BBC SSO / Muñoz

City Halls, Glasgow

Despite the last-minute change of conductor and soloist, it was heartening to witness a decent-sized audience at the City Halls, the first in a long time for the BBC SSO, and the sense of occasion and excitement such numbers duly generate. That the programme – music by Clyne, Chopin and Bartok – had a drawing power of its own easily mitigated the change of personnel. Even so, conductor Tito Muñoz (in for Joana Carneiro) and pianist Eric Lu (replacing the advertised Russian soloist, Zlata Chochieva) brought their own distinguished qualities to the performances.

Muñoz, the current long-standing music director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in his native America, made his mark in an instant. He’s a no-nonsense conductor, with a whip-like beat that immediately pulled us into the murky world of Anna Clyne’s high-energy This Midnight Hour. 

The composer – an Edinburgh University graduate most recently known to Scots through her stint as associate composer of the SCO – calls it “a visual journey expressed in sound”. In that respect, its cinematic flow – a restlessly unceasing soundtrack to what could easily be an imaginary film noir – is self-explanatory. The frenetic narrative changes gear at the drop of a hat – adrenalin-charged propulsion gives way to smoky cabaret ballad gives way to hymn-like calmness – but there’s rarely a moment’s breath en route.

Muñoz nailed every change of tempo and mood with resolute insistence and conviction. It was perhaps a mistake to ask the two onstage trumpeters to step out of the orchestra at such a quiet point in the score and make their way up to the rear gallery for a final offstage coup de théâtre. It provided an unnecessary distraction, even if the final result was thrilling.

Fellow American Eric Lu’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 immediately reduced the temperature. His first bold entry signalled an approach that favoured care over caution, and indeed, what followed was a deliberately contained exposé that steered clear of effusive gesture or extrovert indulgence, instead harnessing the natural energy of Chopin’s writing and allowing its filigree meanderings to speak instinctively for themselves. 

Where the opening movement enjoyed limitless free-flowing pianism set against a robust structural framework, the slow movement shone a more intimate, nocturnal spotlight on the young Lu – it’s only four years since the 24-year-old won the Leeds International Piano Competition – only to be thrust aside by the rhapsodic delights of the finale.

The focus shifted back to Muñoz and the SSO for the closing work in the programme, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and one of the 20th century’s most virtuosic orchestral masterpieces. The symmetrical relevance to Clyne’s opening work was not lost, once again dark features, sardonic references and blazing euphoria variously at play. 

Muñoz’s pacing was masterfully gauged, moulding the organic volcanism of the opening movement, the pithy playfulness of the scherzo, the eery “night music” of the Elegia, the edgy lampooning of Shostakovich in the Intermezzo, and the whirling finale into one glorious aural spectacle. He certainly had the SSO playing their best so far this season.

Ken Walton 

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds