A Day with James MacMillan, Elphinstone Hall, Aberdeen
FOR its final and climactic classical event on Sunday, the new sound Festival in the north-east came up with a stunningly imaginative idea: the organisers invited James MacMillan to spend the day in Aberdeen and put together an informal workshop performance of one of his orchestral pieces with an ad hoc orchestra.
The piece chosen, at the composer's suggestion, was his early orchestral work, Into the Ferment, a substantial 25-minute composition from 1988 that arose out of the Strathclyde Concerto Project, and the piece that first alerted us to the potential of MacMillan.
The orchestra assembled for Sunday's project was an extraordinary outfit, with around 60 players aged between 14 and 80-ish, drawn from all walks of life: workers from the oil industry, teachers, schoolchildren, environmentalists, administrators, college and university students, and so on.
In a single three-hour session in the afternoon, MacMillan coached, moulded and conducted the group (I've never seen him more focused or working harder) in a tough piece written in an idiom that would have been unfamiliar to many, gradually making coherent and characterful his witty, action-packed score.
What was particularly fascinating, even to those of us who know Ferment intimately, was the fact that, as early in his output as the piece is, it is packed with seedbed ideas that informed his subsequent compositions. Moreover, those ideas, in MacMillan's distinctive melodic, rhythmic and harmonic idiom, were startlingly fully formed in the late eighties.
Section by section, as the performance was constructed, the playing of the orchestra became increasingly confident, co-ordinated, and impressive.
The evening run-through lost its edge (nothing like a break to disrupt concentration) and was, at several points, discontinuous.
No matter. MacMillan twice used the word "amazing" to describe the venture and the musicians' achievement. He was right. Twice.