Edinburgh Academy Junior School

The huge welcome the Festival audience gave to US conductor Marin Alsop for her guest appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra speaks volumes. Yes, she has been a trailblazer for women conductors as well as an admired musician across the Americas and in Europe, but such attributes have not always translated into popular acclaim and such obvious affection.

Many in the 8.30pm audience at the EIF’s big classical music tent came well prepared for variable Edinburgh weather, with Tattoo garb of quilted jackets and travelling rugs, but the chillier air did not affect their enthusiasm. Moreover, it was not limited to the reception for the big work of the evening, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Before they heard that, Alsop’s programme included half an hour of newish music that few in the audience were likely to have heard before.

The concert opened with Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, the New York violinist’s work for strings that makes much use of pizzicato playing, as the title suggests. First cello Rudi de Groote and leader Laura Samuel are first to swap to their bows, and all players are required to demonstrate both skills with the second violins in particular having some impressively swift switches between the two. As the score develops it seems to encompass both widescreen pictures of the Mid-West and staccato minimalism of America’s seaboard states with something of a country barn dance at its climax.

Montgomery is a winner of American music publishing’s Leonard Bernstein Award, and there was something of Bernstein in the work that followed, A Spell for Green Corn by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Would that comparison have occurred under a different conductor? His protégé certainly seemed to bring out the drama in the piece, commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1993 to mark Max’s 60th birthday. Laura Samuel had the soloist’s role here, as the folk fiddler enticing a good crop. Details of the scoring grew around her, from her fellow strings and the winds through to the explosion of brass and percussion. Both Maxwell Davies and Leonard Bernstein knew how to make the sound of a party happening.

Whether it was because the BBC had a hand on the sound-desk, or because my seat was nearer the players, the orchestral sound for that work and the Beethoven that followed was the best I’ve heard in this temporary venue. Directing the musicians without a score, Alsop was all over the orchestra throughout the symphony. The first movement was big, beefy and at pace, the second full and lush, and the crescendo from the scherzo into the finale quite magnificent. The SSO played superbly for Alsop and the audience roared its approval.

Keith Bruce