SCO / Symbiosis
To my mind, but probably not in those of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra management and musicians, their guest leader and soloist Pekka Kuusisto or, most pertinently of all, composer Greg Lawson, there is an inescapable irony in the title that has been given to the work that partnership has written, performed and filmed as its cultural contribution to the UN Climate Conference in Scotland this autumn.
In the glory days of Glasgow’s self-confidence as Culture City, the arts activity around COP26 would have been carefully curated, promoted and marketed from an expertly-staffed central office. In 2021, however, everyone has to fend for themselves. National companies and small organisations have all stepped up to make contributions to coincide with the event and mark the occasion, many of them very thoughtful indeed, and often forging new partnerships and premiering new work. You will search in vain, however, for any guide or directory to the artistic side of COP, far less any co-ordination of the programme for the benefit of delegates, activists or interested observers. As a result few of the events are finding the audience they deserve. See Glasgow? See Symbiosis? Not as such.
With the sponsorship support of Aviva Investments, the SCO has commissioned this new piece from the man behind the multi-disciplinary GRIT orchestra and former principal second fiddle with the BBC SSO, Greg Lawson, and – as the composer makes clear-ish in the introductory film segment of the package – his hope of Symbiosis is between humankind and the natural landscape.
The orchestra has built on the expertise it acquired during lockdown, when its online chamber music concerts were some of the most attractive produced in Scotland, to make this short film of the 15-minute piece, preceded by footage of Lawson in his home environment at Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway at work on it.
The countryside looks terrific, and Lawson’s more practical observations on the reality of turning the inspiration to be found there into a score are well worth hearing, but the meat of the work is the performance, in a beautifully-lit studio, by the strings of the SCO, led from the violin by Finnish star Kuusisto.
Symbiosis is in five neatly-dovetailed movements, beginning and ending with meditations on the nature of time. Anyone expecting Lawson to mine Scottish traditional music for his material, as the GRIT orchestra often has, may be surprised. The themes here owe more to the scales and cadences of Middle Eastern music, and perhaps to Lawson the violinist’s work with the small group Moishe’s Bagel.
The gentle, slow beginning takes a darker tone in the third and fourth movements when “Foreboding and Trouble” leads into “Waltzing to Oblivion”. That triple-time section is the undoubted highlight of the composition and perhaps likely to find a life of its own outside Symbiosis, but it did present the composer with a dilemma about how to end the work, whether as a prophet of doom or on a more optimistic note.
What makes the whole package is the way Lawson side-steps this difficulty by handing the baton to Kuusisto, who supplies a wonderful improvisation – an extended cadenza in a sense – over a simple chordal figure as the last movement. Somehow it is clearly up-beat, but it also explicitly states that the future is in the hands of each of us, individually.
Symbiosis is available to watch free on the SCO’s YouTube channel.