On 15 October, James MacMillan‘s Oboe Concerto received its first performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall, conducted by MacMillan himself. Taking the solo rôle was Nicholas Daniel, a performer who has brought numerous new oboe works to the world, usually at the more mainstream end of the contemporary spectrum. Structurally, at least, MacMillan’s work is entirely familiar, falling into the traditional three movements, even adhering to the hackneyed fast-slow-fast convention.
The first movement is an exercise in rapidity, Daniel barely given any moments to breathe amidst the endless scales and arpeggios. After a few minutes, having continued in like manner without let up, just as one begins to wonder if the movement’s actually going somewhere, MacMillan’s sense of timing reveals itself; the busy texture surrounding the oboe gradually disappears (returning to the movement’s opening gestures), and a brief, soft, distant string chorale begins, its solemnity a curious combination of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. All of which makes precisely zero impression on the oboe; on the contrary, it throws itself into a dithyrambic frenzy, its gestures coalescing on a nervously energetic trill. It comes as something of a shock to find the opening movement ended so soon (barely five minutes’ duration), just as it was starting to pique one’s interest.
MacMillan draws on an earlier work, in angustiis…, for the middle movement, the title of which (after Haydn) means “in anguish”. The composer writes in his programme note of the material being “expressive (a useless adjective; is the rest inexpressive?) and sad”, yet there’s sufficient warmth in the orchestra that the oboe’s searching melodies never seem that forlorn. MacMillan is also aiming here for “introspective and cantabile” material; no doubts about the latter—Nicholas Daniel is in his element in music like this, that really allows the instrument to sing—but it’s harder to accept the former epithet, the oboe often coming across in a decidedly forthright, even ostentatious manner (usually in response to similar behaviour going on around it). It’s a decidedly peculiar movement; the “scherzo-like material” is a million miles from what’s gone before, so entirely different that it gives the impression that the finale has already begun. Moments of repose punctuate the outbursts, but this only heightens the weirdly nonsensical mood, encapsulated in the abruptly tonal codetta, arguably the point at which MacMillan comes closest to the dour tone he was striving for, but too late for it to hit home as he no doubt intended.
The last movement finds MacMillan in prankish mode, almost akin to a game being played among the players, ideas batted around between them and the soloist. At times, it feels as though the audience is being rather rudely excluded from all the tomfoolery, but gradually the music opens out, bringing a dose of grandiosity to the strings, while sending the oboist into ornamental paroxysms; Nicholas Daniel’s agility through such taxing material is a marvel to behold. Ultimately, though, it all seems a bit vacuous; MacMillan wants it to be “extrovert”, and there’s no doubt that it is—effortlessly, effervescently so—but extroverts are creatures that become tiresome very quickly indeed.