Hebrides Ensemble

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

We’re getting used to the mayhem associated with the mad music of Jörg Widmann, through his associations with Scottish Orchestras (he’s back this week with the RSNO) and in his multiple personae as composer, conductor and clarinettist. It was in the first of these roles that he made his mark again over the weekend, when his 5-movement Octet featured in a thoroughly pleasant afternoon recital by the Hebrides Ensemble.

The event was part of the RSNO’s new partnership activity with smaller Scottish ensembles, which in Glasgow’s music calendar has added a occasional new Sunday treat. This one, consisting of eight mixed instrumentalists matching the requirements of Schubert’s famous Octet, offered a programme that dressed old works in new attire.

It should have opened with Cassandra Miller’s About Bach, but with the Hebrides’ artistic director and cellist William Conway unfortunately indisposed, that risk wasn’t taken. Though inevitably disappointing – appetites were whetted for the Canadian-born composer’s music several weeks ago when Lawrence’s Power and the SCO gave a compelling account of her new viola concerto “I cannot love without trembling” – the resulting programme, albeit shortened, had a satisfyingly purposeful flow to it.

The theme remained intact, opening with Mozart’s re-tailored couplet for string quartet of his own Andante (from the Symphony No 8, KV48) and one of the five Bach Fugues transcribed as K405. They made perfect bedfellows, bringing one genius mind into direct touch with another.

That eased the passage into Tom David Wilson’s Three Schuberts, a reimagining of short selected works by the earlier composer in which Wilson takes tasteful liberties, using the full mixed octet resources to apply hyperactive twists and modernist techniques. Thus the impish eccentricities of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No 3; the supercharged sound world of Erlkönig, its adapted instrumentation lending it the same melodramatic OTT-ness of a Midsomer Murders soundtrack;  and the quivering spookiness of Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) from the song cycle Die Winterreise.

All roads led to the grand finale, Widmann’s Octet, which took the art of reimagining to its furthest extremes. We had the benefit of replacement cellist Christian Elliott, who had performed it with Widmann himself, to prepare our ears for the zaniness to come. Clear references to Schubert were few and far between, including the famous octet whose scoring configuration it replicates.  

Nonetheless, a fearless performance was all that was needed to take Widmann’s wile and wit in the nature of its intentions. Tingling Stravinsky-like chords and timbres lit up the Intrada; the Menuetto, a scherzo (joke) in its literal sense, played mischief at every turn; the extended loveliness of the Lied Ohne Worte took us deep into the weirdly oscillating world of microtones; while the Intermezzo and Finale steered a manic course from full-on riot and surreal intensity to resolution. 

Very Widmann, but as for Schubert……….?

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

With two weeks of the RSNO’s season to go – and Jorg Widmann’s way with Mozart and the RSNO Chorus taking on Verdi’s dramatic Requiem still to come – this “All-Star Gala” was nonetheless a pinnacle of the orchestra’s year, coming immediately after its European tour. The presence of a trio of popular names as soloists – violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor – guaranteed a packed auditorium, including many for whom it was probably an unusual way to spend a Saturday night.

For those who had bought their first concert ticket, Scotland’s national orchestra laid on a terrific value-for-money programme – as fine an advert for classical concert-going as any seasoned fan of the music might hope for.

The programme culminated in Brahms’ First Symphony, the conclusion of a cycle of the Brahms symphonies RSNO Music Director Thomas Sondergard has conducted since the beginning of the year. Coming after recent performances and recordings of the works by chamber orchestras, Sondergard has made the case for big Brahms, and the Symphony No1, which was so long coming in the composer’s life, is arguably the work most suited to this approach, with its large slow statements at the start of the first and final movements.

The weight of those passages was beautifully contrasted with moments like the dialogue between leader Maya Iwabuchi’s solo violin and the oboe of Adrian Wilson in the slow movement. He was a star of this immaculately-calibrated reading, with other wind principals, including flautist Katherine Bryan (marking her 20th birthday in the post) and guest first horn Olivia Gandee, also on top form.

The Beethoven-like ending to the symphony was an interesting counterpoint to the younger, lighter Beethoven to be heard before the interval. Although this clever programme made more use of them, those star soloists were primarily contracted to play his “Triple Concerto” for piano trio and orchestra, composed in 1804.

It is a delightful work, the breezy conversation between the front-line voices rather disguising the fact that Kanneh-Mason was playing the more virtuosic part, with Benedetti riding shotgun and Grosvenor’s piano in a supporting role. The work has a lovely structure, particularly in the way the Largo second movement speeds up to segue into the dance of the finale. With the RSNO strings on sparkling form, this was smile-inducing stuff, and there were plenty of grins on the platform – and of course there was an encore lollipop, Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the Londonderry Air.

The concert had begun with a showcase for the RSNO Youth Chorus, under its director Patrick Barrett, with each of the soloists providing accompaniment in turn. This was the real bonus treat for those new faces in the audience: three works composed in the past decade and performed by the coming generation, proving that “classical” music is in the peak of condition in the modern age.

The longest piece of the three was Russell Hepplewhite’s The Death of Robin Hood, a captivating narrative for young voices, setting a Eugene Field poem, with opportunities for solo voices as well as ensemble singing. It was performed with superb expression and clarity and followed on beautifully from a work the choir had learned for COP 26 in Glasgow, Errollyn Wallen’s specially-composed Inherit the World, with Grosvenor at the piano. It concluded the season’s valuable “Scotch Snaps” strand of performances of contemporary music.

The late addition to the concert brought together Benedetti and the Youth Chorus for American composer Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps. With the violinist supplying the work’s clever revision of early music continuo, this reworking of a 19th century shape-note hymn would be demanding fare for a professional choir of any age, but these young singers rose to its dynamic and tonal challenges with astonishing poise.

Keith Bruce

Picture, from Usher Hall performance, by Sally Jubb

Perth Festival / Red Priest

St John’s Kirk, Perth

Red Priest were new to me, if not to Perth and St John’s, and this well-attended midweek hoolie had a feeling of joyful reunion, with the CD stall doing brisk business at the interval.

Recorder virtuoso Piers Adams founded the group, using the nickname of composer Vivaldi, over 25 years ago, but with the return of baroque violinist Julia Bishop – whose other gigs have included the Gabrielli Consort, the Academy of Ancient Music and the Hanover Band – the line-up is three-quarters intact, harpsichord player David Wright replacing the late Julian Rhodes.

Bishop, one might speculate, relishes the opportunity to let her hair down. Wright apart, the musicians perform entirely from memory, and both she and Adams left the stage to promenade up close and personal with the audience. Cellist Angela East would likely have joined them if her instrument didn’t necessitate a chair.

That freedom of movement is paired with freedom of expression. There’s improvisation, tonal expansion and all sorts of tempo variation in the Red Priest approach to baroque music – about as far from any po-faced notion of period authenticity as it is possible to get.

For all the choreography, costuming and larking about, however, the final result is less showbiz than it is educational, in the least condescending way. Every piece, however unfamiliar or well known, some of them arranged together in the most singular of sequences, comes with a few words of introduction and a joke or two. No-one left St John’s on Wednesday evening without knowing a little more about Gian Paolo Cima, Anna Magdalena Bach or the music of the court of the Sun King.

Ideas about the possibilities of the recorder were surely revised as well, as Adams applied an extended range of embouchure techniques, some of them highly percussive, to the full pitch range of instruments. His digital dexterity was matched by all of his colleagues, with East’s cello also adding percussion as well as bass to the mix.

Her solo feature was a fresh take on a well-known Bach Prelude, and the repertoire successfully mixed the very familiar with the downright obscure, often in startling juxtaposition. Only Wright’s Couperin Chaconne perhaps overstayed its welcome in what was a slick, pacy performance, and that work’s uncanny prediction of 20th century minimalism still merited its inclusion.

At other points we were more in the realm of the traditional music session’s sets of jigs and reels, and the volume the acoustic quartet managed to produce without any sacrifice of detail or articulation was often remarkable. It was perhaps too easy to miss that level of technical excellence in a gig that was mostly about pure fun.

Keith Bruce

Perth Festival / The Ayoub Sisters

Perth Concert Hall

The corpses of young conservatoire-trained musicians that have been chewed up and spat out by the “classical crossover” genre litter the by-ways of the music marketplace. The Ayoub Sisters, you’d wager, are made of sterner stuff.

Of Egyptian heritage and Glasgow born and raised, they launched their second album, Arabesque, in Cairo and this Perth Festival date was part of its international promotional tour. The festival had tweaked the package, however, with the addition of support act The Lark Piano Trio, whose 20th century chamber music provided an impressively ear-exercising opening to the evening.

Post-graduate students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, pianist Anna Michels, violinist Emma Baird and cellist Helena La Grand championed composer Rebecca Clarke with their performance of her 1921 Piano Trio, which first appeared under her post-World War One nom-de-guerre “Anthony Trent”.

In a beautifully blended and balanced performance, and particularly in the meditative central movement, it was not hard to hear pre-echoes of better-known American male composers as yet unborn when the work was written.

The Ayoub Sisters opened their hour’s music with Misirlou, the Middle-Eastern folk tune made famous by surf-rock guitarist Dick Dale and the movie Pulp Fiction, which they played five years ago at Glasgow’s Proms in the Park.

Here, however, it introduced a programme that delved much more deeply into the siblings’ musical heritage, appropriating religious chants from different cultures as well as other folk music in their clever arrangements for violin and cello, amplified and looped through the sort of portable sampling technology familiar to fans of K T Tunstall and Ed Sheeran.

The pair have the possibilities of this kit at their fingertips and elegantly-shod toes, and the live layering of sound was very impressive, although never at the expense of overshadowing their genuine playing abilities. A backing track provided the Indian percussion for an excursion into the world of Bollywood soundtrack, but most of the execution was live and very slick indeed.

Their programme was also cleverly constructed to mix the less familiar music with more recognisable fare, including a terrific take on McCartney’s Blackbird and a more knockabout tilt at Boney M’s Rasputin as well as Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca. Taking turns to introduce the music, Laura (violin) and Sarah (cello) also have good stories and a congenial style to their presentation.

Scotland had its share of the spotlight too, from a vaguely Phil’n’Ally folk fiddle feature early in the set to an encore that saw Sarah move to the piano for the freshest take on some of the nation’s most threadbare favourites (including Flower of Scotland, Auld Lang Syne and Loch Lomond) that any in the audience will have heard in a while.

Keith Bruce

Dunard Centre chief

Impact Scotland, the body behind the building of the new Dunard Centre in Edinburgh, has announced the appointment of Jo Buckley as Chief Executive Officer.

Buckley leaves the Dunedin Consort, where she has worked for over five years and is currently Chief Executive, to take up the new role at the start of September, overseeing the development of the new facility that will be a home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Impact Scotland chair Ronnie Bowie said: “Jo is an exceptional leader with countless strings to her bow: visionary company manager, in-demand music writer and scholar, and tireless champion of emerging musical talent, not to mention an experienced contributor to Scottish arts policy and assessment.

“Delivering Edinburgh’s first 21st century venue will require both experience and fresh thinking, and in Jo we’ve found an overwhelming supply of both.”

Jo Buckley said: “The Dunard Centre is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a musical hub for a city that already hums with artistic possibility and talent, and which is ready to demonstrate to the world what it can do, all day, every day. 

“Like many colleagues and peers, I’ve watched the plans for the Centre develop over these past few years, and grown increasingly excited about the possibilities this one-off, intimate space will create: not just for classical musicians, but for artists of all styles, traditions and career stages.”      

She added: “It has been an extraordinary privilege to work with John Butt and the wonderful musicians and colleagues that make up the Dunedin Consort, and I’m determined to make the most of every last moment with the team.

“It’ll be a wrench to leave such fantastic colleagues, but I’m consoled by knowing our paths will cross again, not least in the auditorium of this wonderful new home for music!”

Perth Festival / The Seal-Woman

Perth Theatre

While Granville Bantock’s name may have fallen into relative obscurity today, the English-born Birmingham-based composer of Scots heredity was notable enough in British musical circles during his lifetime (1868-1946) to have found himself the dedicatee of Sibelius’ Third Symphony, such was the great Finnish composer’s gratitude for Bantock’s muscular UK championship.

His own music is interesting, at times inspired, a style emerging out of Wagner but with a curiosity for the modal adventures favoured by Vaughan Williams, Delius, even Debussy. Exotic whole tone harmonies vie with folksy pentatonic melodies, the latter no doubt emanating from his direct Scottish bloodline (his Highlands-born father was an eminent surgeon) and evident in such major works as his Celtic and Hebridean Symphonies.

But what of his 1924 opera The Seal-Woman, written in partnership with the Gaelic singer, collector and song writer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, and currently enjoying a timely revival by The Scots Opera Project? It received two performances at this year’s Perth Festival, featuring a cast of upcoming professional opera singers, a pop-up community chorus, with musical direction and solo piano accompaniment by Scots pianist Hebba Benyaghla. Stage direction was by Ayrshire tenor David Douglas, who also sang the key male protagonist, The Islesman.

As for plot, think of variations on a theme of Disney’s The Little Mermaid or Darryl Hannah’s film Splash transported to a tiny Hebridean community, where a Seal-Woman and her sister enjoy the option of being human on land or mammal at sea so long as the magical robes they discard on dry land are there to reverse the process. In this case, the Islesman snaffles them, forcing the Seal-Woman to stay. They fall in love, have a child, but the call of the sea is too strong and the mother sacrifices family life to return to the deep.

In a production that played safe and fairly simple, strong performances were required to make up for limited action. The strongest of these came from Sioned Gwen Davies in the title role, a ripe vocal performance, particularly in the second half duet with her sister, sung sweetly if a little less assuredly, by Colleen Nicol. As the island’s matriarchal Cailleach, Ulrike Wutscher cut a suitably morose sage, her biggest challenge being to make something special out of Bantock’s overly monotone writing (Britten does that much better), but that was perhaps asking a lot. Michael Longden, as the Fisherman and Water Kelpie, gave what was necessary in his functional roles.

Hebba Benyaghla’s marathon 2-hour piano performance gave comforting impetus to the production, tastefully-spun in a way that appreciated Bantock’s clustered, often misty-eyed textures and folksy melodic inflexions. Could a single instrument ever replicate the colours envisaged by Bantock, a man noted for his skill as an orchestrator, in his original scoring? Who knows? We’d need to hear a full reconstruction of the opera to give a definitive answer to that pressing question.

Ken Walton

Perth Festival / ENSO

Perth Concert Hall

Scotland has much enjoyed the fruits of exceptional Estonian musicianship in the past, with Neeme Järvi’s years as music director still legendary in the minds of RSNO followers, and Olari Elts’ less distant tenure as SCO principal guest conductor notable for his energised results.

So what was the problem on Saturday, where an Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, variously associated with the same maestri, played under Elts, its current music director, as if charisma and confidence had been drained from its soul? 

There was, it must be said, a wonderful opening expectation where the calming reverence of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten acted as an emotional decoy before the anticipated explosions of Rachmaninov and Dvorak. That seemed to be the intent, inspired by the Estonian “holy minimalist” composer’s doleful tribute to Britten, its transcendental simplicity beautifully captured by the orchestra’s strings and single tolling bell.

But what followed was a huge disappointment, a performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with Irish pianist Barry Douglas, that failed to ignite, struggled to excite and generally lacked inspirational and practical cohesion. While Douglas seemed wrapped up in his own thoughts, and a somewhat choppy vision of the music, Elts threw his efforts into motivating an orchestra that sadly sounded as if its batteries were flat. 

It didn’t even keep time with itself in places, the basses lagging ponderously and troublesomely within the strings, the rear of the orchestra – even the timps – sometimes a hair’s breadth behind the front. What this produced was a prevailing sense of anxiety, a lack of self-propelling intensity propounded by unevenness in Douglas’s own thoughts and projection. A strange and unfulfilling outcome for such a standard concert work.

Nor did Dvorak’s Symphony No 7 realise its requisite surging inevitability. A nervous start didn’t help, nor Elt’s difficulty in garnering the overarching emotional thrust of the opening movement. Sparks of optimism gradually seasoned the inner movements, and the dramatic attacca into the finale heralded a promising home straight. It was realised, though a little too late.

At least there were encores to brighten the picture. Elts gave us two, one filled with muted ecstasy, the other a much needed riot of rustic colour and verve. The former was the movement from Sibelius’ Pelléas et Mélisande suite depicting the heroine’s death, gorgeously opulent in colour and pulsating with emotion; the latter, a boisterous Estonian dance by Eduard Tubin, delivered with hip-swinging brilliance and bravado, everything the main programme lacked.

The orchestra moved on to Edinburgh on Sunday with a slightly different programme, before continuing its current UK tour.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Edward Elgar’s well-documented disappointment in the lukewarm reception accorded the premiere of his Second Symphony is more often remarked than that reaction itself. If the audience in 1911 expected memorable melodies and a climactic finale, they might indeed have been confounded by the piece.

The BBC SSO’s Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth perhaps chose to end his first year with the work more because it is a suitably big piece for a season finale, requiring large forces on stage to perform the rich orchestration, rather than from a desire to leave the City Halls audience with a spring in its step and a song in its heart.

It was the conclusion to a concert that began with Richard Strauss’s rampantly colourful tone-poem Till Eulenspiegel, which not only shared those qualities, but was a fun place to start – especially in this particularly lively performance by the SSO musicians. From the opening statement of Till’s tune by guest first horn Christopher Gough onwards, the “merry pranks” of Strauss’s romp through the adventures of the medieval folk-hero were played with enthusiastic vigour, including fine E flat clarinet from Adam Lee.

Laura van der Heijden brought as much energy to the world premiere that followed: the BBC-commissioned Cello Concerto composed for her by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Wigglesworth will have earned the thanks of cellists for helping this piece to funded completion, as Frances-Hoad, a Menuhin School cellist herself, has given them a substantial new work.

While the focus is on the soloist from the start, the composer has created orchestration which sat well with the past masters of the art on either side of it in this programme. There were moments towards the end of the opening movement when Van der Heijden’s busy fingering was not completely audible above the orchestra, but that may have been intended, and the broadcast of the concert on Thursday May 25 should clarify the question.

The work has an environmental inspiration – very clearly explained in the composer’s lucid programme note – and the final movement, entitled Air, seemed to balance the forces onstage more successfully. The work’s heart, however, is the slow movement, Sea, which not only seemed to evoke its inspiration most successfully, but brought to mind the classic concertos for the instrument by Dvorak and Elgar.

The latter’s Symphony No 2 featured the SSO strings in the top form we’d heard them all evening, with specific details, like the contrapuntal pizzicato bass line in the second movement, shining through. Great work from the trombones as well, while the five-strong percussion section, guest-led by Alasdair Malloy, put in a terrific shift.

Keith Bruce

Scottish Opera / Carmen

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

If nothing else, director John Fulljames has a reputation for making you think. That’s exactly what he does from the very outset in a new production of Carmen for Scottish Opera that reexamines Bizet’s popular opera, not from the standpoint of its historical performance tradition, but by digging into its psychological origins – Prosper Mérimée’s original novel – and shifting the emphasis to the crime and its murdering perpetrator.

As such, it is reasonably justified. We see before us a classic television crime drama. On one level there’s the running interrogation of Don José by a leech-like “investigator”, spoken with cold and menacing persistence by Scots actor Carmen Pieraccini. On another is the opera we are more familiar with – the dangerously taunting Carmen playing a passionately jealous soldier against a pompously self-loving bullfighter – positioned now as the back story. 

Just to add further intrigue, it’s all updated to a turbulent 1970s post-Franco Spain, when women like Carmen sensed the opportunity and felt the urge to exercise greater freedoms.

If that all sounds complex, it is and it isn’t. The real challenge is to shake off preconceptions of traditional Carmen presentations, where spectacle overrides evil, and consider the reality of the heroine’s murder and the hideous factors that precipitate it. Fulljames utilises a tart English translation by Christopher Cowell, and tends to subdue – with darkened visuals and digital projections from his design team – much of the traditional gaiety. His solution throws a lot at us, sometimes conflictingly so.

The cast is clearly on side. The first glimpse of Alok Kumar’s José coincides with the opening of the Prelude, seemingly at the point of confession under Pieraccini’s icy questioning. Throughout the opera he is a towering presence, troubled but insistent, rising to raging vocal heights as the tragic denouement approaches. His challenger in love, Escamillo, is not so convincing, a palpable weakness in Phillip Rhodes’ lower register robbing this toreador of an otherwise colourful and doughty conviction.

As Carmen, Justina Gringyté’s lithe physicality cuts a ballsy protagonist, with just enough softness to entertain empathy, and plenty snarls from her rich mezzo soprano voice to put up a necessary front. It’s not a wholly consistent vocal performance from the Lithuanian, and her English pronunciation occasionally misfires.

There’s a fine performance from Hye-Youn Lee as Micaëla, the childhood sweetheart from José’s homeland who attempts to save him, her big Act 3 aria surely the most moving moment of the show. Carmen’s friends (Mercédès and Frasquita) and the criminals (Dancaïre and Remendado) are a proficient grouping sung by Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Lea Shaw, Zoe Drummond, Colin Murray and Osian Wyn Bowen. Neat performances, too, by Dan Shelvey (Moralès) and Thomas D Hopkinson (Zuniga) complete the team.

What of the chorus, though? There’s a sense at times that their presence in this particular production is a minor inconvenience. They sing pleasingly well, and move with businesslike efficiency, but like the design concept their significance seems correspondingly muted. Except for the bullfight, where some resounding merriment lifts the spirits.

The ultimate, and most consistent, champions of this Carmen are the Scottish Opera Orchestra, whose performance on opening night under Australian conductor Dane Lam was exemplary, capturing Bizet’s red hot vibrancy, electrifying energy and melting expressiveness to the absolute full, proving that the beating heart of any opera emanates from the notes on the page.

Ken Walton

Carmen runs in Glasgow until 20 May, with further performances in Inverness (23-27 May), Aberdeen (1-3 June) & Edinburgh (9-17 June). Full information at http://www.scottishopera.org.uk

(Image: James Glossop)

Scottish Opera’s new season

As its 60th anniversary celebrations wind-up with a new staging of Bizet’s Carmen, Scottish Opera has unveiled its 2023/24 season, with a new production of Jonathan Dove’s Marx in London! and revivals of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Verdi’s La traviata the mainstage offerings.

Chief executive and general director Alex Reedijk acknowledges that the activity level of the birthday year could not be maintained.

“On the back of a tremendous 60th anniversary we’ve put together what we hope is an interesting season for our audiences,” he said. “The 60th anniversary season was a combination of new productions and a big commitment to finishing off work that had been in the pipeline pre-Covid. Now a new economic reality is dawning – not particularly for Scottish Opera, but more widely across the performing arts in the UK and in Scotland. 

“We are focussed on maintaining the momentum we’re building with audiences returning to our productions after the pandemic. Carmen’s advance sales are as strong as we’ve ever seen, so Barber and Traviata are us trying to maintain that momentum. Our average attendance has been very good for our 60th anniversary, 85 to 90 per cent of capacity, and we’ve seen a change in where that audience is coming from, with an uptick in metropolitan areas.”

Sir Thomas Allen’s staging of the Rossini will be sung in Amanda Holden’s English translation, with Samuel Dale Johnson in the title role, opening in October. This time next year, Sir David McVicar’s 2008 La Traviata will also tour from Glasgow to Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, with Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta.

Following a year that featured four new productions in Candide, Ainadamar, Il trittico and Carmen, much attention will focus on next February’s unveiling of director Stephen Barlow’s new staging of Dove’s Marx in London, superseding Scottish Opera’s investment in the original German production at the end of 2018.

“It’s a proper helter-skelter through Marx’s life,” said Reedijk, “delivered in one day of his life in London. It had its world premiere in Bonn and then lost a bit of momentum, but like Flight [a hit for the company earlier in 2018] it takes characters with humour and pathos through a very intense period.

“On reflection we decided to start afresh with the production, taking a different visual direction because we loved what Stephen Barlow did with Flight. It seemed right to bring his focus and sense of humour to bear on Marx.”

Reedijk adds that much of what has happened in the UK in the intervening years gives the director material to draw upon.

“There has been much to say about capitalism, London life and how someone’s public face relates to their chaotic private life. We have seen that in one or two of our more recent leadership models – some of whom have delivered chaos both publicly and privately!”

The show will play Glasgow and Edinburgh, with David Parry conducting and company favourite Roland Wood, mostly recently seen in McVicar’s Il trittico, as Karl Marx.

“Roland has revealed, in both Tosca and Falstaff, the capacity to find humour as well as pathos in a role, as well as a degree of physical menace. He’s become a really rich performer, and we love using him,” said Reedijk.

The 23/24 season will open with a concert performance of Richard Strauss rarity Daphne, the company’s contribution to the Lammermuir Festival, but having a preview performance at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal before visiting St Mary’s in Haddington and then later repeated at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. Music director Stuart Stratford conducts that and both the Rossini and Verdi revivals.

“Lammermuir Festival has been a wonderful provocation for us,” said Reedijk. “It has enabled us to consider what repertoire would appeal to a particular audience, and for Stuart to continue to find work that has either rarely or never been presented in Scotland. By also presenting that in Glasgow and Edinburgh we are sharing that with other audiences.”

Elsewhere in the year, alongside regular features like the Opera Highlight tours, Scottish Opera Young Company has a mini-tour of Glasgow, Largs and Stirling with a double bill of new work Maud by Henry McPherson, a winner in the company’s 2018 Opera Sparks initiative, and Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley.

“The stories that underpin those operas are centuries apart but both have resonances for communities in Scotland,” said Reedijk.

“It was always the intention that the Young Company would be part of a pathway into the world of opera – not necessarily Scottish Opera, but the artform – just as the Emerging Artists programme is about preparing younger, post-grad singers for life in the opera world.

“One happy outcome of Covid was the amount of attention we were able to give to that programme, and the singers came out of that experience even more operatically muscular, and we’ve been able to find them work in main-stage productions as well as in Opera Highlights and other projects.”

Pictured: Jonathan Dove

BBC SSO / Menezes

City Halls, Glasgow

In what is now a fairly regular occurrence among orchestras, the BBC SSO was forced to field a last-minute replacement for its advertised conductor. Out went indisposed Estonian Kristiina Poska; in came Brazilian conductor Simone Menezes for an unchanged programme of Saariaho, Ravel and Mendelssohn.

It was a concert that began well, but seemed to lose its mojo in the second half. 

First up, Menezes addressed the sonic adventurism of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Laterna magica, a beautifully illusory response to the notion of the magic lantern – the machine that created the earliest moving cinematic images – and in particular its influence on the work of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. Saariaho’s title is a direct lift of that which Bergman gave his autobiography.

It’s a work that progresses on its own terms, an overarching timelessness in which Saariaho presents her ideas patiently and confidently, with more than a touch of the surreal. Those weirdly drooping notes, the spectral floating chords, those shimmering dreamy textures compounded by words whispered by the players, all contributed to the slow-setting scene-opener. An eventual change in mood was predictable – given the presence of six horns and double timpani – coming in the form of a near cataclysmic climax rich in percussive glitter and ripened brass. 

Menezes adopted a mainly pragmatic role in sewing together the wistful, complex threads of this enchanting music, outwardly business-like and leaving the SSO to work its own magic. 

In Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, it was Russian soloist Denis Kozhukhin who took the commanding lead. Dramatic and uncompromising, his steely view of the opening movement dictated a performance that took Ravel’s expressive contrasts to their utmost extremes. There was lightning lustre and willowy calm, leisurely reflection and impatient vivacity, and a finality that brought us crashing back to earth.

Still to come was the melting lyricism of the slow movement, its unaccompanied opening theme searingly and effortlessly projected; and a finale bursting with an ebullience and effervescence aimed mercilessly at exaggerating its sardonic brevity. The SSO fed off Kozhukhin’s musical charisma with a sharpness and definition of its own.

Compared to that, Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony seemed disappointingly cumbersome. Menezes showed intent in narrating the lengthy first movement discourse, but did so with slowish, stolid pacing. There was spirited uplift in the swifter second movement, despite misjudged balance that left key melodies overwhelmed by over-inflated accompaniment. The slow movement evolved with pleasing unpretentiousness, but there was little sense of a returning joie de vivre in the finale, its closing maestoso curiously projected as an overripe afterthought, which it isn’t.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on BBC Sounds. 

The programme is repeated on Sunday 14 May at 3pm in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh. Details at www.usherhall.co.uk 

SCO / Emelyanychev

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It is surely paradoxical that as Scottish churches close and dwindling Christian congregations are combined, classical music lovers are rarely more than a few weeks away from a performance of a Mass, Passion or Requiem. That was the concert hall audience that Johannes Brahms made a radical pitch for with his German Requiem, and he might be dismayed to find himself in competition with earlier church music for a slot in orchestral seasons.

Nonetheless, Ein deutsches Requiem holds a special place in the hearts of many, and this deeply moving work made a suitably grand conclusion to the SCO’s as it looks forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary. Perhaps few would have predicted that choice from Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev when he arrived five years ago, and it is emblematic of the way that his relationship with the orchestra – and the very fine SCO Chorus – has developed.

He will doubtless adapt it effectively for the confines of Glasgow’s City Hall, but Thursday evening’s performance took full advantage of the scale of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall by presenting the work as widescreen chamber music. This choir can make a mighty noise when asked (and did), but the detail in their performance, and immaculate German diction, often recalled the fine recording by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen with two piano accompaniment. The sole Gospel text in the work – the opening Beatitude “Blessed are they that mourn” – has rarely sounded as enticingly affecting.

Here, though, we had the full palette of orchestral sound with the four double basses split on either side of the stage, Andrew Watson’s contrabassoon alongside two of them stage right and the timpani of Louise Lewis Goodwin (on stellar form) behind the pair opposite. Crucial to the Edinburgh experience was the hall’s organ, played by Michael Bawtree, and especially – from that first movement to the end – those deep pedal notes.

Emelyanychev placed the soloists – bass baritone Hanno Muller-Brachmann and soprano Louise Alder (a late replacement for Sophie Bevan) – above the orchestra and in front of the choir and the effect was to position their voices perfectly in the mix, more integrated with the chorus than is often the case, and never overwhelmed by the instrumentalists.

Full of period instrument colour though the orchestra was, this was another example of the hybrid engineering in which this partnership of conductor and ensemble now excels, clocking in at a mid-paced 70 minutes. Emelyanychev was as invested in Gregory Batsleer’s singers – and the soloists – as he was in the band, and the integration of all the ingredients was always delightfully readable in his baton-free direction.

Keith Bruce

Investigating Carmen

The director of Scottish Opera’s new production of the perennially popular tale of murderous lust talks to Keith Bruce about his 1970s staging, and the challenges facing opera in the 21st century.

If director John Fulljames expresses himself in the rehearsal room with the clarity he brings to addressing the existential questions currently facing his artform, it is no wonder his stage story-telling results in popular and successful productions.

“Opera is not fundamentally elitist at all. Opera plays to very large audiences; it is a large scale, popular artform.

“The reality of bringing hundreds of artists and technicians together is that it is an expensive artform, not per head for everybody involved, but just in total. For that reason the funding of opera has long been a controversial topic. That’s not a new question.”

Fulljames last worked with Scottish Opera on the revival of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a co-production with Royal Danish Opera, where he was Director for five years, and Teatro Real in Madrid, where the production ended its run at the start of this month.

“The current debate is particularly interesting for me, coming back from working in Europe and seeing the centrality of opera and music to the cultural landscape there, and also the willingness of society to invest in those things.

“The consequence, in somewhere like Denmark, of sustained investment is an extraordinary strength of audience. Copenhagen is not a big city, but we were selling 120,000 opera tickets a year and something like three-quarters of the Danish population will visit at some point in their lifetime. That sort of level of cultural engagement is the result of years of consistent investment.”

If that is not replicated in the United Kingdom, Fulljames believes he and colleagues need to step up.

“We are living in a time of extraordinary pressure on public finance, and some of that is self-manufactured and some of that is to do with political choices. We have failed to make the case why artforms like opera are necessary to everyone for the health of society. 

“One of the interesting things about the debates of the last month is that the arguments making the case have become more honed, and there has been a level of passion and commitment that hasn’t always been articulated before.”

Fulljames returns to work in Scotland having moved to a new post in Oxford, heading up the university’s Humanities Cultural Programme, based at a new multi-disciplinary arts centre.

“I’m setting up a new cultural programme in the university which will be based in the Schwarzman Centre with a new concert hall, a couple of theatres, an exhibition space and a cinema. It is a multi-artform building, opening in summer 2025, that is intended as a place where the university and the city and the region can meet.

“That connects to my interest in commissioning and incubating new work and developing new ideas in the arts. I’ve always been interested in how opera finds new energy through collaboration with other art forms. Opera is a meeting-place artform and the more open and inclusive we can be about that, the healthier the artform is.”

Nixon in China belatedly found itself at the centre of a row about exactly that when it was nominated for a Sky Arts award and objections were raised about the low representation of east Asian singers in the cast. Scottish Opera swiftly excused itself from the competition, apologising for any offence caused.

Fulljames is quite happy to address the issue and put his own considered perspective on the row.

“There is an enormous issue of diverse employment and representation onstage and Nixon in China was a tiny part of a much broader conversation. It blew up more than a year after the show opened, so for the company and its audience it was about something that was in the past.

“When we made the production, we went out of our way to think very carefully about representation onstage, but however carefully you think, you are always happy to be challenged about whether you could have approached something with even more care. The intervention came quite late, but it was a contribution to an important conversation.

“We had made a context for the production so that the Scottish Opera Chorus were not Chinese people but archivists, like a branch of the United Nations. But it is important that you have as many perspectives in the conversation from the outset, and clearly that is not something that we achieved sufficiently with Nixon.”

It bears pointing out, perhaps, that the lack of a Sky Arts award has been little hindrance to the revival of a modern opera that – like Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar – was deservingly in need of one.

“The show has been a big success in Madrid,” Fulljames confirms, “and it’s amazing how many shows Scottish Opera has around the world at the moment, including Ainamadar and Pelleas in the States – it is quite an export business.”

Part of those overseas success stories are based on partnerships with other companies. Unlike them, Carmen is entirely Scottish Opera’s own production, and touring more widely on its home turf. That is something of which its director is very appreciative.

“Carmen is an opportunity to work for a bigger audience – Scottish Opera is doing 15 performances, going to more venues than any of the other shows which I’ve made for the company.

“We are setting it in the 1970s, which was a really interesting time in Spanish history, post-Franco and before democracy was established. One of the themes of the piece is the search for freedom, both personally for Carmen and broader than that, between the smugglers and the corrupt civil guard.”

That updating is only part of what will be a new version of the familiar story, for which Fulljames and translator Christopher Cowell have gone back to the Prosper Merimee novella on which the opera’s libretto was based.

“Chris Cowell had previously translated Carmen for English National Opera and he has produced a new set of dialogues that take the content of the original opera libretto and gives them a structure that is much more akin to the novella. In the novel the narrator meets Don Jose when he is on death row for the murder of Carmen, so the story is relayed from his perspective, and he tries to justify himself through the way he structures the story.

“The libretto basically stuck with that perspective without acknowledging it as such, which is one of the reasons the piece is challenging in the way it sees Carmen, and her exoticisation as a corrupting seductress.”

By re-introducing an on-stage narrator, in the form of actor Carmen Pieraccini as a female detective investigating Carmen’s murder, the production aims to make clear exactly how and when the title character is being subjected to the ‘male gaze’.

“The original narrator is a travelling gentleman who encounters Jose, but we talked about the emergence in the 1970s of the female detective, when police forces across Europe began to admit women. It was another reason for setting it in the period.”

Fulljames also thinks that Cowell’s revised book for the show improves the drama.

“In the original score the dialogues were really important. The balance between text and music was very different from how we usually encounter the piece now. Because we are a little bit embarrassed by the dialogues, they have often been cut to the bone so a page becomes a single line and the drama doesn’t quite hang together. It becomes a ‘number’ opera – we think we know the story and just rush to the next big tune.

“One of the challenges of ‘number’ operas, with text in between, is to get the text working really well so it has the quality of spoken theatre. Carmen is a piece in which there are many editorial choices about things like which second verses to do, and we are making decisions that balance with the amount of dialogue we have.

“There’s more dialogue than in some productions but less than others – it’s about having the right dialogue. And having a fantastic actor like Carmen Pieraccini in the midst of that really helps bring it to life as a piece of theatre.”

As far as the director is concerned, that can only help the music.

“What’s striking about the music is how wide-ranging and diverse it is. On the one hand there are some really dark verismo duets and then there’s the song-based music of Carmen, and the opera-comique choruses that have more levity and lightness.

“So one of the challenges of the piece is how you sew together these languages, covering the gamut from broader entertainment to something tragic and dark. The dialogue is key, because it is the glue that holds the tonal range together.”

At the same time, the introduction of a female detective gives the opportunity to expose that ‘male gaze’ to some interrogation – and Fulljames believes Bizet would have appreciated that.

“If we say this is a narrative as told by Jose – his construction on events – it is helpful for that to be challenged from a female perspective.

“How many female collaborators did Bizet have in his artistic life? That’s an interesting question. Did he hear any female voices as stage directors, designers, or conductors? The answer to that is surely ‘no’.

“I like to think that if he came to a production of Carmen today and there was a female conductor, he would rapidly get over his astonishment and enjoy that quality of the music-making.”

Carmen opens at Theatre Royal, Glasgow on Friday and tours to Eden Court, Inverness, His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk

Picture by Sally Jubb of John Fulljames in rehearsals with Assistant Director Roxana Haines and Movement Director Jenny Ogilvie

SCO / Storgårds

City Halls, Glasgow

Finding a truly unique voice among living composers is not a guaranteed occurrence, but that’s what SCO audiences were treated to last week in the UK premiere performances of a new Viola Concerto by the Canadian-born, UK-based Cassandra Miller. 

It was unique enough, in that concertos for this instrument are – and have been throughout its occasionally maligned history – a testing challenge. But what of the fascinating novelty of the music itself, a language and style governed by adventurous free-thinking and explorative self-confidence, that was so completely original and absorbing. 

“I cannot love without trembling” – a title borrowed from the writings of the early 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil – was written for, and performed by, the exceptional Lawrence Power, whose musical persona was as much the impulse as the vehicle of its success. He lives up to his name, but more than that, Power extracts a purity of tone from his instrument – no doubt a very good one – across the full range of its possibilities, possibly even beyond.

Take the fingered harmonics that lend the opening its ethereal intensity, piercing through a gathering underscore; or the gauche succulence of exaggerated vibrato and trembling oscillations that, in sultry interaction with the orchestra, spiral up to the highest reaches of the fingerboard. Throughout the work’s five sections, which blossom with expressive intensity despite Miller’s deliberate compositional containment, Power’s free-flowing virtuosity was spellbinding.

The concerto, Miller tells us, is “about the basic human need to lament”, its flickering ornamental language drawn from improvised moiroloi compositions by the early 20th century Greek folk violinist Alexis Zoumbas. Both the resulting work and its performance under conductor John Storgårds fully captured a spirit of gnawing ecstasy.

The other fascination in this programme was, itself, a well-worn work, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The obvious question is, why was a chamber orchestra tackling such hefty symphonic repertoire? The answer is, they weren’t, at least not in the form we know it. 

Instead, Storgårds introduced us to a reduced chamber orchestra version by conductor/arranger George Morton which may have played havoc with listener expectations – the single wind all-too-often smacked of a lo-fat alternative, not their fault, and the inevitable thinning of textures led to uncomfortable imbalances – but much of which drew focus to aspects of Tchaikovsky often overlooked. The performance, itself, was admirably lithe and perceptive.

More satisfying all round was the opening work, Sibelius’ Suite No 2 extracted from his incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Here was a sequence of scene-setters and character sketches richly portrayed by a composer prepared to enrich a theatrically-prescribed musical response with his own enigmatic, sharp-edged personality. Storgårds’ casual authority ensured an illuminative performance. 

Ken Walton

SCO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

The concise and considered introductory remarks of conductor Mark Wigglesworth to his programme with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, finding common experience in the life and work of the three composers featured, were a model for his thoughtful approach to directing the music.

The highlight of that programme, notwithstanding the inclusion of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, was the Cello Concerto No 2 of Shostakovich, with soloist Laura van der Heijden, who has a particular affinity with Russian music.

It may be a very personal late work of the composer, but the hesitant opening notes on the cello and initial contribution by the low strings now sound very redolent of the mid-1960s Cold War period of the work’s composition. Van der Heijden was at all times clearly aware that there is little about the work that is a virtuoso showcase – that opening bar is one of the few moments where there is not something else going on alongside the soloist, her cadenzas not excepted.

The integration of the top line with the orchestration takes many forms, and many individuals in the SCO were called upon to make specific contributions, including Rhiannon Carmichael’s contrabassoon, a very fine horn pairing of Chris Gough and Andy Saunders, and a range of ear-catching percussion playing, culminating in some top-notch tambourine.

The soloist has the final word, but, as in so much of Shostakovich, it is a very ambiguous last utterance.

The opening Simple Symphony by a youthful Benjamin Britten was altogether more straightforward in intent, but was no less demanding of the SCO strings, who found a terrific range of dynamics in the Playful Pizzicato second movement and a beautifully coherent ensemble sound in the finale.

This orchestra is now expert at a sort of hybrid performance that combines modern instruments with baroque ingredients, like natural horns and trumpets, and that was key to this account of Beethoven’s masterwork. Wigglesworth, conducting from memory, was master of all the details of the score, particularly in the slow movement, which revealed colours and shifts of tempo that seemed completely fresh and new – so much so that the ripple of applause at its end seemed far from inappropriate. The Scherzo was as fine, but the last movement just failed to build on all that capital in realising the cumulative effect of its repetitions in the way it had seemed destined to achieve.

Keith Bruce

Concerto partners

Cellist Laura van der Heijden and composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad tell Keith Bruce how a Scottish world premiere came about

A very busy and multi-faceted musician, cellist Laura van der Heijden is not an especially regular visitor to Scotland, but she is the soloist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the next few weeks, oddly with both conducting Wigglesworths, Mark and Ryan, on the podiums.

The 2012 BBC Young Musician winner when she was just 15, Van der Heijden is playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 2 with the SCO this week in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, and then returns in the third week of May to premiere a new cello concerto written for her by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, one of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first commissions as Chief Conductor of the SSO.

“I am in panic learning mode at the moment!” she told VoxCarnyx. “It’s my first time with the Shostakovich as well and I wonder if there will be more flexibility with Cheryl’s piece, while with the Shostakovich everything is on the page. But then I have never played Shostakovich 2 with an orchestra either – so all will be revealed in the coming days!

“It was the SCO who suggested the Shostakovich and I have always wanted to learn and play it, so I said ‘yes’. There is so much dialogue between the orchestra part and the cello part – there are some of the coolest classical music moments in that piece.”

With composer Frances-Hoad also part of our on-line conversation, it is clear that the new bespoke concerto holds as much exciting promise for the soloist. The BBC commission will be heard in Glasgow’s City Halls, replaced in the SSO’s Aberdeen concert by the Walton concerto that was her victory piece in 2012. When both are broadcast, listeners may spot some shared vocabulary.

“I love the opening of the Walton concerto and that shimmering sound and that’s something that comes up in Cheryl’s piece. I also mentioned the Martinu cello concerto to her and the brass stabs that I love in that piece – and we’ve definitely got brass stabs in hers too. Those are textures that I really enjoy and both of those appear in the concerto.

“But I haven’t heard it live yet, and I think there’s a lot that I am going to be surprised by. There’s no way of experiencing what it will really be like before I meet with the orchestra – playing it through with the piano is not the same.”

The Frances-Hoad concerto has come together with such easy synchronicity, both player and composer seem mildly astonished.

“We only started talking about it in Spring of last year,” says Frances-Hoad, “so it’s amazing because these things usually take ages.

“Laura sent me a message saying she was interested in me writing a concerto for her and I was overjoyed as I have always really enjoyed her playing.

“We had some discussions and then Ryan Wigglesworth rang me and said he was interested in commissioning me to write a concerto for Laura and the BBC Scottish, so instead of having to raise funding, Ryan made it all fit magically into place.”

“I might have mentioned to him that I’d like to have something by you,” adds Van der Heijden, “but it did seem as if the BBC commission was unconnected with that.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been involved in the process of commissioning a piece and although I’ve done other new works, this feels like a new adventure. We had quite a few conversations, but I knew Cheryl’s music speaks to me and my playing style and it would be something I could connect to.

“We spoke about some ideas behind the piece and that we’d like it to be inspired by the environment and be a celebration of nature, rather than some sort of climate crisis appeal. But that’s just the inspiration behind the music, and it doesn’t need any programme.”

For Frances-Hoad, who began her musical life as a cellist at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the big work is an important milestone in her composing career.

“When I was 14 or 15 I wrote a 15 minute cello concertina and that was what won me a BBC Young Composer Award in 1996. In 2013 I then wrote a piece called Catharsis for wind quintet, string quintet and solo cello. It was a cello concerto in ambition, but I haven’t written a proper cello concerto until now.

“I recently had an amazing year as a Visiting Fellow in Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford – which extended to 20 months because of Covid – where I had a studio and made friends with people from different areas of study and wrote a lot of pieces inspire by stuff they told me about – it was just a really productive, wonderful time.

“So I asked one of the biologists for ideas when I was writing the cello concerto, and he told me about this phenomenon of algae in the ocean that feeds off sunlight and carbon and blooms and grows incredibly fast, making beautifully patterns in the sea.

“What I love doing as a composer is learning about things like that because it makes my mind work in a different way. In the second movement, the harmonies are my response to the life-cycle of the algae.

“It’s a mind-gym that means I come up with ideas that I wouldn’t have done. The piece is a celebration of the beauty and wonder of nature, rather than bashing heads together about the importance of its preservation.

“But at the same time I was always thinking about writing a proper cello concerto, and about the balance in the orchestration. I wanted it to be a fulfilling piece to play with a proper slow movement where you can really appreciate the soloist’s musicianship, and show-off the talents of the soloist.”

Laura van der Heijden plays Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 2 in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall this evening with the SCO under Mark Wigglesworth. The concert is repeated at Glasgow City Halls on Friday and Aberdeen Music Hall on Saturday.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Cello Concerto has its World Premiere at Glasgow City Halls on Thursday May 18. Soloist Laura van der Heijden plays the Walton Cello Concerto in Aberdeen Music Hall with Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC SSO the following day.

EIF 2023

As the first Edinburgh Festival programme from new director Nicola Benedetti is announced, KEITH BRUCE delves into the musical treats in store

The question new Edinburgh International Festival director Nicola Benedetti poses on the front of her first programme brochure derives from the recently-republished last book Reverend Martin Luther King wrote before his death. However, she also describes “Where do we go from here?” as a challenge to the Festival itself as it moves on from the celebration of its 75th anniversary last year.

Sharing the platform at the media briefing launching this year’s event with Creative Director Roy Luxford and Head of Music Andrew Moore was a clear indication of continuity, and her stated intention of making the most of the talent the virtuoso violinist and passionate music education advocate found in place in the organisation. Significantly she has not taken on Fergus Linehan’s role of Chief Executive, now filled by Linehan’s Executive Director, Francesca Hegyi.

And there is much about that brochure, and the shape of the programming, that will be familiar to regular Festival attenders, no doubt reflecting the fact that many of the building blocks of the 2023 programme were already in place when Benedetti was appointed. What is very different is the way the events are listed, not by genre or venue, but in sections that continue her engagement with the philosophy of Dr King: Community over Chaos, Hope in the Face of Adversity, and A Perspective That’s Not One’s Own.

That makes perusal of the print a different experience, but not radically so, and it is clear that the new director’s pathways to engagement with the work of the artists invited to this year’s Festival have followed the programme, rather than shaped it.

What’s there to see and hear – the actual meat of this year’s event – will please a great many people, and perhaps even fans of the most hotly debated element of any recent Edinburgh Festival. Opera magazine speculated in the editorial of its May issue that there would be “no major staged opera for the first time in decades” and those precise words are probably strictly true. However, there will be many for whom the UK premiere of a Barry Kosky-directed Berliner Ensemble production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera in the Festival Theatre is more than just the next best thing, and Theatre of Sound’s retelling of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle as a contemporary two-hander with the Hebrides Ensemble at the Church Hill Theatre in the Festival’s final week looks most intriguing.

Concert performances of opera, a regular highlight of recent Edinburgh programmes, maintain their high standard. It is perhaps surprising that Wagner’s Tannhauser will have its first ever performance at the Festival in the Usher Hall on August 25, with American tenor Clay Hilley in the title role as local hero Sir Donald Runnicles conducts Deutsche Oper Berlin.

A fortnight earlier, Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the orchestra to which he has just committed a further five years of his career in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Andrew Moore introduced this as the first of a series of concert performances of Mozart operas by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with its ebullient Principal Conductor. The same orchestra undertook the same project under the baton of Charles Mackerras in the 1990s – although The Magic Flute was not part of that series.

It was also in the last decade of the 20th century that Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra first wowed Edinburgh audiences and that team provides the first of this Festival’s orchestral residencies. Beginning with an evening of music presented in a transformed Usher Hall with beanbags replacing the stalls seating, the orchestra also plays Bartok and Kodaly with Sir Andras Schiff and the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s National Girls Choir. Benedetti is involved as presenter of the first of the orchestra’s concerts, and also joins the BBC SSO and Ryan Wigglesworth on stage on the Festival’s first Sunday for a concert of new music that poses the question on the brochure cover. The young singers of NYCoS have their own concert, with the RSNO, at the Usher Hall on August 13, preceded by a demonstration of the Kodaly music teaching method that is pivotal to its success.

If those events clearly reflect the new director’s commitment to access and education, her use of the EIF’s home, The Hub, below the castle at the top of the Royal Mile, is another crucial ingredient. She intends The Hub to be the Festival’s “Green Room” but open to everyone and “a microcosm of the whole Festival” and it has events programmed most nights, most of them music and often drawing in performers who have bigger gigs in other venues.

They include players from the London Symphony Orchestra, which is 2023’s second resident orchestra, playing Rachmaninov and Shostakovich under Gianandrea Noseda and Szymanowski and Brahms with Sir Simon Rattle before turning its attention to Messiaen’s epic Turangalila-Symphonie, prefaced by a programme of French music that inspired it, with Benedetti again wearing her presenting hat.

The final residency is of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela with conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare, prefaced by a concert by some of the musicians at The Hub. The Usher Hall also sees two concerts by the Oslo Philharmonic with conductor Klaus Makela and its programme begins with Tan Dun conducting the RSNO and the Festival Chorus in his own Buddha Passion and closes with Karina Canellakis conducting the BBC SSO and the Festival Chorus in Rachmaninov’s The Bells. Outside of the concert hall there will be free music-making in Princes Street Gardens at the start of the Festival and in Charlotte Square at its end, details of which will come in June.

With a full programme of chamber music at the Queen’s Hall as usual, a dance and theatre programme full of top flight international artists and companies also includes works of particular musical interest, specifically a new revival of choreographer Pina Bausch’s work using Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in Edinburgh in 1978, and Deborah Warner’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra.

More information at eif.co.uk, with online public booking opening on May 3, and in-person booking at the Hub available now.

RSNO / Bringuier

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Here was Tchaikovsky that even Pierre Boulez – famously antipathetic to the works of the Russian composer – might have had time for. And the music was in the hands of another French conductor, Lionel Bringuier.

Bringuier stepped in at short notice last week to replace Norwegian Tabita Berglund for the RSNO’s scheduled programme, with American rising star Randall Goosby playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, followed by the Sixth – and last – Symphony, the “Pathetique”. This is music that it is too easy to wallow in, but the shared approach of Bringuier and Goosby, working together for the first time, was always crisp and precise, whether that was in the dynamic shifts in the opening movement of the symphony or in the impressively fast and clear solo line of the concerto’s “vivacissimo” Finale.

Goosby, just 27 and still completing his studies at Juilliard, is an astonishing player, with a clarity of tone and technical ability that impresses from the start. Perhaps his first movement cadenza was easier to admire than to warm to, but the distance from the emotional excesses players can bring to the work was always refreshing, as was his constant engagement with the orchestra and attention to Bringuier’s direction.

That meant the concerto was of a piece with the symphony, giving the audience – although there were more empty seats than might have been expected for this programme – an opportunity to assess the acoustic effect of the recent refurbishment of the hall. Not only are the new seats more comfortable, it does seem that there is better projection of the sound from the stage, although some of that impression may well be down to the approach of these musicians in particular.

The third movement of the Pathetique is Tchaikovsky at his very best, and every note was immaculately realised in this interpretation, as was the transition to the sombre last movement which so often tricks unwary listeners into premature applause. Its low register sonority also sounded enhanced by the venue’s makeover.

We will probably never know what Berglund would have made of her 20th century countryman David Monrad Johansen’s Pan, which opened the concert, but Bringuier deserves plaudits for sticking with the advertised programme. Although it becomes dramatic enough, and – as anyone might have guessed from the title – featured fine solo playing from principal flute Katherine Bryan, it is an unremarkable work, far outshone by the music that followed.

Keith Bruce

SCO / van Soeterstede

City Halls, Glasgow

The old cliché about the odd numbered Beethoven symphonies out-lasting the evens never really worked with the Pastoral, and a remarkable run of performances of No 4 in pre-pandemic times made a very eloquent case for it as well.

Symphony No 8’s relative brevity to those on either side of it mean it is sometimes especially belittled, including by the composer himself, but also makes it an attractive programming option. Its compact arc can create the temptation for conductors to keep the orchestra on a tight leash until the boisterous finale, but French conductor Chloe van Soeterstede was having none of that.

Ideal for the smaller forces of a chamber orchestra, the Eighth is brisk from start to finish and van Soeterstede made sure that pace – while never slacking – was very accurately measured. There is much musical jest and japery in the work, in unexpected notes and combinations of instruments, staccato chords and offbeat accents, and the conductor missed none of the gags. She also found an element of darkness in the Minuet’s septet of solo cello, horns, pizzicato basses, clarinet and bassoon that set up the pell-mell finish perfectly.

It was the culmination of a fine programme that had begun with the Symphony No 1 of neglected 19th century German composer Emilie Mayer. Some of Mayer’s songs featured in Golda Schulz’s recital of lost works by women composers at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, and here was evidence that her orchestral works – she wrote a further seven symphonies – are also ripe for rediscovery.

The models of her male predecessors in her homeland are much in evidence early on in the symphony, but she then goes very much her own way, with some starling changes of pace and direction later on. As with the Beethoven, this was a score very well suited to an ensemble with 24 strings.

In between was the star attraction of mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, singing the six songs of Les nuits d’ete that might have been written for her, had Hector Berlioz not in fact orchestrated them for his second wife, thus creating the first example of such a cycle.

It does have a lovely shape to it as well, beautifully communicated by Cargill, from the optimistic opening Villanelle, through the darkness of bereavement and loss, to the relatively upbeat, if uncertain, closer, L’ile inconnue. Scotland’s international singing star was on absolutely magnificent form, her superb instrument of burnished tone across the whole of its range, but always all about engaging the attention of the listener on a one-to-one basis.

There was plenty of instructive example here for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland students in attendance. Their intensive study with Cargill this coming week will culminate in a Cumnock Tryst recital in the Ayrshire town’s Trinity Church on Saturday April 28.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Chloe van Soeterstede by Olivia da Costa

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

It’s over 25 years since the BBC SSO performed William Wallace’s “Creation” Symphony in C sharp minor. It was a studio session in Glasgow recorded for BBC Radio 3 and a Hyperion CD. So it’s not before time that conductor Martyn Brabbins included it in his “Sound of Scotland” matinee programme with the same orchestra last Thursday, a performance that sealed its aesthetic and technical worth, but equally pointed to a London-based Scots composer responding in the 1890s to a musical world still starstruck by Wagner, while living amidst the stirring potency of Elgar.

These are the overriding influences in this symphonic representation of the biblical creation story, its dark opening groping steadily and Parsifal-like towards successive peaks through which Wallace demonstrates a mastery of orchestration and structuring. 

Such repertoire is right up Brabbins’ street, his relaxed, authoritative lead capturing the momentousness of the score, almost film-like in its epic ebbing and flowing. The SSO responded with infectious self-belief, going all the way with the first movement’s sugar-coated conclusion, the sunbursts that offer glimpses of character in the occasionally bland Andantino, a scherzo-like Allegro verging on jolly-hockey-sticks joie-de-vivre, and a finale oozing pride and pomp, as if Wallace was saying: “And God created the British Empire, and he saw that it was good”.

Such was the climax to a programme that began with Judith Weir’s tribute to the geometric Swiss painter Paul Klee, her Heroic Strokes of the Bow based on his musically-inspired “Heroische Bogenstriche”, but also mixed and matched a refreshing couple of viola duos with Iain Hamilton’s virile Clarinet Concerto.

Where Weir transforms Klee’s images into sparkling sonic gestures and whirlwind textures, all dramatically threaded through this pellucid performance, Hamilton’s early concerto proved an eye-opener for those more familiar with the acerbic rigour that dominates much of his later music. Soloist Richard Plane had the full measure of the piece, packing his delivery with physical vitality, athletic virtuosity, and where called for, sweet lyrical charisma.

Why the interspersed viola duos? It just seemed, Brabbins explained, an opportune moment to showcase the SSO’s front desk principals – Scott Dickinson and Andrew Berridge – who had used the restrictions during Covid to seek out new repertoire for themselves. Here were two of a still-growing collection: James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas; and the world premiere of Camino by none other than the unassuming Brabbins.

There was a satisfying complementarity between both works, the plaintive intimacy of MacMillan’s, with its wistful melodic charm and softly intermeshing complexities, countered by the sparkier interactions of Brabbins’ Camino, its more impulsive introspection inspired by his daughter’s solitary pilgrimage along the Camino Santiago de Compostela. In each case, Dickinson and Berridge brought accomplishment and poetic empathy to their performances.

Ken Walton

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3

« Older Entries