7 - 27 November 2005
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The Herald
26 November 2005

Even a patchwork is better than no work

IT'S tempting to suggest that the modern music scene in Scotland is healthier than it was. It's not so long since streams of correspondence flowed onto this desk from composers wearied, dispirited and depressed at the widespread ignoring by Scotland's musical organisations of all things contemporary in classical music.

A brief cross section of the current scene might suggest that matters have improved. We are in the middle of a raft of performances of Sally Beamish's concertos. One took place in Aberdeen on Thursday. Tomorrow night, in Edinburgh, there is another. Also tomorrow, James MacMillan will be putting together a performance in Aberdeen of one of his pieces, while, on the same evening, in Haddington, there will be a performance of a short quartet by MacMillan.

Within the past fortnight there have been performances of the latest string quartets by Naresh Sohal and Kenneth Dempster.

John Maxwell Geddes has just sent me a list of performances (mostly in Germany) of some of his pieces. Thea Musgrave's brilliant Rainbow was played in Glasgow less than a fortnight ago.

Major works by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Lyell Cresswell are being performed in the north east. New or recent works by Scotland- based composers Marina Adamia and Haflidi Hallgrimsson are being championed by the Hebrides Ensemble on its current tour.

And, lest we risk parochialism, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Drowned Out has just been played in Scotland, while the BBC SSO gave us a fascinating survey of the latest contemporary music from Nordic countries. Superficially, it looks good. But is it? In truth, what we have here is a patchwork of individual efforts, many of which coincide by sheer accident. The brilliantly organised sound Festival in the north east (which must be encouraged to develop) is more of a network than a patchwork. But it gives the sense of a core operation which, since the demise of Musica Nova, Scotland has badly lacked.

Let's not delude ourselves. The oldest complaint in the book, that our major organisations are not doing enough to support today's composers and contemporary music in general, is fundamentally as valid as it ever was.

At this point, those organisations will rise to protest their commitment: the SCO has its Adventurer season, the RSNO has just played two Beamish concertos, the BBC SSO has always got something new just around the corner. And so on.

Fine. But all of it together doesn't amount to anything like a coherent, far less cohesive, strategy for the provision of modern classical music in a country that boasts, and thrives on, its alleged support of contemporary composers.

Thea Musgrave is a stunning composer who has written virile, muscular, accessible orchestral music. Where is it? What about John Maxwell Geddes's hugely effective trilogy of orchestral pieces, nuggets of gold, all three?

What about the large-scale symphonic and concerto output of the late Thomas Wilson? Where is John McLeod's orchestral canon in our modern landscape? Or William Sweeney's? Or Ronald Stevenson's? I could go on, listing composers and their neglected works. More than ever, in a country which, by one means or another, has lifted itself out of the mire to support a privileged few of our composers, we should be ruthlessly analysing the responsibilities of our state-funded musical organisations.

In the meantime, better a patchwork or a network than no work. All that the rest of us can do is continue stitching into the contemporary quilt news of the latest developments, new initiatives, and any information that might contribute to a wider awareness of the efforts of the very few.

On that front, the announcement this week by the Scottish Ensemble of its decision to stage a second Score! event in January is a welcome development.

Following a successful exercise last year, the Scottish Ensemble will join forces with the Society for the Promotion of New Music, composers John Woolrich and James MacMillan, along with Rolf Hind, the doyen of UK contemporary pianists and the new artistic director of SPNM, in an intensive day's music-making at the CCA in Glasgow. It will offer one-to-one sessions with the composers, workshops on a spectrum of modern music composition, and culminate in a major evening concert that will feature new and recent works by Woolrich, along with two MacMillan classics and a vital piece by Steve Martland (who seems to have fallen quiet and whose in-your-face street music is much missed).

More of all of this nearer the time, of course, but it's a noteworthy development in a land that still hasn't found its way in contemporary music.



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