Scottish Opera: Serenades & Idylls

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

How wonderful it is to see orchestral musicians back on stage, and just as welcoming to be part of the live audience watching them perform with Sir David McVicar’s imposing set for the company’s current production of Verdi’s Falstaff as an adorning backdrop.

This was the first in a series of lunchtime concerts by the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, part of the company’s Live at 40 series. And even with the weather somewhat soggy, and the auditorium a wall-less marquee in the grounds of Scottish Opera’s production centre, it was a happy atmosphere.

If the programme, divided equally between separate string and wind ensembles, reminded us of anything, it was that winds have always been a better outdoor bet than strings. The former also benefitted from a conductor – the company’s Emerging Artist Repetiteur Toby Hession – while the strings took the conductor-less route with associate leader Katie Hull directing from the front violin desk.

As an opener, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings was a great idea, a work full of seasoned passion but with a willowy leisureliness perfect for this time of day. It may just have been that the semi-outdoor acoustic allowed the fruitiness of the ensemble to dissolve into the wider ether, but much of this performance seemed distant and self-contained. Where the central Larghetto had a summer evening stillness about it, the sun was missing. It was all a bit featureless.

More intriguing was Hull’s own arrangement for string orchestra of Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls, which effectively amplifies the original string quartet version into something much rounder and richer. Even then, the opening two idylls cried out for more exaggerated expression, vindication of which came in the final Allegro con moto, invigorated by a cello springboard opening that instantly incited greater alertness, character and swagger from the players.

After a full and lengthy stage switch, the winds opened with Gounod’s Petite Symphonie, something of a trifle in symphonic terms, but enjoyable for its operatic leanings and, beyond a stern opening Adagio, its joie de vivre. Hession’s unfussy direction harnessed a confident rhythmic assuredness from the outset. The gorgeous flute solo (Eilidh Gillespie) in the Andante cantabile was quintessential arioso, the Scherzo a sprightly captivating gallop. This performance connected well with the unconventional space.

For the most part, so did Richard Strauss’ E flat Serenade. Early signs of the composer’s penchant for ripe horn melodies were wonderfully evident, and Hession never got in the way of the music’s natural flow, from the chorale-like solidity of the opening, through its modest surges and on to its restful conclusion.

There are more of these concerts to come. They are a great idea and invaluable for instrumentalist who have suffered considerable concert deprivation over the past year. There’s inevitable city noise all around, but somehow it adds to the occasion.

Ken Walton