Fleeting visions

James MacMillan's latest chamber opera is difficult to pin down.

Our English word "guest" derives from the Greek "xenos". It's a word whose historical and etymological tensions are hidden in its interchangeable meanings of guest, host and stranger. It is the friction inherent to this idea of hospitality, of the unstable relationship of power, otherness and duty between host and guest, that animates James MacMillan's latest chamber opera Clemency.

Following where 2000's Parthenogenesis led, Clemency is strongly informed by the composer's Roman Catholic faith, an affiliation shared with Michael Symmons Roberts, librettist for both works. Taking that most inscrutable of Genesis stories, The Hospitality of Abraham (most familiar from Andrei Rublev's fifteenth-century icon of the same name), as its root, MacMillan cultivates the tale into a contemporary social fable. Complicating the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah through their pointed rechristening as the "twin towns", Macmillan's oblique parable stretches beyond morality into the realm of contemporary politics.

Scored for five singers and string orchestra, Clemency's brisk 50 minutes chart the intrusion of three strangers into the quiet domesticity of the aged Abraham and Sarah. Welcomed and fed, the strangers foretell that when they return in a year Sarah will have had a son, and the couple recognise them as angels. Learning of their plans to destroy neighbouring towns, Abraham pleads with them for mercy, eventually extracting a promise that if just five good men are found the towns will be spared.

Framing the action within a gilt-edged triptych, Alex Eales' set anchors the opera in the symbolic, two-dimensional world of religious iconography. This flattened perspective (mirrored physically in some clever spatial use of the three panelled stage sections) chafes fruitfully against the detailed naturalism of the sets and Katie Mitchell's direction, giving weight to their grubby contemporary banality.

While MacMillan is perhaps best-known for his Celtic-inflected choral works, his operatic writing has proved itself altogether tougher and more flexible. After the lyric abrasions of Parthenogenesis it was hard to be satisfied with Clemency's uneasy mix of pastiche Eastern Orthodoxy (with MacMillan's signature Lombardic ornaments reinvented as Klezmer-style embellishments) and sub-Vaughan Williams string effects.

The same mewling violin cries that pleaded so eloquently in the opening of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie here lost any emotional referent, and while much of the string writing had a muscular brilliance about it, its coherence was lost in the Babel of harmonic languages. Quite literally out of tune with their earthly surroundings, the music of the Triplets (strongly sung by Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall, Andrew Tortise) established its own modal sound-world, the three-voices-in-one presenting a striking musical Trinity. Only the occasional unisons were marred by the challenge of blending three such different vocal tones.

Grant Doyle led the cast as Abraham in a beautifully-judged piece of singing that brought authority without bombast to some of MacMillan's loveliest writing. The delicacy of his performance was matched by Janis Kelly's life-worn Sarah, whose quiet presence only fully surrendered to song in the rather ambiguous ending.

Having the strings of the Britten Sinfonia (efficiently conducted by Clark Rundell) as orchestra was a piece of luxury casting by no means fully exploited by the deeply sunken pit. Given the Linbury's almost endlessly flexible setup, perhaps a more prominent position could usefully have been found for them, mirroring the instrumental prominence MacMillan's music demands and achieving more direct interplay with the singers.

While MacMillan's orchestral and choral works establish a sound-world on their own terms, giving the composer one of the most recognisable voices of contemporary British music, this has not always been true of his operas. Caught up in the moment-to-moment reflection of the libretto's images, he can forget to ground the music in a self-sufficient framework or language, leaving it curiously vulnerable and elusive. With Symmons Roberts' inscrutable text our sole concordance here, MacMillan's biblical vision failed to make itself understood, barring us from interpretation even as the spread wings of the triptych invited us in.

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, until 14 May

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser