Men of conduct and composure
By Keith Bruce
From TheHerald.co.uk - June 21 2006
The organisers of the St Magnus Festival know their audience pretty well, but they radically under-estimated the interest in a discussion yesterday morning that had sidled over from the conducting course into the main programme. The St Magnus Centre's little hall was packed to the gunwhales to hear Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and conductor Martyn Brabbins chew over the vexed question of composers who turn conductor. Although the session was lively enough – and the reputations of a couple of sticksmen were so comprehensively traduced that it would be foolhardy of me to relay the comments here – the elephant into the room remained unacknowledged. Both composers have been at the end of critical maulings for their direction of work other than their own. But even if no-one actually asked them about that, they had already filed their defence: society made them do it.
With his own experience mirroring that of Maxwell Davies in an uncanny fashion, the gap in years shortening all the time, MacMillan said his podium debut had come about when a conductor dropped out at the last minute from a BBC Philharmonic performance of his The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. It led to his being asked to assume the composer/ conductor role with that orchestra which Maxwell Davies had pioneered and which the Philharmonic plans to continue with a younger (unnamed but already identified) composer after MacMillan's tenure.
Maxwell Davies had similarly been left holding the baby when a conductor dropped out of a scheduled Scottish Chamber Orchestra recording of one his works after its St Magnus premiere. That led, happily, to the creation of the 10 Strathclyde Concertos, written for the principal players of that band. Directing performances of work by other composers allowed Maxwell Davies to learn their style of playing.
For Macmillan, "composers have an insiders' view into their colleagues music"."Not to say that conductors necessarily don't," he added quickly."The thrust of what I am doing is to discover music I don't know and conducting is just the latest phase of that, with the added bonus that I have the joy of communicating it to others."More surprisingly, he commented that his earlier work seemed as if he was "working in a vacuum" and that he now makes music that is "more workable" from a performer's point of view."I like to be non-proprietorial of my music. Some composers are hanging over your shoulder on the podium, and the musicians don't like that either."I am irritated by under-preparation, but I like to relax and hear different interpretations of my music."
The two men were equally of one voice over the solution to the wider ills of the world. Said MacMillan: "We need to bring music back to the core of our culture. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, intellectuals were at ease with music and discussed it in their work. "Composers were known to them. When was the last time you heard music discussed on Newsnight Review on BBC2 – even in the amateurish way they discuss everything else?"
With a brief aside to condemn David Cameron for displaying his "ignorance and stupidity" on Desert Island Discs in his choice of music and reading, the Master of the Queen's Music was just as forthright." The commercial nature of most people's musical experience is out to exploit them. Education is there only to turn us all into complacent, silent, good consumers. "The converted, of course, cheered them to the rafters.