Monday, 17 August 2009


16/8/09, Usher Hall (Edinburgh Festival)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Paul Daniel, in a programme of works by Peter Maxwell Davies and James MacMillan. We only stayed for the first (Maxwell Davies) half because we'd managed to double book (sorry, James).

The hall barely half full which seemed a pity. Even so they'd run out of programmes: had to borrow one from a neighbour to remind myself what we were hearing.

Maxwell Davies's Symphony No 5 (written in 1994) is a lot more accessible than much of his music: alternating loud and soft, working up to a succession of climaxes full of brass and percussion (seven of the former, six of the latter, out of a total of 92); starts very quietly with a flute solo; ends very quietly with the double basses and a kettledrum. The solo flute (sometimes curiously flattened) is according to the composer reminiscent of the seabirds on Orkney, and the whole piece could be a reflection of the islands' turbulent weather.

The connections are absolutely explicit in the second piece, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, which is a real crowd-pleaser. Traditional Scottish dance melodies (reminiscent of an American hoe-down), winding down towards the end of the night into a string quartet, which gradually collapses into drunken discord (cue blaring trumpets) until sunrise comes (cue more brass and percussion) and the main melody is reprised with the addition of a solo bagpipe, entering through the audience. Lots of onomatopoeic effects (including, S thought, the happy couple departing in a horse-drawn carriage to the sound of clip-clopping hooves). We all thought it marvellous.

Why can't more modern music make this kind of direct connection with an audience? Maxwell Davies can do it sometimes (though he's been accused of selling out for writing pieces like Orkney Wedding and Stromness); so many composers just don't seem interested.

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