Review: BBCSSO + McCabe, Beamish, MacMillan, Payne

First published in the Guardian on 29 February, 2016

It was a night of many tributes from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Sally Beamish turns 60 this year and Anthony Payne turns 80; both composers were at City Halls to hear his blazingly symphonic Time’s Arrow and her thorny and lachrymose Second Cello Concerto. James MacMillan dedicated his little motet Hodie Puer Nascitur to conductor Martyn Brabbins, and Brabbins dedicated the concert’s opener, Joybox, to its recently deceased composer John McCabe — who wrote it in memory of Steve Martland. Basically there was a lot of collegiate love in the room.

Joybox is a bright and wonderful piece: McCabe’s response to a crazy cacophony of Japanese slot machines, each one spewing out its own jaunty tune. It could be done with more swagger, more obvious cheek in those blurting trombones and dementedly cheery piccolos, but I enjoyed how Brabbins made it deadpan and macabre, like a fixed grin on a wind-up marionette.

Beamish custom-built her 2009 concerto for her cellist friend Robert Cohen (more tributes) and subtitled it The Song Gatherer. During the performance my attention was mainly taken up by Cohen’s delivery — sweet, urgent, a little bit mawkish — but listening back later on Radio 3 I was struck by how the orchestra probed at a darker fragility, how the song fragments and tougher, jaggier stuff wove into a sort of broken elegy.

In MacMillan’s motet the women of the Glasgow Chamber Choir sang with impressive command to cast a clammy gauze of sound around medieval French-Cypriot antiphons from the gents and a silvery, nimble solo violin. Payne’s big 1990 Proms commission was altogether more muscular: a piece inspired by the big bang and swooshing between dense, jittery matter and elemental open spaces. Here the orchestra flexed its muscles and gave a sleek and powerful performance.