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Max in the cities

05/02/2000 -  
Peter Maxwell Davies, Mavis in Las Vegas, Concerto for Horn and Orchestra (world première), Roma, Amor, Labyrinthos (world première)
Richard Watkins (French Horn)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Peter Maxwell Davies (conductor)

It is depressing to try to calculate the fraction of the Barbican Hall that was occupied for this concert of music, including two world premières, by probably the most endearing and "accessible" established composer today. Yet of the three pieces performed, one was hugely entertaining and funny, the second was a substantial, but compact, mainstream horn concerto and the third was a picture-postcard programmatic tour of Rome, though without obvious pines or fountains.

Mavis in Las Vagas is an amusing bit of sleaze, a sort of post-modern orchestral Maria de Buenos Aires. The imaginary Mavis, originally a typo for the composer's own name in his Las Vagas hotel registration, parades through scenes of confected luxury and classiness, represented musically by not-quite-right pastiches of show music and "classical" music. It is almost impossible not to giggle at the nonsense of it all.

The Concerto for French Horn and Orchestra pushes the instrument to its limits, setting up a tension between conventional legato passages and stunningly difficult would-be coloratura explosions. Richard Watkins played the solo part with apparent ease. This was amazing in its way but perhaps deprived the work of a sense of external drama.

Amor, Roma, Labyrinthus is a three-movement evocation of Max's time in Rome as a student in 1957 and 1958. The programme notes outline layers of history and memory -- ancient Rome, the authoritian history of the Papacy, Fascism, the composer's own memory --, which are evoked in familiar musical terms. The first movement looks at the oppressive momumental "rhetoric" of, perhaps, the idea of Rome itself, using a musical language borrowed from Carl Orff and alluding to D'Annunzio's poetry. The second movement evokes a Roman Nighttown similar to that of the Dublin of Ulysses, with tinkling music in bars, marching bands, fragments of church music and a final, simple and restful folk song. The third movement is about the dynamism and noise of the modern city, a sort succinct of European Amèriques. It is all surprisingly and interestingly evocative of the real place, with the focus of a return visit to vividly remembered places.

H.E. Elsom



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