Sunday, June 24, 2007

The saint and the shebeen

By Keith Bruce
From The Herald - June 20 2007

The Master of the Queen's Music may now be well into his seventies, but Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is not much given to reminiscing. Apart from anything else, he doesn't have the time, as we shall see. Nonetheless, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the festival he founded on Orkney, "Max", as he is universally known, can be persuaded to look back on its early days.

The story is well-known of how the iconoclastic young composer from Manchester came north in search of peace to write, had a fortuitous meeting with the great poet of the islands, George Mackay Brown, and restored a house on Hoy, where he composed The Martyrdom of St Magnus, the cathedral premiere of which begat the festival. The local paper was not an early ally. "The Orcadian was very much against me and my music," remembers Sir Peter, "but these things are sent to try you - and I quite enjoy a fight".
This much we know about Maxwell Davies. Even people who have not heard a note of his music are probably aware that he revels in a scrap. Sometimes they are directly concerned with his work, at times only tangentially so. Currently well off-limits is the arrest of his long-time manager Michael Arnold, after the alleged discovery of a £500,000 "black hole" in the composer's finances. At another extreme there was the revelation that he was not averse to a little locally reared terrine of swan, although the birds are famously under the protection of Her Maj. His plans to tie the knot with long-term partner Colin Parkinson have also made the papers recently when Orkney Islands Council refused to allow the local registrar on Sanday, where the couple now lives, to conduct their civil partnership.
On that last battle, it would seem the composer has admitted defeat. " I think we are going to do it in Manchester. The council disgraced themselves and the people on the island are outraged - it would have been a hell of a party. But they've always been like that. At least they give money to the festival these days."

At which point it is probably helpful to those who currently steer the St Magnus Festival to allow Maxwell Davies to point out that it long since ceased to be him.
"I always thought that after 10 years it would have disappeared or taken root - and it has flourished. I don't interfere but it's nice if I'm around and people appreciate it."
While he's technically absolutely correct and the programme is the creation of director Glenys Hughes, the presence of Max is much more than that of an incidental audience member and absolutely central to three major planks of this year's programme. After the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is the band most associated with St Magnus and this year's residency culminates in a concert with a Maxwell Davies premiere: The Seas of Kirk Swarf. It is a short concerto for bass clarinet and strings which he has written for the SSO's bass clarinettist, Simon Butterworth.
The composer knew Butterworth at the BBC Philharmonic in Manchester, where he had already performed his saxophone concerto. "There's not much written for bass clarinet and this, though quite short, exploits its virtuosity. It is very high."
Butterworth must be up to the task, however, as he's asked for no changes. "I'm always prepared to do that, but I've had no speals of complaint," says Sir Peter.

His other contribution has been to songs and incidental music for this year's community play. Tales of the Golden Slipper is based on George Mackay Brown and written by long-term friend of the festival, playwright Alan Plater. Plater makes a date with St Magnus whether he is working or not, but has twice before written for it with another Mackay Brown adaptation, Greenvoe, and Barriers, about the causeways between the southern islands constructed on Churchill's orders during the Second World War.
The combative Maxwell Davies loves the story of The Golden Slipper, a war-time shebeen outside "dry" Stromness that defied the local constabulary because it was patronised by too many of the friends and families of those in positions of influence on the islands.
Maxwell Davies has written "incidental piano music" and scored "a few songs" with lyrics by Plater, and delights in the fact that both George MacKay Brown and his friend, the radical left-wing painter Ian McInnes, are represented onstage. "It's very funny," he promises.
Then there is the rebirth of the composer's course. For eight years on Hoy, Maxwell Davies ran a composer's course and this new venture is a companion to the successful conducting course in Kirkwall, and under the direction of Alasdair Nicolson and Sally Beamish. Max is contributing a session on composing for amateur musicians (like his beloved Sanday Fiddle Club). "I'm not running it and I'll be interested to see how it is getting on. It is a big help being in touch with a real audience. There's such a rarified atmosphere about new music concerts down south."

Maxwell Davies is busy enough to be more than familiar with the contemporary music scene beyond Orkney. The last of his string quartets commissioned by the Naxos label will be premiered in October at London's Wigmore Hall and he has recently returned from the premiere of a new piece in Bremen. Following the controversy surrounding John Tavener's new work for Westminster Cathedral, it is intriguing that the Master of the Queen's Music has composed a service for Westminster Abbey - the first since William Byrd, he claims. His return to the world of orchestral composition, signalled by the new work for the SSO, includes a violin concerto which wil be premiered in 2009.

Although the St Magnus Festival "keeps a serious centre with new pieces", as Maxwell Davies puts it, the contemporary music that is at the heart of the programme is never po-faced and is rewarded with one of the most curious, open-minded audiences anywhere in the world, much of it local. This year's programme partners Bach with Piazzola and Cage in a concert by Concert Caledonia with Lisa Milne. The Aberdonian soprano can also be heard with the SSO and singing Janis Joplin. Violinist Viktoria Mullova plays Bach Partitas in the cathedral and can also be heard with her cellist partner Matthew Barley's group, Between the Notes, playing the Human League and the Hollies.
The other drama highlight of 2007 is the National Theatre of Scotland premiere of Tam Dean Burns's adaptation of Luke Sutherland's Venus as a Boy, a novelised memoir of his Orkney upbringing that was so controversial as to be unobtainable in island bookshops, and for which the writer is performing the music.
The other writer-in-residence, meantime, is Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and jazz fan Plater has ensured a healthy representation of that music in association with saxophonist Alan Barnes. For the first time, St Magnus also has the presence of that stalwart venue of festivals worldwide, the Spiegeltent, with a programme to supplement the one annually provided at the shebeen-for-our-times, The Festival Club. It is just as well that the sun never really sets there at this time of year.

The St Magnus Festival runs from Friday to June 27. Read The Herald next week for daily reviews.

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