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Arts Festival Review: James MacMillan Conducts

James MacMillan Conducts

Reviewed by Nick Tipping

James MacMillan Conducts
NZSO / Hilliard Ensemble / TOWER NZ Youth Choir / Festival Chorus / Festival Youth Chorus
March 11
Michael Fowler Centre

James MacMillan comes to NZ with a well-established reputation as a composer and conductor. Though this concert was entitled James MacMillan Conducts it was as much a feature for MacMillan's compositions as his (very impressive) conducting ability.

MacMillan began the evening with his work Britannia, a pastiche of themes borrowed from a variety of British sources, such as Elgar, Thomas Arne, a cockney drinking song, and celtic jigs and reels. Although well played by the NZ Symphony Orchestra, this piece never really took flight. Sections, alternately hectic and meditative, were often in stark juxtaposition, and by its very nature this 'tapestry of popular melodies and resonant allusions' (to quote MacMillan's own programme notes) failed to settle. Sometimes comic, sometimes nostalgic, it was often hard to tell if the piece was taking itself seriously - duck call, whistles and flexatones were accompanied by incongruously heavy orchestral writing.

New Zealand composer Ross Harris was asked to provide music to complement MacMillan's two works, and his compositions filled the remainder of the first half. For many in the audience the highlight of the half came with Harris' first piece, 'Music for Johnny', a work for string orchestra evoking 'Nimrod' from Elgar's Enigma Variations. Beautiful and elegiac, it was played with marvellous control by the NZSO string section, featuring principal cellist David Chickering.

Harris' second piece, 'As though there were no God', was similar in structure to MacMillan's opening work; composed in light of recent unsettling world events, it contrasted the beauty of the string section and a Scottish psalm with the ominous tones of low brass and the grotesque dances of the opening section. Those who had read the programme notes might well have gone to the interval as the composer hoped, with an unresolved sense of religion versus violence.

The second half brought the featured work of the evening: MacMillan's 'Quickening', a response to the mystery of birth and life. MacMillan collaborated with poet Michael Symmons Roberts on this piece, which combines evocative writing for voices (the Hilliard Ensemble, the TOWER New Zealand Youth Choir, and the specially assembled Festival Chorus and Festival Youth Chorus) with a vast palette of orchestral sound. Here MacMillan the composer had an incredible array of resources at his disposal, and certainly he used them all - though this did not necessarily mean over-writing or self-indulgence.

In four movements, this work deals with birth's physical and spiritual aspects. The outer movements, with their air of celebration, contrast with the darker inner movements. The piece would have been a major undertaking for any composer, and MacMillan left the listener in no doubt as to his talent for composition and orchestration. Heavy themes were sometimes treated with a slightly heavy hand, as though he felt compelled to use all the massive resources available to him, but at other times the composer showed himself capable of wonderful subtlety (various solo instruments, the children's choir). MacMillan's imagery ranged from the subtle to the obvious; bass drum and congas represented the beating hearts of mother and child, while he emphasised salient words in the text by the simple act of repetition.

Sensitive writing (for voices in particular) often shone through, particularly at the end of the third movement, which saw wonderfully subtle interplay between the Hilliard Ensemble and the offstage children's choir, expertly directed by Michael Fulcher.

Elsewhere MacMillan used the various possibilities of the modern orchestra to almost overpowering effect- from ominous writing for the orchestra's low instruments, and semi-improvised sections for strings, to the eerie and ingenious opening, which combined tuned gongs, steel drums and marimba. The NZSO again coped superbly with MacMillan's demanding orchestration, and the orchestra's percussionists had a field day, from their acrobatic handling of giant arrays of tuned gongs and bells to their mesmeric use of temple bowls.

The on and off-stage choral singing was superb. The choirs (including the children's choir) handled difficult lines and entries with confidence. The Hilliard Ensemble, for whom this work was written, had a surprisingly small part to play; they sang with their customary precision, but could have done with a little amplification, as they occasionally had difficulty penetrating the orchestral texture. They were at their best during their rare sustained sections, which showcased their impeccable tuning and choral technique. The combined NZ Youth Choir and Festival Chorus, prepared by Michael Fulcher and Karen Grylls, provided a wide range of sonic effects, from 'Babel-babble' whispers to a well-trained and arrestingly powerful ensemble sound.


NZ Arts Festival: James MacMillan Conducts
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 06

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