SCO / Currie

City Halls, Glasgow

When the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was founded 50 years ago, I was but a callow youth, on rhythm guitar and vocals, with limited knowledge of orchestral music. But an evening like this one, conducted by Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, would surely have been inconceivable to those who established the SCO.

For a start, none of the repertoire we heard had yet been composed, and it is very different from the music the orchestra’s earliest concerts explored. And many in the large audience the repertoire and this soloist/conductor attracted were yet unborn.

Yet there is a clear continuum, predating the establishment of the orchestra celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year by a couple of centuries, with the virtuoso soloist directing an ensemble of instruments, even if this one included an electric bass guitar and a couple of saxophones.

Those were required as part of the fullest forces assembled onstage, for Louis Andriessen’s Tapdance, the Scottish premiere of a work composed for Currie in 2013 in which the Dutch composer expresses his love for bebop jazz – most obviously in the use of a tune by Horace Silver. The bop big band sound is only one facet of the work’s eventful quarter of an hour, however. In that section Currie was a sonic Astaire or Kelly with what appeared to be spoons instead of mallets, when he wasn’t using his hands and arms to conduct – and sometimes accomplishing both tasks at the same time.

Later he moved on to marimba, which included an exquisite solo passage, and the music became more orchestral, building to a huge climax before the conductor added glissando tympani and it ended in a very poignant, almost funereal, passage.

The concert had opened with the programme’s earliest work, Fratres by Arvo Part, that most adaptable of the Estonian’s “tintinnabula” exercises, performed here in Beat Briner’s wind octet arrangement with Currie supplying percussion. If the intonation across the winds was not absolutely true at the start, it was quickly sorted as the mesmeric quality of the piece asserted itself, and the control of the whisper-quiet horn duo at the conclusion was very impressive.

The first half ended with a work that even those who had bought a ticket mainly to hear the music after the interval probably talked about most afterwards. Julia Wolfe owes a clear debt to the propulsive music of Louis Andriessen but her Fuel, for string orchestra, upped the ante several notches. Fearsomely challenging to play, it embraces the uglier sounds bowed strings can make alongside the purest tones, and requires constant concentration combined with ferocious technique.

Currie was all over every detail of the work’s changes of pace, tempi and dynamics across – and sometimes within – the string sections, and the SCO players, led by Stephanie Gonley, were quite superb.

The composer whose name was on the evening’s ticket had the second half to himself. Currie knows the canon of Steve Reich intimately as a performer, but for these two works he was conductor only, bringing that expertise to complementary pieces from the second decade of this century.

Pulse, from 2015, might come as a surprise to those who love Reich for his minimalist repetition, highly melodic in the ensemble writing for strings and winds, but with the rhythmic consistency the title suggests in the piano and electric bass. Perhaps a less “toppy” sound on the latter would have suited the work better, and there was some inconsistency of approach in the use of vibrato in the strings, but it is a lovely lyrical piece.

The concert closed with the box-office work, Radio Rewrite, in which Reich repurposes a couple of tunes from the back-catalogue of rock group Radiohead. In fact he plays fast and loose with the songs for a piece that only ever sounds like Steve Reich, even if it was clearly a stepping-stone to the later Pulse. You can bet that Currie knows exactly where each reshaped bar and chord lies in the score though, so focussed was his direction of the musicians.

You would also put smart money on the percussionist’s debut on the podium with the SCO not being his last appearance. The orchestra’s management will be very keen to see this audience back in the City Halls of a Friday evening as regularly as Currie is himself.

Keith Bruce