By Keith Bruce
From The Herald - June 29 2007
The influence of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was, naturally, all over the work from the St Magnus Composer's Course showcased at the cathedral on Wednesday lunchtime. Of the works created over the past week, the most popular among the large audience who turned out to hear them was by RSAMD graduate in traditional music James Ross, but all the work was of a very high standard.
Maxwell Davies himself had a new piece in the closing concert, for much of its length an exercise in varied string colourings as well as a mini-concerto for the bass clarinet, played by Simon Butterworth. The Seas of Kirk Swarf makes virtuoso demands of the soloist - nimble fingering across the entire vast range of the instrument - whose part stands like the thought processes of a figure in the landscape at a point on the coast of the island of Sanday, where the currents and waves of two seas meet. Groups of notes recur in the ebb and flow of its three interlinked movements until, gloriously, there emerges a statement of peace and contentment in a lovely hymn- like tune. It is classic Max that should also find a welcome in the repertoires of other orchestras.
The new piece sat at the heart of a very big programme, with the orchestra's strings on top form in Beethoven's Coriolan Overture and the horns sparkling in a no-holds-barred take on Strauss's Don Juan - plus Mahler's Blumine as a between-course appetiser. Beethoven's Fifth might seem a very safe choice with which to end a festival that has a dedication to new music - but it was, as ever, a popular one. Conductor Stefan Solyom had one destination in mind from those opening bars, and every note was played in service of reaching the glorious finale, dynamics and pauses seemingly exaggerated to build up the tension en route. It was certainly explosive when it came - particularly for the first violinist, who found herself replacing a string halfway through.