As we continue our series on the music of the contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan, we will be listening to his concerto for percussion soloist and orchestra. It is titled Veni Veni Emmanuel.
We’ve been doing this for nearly six years now here at TWM, but this is the first time we’ve listened to a percussion concerto. To be honest, this is the first time I’ve even come across a percussion concerto. MacMillan definitely broke new ground with this composition, which was written for the percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
This concerto is based on a medieval Gregorian Chant that was written for the Christmas season (listen for the “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” theme at 23:29). MacMillan has written that he meant this piece as an Advent reflection on the human presence of Christ. He was particularly inspired by Luke 21, which says that “[t]here will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
If you’ve been with us for a while, you may remember that a concerto almost always has multiple movements (usually three). But MacMillan has written his percussion concerto in a single 26-minute movement. You may also remember that a concerto usually features a single instrument (the soloist), with the orchestra in an accompaniment role. However, the relatively limited tonal range of the percussion instruments means that MacMillan has created a much more balanced work in which the orchestra and soloist share the melodic responsibility.
You can think of this concerto in five parts:
- Fanfare – this is where the percussion soloist shows off the range of all the percussion instruments in her arsenal.
- Modulation – the orchestra and percussion soloist trade blows.
- Cadenza – the woodwinds and percussion soloist explore a more tranquil melody. This is, in MacMillan’s design, a representation of prayer during the Advent season.
- Recapitulation – the original theme returns as the percussion soloist embarks on a virtuoso vibraphone solo.
- Plainsong – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” emerges from the fray and leads the ensemble to an unexpected conclusion.