Nordic Fire and Scottish Genius

Post Date: 26 October 2018
Post Type: Piano Things


‘Nordic Fire’: World Premiere Performance at Queen’s Hall Edinburgh 25 October 2018. Jane Atkins, Viola, Scottish Chamber orchestra/ Joseph Swenson

John McLeod is the Peter Pan of British composers. His extraordinary, indefatigable energy, creativity and youthful exuberance becomes ever more noticeable and inspiring as each new work appears. McLeod has literally been ‘on fire’ for the past decade as a composer - and he has so many plans and projects planned that he surely will remain in this ‘flow state’ for at least the next two decades ahead!

One thinks of Verdi’s Indian summer of creativity when considering a comparison with what McLeod is achieving in his eighties. As a fellow Aberdonian I strongly feel that McLeod represents the very best qualities of artists from our part of the world: McLeod’s oeuvre shows his fierce determination, extraordinary energy, strength, clarity of thought, as well as tender sensitivity and a touching naïve vulnerability. His music is international and universal whilst also being quintessentially Scottish. Additionally McLeod has retained the ability to remain curious so explore new ground whilst always remaining faithful to his life’s journey as a composer.

All of these qualities and sentiments were evident throughout his deeply passionate and memorably convincing ‘Nordic Fire’ , which was given a stunning bravura performance from the virtuoso violist Jane Atkins with superb support from the SCO and Joseph Swensen. To find musicians of this high international calibre who are so clearly at one and in spirit with the McLeod aesthetic is deeply powerful, and this was an extraordinary performance that literally exploded into a new musical canvas of multicoloured glories from the opening bravura double stop viola glissando onwards! The concerto was easy to follow yet highly individualistic. There were references throughout to Dies Irae and earlier piano works that I have recorded, but the quotations were presented with subtle sensitivity and a sense of rediscovery. The thirty minute long work is for the layman as much as for the musical professional and speaks with a universality. On first hearing I have no doubt that it is one of the composer’s finest works- possibly even his masterpiece. It literally blazes with youthful dynamism . As McLeod has written, ‘its main characteristic is energy. And to me the viola represents the energetic centre of the string quartet, the string orchestra and the full orchestra – rather like the Chinese concept of Qi or Chi being the life force in the centre of the human body!’

However the expansive, longingly melancholic lyricism at the centre of the work made possibly the biggest impression on me at this first hearing. I freely confess to having very watery eyes whilst savouring the remarkable richness of tone and beautiful shaping of phrases from Atkins and the SCO. I hope I am not stretching things too far when I postulate that McLeod is able here to capture something peculiarly Scottish , specifically NE Scottish Through the intensity of his compositional delivery. His no nonsense architecture- characteristic of Aberdonian directness perhaps?!- is combined with fiercely intense passion.

Having said that McLeod himself sees the influence of Lutoslawski as crucial in giving him the influence of finding direct technical means as a way forward that allows composition to flow with clarity and understanding- no matter how wayward or contrasted the musical characterisation and ideas may be. In fact the viola concerto’s lucidity is harnessed in an arch like shape, as McLeod pointed out: ‘As far as structure and shape are concerned, it’s one of my more unusual pieces. Unlike a conventional concerto, it’s in one long movement – but divided into eight main parts – the last four being a reflection of the first four separated by a fairly substantial section exploring colour and energy in all sorts of different ways’.
What else to say? The glittering plethora of colours shows the composer to be a master orchestrator. He does love percussion of course, but equally the writing for harp and clarinet in particular was most poignant. Chamber music on a larger canvas from a composer who is able to make each instrument breathe and resonance with individual lucidity.
An extraordinary achievement and a great privilege to be present.

Murray McLachlan