MUSIC / MacMillan passes the test of time

THE ADVANTAGE of running a festival the size of Edinburgh's is that you can gamble badly one week and recoup your losses the next. And so it has been. Last week prompted misgivings about the usefulness of coupling Janacek with Schubert as a festival theme, and the wisdom of fixing so intense a spotlight on the developing composer James MacMillan. This week offered resolution of a sort on both fronts, and MacMillan glowed in triumph as a master of the medium of music theatre - something you might not have believed if, seven days before, you'd seen his opera Tourist Variations at the Traverse.

I suspended comment until today because I found the piece a dubious detour, unrepresentative of the direction MacMillan's work is currently taking and best considered beside his other theatre music in the festival. Part of a double bill (with a one-acter by Craig Armstrong called Anna), Tourist Variations was a frantic, dense and cynically verbose (libretto: Ian Heggie) cartoon of a couple talking themselves through, around, and not quite out of mid-life crisis. It encroached, dramatically and musically, on ground that Stephen Sondheim covers better, with a stronger sense of irony and the knowledge that however ideas-driven it gets, theatre still needs something to happen, if only to justify the wardrobe budget. Someone has to die a little, as Sondheim would say. Tourist Variations was too slick to die; and too close to the gloss of American off-Broadway minimalism to be something you could care about.

But you can't avoid caring about Busqueda or Visitatio Sepulchri, two MacMillan scores which played, unforgettably, at the King's Theatre this week. Busqueda infiltrates the Latin Mass with poems by the Argentinian 'Mothers of the Disappeared'; Visitatio Sepulchri sets a medieval liturgical drama, the visit to the sepulchre on Easter morning; and neither is conventional enough as theatre to belong in a place like the King's.

Busqueda was, in fact, just nominally staged, with static forces (singers, actors, narrator and chamber orchestra) rendered 'theatrical' by lighting. Tension is generated from shifts of gear between the ancient, formal Latin and the modern, urgent poetry (a technique only Britten, in the War Requiem, has employed more effectively) and from pushing the music to extreme contrasts of expressive intensity: the exaggerated peaks and troughs of raw emotion that Maxwell Davies made a feature of his early music-theatre scores. The music of Busqueda weeps the tears of the oppressed and screams the rhetoric of the oppressor in abrupt proximity. This isn't decorative angst like Tourist Variations. It's the real thing, speaking from the soul of the composer - a committed Catholic socialist - and with a passion we have learnt, alas, not to expect in modern music.

Visitatio Sepulchri is more austere but with an impressive, ceremonial grandeur which is beautifully encouraged into theatre by Francisco Negrin: a director whose visual genius I've admired before. He creates such a charged spectacle of resurrection drama here that it didn't occur to me until afterwards to wonder why Jesus (a key player, you might think) made no appearance.

But as a statement of faith - MacMillan is, of course, part of the new phenomenon of overtly Christian composers - it was convincing, and without recourse to the reflective banalities of Part, Gorecki, Tavener et al. The singers weren't outstanding; but the writing is choral rather than soloistic, so that wasn't a disaster. And the orchestral playing, from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Ivor Bolton (soon to be announced as the SCO's new music director), was superb. BMG plans to record both Visitatio and Busqueda with these personnel - including Juliet Stevenson, the narrator in Busqueda. If the recording has the force of these live performances it will be something to reckon with.

And so to Janacek and Schubert, who did actually have one thing in common: a frustrated ambition towards opera, which Janacek (who developed slowly through a long life) got the chance to realise but Schubert (who developed fast through a short life) didn't. Had Schubert died at 74 instead of 31, it's tempting to wonder what might have happened. But the omens, frankly, were not good, as Tuesday night at the Usher Hall suggested in a paired concert performance of Schubert's Die Freunde von Salamanka and Janacek's Sarka: two early operatic forays which show Janacek rising to the task with gusto and Schubert, er, not. Die Freunde was written at 19 and is a tame Mozartian singspiel (the spoken dialogue mercifully lost) which never touches the intensity of Schubert's core work. Juliet Stevenson, doing her festival rounds, provided a narration that managed to present the piece as more eventful than it evidently is. But otherwise the performance, by the BBC Scottish SO under David Robertson, was uninspired.

Sarka, by contrast, was a revelation. Janacek's first opera (which has never been published), it was one of the casualties of the composer's early life and he revised the

vocal writing several decades later. What we have, therefore, is not an unadulteratedly youthful statement like the Schubert, but an epic miniature that packs the mythic story of a warrior maid who inconveniently loves her enemy (touches of Norma) into just over an hour. Stirred by more stirring material, the performers - largely the same as for the Schubert - perked up. The young British baritone Neal Davies positively blossomed. And he was joined by two significant discoveries: an ardent, richly textured Czech soprano, Helena Kaupova, and an impressive British tenor, William Kendall, who should be heard more often. David Robertson (new Music Director of the Ensemble Contemporain) was as masterfully controlling as, before the interval, he'd been ineffectual. A lesson, there, in the determining effect of decent raw material.

Janacek enthusiasts might be interested to know that a 1953 recording of Sarka (the only one, I think) has just been issued on CD by Multisonic. But it's not a patch on what was heard up here in Edinburgh.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game