There was considerable excitement surrounding the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s opening event in 2014, a big year for Scotland and Glasgow. Not only would James MacMillan be conducting this orchestra for the first time in ten years, but in a night of premières, the programme would be bookended by two early works of his, never heard before, as well a new orchestral version of a recent work.

James MacMillan © Hans van der Woerd
James MacMillan
© Hans van der Woerd

It is amazing to think of a composer overlooking significant early compositions, but the success of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie at his Proms debut in 1990 propelled MacMillan immediately into a busy composing career. “I suppose I forgot about them” he said, as he explained that although the works were written some 30 years ago, they both provided clues and pre-echoes to later compositions. “It’s like raking out old letters but wistfully recognising changes have taken place”. For us, the evening was to prove intriguing in not only filling the early gaps in a composition career, but also spotting trends that MacMillan would develop and weave into his later music.

Symphonic Study was written when MacMillan was a student at Edinburgh University, and is his first ever orchestral work. After a loud opening chord, we were immediately taken into a soundscape of drones from the lower strings punctuated by single piano notes which grew across the orchestra into menacing noisier passages. After a more lyrical episode on cellos, a slow tread was set up by the timpani before building to an energetic climax.

When a friend’s grandson died a few days after birth, MacMillan wrote the piece For Sonny for string quartet, and we heard a brand new arrangement for string orchestra for this concert. A simple pizzicato, rising and falling, childlike tune of nine notes was repeated softly by violins, with different harmonies from the other players, sometimes easy and lush, other times dissonant and even con legno, but mostly soft. A couple of particularly striking chords suggested a moment of death followed by a deep chasm. In a heart-breaking ending, the simple repeated motif became punctuated by ever greater periods of silence until it was heard no more.

When the London Symphony Orchestra opened their new centre LSO St Luke’s, MacMillan was commissioned to write a new piece: A Deep and Dazzling Darkness for solo violin, tape and ensemble was the result, and it received its Scottish première at this concert with the BBC SSO’s leader Laura Samuel taking the solo part. A single movement explored both darkness and celebration, with taped voice sounds using a mixture of indistinct speech and whispering, to groans and wailing in agony. In a magnificent and powerful performance, Samuel played almost continuously from energetic double-stopping at times to a duet with the oboe while a contrabass clarinet haunted the darker moments. The music ranged from cacophonous to lyrical, with a surprising brass band motif appearing with a hi-hat beat. Finally, the taped voices wailed like an air-raid siren running down, and Samuel joined them in the downward spiral into darkness by loosening a tuning peg on her violin.

The Exsultet is a sung part of the Easter Vigil to celebrate the Resurrection, and this short powerful fanfare for brass and percussion is taken from MacMillan’s Symphony: “Vigil”. From deep growly beginnings in the lowest brass, the work grew from darkness as percussion joined the brass, to blazing Easter light ending with a silence followed by a repeated cycle of contrasting chords from slightly hesitant to joyous dissonance.

Finally, The Keening, MacMillan’s second orchestral work, written when he was a student at Durham, was given its first ever performance.  A keening is a mournful lament found in northern Scotland and Ireland, beginning here with a solo viola taking a tune, joined by other solo violas in a heterophonic mix of despondency. The music picked up into faster energetic dancelike rhythms before the violas, placed at the front of the stage, ended the piece with brass and percussion this time.

It was a fascinating evening, firstly to hear rediscovered work from a now well-established composer, secondly to have MacMillan himself on the podium, and lastly to hear the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on top form tackling this challenging and often mysterious music with confidence and passion. The BBC’s percussion cupboard must have been stripped bare as the back of the large orchestra was arrayed with a huge range of instruments, and the four players were kept busy scampering around the dozen music stands during the evening.

A packed City Hall audience were clearly delighted to get the opportunity to show their appreciation for their “local” composer, and brought MacMillan back to the stage several times. Happily, we won’t have another 10 years to wait – he returns in March to conduct The Confession of Isobel Gowdie in a Commonwealth Day Concert.