James MacMillan’s New Viola Concerto Premièred in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   MacMillan and Mahler: Lawrence Power (viola), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.1.2014. (JPr)

James MacMillanViola Concerto (world première)
Mahler Symphony No.6 in A minor


Listening to James MacMillan at the pre-concert event I was encouraged by what I heard. I am unfamiliar with his music as one of our most preeminent – living – composers but having heard a lot of contemporary music and – without any prior knowledge – had predicted to my wife, who did not accompany me to the concert, that it would be twenty-five minutes long and feature a dialogue between xylophone/vibraphone, tambourine and big bass drum, as it seems no new music can seemingly be written without prominence being given to these instruments.

I was lulled into a false sense of security by hearing how MacMillan  was interested in the traditional form of the concerto and had composed eighteen already, especially because of the ‘direct interest in living composers from soloists … [and how it is] … wonderful to have them as advocates and aficionados of contemporary music.’ Although he stated he was ‘more and more interested in the abstract nature of music’ he was striving for something that could ‘look beyond the abstraction to something more subjective’. We heard how the way the soloist, Lawrence Power, plays anything ‘he makes his instrument sing’ and that when composing MacMillan feels ‘I’m like a child in a toyshop with the orchestra.’ Even being reminded that his percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is one of the most popularly performed works of the modern era didn’t pre-warn me that I was about to hear something that was not vastly different from most other modern music.

I sat down in my seat some thirty minutes before the concert and there was one member of the orchestra going through his music on the platform … and my heart sank as he was playing his xylophone or vibraphone! Much of the soundworld of what followed during the concerto was eminently predictable, but not only that, for most of the first movement – as elsewhere in the piece – the full potential of the orchestra was ignored in favour of dialogues between Power’s austere sounding viola and a range of percussion (not only the aforementioned instruments but also snare drum, bass drum, timpani and gong) or a quartet of two violas and two cellos or a solo flautist. Where the orchestra was involved their accompaniment was often merely a ‘two note/two chord tread’ that sounded like the sort of music for the cinema accompanying steam trains in old black-and-white films. Throughout, Lawrence Power seemed to extemporising Scottish dance music that might have been a reflection of the composer’s heritage.

There is a loud discordant outburst at the start of the second movement that seemed familiar (though I cannot quite pin down yet where I have heard it before) and there indeed followed some greater eloquence and melody from what – at least initially – seemed ‘a song with words’. The final movement began with an outburst in the brass and like its predecessors increased in momentum towards its end. MacMillan admits to referencing something liturgical here before the flautist, Maria José Ortuño Benita has a wonderful Ian Anderson moment (another Scot – Google him if you do not know him) and I half expected her to stand on one leg like he did! The ending was dispiriting as some of the music that preceded it had also been.

MacMillan, I gathered, is a man of deep religious faith and perhaps it needed someone more spiritual than I am to connect with his music as I suspect there is some soul-searching going on here which I am not ‘getting’ but for me – as with many  new compositions in my opinion – it seemed mostly a jumble of unconnected musical moments. Nevertheless, I can admire the attention to detail it got from Vladimir Jurowski and his excellent London Philharmonic Orchestra ensemble that accompanied Lawrence Power’s vigorously assertive and expressive virtuosity.

I often find Jurowski to be the most mercurial of conductors, sometimes good … and sometimes not so good. Here he was to Mahler, what Pappano is to Wagner, it was a good performance without any evidence that he genuinely understands – or can give a valid interpretation of – what Mahler was striving for. Jurowski now tows the official line of having the inner movements in the order Andante-Scherzo but for once it really would not have mattered which way round they were. What we were given was merely a fine performance of some great music whilst it totally lacked the visionary zeal of a maestro who comprehends that these notes actually represent the fading hopes of a life lived and the ultimate despair that possibly this existence is all there is. Generally, I thought it was too fast even though I fully understated it is an ‘eighty minute symphony’ but it can often take longer.

Overall this account was a bit too hectic; in the first movement the ominous tread seemed to give way to a triumphalist march that made me think of the Die Meistersinger Overture. More than once I imagined the cows stampeding when I heard the bells. The Andante had a deeply eloquent feeling about it but even then everything seemed distinctly earthbound when we needed to be transported somewhere … who knows where, just somewhere. Then came the Scherzo, and this too sounded familiar – this time the ‘Dance of the Apprentices’ from Die Meistersinger again! This should be rather dark and eerie but we never really heard that. This was superficial Mahler – Mahler ohne Ironie. With the Finale it was still impossible to spot what Mahler was getting at; it was again too upbeat and as the music gathered its head of steam I heard ‘The Ride of The Valkyries’. The music should spiral downhill – the two hammer blows we were allowed were a bit of a damp squib – and the tension should become almost unbearable as it teeters on the brink of total despair.

The final chord should be the equivalent of those final words that star of stage and screen Kenneth Williams wrote in his diaries when it had all got too much: ‘What’s the bloody point?’ Sadly, this never resonated here for me as it has with some performances I have heard in the past. Jurowski really should have read Gavin Plumley’s printed programme notes with all its descriptive words such as, alarming, tragic, deathly, ferocious, brutally, sullenly, yearning, ghastly, or horror for some idea of what the audience should experience … and none of which I did! Obviously Jurowski had his own vision of the work that was different to some other conductors – and possibly Mahler himself. Once again the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra sounded faultless and impressively assured and these valiant musicians are not to blame for this less-than-memorable evening.

This concert was broadcast live by the BBC on Radio 3 Live in Concert and can be heard for the next few days by clicking here. If you heard it and agree (or possibly disagree) with me do let me know.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the LPO’s forthcoming concerts visit www.lpo.org.uk.