Darkness into Light: MacMillan weekend, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Devoted to newish music, the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Composer Weekends have been taking place annually for some time, and they have a chummy, social feeling to them.

Devoted to newish music, the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Composer Weekends have been taking place annually for some time, and they have a chummy, social feeling to them. Beginning on a Friday, they stretch through to Sunday evening, filling in virtually every available moment with symphony, vocal and chamber concerts, talks, films and "do-it-yourself" events. The concerts are broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

They also embrace huge numbers of musicians, which, in this year's case, meant the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, BBC Singers, BBC Philharmonic, The Hilliard Ensemble, the Choristers of Westminster Cathedral, the Royal String Quartet (BBC Young Generation artists), the Gould Piano Trio, Guildhall New Music Ensemble and various conductors and soloists. The patronage is awesome.

The Scottish composer James MacMillan got the treatment. While it is fascinating to be able to hear so much of one composer's music at one time, fatigue is an enemy. Deals are made for punters willing to stay the course, but after such saturation, bleary ears would seem the reward. And another danger is that the odd work included by a different composer may assume greater prominence just because of the "relief" factor.

MacMillan is a special case. Coming from the land of low light, his propensity is towards the dark and the dour, and, indeed, this weekend's subtitle was "Darkness into Light" - but I seemed to catch little of the latter. MacMillan is a devout Catholic, a church where suffering sits high on the agenda. On the final day of the weekend, a lunchtime chamber- music concert had included - at the composer's request - works by Alfred Schnittke and Galina Ustvolskaya, two composers whom he greatly admires and, as was evident, is greatly influenced by. But a couple of more bleak and despairing artists would be hard to come by.

MacMillan conducted the final concert given by the BBCSO - quite how he managed to rehearse and at the same time appear to be everywhere was a miracle. In a pre-concert talk, he was asked about being "accessible", a veiled criticism. "Never think about it in those terms, but I don't complain about it," came the robust reply.

I (A Meditation on Iona), of 1996, uses cod plainsong, Schnittke-ish silences, pulses and harmonies, and steel drums. It's a gloomy piece ending with the tolling of a tam-tam. But its structure is clear and the material well ordered. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a percussion concerto written for Evelyn Glennie, is less disciplined. Superbly played by Colin Currie, its mix of traditional and modernist material induces queasiness.

Including Birtwistle's gargantuan Exody as a foil between his two works also did MacMillan no favours.

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