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Maxwell Davies (1934-) - Mavis in Las Vegas

Strange bed-fellows often dwell inside a composer's head. Take the case of Peter Maxwell Davies. Early on he wandered far and wide - a successful period of work and study in Italy (late 50s), Music Director of Cirencester Grammar School (1959-62), study under Roger Sessions at Princeton (1962-4), and resident composer at Adelaide University (1966) before becoming co-director of the Pierrot Players (later restyled “The Fires of London”). Then he fell under the spell of Orkney, an environment and culture about as far removed from his orbit as the latter was from his native Salford. Making Hoy his home from 1970, he moved still further north, to Sanday, in 1997 (-ish). During this time, he increasingly involved himself with local - both Scottish and Orcadian - musical activities (notably the Saint Magnus Festival). 

That's one curious combination. Here's another. While studying in Manchester, along with Birtwistle, Goehr (Alexander) and Ogdon he formed the esoteric “Manchester Group”  (“Les Quatre”?). Although not as “far out” (musically, not geographically) as Birtwistle, his basically tonal musical language is, in his “serious” works, also stern, complicated and angular. This challenge to audiences and players alike is compensated by a vivid dramatic and sonic imagination, reflected in a high proportion of “theatrical” and vocal works. Average (or even “above average”) listeners may lose their bearings, but the scenery is always fascinating, and often enthralling! Yet, he has increasingly demonstrated an engaging flair for turning out thoroughly “audience-friendly” works, mollifying his style by introducing out-and-out tunes. Generally distilled from his own experiences, these range from nostalgic reminiscence like Cross Lane Fair to the uninhibitedly outrageous like the present piece, the origin of which lies in an utterly hilarious foul-up. 

In 1995, “Max” toured the USA with the BBC Philharmonic. A British journalist, chasing an interview, tried to contact Max at his Las Vegas hotel. Unable to locate “Maxwell Davies”, the receptionist tried several increasingly improbable permutations. His persistence was finally rewarded when he realised that, to simplify the computerised registration, “Maxwell Davies” had been booked in as simply “M?avies”. The BBC Philharmonic, presumably when they'd finished falling about laughing, commissioned a commemorative piece, described by the composer as a “theme and variations”, and rather more meaningfully by John Mauceri as “a totally mad transvestite dream-ballet” (he took the words right out of my mouth). 

That “sonic imagination” is running in overdrive: interesting instruments litter the orchestra - besides the inevitable oodles of oddball percussion like flexatone, crotales, bell tree, guero (Adrian Smith, the Slaithwaite Philharmonic’s conductor, toyed with the idea of chucking in foodmixer, lawnmower and electric toothbrush, before bowing to the composer's judgement), you should spot a banjo (briefly) in the viola section, a swanee whistle in the woodwind, and next to the celeste an electronic keyboard whose part is marked “with extreme wobble”. Monochrome it isn't! 

That just leaves the “plot”: Mavis (solo violin) applies a last dab of war-paint as the garish, animated neon displays flicker into life. She sashays out from the casino of her hotel onto the Strip - the meaning of “Strip” is somewhat ambiguous, unlike the words implicit in her “song”: “May-vis, is Maxwell Davies in Las - Vey-gis”. The main attractions are Caesar's Palace and the Liberace Museum, where the strings seem to snigger behind cupped hands. Near the end you sense that Max, happiest amid Orkney”s rolling plains, harbours reservations about this tinsel paradise. His alter ego, though, is perfectly happy to gawp at the ambiguously erupting synthetic Volcano.

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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