CLASSICAL MUSIC: James MacMillan: Clarinet Concerto premiere Usher Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Although James MacMillan has disclaimed any role as "that Catholic composer", the appearance of another new work with a religious title and subtext inevitably raises certain questions - is this "religious art"? Do we need to know, and feel for, the sacred element for full appreciation, or can the music stand on its own?

The composer describes his Ninian, with engaging frankness, as both "a concerto" and "a collection of tone-paintings". In three movements, and lasting some 36 minutes, the piece uses a full symphony orchestra and makes Herculean demands on its soloist. Ninian was an early Celtic saint who arrived in Galloway 1600 years ago, and the concerto is inspired by three miraculous episodes from his life. Perhaps we wouldn't have needed to know that the first movement was to do with a cattle raid to appreciate its bovine roarings and tramplings, truly of a visceral intensity; the way that the solo clarinet rose with a long, ornate, very Celtic-sounding line out of all this brutal chaos immediately signalled that, for all the colour and harmonic grittiness of the orchestral accompaniment, this was to be music concerned above all with melody. Using from the start the full dynamic and registral range of the clarinet, MacMillan seemed to be evoking memories of the stark lines and flashing gracenotes of the piobaireachd, the ancient music of the bagpipes. One of the most moving moments in the whole piece came when clarinet and violins soared over a solemn wind chorale, resonant with tuned gongs - a musical image of the saint's compassion amid the violence and brutality of his world. In the following slow movement / Scherzo the crippled boy, Pectgil's, visionary dream of Ninian was summoned up by trance-like strings and bell resonances, picking up the slow clarinet melody until, with a burst of miraculous energy, the material turned towards a rather Eastern European-sounding, lopsided dance, as the cripple rose to his feet and cavorted. After a wild outburst in which the large percussion section (including that much- neglected instrument, the "lion's roar") had its fling, the movement effaced itself with a glissando into nothingness.

By now, the music had undoubtedly established its own momentum and again we hardly needed to know that the final part was concerned with a mystic vision of Christ to get its point. Coming out of silence, the clarinet's opening "prayer" led to a haunting "still point", perhaps of the whole work, with a massive sustained chord - the moment of vision? - followed by glorious impassioned brass chorales, framing an astonishing three-part virtuosic cadenza for the soloist. Not to be outdone, in an extraordinary coda, the entire woodwind section had their own, simultaneous and independent cadenzas (line set finally and completely free?), and the piece disappeared into an immemorial distance with pianissimo clarinet and gongs ensuring a long and most welcome meditative silence before the audience expressed its considerable appreciation. This first performance was given with huge commitment and superb virtuosity by the work's dedicatee, John Cushing, and expertly accompanied by the RSNO under Paul Daniel. The latter's exhilarating rendition of Nielsen's breezy Fifth Symphony made light of the composer's quirky technical demands, and brought the evening to a satisfying close in a burst of major key glory.