Judith Weir’s appointment as the first female Master of the Queens Music is an important moment in music history in Britain, and just cause for celebration. Female composers are still an overwhelming minority in classical music and having as subtle but strong a voice as Weir’s in this public position can only be a good thing. The benevolent members of the Park Lane Group – a charity which supports highly talented young musicians – evidently thought so too, deciding to put on a concert in Weir’s honour at the (still relatively new) Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. An admirable goal, but one that became less Weir-centred when music from the last six Masters was included on the programme. What was heralded as a celebration of Weir’s music became a celebration of the ceremonial position, and this diluted the interest of the event substantially. The resulting miscellany of music, performed by an equally miscellaneous mix of musicians and requiring constant breaks for stage readjustment, was more like a school concert than a serious tribute to Weir’s work.

Judith Weir © Chris Christodoulou | Chester Music
Judith Weir
© Chris Christodoulou | Chester Music

That is not, however, to say that the quality of the performance was not high. The Trinity Laban Chamber Choir began proceedings with a little number by Walford Davies. Magdalen at Michael’s Gate was amusingly introduced and well directed by Stephen Jackson, the choir blending well and finding a good balance for the compact mock-Jacobean theatre, candlelit and still smelling of freshly-cut pine. Another Walford Davies partsong, setting words by A.A. Milne, was programmed, but had to be pulled as the parts didn’t arrive in time (sound familiar?). Next pianist Alissa Firsova played Arthur Bliss’s Masques, four virtuosic pieces whose predominant mood is ebullient and vibrant, although some contrast comes in the more reflective third, with its mid-range pentatonic ostinato.

Weir’s first work of the evening followed, a 10-minute-long ‘grand opera in three acts for unaccompanied solo soprano singing eight roles’. King Harald’s Saga tells the story of the ill-fated Norwegian King whose claim to (British) fame was his 1066 invasion’s providing a handy decoy for that of William of Normandy. It is an amusing, satisfyingly-crafted piece of theatre which demands substantial presence and vocal acrobatics of its performer. Jane Manning, for whom the piece was written in 1979, managed the latter admirably, but there was a fragility to her voice that slightly impinged her achieving the former. Her style is on the warbling side (which probably helped with the acrobatics a bit), but she performed the piece with the right amount of tongue-in-cheek wit and it went down very well. Tasmin Little and John Lenehan finished off the first half with those staples of the secondary school practice room corridor, Elgar’s Chansons de Matin et Nuit and Salut d’Amour. Of course, the standard was far superior to anything heard in high school – especially for the Salut, which was done rare justice – but it was another bizarre programming choice (how are these vignettes related to Elgar’s position of Master of the King’s Music?). The inclusion of these pieces did little to dispel memories of the concerts put on by my adolescent self and my violin-playing peers.

Apart from a forgettable viola and piano piece by Bax entitled Legend, things became more serious in the second half, with pieces by Weir bookending those by her direct predecessors Malcolm Williamson and Maxwell Davies. Blue-Green Hill is a recent three-part suite for chamber ensemble in which Weir weaves Scotch-influenced melodies into and out of patches of subtly complicated sonic texture. The Park Lane Ensemble brought out the mastery of the instrumental writing, in which Weir achieves a sort of timbral symbiosis, especially remarkable between the highly contrasting flute and piano sounds.

If Blue-Green Hill provided the evening’s most refined composition, the finest performances followed. Joanna Skillet was brilliant in four songs from Williamson’s cycle From a Child’s Garden, her childish sparkle matched by Melanie Jones’ cheekily spiky piano accompaniment. Of an utterly different excellence was Harry Cameron-Penny’s performance of Maxwell Davies’s Hymnos, which saw him do battle with pianist James Young in violent altercations alternating with more reflective sections. In both moods he showed staggering control over his instrument. After the Bax (which was done no favours coming after the Max) the Trinity Laban Choir returned to perform Weir’s Psalm 148. It’s a rather ceremonial work, including a trombone obbligato played by Vanessa Ritchie-Suarez, whose appearance on stage earned some whoops from the upper gallery. These, combined with the appearance of all performers and Weir on stage at the end of the concert, reinforced the school-like feel.

Perhaps I appear scarred by these formative experiences, but I’m sure there must have been a more fitting way to celebrate Weir’s achievements – even despite her admirable emphasis, in her new role, on music education.