BBC Philharmonic/MacMillan, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

James MacMillan's intriguing new musical picturebook of unnatural history, A Scotch Bestiary, for organ and orchestra, was jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the new Walt Disney Hall and the BBC.

James MacMillan's intriguing new musical picturebook of unnatural history, A Scotch Bestiary, for organ and orchestra, was jointly commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the new Walt Disney Hall and the BBC.

Encouraged by the Disney connection and animalistic doodles improvised by the organist Wayne Marshall, MacMillan was inspired by the human characteristics and foibles of the creatures of American cartoons. The result is an ingenious coupling of characters and instruments in a dazzling score, subtitled "Enigmatic variations on a zoological carnival at a Caledonian exhibition".

The angry young man may have matured, but in A Scotch Bestiary, MacMillan pokes fun at some of the less attractive aspects of contemporary Scottish life. Indeed, the opportunity to conjure the likes of Rumpus McFowl and Muscles McGurk in musical disguise casts a different light on a composer better known for his gravitas than his sense of humour. There's a subtext, a Bosch-like nightmare quality, and a barely suppressed frustration simmers beneath the work's droll surface.

In the first part of this two-part work, "The menagerie, caged", eight movements are linked by a cannibalised version of the "Promenade" theme from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

From the reeling "Queen Bee" to smooth "Uncle Tom Cat and his chickens", the jibes come thick and fast, and two noisy typewriters improvise a jig of clacking keys over braying string hee-haws in a dig at journalists in "Jackass Hackass". The demonic cuckoo of the clarinet nods in the direction of Saint-Saëns and "Big Fish (in a small pond)" features splashy organ pedals treading deep water supported by slithering brass and double bass.

Other influences intrude, including a recycled snatch of the Star Wars-style fanfare MacMillan provided (and later withdrew) for the opening of the Scottish Parliament, while a refrain of a Scottish psalm is brought to a close with the orchestra vocalising a final "Amen" in "Reverend Cuckoo and his Parroting Chorus".

On its European premiere, in which MacMillan conducted, Marshall showed his awesome technical control, and fleet fingers and footwork, unperturbed by the cacophony of the darker second part, "The menagerie, uncaged".

The concert also featured an overlong suite drawn from Prokofiev. In excerpts from his ballet Romeo and Juliet, there was a steely brilliance to the BBC Philharmonic's playing in the conductor Gianandrea Noseda's interpretation.

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