James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto was first performed in 2010, but this afternoon, at the Dutch premiere, was the first time he conducted it. It’s quite an extraordinary piece, so full of ideas that you might wonder if he couldn’t have written two concertos instead of just the one. But when it comes to MacMillan, this potential overload of ideas actually works really well. The music doesn’t need to be subdued or relaxing; what he delivers is a powerful and highly impressive concerto.

James MacMillan © Philip Gatward
James MacMillan
© Philip Gatward

Of course, having star violinist Vadim Repin play the solo part helps: he handles the virtuoso moments with such ease and is more than able to deal with the rhythmic challenges of his part. There was a certain humility about his playing that suited the piece well, because even though he was audible at all times (quite a feat considering the volume the orchestra played at), the writing for the violin doesn’t ask for showmanship, but for authenticity. At times the music reminded me of a thunderstorm, with the violin slowly emerging like a ray of light, and this was where the quality of Repin shone through; the tonal warmth of his playing is incredible and perfectly suited to this concerto. Repin always looks relaxed and happy on stage, he seemed to enjoy playing the concerto as much as I did listening to it. The second movement was another high point, with the Radio Kamer Filharmonie creating an intense atmosphere and some spectular playing from the trumpets.

There are some elements that return throughout the concerto, most notably the big chords that MacMillan is so fond of (and who can blame him?), but there were also many surprises in listening to the piece. In the third movement the orchestra used their voices as well as instruments: first several male musicians chanted, and a little bit later the concertmaster spoke a few words into a microphone. Although I found myself wondering whether this added anything to the music (I am still not sure), the words the men chanted – “1, 2, 3, 4, Meine Mutter tanz mit mir” – seemed appropriate for the music that became more dance-like. The concerto is also inspired by MacMillan’s mother, who passed away in 2008, which probably means that the sentence has emotional value particular to the composer and his composition.

All in all, even though the work is incredibly complex and I would love to listen to it many more times, the concerto inspires an instant understanding and likeability. The conductor led the Radio Kamer Filharmonie in a really strong performance, and the orchestra played with great conviction and sensitivity. MacMillan regularly conducts the Radio Kamer Filharmonie, and their familiarity and trust only added to this performance.

Before the MacMillan concerto, the Radio Kamer Filharmonie opened the concert with Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. This orchestral suite is a wonderful piece of music, and even though I found the orchestra’s performance relatively safe, it set the tone for the evening. MacMillan, like Bartók, is highly influenced by folk music and although with MacMillan it seemed that the orchestra was willing and able to let loose a little and explore the folk side of things as well, I found that their interpretation of Bartók could have been a bit more exciting. The last movement of the Romanian Folk Dances, though, was energetic and made for a satisfying ending.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 9 is a deceivingly straightforward work. The happiest and one of the shortest of his symphonies, it is sometimes performed as just that. But like many other Shostakovich works, there is anguish and darker side in the music that deserves attention as well. The Radio Kamer Filharmonie and MacMillan embraced this side as much as they did the more joyful side, which made their performance energetic and strong. The solo oboe parts played were stunning; in fact, the whole woodwind section was on great form. Even though MacMillan sometimes looked more like he was dancing than conducting, he was still very much in control and we can only hope that the budget cuts in Dutch arts don’t rob us of this amazing orchestra.