BBC SSO / Oramo

City Halls, Glasgow

The colourful personality and striking originality of South African cellist/singer/composer Abel Selaocoe created a sensation the last time he appeared with the BBC SSO. That – and his growing international reputation – no doubt accounted of the anticipatory excitement that filled the City Halls foyer on Thursday, where notable swarms of young people and the accompanying buzz gathered noisily with the traditional BBC SSO audience. There was certainly something in the air!

Before long, in the main concert hall, that “something” had made its indelible mark, though not initially. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, in its version for strings and percussion, provided first a softly pungent scene-setter, the SSO initiating an unplanned fresh partnership with the young Finnish conductor Taavi Oramo (son of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Sakari Oramo). Brought in last minute to replace the advertised Anu Tali, he launched slightly cautiously into the Estonian composer’s hypnotic meditation.   

Oramo seemed a little tense to start with, the oft-repeated string incantations and punctuating  percussive tick tock of the claves rather coldly configured, but later finding a more sublime inner soul, enchantment and ultimate tenderness. 

Against such solemn quietude the ebullient appearance of Selaocoe, oozing rock star charisma, was like a bolt of lightning. Dressed in traditional South African outfit, he acknowledged the crowd as if he was headlining at Glastonbury. He spoke of his latest “release” – the imminent world premiere of his concerto Four Spirits – in which he would combine his own ethnic singing style with virtuoso cello performance, but also incorporating a dynamic inner dialogue with guest percussionist and collaborator Bernhard Schimpelsberger, placed within the orchestra but visually prominent in beanie hat and casual clothes.

What transpired as the four movements revealed themselves was a work of powerful emotional worth and democratic involvement, Selaocoe remaining seated only when issuing kaleidoscopic effects on his cello, but otherwise on his feet to broadcast mesmerising vocalisations ranging from piercing paeans of joy to subterranean rumbles and bewitching chants. 

The score, which explores various aspects of human purpose and community, cast in a language that fuses African and Western idiom, calls on the orchestral players to use their voices. Mention should also be made of orchestral percussionist David Kerr’s matching partnership with Schimpelsberger. And what a gloriously moving peroration as Selaocoe inspired the audience to join in singing the final moments. It all seemed so natural, so visceral, something very different and unforgettable. 

There was no option beyond that but for an encore. Schimpelsberger came front stage to join with Selaocoe in Wake Up, a possibly improvised dialogue that found its natural endpoint in dazzling jazz riffs and dizzy virtuosity.

How do you follow that? The answer here was Sibelius’ Second Symphony, a challenge that Oramo  met with coolness and taut discipline. There was an assuredness in his overall vision of the symphony – from the craggy inevitability of the opening movement and heart-rending intensity at the core of the Andante to the euphoric explosiveness of the Scherzo and radiant heroism of the Finale – but there were moments, too, where judgment erred, whether mis-balancing conversational solo lines or allowing the brass to over project.

But, no matter, for this concert will be remembered almost exclusively for the phenomenon that is Abel Selaocoe. 

Ken Walton