John McLeod’s New Viola Concerto is Premiered by Jane Atkins and the SCO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grieg, McLeod and Beethoven: Jane Atkins (viola), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Joseph Swensen (conductor), City Halls Glasgow, 26.10.2018. (GT)

John McLeod

GriegHolberg Suite

McLeod – Viola Concerto ‘Nordic Fire’ (world premiere)

Beethoven (arr. Swensen) – Quartet No.14 in C-sharp minor, Op.131

The Scottish composer John McLeod has written a steady stream of outstanding music for international ensembles and musicians for many years and now in his eighties, his work has the richness of a fine wine, flavoured with the Nordic chill which has become a hallmark of his music. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra have proved splendid ambassadors for his latest creativity; McLeod was the associate composer between 1980 and 1982, and in recent years they have commissioned several important works by the Edinburgh-based composer.

To lend the evening a Scandinavian atmosphere, Grieg’s popular orchestral suite provided an ideal ingredient to the programme presenting splendidly colourful folk ideas in Grieg’s brilliantly written orchestration. Each of the movements were enacted marvellously with all the strings sections at the height of their song spinning powers. The bright prelude, lyrical melodies, created a graceful atmosphere, the Sarabande was pastoral in its lyricism, the conductor likes to use his hands expressively and he invoked a beautiful passage on the cellos and violas in the Gavotte, a rustic folk dance allowing the strings to show off their flair, with invocation of Bach. In the Andante religioso, a brisk pace sounded like a children playing in fields, and a scurrying passage in the Rigaudon brought this marvellous piece to a close with a crescendo.

McLeod’s Concerto for Viola and Orchestra ‘Nordic Fire’ reflects on the brilliant colour and energy of the aurora borealis which appears in the northernmost parts of Norway and Sweden when there appear red or green illuminations in the night sky. As the composer writes, ‘Its main characteristics are energy and colour – two elements of musical composition that have a great fascination for me!’ McLeod continued, ‘In my way of thinking, the viola represents the energetic centre of the string quartet, the string orchestra and indeed the full orchestra – rather like the Chinese concept of Qi or Chi being the life force in the centre of the human body – something I picked up and practiced through Tai Chi on my many visits to the Far East. Unlike a conventional concerto it is, (like Beethoven’s Opus 131) in one single movement, but divided into eight main parts. It’s written in ritornello form – very common with Baroque composers – where material is repeated every so often, sometimes in the original form, sometimes changed. There are also several passages where the players play unsynchronised, as if performing alone.’  The piece has allowed him the opportunity of reflecting on his past work as well as looking ahead. ‘rather like Janus, the Roman god, usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future as well as to the past.’

McLeod’s new Viola Concerto began with a prolonged solo passage on Jane Atkins’s viola with sharp dissonances, slides, and pizzicato, before the exploding burst from brass and percussion, and speedily leading to a chilly atmosphere coloured by bracing ideas on viola, bright in dramatic tension, against interludes of nocturnal sounds from the woodwind, invoking perhaps Bartók and Shostakovich. Quiet reflective passage with gurgling from woodwind led to lovely solos on the trumpet, then a rare elegiac theme from the viola, followed by several thoughtful passages. This new concerto is remarkable as the soloist plays throughout with hardly a pause – and sometimes requiring Atkins’s extreme virtuosity – yet arrests the audiences’ attention with its quickly moving musical canvas. This was one which should be heard widely as it is a masterpiece from this outstanding British composer.

Swensen’s adaptation of Beethoven’s Quartet Op.131 opened with an achingly beautiful passage on the strings, with the Adagio, reflecting on life like the slowly expiring beat of a human heart. In the second movement, Allegro molto vivace, the graceful breathing reveals a new spring to life, like a gust of wind in the air, stilling the rocking rhythms; in the third Allegro moderato-Adagio, a beautiful idea recalls happier days. There follows a great heroic idea from the violas – underlining the composer’s resolve to compose when he was struggling with his deafness – and the passage on the violas and cellos show a slow return to the rocking rhythms, and for the violins it is as if life is going on in its usual manner. For the final Allegro there is a burst of life in striking chords from the whole orchestra and this is the work’s extraordinary finale. Op.131 – however you hear it – shows how many years ahead of his time Beethoven’s music was.

Gregor Tassie

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