Cumnock Tryst

Cumnock and Auchinleck, Ayrshire

Keith Bruce

five stars

ALTHOUGH it has clear antecedents as a composer-led festival from Aldeburgh to Orkney, by just its fourth year Sir James MacMillan’s home-patch weekend of music-making is surely a singular model in the way it integrates its mix of professional and community participants.

Saturday’s programme began at Cumnock Old Church with an afternoon concert of music for brass, performed by the Dalmellington Band. It was conducted, and presented with eloquent charm, by Martyn Brabbins, a familiar-enough figure in Scotland, but whose own roots in brass band music are probably known to few. The programme featured two previously unperformed pieces of his own alongside the premiere of a substantial commission by young local composer Jay Capperauld. As Above, So Below added the professional soloists of the Wallace Collection on handbells and text as well as their usual instruments and its eventful passage swaggered to a “masters of the universe” conclusion that was cheered to the rafters.

The Festival Chorus was similarly lauded a few hours later for its performance of Mozart’s Coronation Mass, conducted by The Sixteen’s Eamonn Dougan with four fine young soloists from that choir’s training arm, Genesis Sixteen. Here was another brilliantly-structured concert narrative that began with chorus-master Andrew McTaggart as soloist on Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs, and took in part-songs by the young soloists and an instrumental interlude of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies from organist Kevin Bowyer on the way. The balance of the voices in Auchinleck Parish Church was pretty much perfect throughout.

Back in Cumnock at St John’s in the evening, guitarist Sean Shibe joined the Scottish Ensemble to premier Pilgrims by another local composer, Michael Murray, whose personal style incorporated sonic elements from the non-classical world and played with the contrasting possibilities of fretted and fretless strings. MacMillan himself conducted, bringing the day to a powerful conclusion with his own Seven Last Words from the Cross, the Ensemble joined by the men and boys of Westminster Cathedral Choir, bringing their unique ethereal and muscular sound to Scotland for the first time. If the festival’s founder was clearly moved in achieving that coup, he was far from alone.