Tuesday 29 September 2009

Medals all round - James Lowe and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play MacMillan

Officially the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's 2009/10 season doesn't start until a week on Thursday. Tonight's performance was perhaps intended as something of an aperitif (well, given it was tucked away at the back of the season brochure, perhaps that's not the right word).

On paper I can see why it wasn't the curtain raiser. Under the Masterworks heading, the performance of James MacMillan's Tryst was preceded by an illustrated talk and dissection of the piece. This is part of an educational outreach project that will see the performance given to a number of schools across Scotland (great stuff - we never had that in my day, which wasn't all that long ago). However, it was such a wonderful experience that I can see no justification for not putting it front and centre; this sort of thing should be celebrated.

I entered the dimmed Queen's Hall to find reading lights clipped to all the music stands. The reason for this soon became clear - under stage lighting we wouldn't have seen the projector screen properly.

Conductor James Lowe, who made a stunning debut with the orchestra last December as an eleventh hour stand in, then took to the podium and led the orchestra through the piece's opening bars. Their playing was crisp in what sounded a tricky piece.

Paul Rissmann then addressed the audience and proceeded to detail just what an understatement that is. I play the trombone, badly, in an amateur orchestra. I mention this because when playing I don't like it if the time signature of a piece changes, which should give an indication of how bad I am. With twenty-something time changes in the space of forty-six bars, I imagine I'd have a nervous breakdown if anyone asked me to play it; I'd be surprised if it didn't make hardened pros think twice. And they weren't easy time signatures either, rather things like 7/16, leading me to wonder if MacMillan is a fan of Don Ellis's superb jazz album Electric Bath, whose five splendid tracks are in 5/4, 7/4, 13/4, 19/4 and 15/16 (but then, Ellis also added a fourth valve to his trumpet so he could play in quarter tones; he didn't like to do things the easy way). I'm in awe of anyone who can play or conduct a piece like this; to do it so well deserves medals.

Rissmann's talk, continually illustrated with excerts played by the orchestra, did far more than list tricky time signatures. Rather, he deconstructed the work, taking us from its root in an old Scots poem (accounting for his pronunciation of it as Try-st), through MacMillan's setting to an folk tune and a later chamber piece, to the work itself. He explored twelve tone composition, demonstrated perfectly by the twelve wind and horn players, and showed the way themes cropped up again and again. This was made all the more illuminating by incredible graphic displays on the screen, often colour-keying the notes on the stave or jumping them around and lining them up. This visual razzmatazz seemed to have been made possible by use of Apple's Keynote software (which was developed for Steve Jobs to give his infamously showy presentations). At least, so I assume, it was being run of a Mac anyway.

After the interval they put it all together. And even though I could only remember about half of what he had told us, I was still very glad of the presentation. The orchestra played wonderfully, from the fiendish opening, through the twelve tone progressions, to the beautiful slow section and then the frantic countdown finale, where the violins repeated a phrase over and over, cutting it shorter each time, before the piece's tantalising end.

It was a splendid performance and a great start to what promises to be a fine season. The only reservation was that they were sometimes a little loud in places, especially the wailing themes on the clarinets, but this is probably what MacMillan wanted.

As I said above, they all deserve medals. Sadly, we at Where's Runnicles don't have any medals to give. We do have awards though. So, without further ado, and, as ever, named after the inaugural recipient(s), I present: the James Lowe and Scottish Chamber Orchestra award for a Brilliant Performance of a Fiendishly Tricky Work.

Only one question remains: why didn't the SCO book Lowe for one of their main season concerts? Hopefully they will next year, they certainly should.

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