SCO / Ticciati / Polwart
City Halls, Glasgow
Recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on April 1, this collaboration between the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and folk singer/songwriter Karine Polwart has been long in gestation and had a tricky last few weeks before eventually reaching concertgoers. But not only is it well worth the attention of both classical and traditional music-lovers when they have the opportunity to listen in, it must surely be the basis for an album, or the substantial part of one.
The other crucial contributor to its composition is Pippa Murphy, Polwart’s regular collaborator, particularly on the award-winning Edinburgh Festival show Wind Resistance. That was categorised as theatre, but this four-movement work, Seek the Light, is close kin to it, not least because it begins with a song, You Know Where You Are, that also find inspiration in the migratory birds Polwart sees near her Midlothian home.
There are other themes in common, particularly in the third movement’s mix of spoken and sung narrative in a feminist revision of Greek myth A Love Too Loud, closely linked to the navigational use of constellations referenced in that opening song.
In between sits the most “trad” section, The Night Mare, musically redolent of the early Scots composition canon explored by Concerto Caledonia, and the suite ends with a beguiling lullaby, Sleep Now, its chorus melody distinctly East European in flavour and sung by the entire orchestra, as well as – encouraged by Polwart – bolder members of the audience.
Whether that audience was drawn from the fanbase of the chamber orchestra or its guest vocalist was the subject of a show of hands when cellist Su-a Lee introduced the concert. My guess is that there is a good deal of crossover, with many, like myself, having recordings by both at home. And this was, in the best sense, the acceptable face of “cross-over”.
There are many routes the SCO might have chosen to present this new commission. The imaginative one chosen, in consultation with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, was to intersperse the sections of Seek the Light with contemporary classical pieces from Scandinavia and the Baltic states, kicking the whole sequence off with the Adagio from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. It was a tactic that was an exceptional success, keeping audience ears as sharply tuned as those of the performers.
There were many notable individual ones amongst the orchestra – and Polwart winningly selected a few of her favourites in her own remarks after the interval – but chief among them was Hugo Ticciati, who had stepped into the role mapped out by the absent Kuusisto. His largest contribution was as soloist in violin concerto Distant Light by Peteris Vasks, a huge work in itself that alternates between solo and ensemble, melody and cacophony, fast and slow, soft and loud and was played second from last here.
He was also responsible for inserting into the programme further eloquent recognition by the orchestra of the plight of the people of Ukraine, first clarinet Maximiliano Martin playing the country’s anthem as a brief solo after Polwart’s first song.
The SCO strings showed their superb individual technical range and ensemble coherence in the other two works in the programme. Swede Andrea Tarrodi’s fascinating Birds of Paradise begins in minimalist mode before becoming much more playful in tempo and featuring extraordinary imitation of bird calls, which were then echoed in the opening of Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur’s Insula Deserta, a hugely evocative score using the sparest number of musicians.
If the music in the programme created imaginative landscapes, stories and ecologies beyond the auditorium, its final choral moments also brought the absent Kuusisto into the hall: I cannot be the only audience member reminded of his memorable encore at the BBC Proms in 2016 that had the Albert Hall joining him in a Finnish folk-song.
Portrait of Karine Polwart by Suzanne Heffron