Clashing, contrasting chords at extreme levels of volume

Macmillan In Manchester | Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
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The Independent Culture

Recently appointed composer/ conductor by the enterprising BBC Philharmonic, James MacMillan was launched in Manchester with a two-week celebration of concerts, recordings and workshops and at the opening concert of the orchestra's season. Here the composer shared the podium with Vassily Sinaisky and the programme with Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.

Recently appointed composer/ conductor by the enterprising BBC Philharmonic, James MacMillan was launched in Manchester with a two-week celebration of concerts, recordings and workshops and at the opening concert of the orchestra's season. Here the composer shared the podium with Vassily Sinaisky and the programme with Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.

The revised version of MacMillan's short Exsultet, scored for full orchestral brass, timpani and percussion, sounded far more impressive in the Bridgewater Hall than it did in the more confinedCheltenham Town Hall earlier this year. What the composer calls a "joyous cacophony" grinds rather than leaps into fully-formed life, its jerky opening giving way to clashing, contrasting chords at extreme levels of volume. After that assault, MacMillan's setting of the Magnificat, with the highly competent combined choirs of Manchester Grammar School and Withington Girls' School, seemed curiously anodyne, the proud scattered with no apparent humiliation and the rich "sent empty away" with all too little discomfort, musically at any rate.

In Colin Currie's agile performance of the virtuosic percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel, now almost a classic of the modern orchestral repertoire, the high speeds and contrasting sonorities avoided sounding garbled or frenzied. With obvious enjoyment of the work's physical challenges, Currie played his part with infectious zest and, with the composer conducting, in unusually close collaboration with his instrumental partners.

Later in the week, the RNCM New Ensemble brought a similar theatrical quality to MacMillan's song-cycle Raising Sparks. The real star here was Merryn Gamba, a postgraduate RNCM student, whose account of the taxing solo part was nothing short of superb. Unperturbed by the cross-fire between winds and strings and some explosive piano playing, Gamba's accomplished intonation and phrasing disguised just how much stamina and interpretative imagination the work needs. In the same concert the BBCPO had the last word with MacMillan's Second Symphony, its atmosphere of desolation and sobriety giving the disquieting impression of a composer whose deeply considered thoughtfulness may have posed more problems than are solved here.

Although MacMillan will create three new works for the BBCPO during his three-year association, his most recent work was unveiled back in his native land. Celebrating its 20th birthday, the Paragon Ensemble invited eight composers to its birthday bash at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall. One of its guests, Martin Butler, brought a brand new percussion concerto, which - as Heather Corbett deftly demonstrated - will delight those players who've already notched up more performances of Veni, Veni Emmanuel than they care to count.

The audience was also treated to seven short and highly individual world premieres, seamlessly presented by various ensembles drawn from within Paragon. The expressive colouring and rippling melodic meandering of James MacMillan's wistful From Galloway was magically evoked by solo clarinettist John Cushing.

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