Composer's homecoming ruined by 'apathetic' orchestra

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The Independent Culture

It was supposed to be the triumphant UK premiere of a work by one of Britain's leading contemporary composers. But the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's performance of James Dillon's work in his home city of Glasgow led only to disappointment and recriminations.

It was supposed to be the triumphant UK premiere of a work by one of Britain's leading contemporary composers. But the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's performance of James Dillon's work in his home city of Glasgow led only to disappointment and recriminations.

The orchestra's rendition of Dillon's four-movement work, Via Sacra, was judged by some to be so lacklustre that it has sparked a debate over the amount of respect the country's national orchestra accords to contemporary music.

Audience members reported seeing one of the musicians yawn before the piece began. Others told a Scottish newspaper that they were shocked by the performance on 5 March, which appeared uninterested and even careless. One told The Herald: "It seemed to me there was an obvious lack of interest from the orchestra. It was plain to see they were not taking it seriously. I was appalled."

Music critics said the performance was "intermittently shoddy" and "not of broadcast quality". To add insult to injury, a planned broadcast of the work on Radio 3 was dropped at the last minute, a move blamed by insiders on the performance not being up to scratch. The orchestra said it was down to technical difficulties.

Dillon, who cancelled a trip to a festival in Finland to hear Via Sacra's first British performance at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, said yesterday: "I was not so much upset by the performance as sad, because there was no real sense of commitment to the work.

"I don't want to attack the orchestra, which is full of fine musicians. It is potentially a great orchestra, but you have to put the right elements together. There was not enough rehearsal given to a large-scale, four-movement, 40-minute orchestral work.

"I think sometimes that within the professional music world people sometimes forget why they are making music; they forget that wonderful sense of being inspired by music and what music can do."

Dillon, who spent a year writing the piece, said he believed that the conductor, Alexander Lazarev, had no interest in his work, or contemporary music of any kind. He said that he was excited about the performance beforehand because it was in Glasgow, but said that he felt he had to get out of the hall once his work was over.

He said he had worked with Lazarev before and felt that he dealt with him in a "perfunctory" way. He said: "You have to put a conductor in front of the orchestra who has some kind of vision and, as far as I am concerned, the conductor had no interest, either in my work or, as far as I could tell, in contemporary music in general."

Although Dillon's work is often described as "challenging" and "difficult to grasp", the 55-year-old London-based composer has won two prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society awards and has a strong international profile. Dillon, who wrote Via Sacra for Brussels 2000, celebrations marking the Belgium capital's year as European City of Culture, said: "I have been left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I just hope that this creates some kind of debate in Scotland around what it means to have a national orchestra. I hope somebody starts talking about what's going on and how much commitment the country actually has to serious art."

A spokesman for the RSNO said yesterday that the BBC's decision to pull the broadcast was down to a technical hitch. "The orchestra worked very hard on the piece in rehearsal and Mr Lazarev was fully committed to the performance," he added. He also said Dillon's music publishers were at the concert and had been happy with the performance.

"We understand it wasn't broadcast on Radio 3 because they missed the start of the performance on the recording. It was a straightforward technical difficulty."

Julian de Ste Croix, acting chief executive of the RSNO, said that the orchestra had worked very hard on the piece and did not let its personal feelings for a work affect the performance. "It was a very complex piece and I believe they did a professional job," he said. "It is a shame it was not broadcast. I thought our performance was very good."

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