Concert Review

Stuart MacCrae The Witch's Kiss and Portrait. Philharmonia Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins. Royal Festival Hall; 18 April 2000

National Youth Orchestra/Tortelier/Barry Douglas (piano); Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Barbican Centre, 18 April 2000

The early evening concert at RFH was one of the most successful of the Philharmonia's Music of Today short concerts, allowing time to commute across the Thames afterwards. James MacMillan discussed with Stuart MacCrae the music to be given. This young Scottish composer (b. 1976) studied with Bainbridge and Saxton & is now Composer in Association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose great influence he acknowledged, premiered The Witch's Kiss (of forgiveness to her executioner) in 1997. There is a reserved exposition, elaborated in its return at the end, a frenetic cadenza-like scherzo, and a 'psalm' based upon heterophonic Scottish church singing. The composer's voice sounded to me original, and not too derivative, given that he described himself to us as more of an assimilator and 'synthesiser of ideas' than an originator, and he mentioned innumerable composers he had studied and absorbed.

MacCrae sees his later Portrait as a study of density, with Rothco's pictures in the background. As in the first work, his use of instruments is precise and controlled, with some striking antiphonal exchanges and several long, pregnant conducted pauses, which encourage contemplation.

Stuart MacCrae's two pieces were entirely different, which suggests that his future direction of development is unpredictable but certainly well worth following (a new piano quintet was given in Glasgow on 11 April).

The members of the Philharmonia played these two works with apparent enjoyment, and they sounded to have been well prepared by Martyn Brabbins, whose services to new music cannot be over-estimated. This must have given them a lift, prior to the conventional symphony concert which followed. They played in shirtsleeves for this more informal free event, which attracted a sizeable audience, as did the 150-strong National Youth Orchestra across the river half an hour later, with conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier likewise dressed comfortably, not in standard concert garb. At the Barbican it was full house and a tumultuous, well-deserved ovation at the end.

The NYO is one of the marvels of British musical life. Its courses are organised with military thoroughness and the children look proud of their turnout in white shirts and red ties. The benefits of participation are enormous and the standards achieved by unhurried preparation are staggering. During their residential stay in Radley College, besides orchestral rehearsals, they had been exposed to a comprehensive schedule of sectional coaching, master classes and Creative Projects including dance!

Ravel's waltzes are tricky, whether for piano or as orchestrated, but under Yan Pascal Tortelier the idiom held no terrors for them, and they played with a flexible dancing style, nobles and sentimentales by turns. For Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Concerto the soloist was Barry Douglas, former gold medallist in Moscow. I have never enjoyed it more and marvelled at his contained, undemonstrative command of its difficulties and the uncanny rapport with the conductor. Lastly, the Firebird in its entirety, with a huge complement of brass (including what looked like Wagner tubas), trumpets up in the balcony and tubular bells close behind me, all marshalled with such flair that one wished the complete Firebird would be the one to be heard regularly. Absolutely gorgeous and a great evening!

Peter Grahame Woolf

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