SCO / Leleux
City Halls, Glasgow
At some point between my childhood and my teens the weirder offerings on television for young people stopped being from Eastern Europe and became programmes from Japan. Among those was Monkey, a sometimes impenetrable adaptation of a 16th century Chinese book, Journey to the West. French composer Laurent Petitgirard’s new concerto for his countryman Francois Leleux, entitled SOUEN WOU K’ONG, takes its inspiration from the same tale, with the oboe soloist cast as the Monkey King.
In the global journey that was the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s programme this week, however, our first, unscheduled, stop was in Eastern Europe with the addition of a work that may soon become very familiar. Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine dates from 1885 and first became popular during the country’s War of Independence after 1917. It has been part of the national liturgy ever since and has been sung often there, and across the globe, recently. The anthemic hymn prefaced the SCO’s concert after the orchestra’s Russian Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev had issued a statement making explicit his opposition to the war in Ukraine.
The orchestration, wherever the SCO sourced it, made use of the large ensemble required for the French music with which Leleux had intended to open the concert. Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No 1 is the concert platform success of the music for a less celebrated play, and notable for being the first orchestral score to use one of those new-fangled saxophone things in 1872, played here by young Scottish virtuoso Lewis Banks.
Before we reached his eloquent solo, the performance had already been memorable for the driving, staccato strings of the opening bars in the conductor’s interpretation. This may be a piece that asks for a substantial orchestra, but it was as notable for the delicacy of much of the playing, and the drama in the contrast between the two.
Petitgirard’s new concerto calls for smaller forces in the brass and horns, but there was no diminishing the fullness of the sound, or the dramatic content of the work. With contrabassoon and bass clarinet at one end of the spectrum and delicate finger cymbals among the vast array of percussion deployed at the other, Leleux put in a big double-shift directing the musicians and as soloist. His oboe was most often in dialogue with the strings in a fascinating and vibrant narrative, and he was the Pied Piper drawing us all through the story to the plateau of contentment it reaches at the end.
After all that, it would have been asking a lot to expect the conductor to produce an exceptional account of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, and his historically-informed performance approach to the first two movements did struggle to follow such full-fat fare. With the Scherzo, however, there was a return of his fascinatingly idiosyncratic approach to some familiar phrasing, setting the tone for a finale that sounded more like a trial run for the conclusion of the Fifth than is usually revealed.
It was a powerful conclusion to an excellent programme that deserved a larger audience.