Maxwell Davies' Assorted Notes


Twenty-five years ago, composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies made what at the time seemed like a peculiar exit from civilization. He left London and settled in Hoy, one of the rugged Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland.

Maxwell Davies was in his mid-30s at the time and was already one of Britain's most striking and prominent composers. He had written attention-getting theatrical pieces, beginning with "Eight Songs for a Mad King," in which a stark raving monarch makes the current film portrayal of King George III seem barely demented in comparison. He wrote arrestingly complex orchestral scores. He was a seemingly untamed avant-gardist who also had a surprising flair for producing a good old-fashioned fox-trot. He was an ultra-modern composer who was also devoted to anachronism, often basing his music on hidden and obscure medieval musics and constructions.

His work could be erotic, mystical, arcane, accessible, dramatic, static; and sometimes all at once. He was also greatly responsible for inspiring the uptight London musical Establishment of the '60s with his now legendary new music performing ensemble, which became the Fires of London.

Then at the beginning of the '70s, Maxwell Davies did two things to affront the avant-garde, as well. First, he wrote the music for a pair of feature films directed by Ken Russell, each outlandish in a radically different way and with radically different music to match. One was the fanciful Busby Berkeley parody "The Boy Friend," which proved that Twiggy could sing and dance and act. The other was "The Devils," with a mass rape orgy so outrageously realistic that it has long been rumored that some of the extras actually entered into the spirit of the scene.

Around the same time, this cosmopolitan composer committed the other outrage to London society by simply trading it for his remote and primitive cottage just where the Atlantic dramatically meets the North Sea. He lives there still, or, as one British publication put it during his 60th birthday celebrations last September: "No fax for Max."

Yet Maxwell Davies is no recluse, and anything but a misanthrope. He has become, in fact, a member of the very closely knit community of Hoy where he has founded an annual music festival. He finds himself, moreover, very much in demand by the world--he can fill his calendar conducting, if he wants to, and making recordings of his works, new and old, for Collins Classics.

Though he is about to curtail the conducting considerably in order to get more composing done, this weekend in Los Angeles he launches an extensive American tour with the BBC Philharmonic, over the course of which he will lead a number of American, and one world, premiere. (Sunday at the Wiltern Theater, presented by UCLA, and Monday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.)

Maxwell Davies is, on the phone from his hotel in Manchester--the city of his birth and the city where the BBC Philharmonic is based--characteristically friendly, inquisitive and engaging in conversation. He is famous for his informality; though a knight, he insists that everyone call him Max.

"I don't like being pigeonholed" is Maxwell Davies' simple answer to any query about the overwhelming variety of his work, "although I know I've been called all kinds of horrid names for doing it." And the two Maxwell Davies works, "St. Thomas Wake" and the Trumpet Concerto, which the composer will conduct at his Southern California concerts (the programs, which are shared by Yan Pascal Tortelier, the orchestra's principal conductor, are otherwise different, with selections of works by Ravel, Mussorgsky and Debussy), offer an example of some of Maxwell Davies' extremes.

"St. Thomas Wake," which has the subtitle "A Fox-trot for Orchestra on a Pavan by John Bull," was written in 1969, not long after the "Eight Songs," and well into the composer's bad-boy period. It is shocking but very moving music based upon a childhood experience in Manchester during the bombings by Hitler's Luftwaffe .

"I was at home with my parents," Maxwell Davies explains, "and the safest place was under the staircase in the pantry, where, while the bombs were falling, I sat with a wind-up gramophone and a pile of my parents' popular music records, which were fox-trots from the '20s and '30s. And in my mind I associate those records with the extraordinary noise of the bombs falling. One night our windows blew in while the house next door blew up, and I remember seeing a lady on fire running out of the house, with her children running after her. It was all very dramatic and, I suppose, very suited to the wild and expressionistic music of the piece.

"There's this fox-trot band that sits at the side of the symphony orchestra and plays these tunes--well, they're my tunes, but they could be from the '20s and '30s. But when juxtaposed with what the symphony orchestra plays, they become full of menace and full of something very, very sinister. It really is, well, a reawakening of that very strange experience of night after night sitting there with fox-trot records while the world exploded round about."

The Trumpet Concerto, which was written in 1988, but which will receive its American premiere Sunday, is a very different kind of work, representing Maxwell Davies' more recent concerns with musical form. Still present, however, is some programmatic notion and there is still the recourse to old music, especially plainchant. On this occasion, the trumpet symbolizes St. Francis, and the music may someday reappear in a chamber opera on the subject.

There is clearly self-identification, as well, given that the subject is a wise and warm sometimes hermit. Evermore, Maxwell Davies maintains a strong kinship with the past.

"I'm sure this has been very much sharpened by living in Orkney where one lives not only with things from what one would perhaps consider quite remote past, like buildings from the medieval period, but also where the first signs of civilization, from 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, are all over the landscape. And so I really do feel that people like Beethoven and Mendelssohn, well, they're not that far away.

"In my birth year, 1934, Elgar and Gustav Holst and Frederick Delius all died, and they stretched back quite a long way. For instance, the death of Tchaikovsky is closer to my birth than it is to where I am now, and that gives you a very strange perspective. I feel all around me the past is terribly present."

* BBC Philharmonic, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductors; Hakan Hardenberger, trumpet. Wiltern Theater, 3780 Wilshire Blvd. "Rapsodie Espagnole" (Ravel); "Pictures at an Exhibition" (Mussorgsky/Ravel); Trumpet Concerto; "St. Thomas Wake" (Maxwell Davies). Sunday, 7 p.m. $11-$40. (310) 825-2101.

* Segerstrom Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Trumpet Concerto; "St. Thomas Wake" (Maxwell Davies); "Rapsodie Espagnole" (Ravel); "La Mer" (Debussy). Monday, 8 p.m. $17-$45. (714) 740-2000.

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