Scottish Chamber Orchestra/MacMillan review – Capperauld’s dance of death has style but lacks substance

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
Jay Capperauld’s macabre new work – Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – is full of orchestral colour but felt unresolved. The premiere was preceded by serene performances of Wagner and Ives

A curious concert this from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and composer/conductor James MacMillan. From the enigmatic opening work, Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question through the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No 5 (a declaration of love) and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll (celebrating birth) the programme traced a journey through the major events of life to its inevitable conclusion: death. And not just any kind of death either. Jay Capperauld’s new work takes its title and inspiration from the magnum opus of Frances Glessner Lee, the pioneer of forensic science in mid 20th-century America. Her Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are a series of meticulously created miniature replicas of homicide scenes compiled from court documents.

Composer Jay Capperauld
Flamboyance... composer Jay Capperauld Photograph: Euan Robertson

From this macabre doll’s house of atrocities, Capperauld has created six musical miniatures, each taking inspiration from one of the rooms. There’s a film-score quality to Capperauld’s work – all eerie footsteps and visceral hammer blows. His fondness for exuberant use of percussion recalls the early works of MacMillan himself, and at times it proved rather too much for the constrained acoustic of the Queen’s Hall.

While Death in a Nutshell puts Capperauld’s facility with orchestral colour centre stage, it doesn’t have much to say about his handling of big musical structures. Atmosphere not thematic development is all. At times it seems as if some gallows humour might be peeking through, but overall this is a work that takes itself rather seriously. It also suffers from a curiously nondescript ending; the music just seems to stop, unresolved, presumably like the crimes Gleeson depicts. There is no sense of resolution or redemption.

For all the neatness of the life-span construct, musically the flamboyance of Capperauld’s work was strikingly at odds with the overall serenity of what had come before. And while there were plenty of well-judged moments – the glassy strings of the Ives or the way MacMillan managed the gradual swell of the Wagner without tipping too much into bombast – as a whole it was decidedly underwhelming.


Rowena Smith

The GuardianTramp

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