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SCO Masterworks, Queens Hall, Edinburgh
28th September 2009
filed 30 Sep 09
On the evening of Monday 28th September the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO )performed the first in their season of Masterworks events for the general public. These events are primarily educative and are part of the excellent work members of the orchestra do in relation to schools. Indeed the SCO has led the way in musical education.
The Queens Hall event took James MacMillan's Tryst as the subject for detailed analysis in an effort to further the understanding of contemporary music. This was an appropriate choice for this Edinburgh event in view of the fact that this Scottish composer studied music at Edinburgh University and progressed to be internationally acclaimed for his work, and notably for his composition called Tryst.
The first half of the evening was devoted to dissecting the piece into its individual components, and to show how they were cleverly integrated throughout. After the interval the whole piece was performed uninterrupted.
The SCO was very ably conducted by James Lowe, who also graduated from the University of Edinburgh. Among his many achievements he has been Associate Conductor with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He is currently the Artistic Director of the New Bristol Sinfonia.
The presenter was Paul Rissmann, another Scottish composer. He studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as well as the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has created an impressive niche for himself as a most able presenter of music events, and especially the analysis of contemporary music. With regard to MacMillan's Tryst he did this in a most impressive manner. With the help of beautifully prepared and lucid computer graphics (Apple Mac generated of course) he interacted flawlessly with the SCO playing illustrative passages of the piece, often right down to extracts from the score for individual sections of the orchestra. It certainly greatly helped in understanding what the composer was trying to do and how he had compiled the composition, at least on a structural basis. One could even suffer the sometimes piercingly loud dissonant decibels to further understand the complex mathematics and the complex rhythms upon which the Tryst was founded.
But the listener was left wondering why the piece was called Tryst. it was explained that this tone poem was based on the charming and somewhat erotic Scots poem of that name by William Soutar.
O luely, luely came she in
And luely she lay doun:
I kent her by her caller lips
And her briests sae sma' and roun'
Indeed, for me at least one of the highlights of the evening was the rendition by the SCO of the tune to which the poem was originally set. It perfectly reflected the tenderness of the poetic writing. Maybe the mathematics of this notation may have been present in the current version of Tryst, but to most it was sadly all but lost in favour of what some might regard as an absurd amount of cacophony. There was too much of sitting on all the notes possible between an octave, or even several octaves, all at the same time. Just occasionally the audience was blessed with a piece of exquisite writing reflecting a Gaelic idiom. There was little hint left of Soutar's poem. Indeed the whole atmosphere of the piece was a contradiction of its title. Luely seldom got a look in.
What was most enjoyable was listening to the different sections of the SCO and the high standard and the enthusiasm of their playing. This was particularly so as quite a number of the core members of the orchestra were replaced for the occasion by others whom I had not recognised from earlier concerts. This showed the depth of musical talent that the SCO attracts.
After the interval Tryst was played in its entirety, uninterrupted. Yes, I understood it much better after the lucid analysis. But understanding it better was not for me a substitute for enjoying it. For me the piece was too clever by half. Endless dissonance becomes very wearing. Yes, rhythms can be fascinating, but great music manages all of that and is not so deprived of melody.
Granted the event occurred on a Monday evening, but I have rarely seen the Queens Hall so empty and tickets so inexpensive. This was a truly excellent occasion, run at the highest professional level. But it clearly did not attract the wider audience that it deserved. May be there are fundamental limitations to some forms of contemporary music that no amount of education will overcome. But what was clear, the orchestra hugely enjoyed playing it. As well they might, because it was they who commissioned it in the first place.
Irvine, James (2009). Review: Hebrides Ensemble and Christopher Maltman, Queens Hall, 20th August 09. Edinburgh International Festival
See HOMEPAGE, filed 25 Aug 09, www.land-care.org.uk