MUSIC / A hard act to follow: Robert Maycock on a James MacMillan premiere by the SCO and Evelyn Glennie at the Albert Hall

Click to follow
UNNOTICED at first, the orchestral players lay aside their instruments and begin to set up a ringing din of beaten metal. The solo percussionist walks quietly away from her own array of wood, metal and skin, and ascends to a row of tubular bells back behind the orchestra as the house lights blaze. Conclusions do not come more conclusive. There was no repeat of past Proms timidities when new pieces with unfollowable endings were tucked away in mid-evening: James MacMillan's Veni, veni, Emmanuel had the second half to itself, and dominated the Royal Albert Hall with a passionate theatricality that drew long and fierce ovations.

Commissioned (by Christian Salvesen plc) for Evelyn Glennie's skills and energies, it deployed its soloist's kit right across the front of the stage. But the sense of theatre is built into the music's fabric, its opposing forces and processes, and the gradual, willed focusing on to the plainchant melody of its title. It informs the immediately angry tone and the final switch from the prevailing symbolism of Advent to that of triumphant liberation (MacMillan is deliberately evoking the bells of a wildly celebrated Easter).

There are quick-fire rhythmic dialogues, and at the heart of the piece a free-growing marimba line, with the orchestra reducing to hypnotic, shifting, prayer-like repetitions of familiar chords from a harmonised version of the plainsong. But despite the percussionist's hectic activity, the orchestra is the dominant force as far as the ear is concerned, especially early on. This points to what appeared, at Monday's premiere, to be the piece's problem: balance. The scoring is often heavy, and as if to match it the percussion showed a leaning towards the louder, but untuned drums. So the orchestra still seized the ear with bold themes and harmonies, however subsidiary; the solo part often came across like a decorative rhythmic overlay.

Typically, however, the course of the music is plain-spoken and direct, more complex in detail than The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and more untidy too. MacMillan does not shun the blunt, even ugly statement if it makes the right visceral impact. This is not music for the over- fastidious who dislike being looked squarely in the eye. But in its big, simple gestures, in daring everything, it carries the force of a faith in the fundamentals of music that once seemed lost to contemporary classical writing.

The concert's problem was a very long first half, nearly 80 minutes. But the Scottish Chamber Orchestra - especially the athletic violins - played it with consistent zest. Jukka-Pekka Saraste conducted a fast and light Beethoven First Symphony, short on dynamic force: just right, in fact, for a long Rossini introduction, which was what they went on to play in the first of two arias sung by the American mezzo Kathleen Kuhlmann. She produced a resplendent, warming tone in two amply phrased arias, from Semiramide and La donna del lago, though their show-piece conclusions sounded vocally cautious and well-behaved: the zing in the crescendos came from the orchestra.

Alone again, the SCO caught the steadily darkening atmosphere of Sibelius's suite of incidental music to Pelleas and Melisande. Saraste's control kept the 'Castle Gate' piece (of Sky at Night fame) free from bombast, and reached a devastating quiet intensity in the music for Melisande's death - in the end rightly placed before an interval, since it, too, is unfollowable; the audience kept a long silence in response.