel 17 performances in 7 countries, and Piano Concerto No.3 for Jean-Yves Thibaudet 19 performances in 4 countries including extensive travels in the USA. Plans are underway for all four of the recent MacMillan concertos to be released across a selection of discs.
MacMillan in Glasgow
A week before the Viola Concerto premiere James MacMillan conducts a concert of his music with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at City Halls in Glasgow on 11 January. The programme looks back to his earliest orchestral works pre-dating Tryst and The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and recently edited for performance. The orchestra has a long-standing relationship with MacMillan from his first successes in the early ‘90s, in concert hall and recording studio, with conductors including Jerzy Maksymiuk, Osmo Vänskä, Martyn Brabbins, Ilan Volkov and Donald Runnicles.
Symphonic Study was MacMillan’s first-ever orchestral work, dating from 1981, written when he was at Edinburgh University studying with Kenneth Leighton and Lyell Cresswell. Its slow opening section employing drones and short nervous fragments, and the main Allegro with its punchy brass chording, point towards the composer’s later stylistic fingerprints. The Keening was written between 1985 and 1987 when MacMillan was completing postgraduate studies with John Casken at the University of Durham. It was his first extended work to employ the lamenting vocalises, reminiscent of the mourning music of Celtic folk culture, that were to become a vital ingredient of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Tuireadh and many later works. The Keening opens tellingly with a focus on viola sonorities, forming an arc across 25 years to the new Viola Concerto.
The Glasgow programme also includes the Scottish premiere of A Deep but Dazzling Darkness scored for violin, ensemble and tape featuring the orchestra’s leader Laura Samuel as soloist, a new string orchestra arrangement of For Sonny which mourns the death of an infant, and MacMillan’s fanfare for brass, timpani and percussion Exsultet. The concert will be recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme.
> Further information on Work: Viola Concerto
Photo: Philip Gatward