BBC SSO / Cottis

City Halls, Glasgow

Someone at the BBC SSO has taken action against the fiasco that was its recent livestream broadcast. Thursday evening’s concert under conductor Jessica Cottis was as much a feast for the eyes as the ears. Far greater creative thought went into marrying camera angles with sound cues implicit in a musical journey that stretched from hard core American minimalism to the traditional heartland of the German Romantic symphony.

Cottis was on the podium by default, due to Israel-based Ilan Volkov’s inability to travel. But she made it entirely her own show, exerting a relaxed and confident hold over an orchestra she knows well from her time as assistant to its previous principal conductor, Sir Donald Runnicles. 

And she brought a touch of theatre to the opening minutes, facing the rear of the City Halls where the distant brass and percussion, spread over a balcony normally inhabited by audience, struck up Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No 1 (the now 82-year-old Grammy-winning American composer wrote six of them), a quirky gender response to Aaron Copland’s more familiar Fanfare for the Common Man.

The main equivalence to Copland is the common thunderous drum opening, beyond which Tower veers off on a far less earthbound course. The textures dance, the climax is a whirlwind as ecstatic as (indeed reminiscent of) Janacek’s Sinfonietta, and the glockenspiel serves as a glittery addition of orchestral bling. This performance may have had its reticent moments, but ultimately it swelled big time and served its theatrical purpose.

Back on the main stage, the SSO strings engaged in John Adams’ Shaker Loops, which did invite the troubling question: is such raw, repetitive minimalism really what’s needed when the last thing we wish to be reminded of is the monotony of lockdown life? And this piece in particular, its persistently manic tremolando effects inspired by the frenzied rituals of the American Shaker sects, has an inbuilt tendency to set the nerves jangling. Which it did rather well. 

Yet Adams’ oscillating sound sculpture, while it starts like a rave in a beehive, is not all concentrated superheat. Yes, Cottis sourced the necessary electricity that drives the outermost movements, sometimes with pulverising persistence, always with trance-inducing focus. But she also embraced the rich mystical qualities of the second movement – Hymning Slews – its whistling harmonics, slithering motifs and altogether spookier soundscape representing a welcome respite.

In Schumann’s Second Symphony – a work remarkably positive and buoyant given the composer’s prevailing state of mind – the real thrill was to hear something approaching the full symphonic sound we’ve been missing since March. Cottis exercised a firm hand but with ample lightness of foot, so that the music’s essential solidity, while firmly rooted and warmly expressive in the weeping slow movement, had levity and sparkle conveyed through the SSO’s lithe, crisp playing, its clean textures and alert tempi.
Ken Walton

Image: Jessica Cottis credit Kaupo Kikkas