SCO / Swensen
City Halls, Glasgow
The slightly cheesy title, “Musique Amerique”, that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave to its first season programme of 2023, should not detract from what was one of the most fascinating concerts given by the band’s Conductor Emeritus, Joseph Swensen, in recent years.
Its conceit was the traffic of musical ideas between Europe and America in the earlier part of the 20th century, a trade that not only brought US composers to the fore on this side of The Pond but radically transformed the practice of those in Russia and Germany as well as France.
The focus here was on Paris, with two members of composers’ collective Les Six, Milhaud and Poulenc, opening and closing the evening. Poulenc’s four-movement Sinfonietta, from 1947, was the most conventionally-shaped score in the concert, and the only one to employ a recognisably entire SCO. The musical material within that structure, however, was very much of its era, with a recognisable debt to film music from behind the Iron Curtain as well as Hollywood, and echoes of the cabaret and music hall stage – but then Francis Poulenc was very much a man of the theatre.
Darius Milhaud’s La creation du monde was composed for what may have been a fascinating ballet that mixed quasi-African creation myths with elements of the book of Genesis, but perhaps more limited to its time. Half a century before Steve Reich’s work of that name, however, it is “Music for 18 musicians”, and the fact that Milhaud taught Reich (as well as Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach and Dave Brubeck) may be no coincidence.
It is a terrifically colourful suite, full of early jazz influence and often sounding even more modern, with an arco bass solo paving the way for the first brass interjection and many attention-grabbing duo combinations: flute and cello; oboe and horn. The closing section is built around a riff that starts in pizzicato low strings before involving the whole band, and is ripe for rediscovery by a contemporary jazz ensemble.
The heart of the evening lay across the Atlantic, with the SCO’s principal clarinet the featured soloist. Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto is meat and drink to Maximiliano Martin, even if Benny Goodman, who commissioned it, found the score the composer delivered trickier to play than he’d anticipated.
It was followed, after the interval, by an orchestration of Bernstein’s precocious Clarinet Sonata, composed during his student years at a Tanglewood summer school when he was being mentored by Copland. Martin has played the piece a lot in recent years, with pianist Scott Mitchell and the man behind the piano for the SCO, Simon Smith, but I had not previously heard this orchestration (strings, piano, and some very effective and often subtle tuned and untuned percussion from Tom Hunter).
The arrangement is the work of Sid Ramin, who died in 2019 aged 100, a collaborator with Bernstein on West Side Story, and then orchestrator of musicals by Sondheim and others. Written in 1994, after Bernstein’s death, it softens the work in places and makes it less obviously a virtuoso clarinet showpiece, but was nonetheless well worth hearing as part of a very thoughtful and immaculately-performed programme.