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Briefly Noted: MacMillan Piano Concerto

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J. MacMillan, Piano Concerto No. 2, W. Marshall, BBC Philharmonic, J. MacMillan
(Chandos, 2006)
Krzysztof Urbanski is conducting quite a program with the National Symphony Orchestra tonight, combining Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, op. 46, and Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra. In between will be Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing a piano concerto, either the new third piano concerto by Scottish composer James MacMillan -- tonight only -- or the old Thibaudet standby, one of the Saint-Saëns concertos (no. 5, "Egyptian"). Urbanski is the chief conductor of the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and, since the peremptory dismissal of Mario Venzago, the music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. MacMillan's third piano concerto, premiered in 2011 by Thibaudet and the Minnesota Orchestra, is based on the structure of the Rosary, specifically the Luminous Mysteries added to the meditation of the Rosary by Pope John Paul II.

The third concerto has not been recorded yet, but tonight's local premiere sent me back to have another listen to MacMillan's second piano concerto, in a recording conducted by the composer. This score was expanded from a single-movement work, Cumnock Fair, which remains the first movement of the concerto, to serve as the accompaniment of a choreography by Christopher Wheeldon for New York City Ballet in 2004. The first movement begins with a frenetic orchestral unison, an introduction to a sometimes dissonant fantasy on 18th-century melodies by John French, a friend of Robert Burns who lived in Cumnock, with the piano often reflecting on them nostalgically. The slow movement has an old-fashioned, even schmaltzy quotation of the mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in the middle, which comes back like a nostalgic memory at the end of the third movement. The finale is a high-spirited reel, with all sorts of interesting percussive and harmonic effects laid over the top. It receives a fine if not all that remarkable performance by Wayne Marshall and the BBC Philharmonic on this Chandos disc, which is frankly overshadowed by the same soloist's rendition of MacMillan's hallucinatory organ concerto A Scotch Bestiary, from 2004, which is a wild ride worth your time. Hopefully, it is on Christoph Eschenbach's To-Do list.

The National Symphony Orchestra will play James MacMillan's third piano concerto only this evening (June 20, 7 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Also only tonight is one of the free recitals on the Concert Hall's new organ, just following the concert. This time, Russell J. Weismann, Associate Director of Music at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where we spent time imprisoned as a chorister, will play the Cortège et Litanie by Marcel Duprè, Herbert Nanney's Sonata in E minor, and Dudley Buck's Concert Variations on the Star-Spangled Banner.

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