Author Archives: VoxCarnyx

Scottish Opera / Don Giovanni

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

From the flashing of the house-lights, thunder sound effects and appearance of a masked figure behind the gauze at the beginning of the overture, there is a Hammer Horror kitsch element to Sir Thomas Allen’s Gothic Venice-set Don Giovanni, Simon Higlett’s clever adaptable designs for the Theatre Royal’s restricted space beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan. Even the chorus scene of Zerlina and Masetto’s pre-nup party is very monochrome, and only Kitty Whately’s Donna Elvira costume – is her character choosing to be a scarlet woman? – provides a flash of colour.

That scenic palette is, however, in stark contrast to almost every other element of a subtle production. Starting in the pit, where natural trumpets sit alongside modern horns, and the continuo playing is superbly balanced with the orchestra’s big dramatic moments, this an evening in which nothing is over-played. Giovanni can be performed very effectively as melodrama, but this narrative staging is much more interested in realism, even soap opera – in a good way.

All the central characters are believably human, with the inevitable exception of Keel Watson’s stocky vengeful Commendatore, who spends most of the evening cast in stone, after his initial appearance as a worried father. The physical balance between Zachary Altman’s miserable but venal Leporello and Roland Wood’s cavalier, single-minded Don Giovanni is pretty much ideal, which is often not the case. That casting common-sense runs through the principal roles, with Whately at once the most authoritative of the women and the most vulnerable, and Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in glorious voice as Donna Anna, somehow revelling in her victimhood. Completing a top trio of female performances, Lea Shaw, who is in her second year as a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist, grows more confident in each role she undertakes, and is both blowsy and naïve as Zerlina.

Besides Altman, the other company debuts come from Emyr Wyn Jones as Masetto and Pablo Bemsch as Don Ottavio – Zerlina’s low-born fiancé likeable but dim, Donna Anna’s effete courtier equally useless but whose equivocal arias are exceptionally well sung.

With the focus clearly on the ensemble work from trio to septet, no-one pitches for the applause in their solos, and given the liveliness of the show elsewhere, some of these stand-and-sing moments seem the weakest elements, regardless of the quality of the singing. By comparison, the end of Act 1, when the stage is full of distractions to cover Giovanni’s seduction of Zerlina, including an early ghostly appearance by the Commendatore, is quite masterly, and the perfect set up for the intricate music of that septet.  

The stage-craft of Allen and his cast, with choreographer Kally Lloyd-Jones and James Fleming and Gary Connery directing fights and stunts, is top drawer, and even the sub-Cyrano business of Giovanni and Leporello swapping clothes and identities at the start of Act 2 is dispatched with casual ease.

While there is never any doubt who is villain of the piece – Wood is consumed by flames and booed at the curtain call – no-one escapes censure in Da Ponte’s libretto or in this production.  In the closing sextet, often omitted in years gone by,  they sing that Giovanni’s death was a fair result for his evil life. The ambiguity in the air is whether their share of culpability might also prove a stumbling block on the path to the Pearly Gates.

Keith Bruce

Performance sponsored by Miller Samuel Hill Brown. Touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Picture: Roland Wood (Don Giovanni) and Lea Shaw (Zerlina) by James Glossop

Scottish Opera fighting fit

Alex Reedijk and Stuart Stratford tell Keith Bruce about the company’s new season

Recognising the nation’s collective slow recovery after Covid, Scottish Opera’s General Director Alex Reedijk emphasised the rude health of his company, in its 60th anniversary year, when he launched its first full season following the pandemic.

His words were peppered with metaphors from the gym, as he talked of “new muscles” built during the health emergency that bring confidence to work presented outside conventional theatres, and of ScotOp being happy to undertake the “heavy lifting” in developing new productions on which other companies are happy to come aboard as co-producers.

The two shows he was referring to are the boldest projects on the new slate of work, which opens with the current revival of Don Giovanni in Sir Thomas Allen’s 2013 production, touring to Inverness, Edinburgh and Aberdeen after the Glasgow performances.

It is followed in August by Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, performed in a specially-constructed tented venue behind the company’s production studios in Glasgow’s Edington Street, on a space now styled “New Rotterdam Wharf”. The production’s precursor in the company’s repertoire is the promenade staging of Pagliacci in Paisley in July 2018 rather than either of the Edington Street car-park operas, La boheme and Falstaff, it mounted while theatres were closed.

“We are using what we’ve learned about the robustness of the art form, on a piece that occupies a really important place in the life of Scottish Opera,” said Reedijk.

The “Scottish Opera version” is regarded as the go-to score of Candide. It was made in the 1980s with the approval of the composer, who was present in Glasgow, by his student John Mauceri, the company’s music director at the time.

“It is about displaced people and we are working with the Maryhill Integration Network to recruit members of the community chorus, which will team 80 volunteers with 20 professional singers,” added current music director Stuart Stratford.

Stratford has plenty of experience in this type of work, having worked with director Graham Vick in Birmingham Opera and with Tete-a-Tete Opera. Freed from the restrictions of Covid regulations, the potential audience for each of Candide’s half-dozen performances will still be limited to 400, that being the number that Vick demonstrated could reasonably be shepherded and stewarded to each of the performing stages without slowing the action.

“I loved working with Graham Vick on those shows,” said Stratford, “and hopefully there are people who will feel able to come to something that is well-ventilated and semi-outdoors who might still have misgivings about visiting a theatre.”

Reedijk has plans to have a performance filmed, although no specific platform is signed up to broadcast it. That was a tactic the company used for the recent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, recently transmitted on BBC Four and watched by over a quarter of a million people around the world.

November sees Scottish Opera back in the Theatre Royal and Festival Theatre with what will be the UK’s first staged production of Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar.

“It premiered in 2003, and is a series of reflections on the life of Federico Garcia Lorca,” said Stratford. “It has been done in static way as an oratorio in London, but the music is unbelievably dramatic.”

With Latin-American percussion in the pit and flamenco dancers on the stage, choreographer Deborah Colker will direct a show that has been developed in partnership with Opera Ventures, who were also involved in Greek in 2017 and Breaking the Waves in 2019.

“Those shows have made possible co-production partnerships with New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Detroit Opera as well as with Welsh National Opera,” said Reedijk.

Like much of the season Scottish Opera can now unveil, Ainadamar was in the works before the pandemic.

“The Gondoliers was delayed because of Covid, and the opening for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was stopped because of it. Ainadamar we had been cooking up with Opera Ventures, and Il Trittico we’d been talking about with David McVicar since before the lockdown,” said Reedijk.

The Puccini triple-bill will reach the Scottish stage in March, before which Sir David McVicar’s last two Scottish Opera productions will have opened in Santa Fe (Falstaff) and Los Angeles (Pelleas et Melisande).

Also a co-production with WNO, Il trittico has never been staged in its entirety in Scottish Opera’s 60 years, nor has McVicar previously directed it. Il tabarro (The Cloak), Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica) and the comic Gianni Schicchi are distinct and contrasting stories, but McVicar is adopting an ensemble approach with a cast that includes company stalwarts Roland Wood, Sinead Campbell-Wallace and Karen Cargill and shared elements in the set design by Charles Edwards.

With a dinner-length interval before the concluding tale of the trilogy, Scottish Opera is selling Il trittico as an epic night out, a visual theatrical feast and a big work out for the orchestra. As with all but the last of the staged productions in the new season, Stratford is conducting.

For that final show in May 2023, Australian-Chinese conductor Dane Lam is on the podium for Bizet’s Carmen. Sung in English, it will be directed by John Fulljames, director of the much-lauded 2020 staging of John Adams’ Nixon in China, with that show’s Madame Mao, Korean soprano Hye-Houn Lee, in the cast, and Justina Gringyte in the title role, as well as parts for four of the company’s current Emerging Artists: Zoe Drummond, Lea Shaw, Osian Wyn Bowen, and Colin Murray.

“Coming out of Covid we wanted to demonstrate ambition,” said Reedijk. “So there is work that we know audiences will be interested in like Carmen and Don Giovanni, but also something of the scale of Trittico, the artistic diversity of Ainadamar, and the curiosity of Candide for people to respond to.”

Nor is that the full story of course. Already announced are new dates for the company’s travelling outdoor shows, Pop-Up Opera, and two tours of Opera Highlights to community halls across Scotland. Building on the success of the Puccini Collection concert in Dundee’s Caird Hall, which incorporated long scenes from the composer’s operas in concert, The Verdi Collection will play in Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Stratford will direct the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and sections of Otello, Don Carlos and La Forza del Destino will feature.

There will also be a staged concert performance of Massenet rarity Therese at East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival and in Perth Concert Hall in September, directed by Roxana Haines with Estonian Anu Tali conducting. Haines also directs the Scottish Opera Young Company’s summer show, Rubble, composed by Gareth Williams with a libretto by Johnny McKnight, and Young Company Artistic Director Chris Gray conducting. And Gray MDs a touring revival of the Lliam Paterson’s opera for babies, BambinO, with Charlotte Hoather and Samuel Pantcheff.

All of which means that Scottish Opera will more than achieve the aim of its CEO that it visits 60 places in Scotland to mark that anniversary year. “We are in good order, and in good health,” said Reedijk.

General booking for Scottish Opera’s new season opens on Tuesday, May 31. More information is available at scottishopera.org.uk.

Picture: Scottish Opera’s 1988 production of Candide

BBC SSO / Dausgaard

City Halls, Glasgow

When it comes to reflecting on Thomas Dausgaard’s 6-year tenure as principal conductor of the BBC SSO, it could very well be that his swan song will be seen as his greatest moment. At least, that was the immediate impression gleaned from last Thursday’s concert. It marked the midway point in what should have been his valedictory vision of all six Nielsen symphonies – he called off January’s opening performance of the Third, but made it for the Sixth in March – which ends this coming Thursday with a mighty two-pronged finale of Nos 1 and 4 (The Inextinguishable).

In this case, we heard the Symphony No 2, The Four Temperaments, one of the composer’s most gritty and direct, placed in the second half as a plain-speaking riposte to the burning fervour of Bartok’s ballet score The Wooden Prince. From the word go – an impatient and decisive downbeat that carried the ballistic shock effect of an Olympic starting gun – Dausgaard had the SSO playing with penetrating rhythmic bite and an immediate sense of propulsion that foretold the unceasing excitement about to unfold. 

Each movement relates to four Ancient Greek temperaments – Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic and Sanguine – their characteristics filtered, in Nielsen’s case, through crude images he observed on the walls of a rural Danish pub. What transpires is a sequence of edgy, to-the-point musical representations, devilishly curt in both expression and length, but all the more visceral and entertaining for it.

The journey from feverish impetuosity in the opening Allegro collerico and dismissive charm of the scherzo-like Allegro commode e flemmatico, through the ultimate resignation of the slow movement (Andante malinconico) to carefree exuberance of the concluding Allegro sanguineo, was a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride.

Before that, the 1932 shortened version by Bartok of his The Wooden Prince, asked naturally for more expansive treatment, which it received by way of Dausgaard’s impassioned but unobtrusive approach. More than he often does, and without losing a hold over the big picture, he allowed the SSO ample scope to shape its own take on the descriptive tale of a prince whose ruse to win the heart of a princess by creating a puppet of himself initially backfires when the princess falls for the puppet.

The music itself was revelatory, Bartok dipping into a sea of derivatives, from Wagner to Stravinsky, yet marking his own presence with signature affirmation. If there was room for Dausgaard to exercise some of the same ferocity he applied later to the Nielsen, there was plenty in this performance to signal its fascination and extreme worth.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

SCO/ Emelyanychev

Perth Concert Hall

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s marketing department sold this season-closer under the banner “Maxim’s Firebird” and energetic Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev obliged by delivering a singular account of Stravinsky’s score that was only predictable in its unpredictability.

Preceded by the encapsulation of Beethoven’s craft that is the Leonore Overture No 3 and the equally compact and radical First Violin Concerto of Prokofiev, with Alina Ibragimova as soloist, this was a concert of music usually heard by larger orchestras performed by a big edition of the SCO that made explicit use and purpose of its chamber music sensibilities.

In all cases, but especially in the Stravinsky, the result was revelatory. There were details in the music that appeared fresh and newly-minted; from Simon Smith’s celesta and piano and Eleanor Hudson’s harp on the one hand, and from first horn Zoe Tweed, first flute Daniel Pailthorpe and the regulars on the reed instruments on the other.

Just as important, though, was the dynamic control the conductor produced from the musicians all evening. That was evident in his clear insistence on playing more softly at the start of the Beethoven, and reached its apotheosis in the sequence of Rondo, Infernal dance, Lullaby and Hymn at the culmination of the Stravinsky. There have been louder Firebirds, but few with such contrasts in sound and mood, turning on a sixpence with breath-catching impact, and with a momentum that was truly magnificent.

Towards the end of Overture, following a perfectly positioned off-stage trumpet, there was a brief sense that the winds were overloud, even as the strings produced an impressive pianissimo, but in the Firebird Suite (the version Stravinsky made in 1945) the balance was always fascinating. It should be remembered that this is the hall in which Emelyanychev and the SCO worked on filmed music during lockdown, so they know the acoustic well.

That applied to the concerto as well, with Ibragimova fully on board with the project and projecting her own virtuosity at often daringly low volume. The opening Andantino began very quietly indeed and even the central, speedy Scherzo: Vivacissimo was working to hairline tolerances in terms of balance between soloist and ensemble. The concerto may not have had the narrative of the other works on the programme, but it lacked nothing in drama. The lyricism that reappears in the final movement was combined with a powerful edge, honed like tempered steel.

As former chief conductor Robin Ticciati steered the SCO into spheres of music it had previously not visited, as well as recalibrating more familiar repertoire, so too, in his own inimitable style, has Maxim Emelyanychev. He may, however, be bringing a more radical, and – crucially – more intimate approach to that aspect of his job.

Keith Bruce

Concert repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and City Halls, Glasgow tonight and tomorrow.
Picture: Alina Ibragimova

The Night With . . Juice

Drygate, Glasgow

Composer/promoter Matthew Whiteside’s strategy of presenting cutting edge new music in venues with none of the austerity often associated with that endeavour has never seemed as bold as it did on Saturday night, where the upstairs room was accessed through a pub/restaurant packed with folk who had probably been more concerned with sport that afternoon, and who were never inaudible.

If that meant the audience had to focus their ears more carefully as they quaffed the craft brewery’s ale, it was an exercise well worth the effort. Opening with Meredith Monk’s wordless call-to-attention, Offering, sung solo by Anna Snow, the vocal trio’s first set was completed by two world premieres, the second by Whiteside himself with an electronic underscore triggered from a laptop by himself. And This Too Shall Pass was a lockdown project full of signals of the passing on time – bells and metronomes, breathing and babble – which made considerable demands on the singers’ vocabulary of vocal effects, closely integrated with the instrumental soundtrack.

It was in contrast to the even newer work, by Royal Conservatoire of Scotland composition student Amy Stewart, Mountain High. Completed in workshops with the group, Stewart’s heartfelt lament for the stolen youth of the children caught up in the present conflict in Ukraine married the Kyrie from the Latin Mass with a Ukrainian folk song, There Stands a High Mountain.

Thereafter, the tone lightened, even if the music itself was often complex, three of the following four pieces being specifically concerned with the goddess Venus. Elizabeth Bernholz, a.k.a. Gazelle Twin, and the Afrofuturist Nwando Ebizie both start from the same point with their pieces Goddess Awake and The Birth of Venus, but travel in very different directions. With a looping soprano figure, sampled mezzo and narration, the precision-engineered performance of the former was the easier to appreciate, while the non-singing vocal techniques and pre-language story of the latter was a dense and complex climax to the programme.

The work of French-born sound artist Olivia Louvel has visited the 16th century before, and specifically the story of Mary Queen of Scots. Her composition Not a Creature of Paper draws on the Venusian love sonnets of Renaissance French feminist Louise Labe in a collage of overlapping text and tunes and fireworks in the electronic underscore.

With the rich alto tones of Steph Connor replacing Kerry Andrew in the line-up, these three works were perhaps the building blocks of a future Juice Ensemble album, the exception being Croatian composer Mirela Ivicevic’s Orgy of References, another solo – this one performed by soprano Sarah Dacey. An absolutely hilarious setting of the notional biography/curriculum vitae of a young musician, it plays with all the cliches in a jumble of showstopping moments and academic earnestness, and required huge amounts of skill and panache to pull off as successfully as Dacey did.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Sarah Dacey

SCO / Manze

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

For his first concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra since before the pandemic, conductor Andrew Manze presided over a magnificent programme that will surely be one of the most thoughtful and inventive to grace the 150th anniversary year of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Only one of the works – Britten’s Lachrymae – was familiar to me, and the highlight of a sensational concert was a world premiere, The Years by the SCO’s Associate Composer Anna Clyne, commissioned with funds from the RVW Trust.

Setting verses by Stephanie Fleischmann, this response to the pandemic was a real challenge for the 45 voices of the SCO Chorus, and music few other amateur choirs would have attempted. Clyne employed the voices incrementally, sometimes using very few of them. Here was a fabulous evocation of the solace we all found in nature during lockdown walks, with trilling winds and bugle-like calls on the trumpets. The integration of the chorus with the instrumentalists was masterly, with some exceptional sonic results.

Part of that rich mix of sound was an evocation of the sea, and the new work was preceded by the Sea Sketches for strings by Grace Williams, a pupil of Vaughan Williams and contemporary of Britten, and another female composer whose work is ripe for rediscovery. Introducing it, Manze must have been keenly aware that the violinists behind him included only one man, seconds leader Gordon Bragg.

He, leader Doriane Gable and first viola Jessica Beeston all had brief solos in the hugely effective third section Channel Sirens, which is followed by the brisk, picturesque Breakers. This is 20th century “sea music” as worthy of a regular place in the repertoire as the famous pieces by Britten, Debussy and Ravel.

The works that followed the interval were also sequenced superbly. Manze supplied his own orchestral arrangement of John Dowland’s If My Complaints Could Passions Move as a precursor to the Britten, which is based on the Renaissance song and was written for Scots viola virtuoso William Primrose. The soloist here was young Timothy Ridout, who has recorded it with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra on a disc that also includes music by Vaughan Williams.

The work by Vaughan Williams that brought this clever programme to a close was his Flos Campi, which features both solo viola and the chorus. It is structured on texts from the Song of Solomon, but the vocal line is wordless, and although it might have been a more straightforward sing for the choir, it is still far from standard repertoire. Given the composer’s interest in traditional music, it is little surprise that Ridout was required to bring some folk fiddle feeling to his contribution.

With the sopranos on especially impressive, precise form, the chorus that brought their best game to the very scenic scoring of the piece, in what was another pinnacle of a triumphant evening, repeated at Glasgow City Halls tonight.

Keith Bruce

Timothy Ridout picture by Jan Hordijk

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

A common mantra among many conductors is that less is often best. You see it in the most effective and moving performances, where a pertinent flick, an overarching gesture or, indeed, a visible cessation of any movement whatsoever may seem inversely proportionate to the heaving potency of the music, yet somehow the orchestra knows instinctively what is required of it and delivers with driven, burning intensity.

It’s something Ryan Wigglesworth might like to consider as he develops his imminent relationship as chief conductor with the BBC SSO. He was in Glasgow on Thursday performing a double act as soloist and conductor in this latest SSO afternoon concert, as well as attending the subsequent launch of what will be his first season in charge. The latter opens in September, when Wigglesworth officially takes up his new position (see the 2022-23 Season details in VoxCarnyx News).

Thursday’s programme wasn’t exactly as intended. It should have opened with the world premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Danse macabre, which was postponed “due to logistical constraints” to be replaced by Betsy Jolas’ Letters from Bachville. The now 95-year-old Franco-American composer describes her 2019 orchestral portrait of Leipzig, where Bach was its most famous Kantor, as a “Bach playlist”, filtering lightning quotes from the older composer through a fitful, cartoonesque score that ultimately seemed more skittish than cohesive. 

It could have been both had Wigglesworth stepped back a little, allowing its spontaneous energy, its capricious fits and starts, to self-combust. Instead, there was a sense of over-prescribed containment that not only suppressed any natural fizz, but killed the impact of its many punctuating silences by drawing undue attention to them.

A quick reset and the piano was installed centre stage for Wigglesworth to play/direct Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414. It was clear from the outset that this would be an elegant appraisal of a porcelain-textured work.  The orchestral opening presented itself as gentile and rosy, Wigglesworth’s first solo entry responding with the same mannered deliberation and unchallenging understatement.

Such polite mutual interaction continued throughout, something of a nostalgic throwback to an earlier school of Mozart playing, which threw up enjoyable moments of nurtured poetry and reverential eloquence. There was never much intention, though, to probe below the surface, most noticeable in the slow movement, the piano’s first statement bland and unclear in its purpose, and instances throughout the concerto where the rhythmic interpretation felt more studied than instinctive. It was agreeable rather than dynamic, a mood endorsed by Wigglesworth’s ensuing encore, Harrison Birtwistle’s simple and delicately undulating piano miniature, Berceuse de Jeanne.

A work that really requires internal probing is Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony, a harrowing symphonic enigma written when the composer was at a particularly low ebb, self-questioning and wrestling with his health. It was the final work in this programme and one equally testing for the performers as for the listener.

Wigglesworth’s approach was ever-thoughtful, SSO principal cello Rudi de Groote’s soulful solo emerging from the lower-string, tritone-infested depths of the gloomy opening like a beacon of hope, only to be countered by the suffocating orchestral bleakness that persists. The SSO – with Sibelius firmly in their DNA from the Osmo Vänskä days of the 1990s – responded with natural empathy to the bitterness and crying despair of the music, the thwarted optimism of the Scherzo, the aching waves of the Largo, the Finale’s frustrating, dissipating inconclusiveness.

Why, then, did this feel like a performance painted strictly by numbers rather than guided by a free hand? Wigglesworth has a tendency to beat, even subdivide, every breathing moment, the impact of which was evident in its occasionally awkward groundedness. And was there an issue with an orchestral layout that placed the elevated double basses across the rear, brought the concealed wind and brass down to ground level behind the strings, and most importantly threw the glockenspiel far to the side where its key prominence in the Finale was strangely muted?

These are early days in the Wigglesworth-SSO partnership. The new season throws up plenty opportunities for them to assimilate that relationship. As always, each can benefit and learn from the other. In time, we’ll find out how explosive the chemistry will be.

Ken Walton

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, after which it will be available for 30 days via BBC Sounds

SSO’s New Season

Ryan Wigglesworth, the BBC SSO’s newly appointed chief conductor, will open the orchestra’s 2022-23 Season with a programme on 22 September dominated by Ravel’s complete ballet score Daphnis et Chloé. The following evening Wigglesworth will appear as pianist with a trio of BBC principals in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, part of a wider Messiaen theme next season to mark 30 year’s since the radical French composer’s death.

Wigglesworth, who succeeds Thomas Dausgaard in the SSO conductor hot seat, will spearhead a further six programmes in the season, including a performance of Messiaen’s The Sermon to the Birds from his opera St Francis of Assisi, a Bach/Stravinsky double-header in which Wigglesworth will also feature as piano soloist in Bach’s E major Keyboard Concerto, and a closing concert in May 2023 featuring the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Cello Concerto (soloist Laura van der Heijden) and Elgar’s Symphony No 2.

“Ryan is a compelling musician – whether as conductor, composer or pianist – and his warmth towards our players will be evident in all the varied programmes he’s bringing to audiences across Scotland,” said SSO director Dominic Parker, presiding over the launch of the orchestra’s first full season of performances since the pandemic hit two years ago.

The orchestra’s other associated conductors are also back in force. Conductor emeritus Sir Donald Runnicles tackles Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh in February. Alpesh Chauhan, associate conductor, takes on two programmes, one with Rimsky Korsakov’s richly-coloured Scheherazade, another with Shostakovich’s hard-hitting Fifth Symphony that also goes to the Sage in Newcastle. 

Principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov’s particular penchant for modern repertoire is reflected in two season programmes that range in repertoire from Ligeti and Xenakis to the rarefied sounds, and UK premieres, of Norwegian composer Oyvind Torvund and Belgian Stefan Prins. Volkov will again co-curate the annual contemporary music festival Tectonics in May.

The newly-announced SSO appointment of Danish-born modernist Hans Abrahamsen as composer-in-association is marked by the world premiere of his Vers le silence in November, a month before he celebrates his 60th birthday. Wigglesworth, who conducts that concert, will also direct his own distillation of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, “A Symphonic Journey”. 

Other world premieres include a new BBC commission from genre-bending South African cellist/composer Abel Selaocoe and the former BBC Young Composer winner Jonathan Woolgar. 

Among the many guest conductors returning to the SSO are Joanna Carneiro, Hannu Lintu, Matthias Pintscher and Michael Sanderling. Tabita Berglund, in Scotland this month to conduct the RSNO, is joined by pianist Stephen Hough for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Long-time favourite Martyn Brabbins contributes to the Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary celebrations with a performance, alongside Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, of his Symphony No 5. He also directs a screening of Charles Frend’s 1948 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, complete with live performance of Vaughan Williams’ haunting soundtrack. 

In a late season afternoon concert (April) Brabbins curates “The Sound of Scotland” which features the world premieres of his own Aduos and James MacMillan’s Canon for Two Violas alongside music by Judith Weir, Iain Hamilton and William Wallace’s Creation Symphony.

The SSO are alluding to this as their A-Z season, with the wildest possible range of repertoire, from Thomas Ades to Alexander Zemlinsky, by way of Bartok, Chopin, Debussy, Elgar and much more. Guest artists include pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Song), violinist Elina Vähälä (Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 2) and the BBC Singers (in the opening Ravel concert and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms). 

Regular favourites include the seasonal Christmas Classics and Christmas at the Movies with singer/presenter Jamie MacDougall. Most concerts will be recorded for BBC Radio 3, valuable thereafter on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer. The announcement of further concerts is due in the coming weeks.

Full information on programmes and booking at bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

RSNO / Yashima

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Born and trained in Germany and about to relinquish a position as assistant to Yannick Nezet-Seguin in Philadelphia to take up a senior post at the Komische Oper Berlin, conductor Erina Yashima’s first appearance with Scotland’s national orchestra on Wednesday comes in a year of debuts around the globe, from Canada to Korea, as well as across Europe. If her programmes are all as original as this hour or so of music, she’ll quickly be invited back.

Beginning with a symphonic selection of four from Antonin Dvorak’s 10 Legends for Orchestra, and concluding with Brahms’s violin-less Serenade No 2, one of the composer’s symphonic experiments on the road to escaping the shadow on Beethoven with his own four numbered symphonies, the spicy meat in the middle of this concert sandwich (as soloist John Whitener described it) was the Scottish premiere of Thea Musgrave’s Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland.

Premiered by the BBC Scottish and Donald Runnicles at the Royal Albert Hall in the 2012 Proms, it is quite astonishing that the SSO ceded the opportunity to debut the piece in Scotland to the RSNO. A nine-minute piece of enormous fun for the full orchestra, Whitener’s tuba is the featured instrument, portraying Nessie, the secretive and much-sought monster of Scotland’s deepest loch.

With bass clarinet, contra-bassoon and some funky slap string basses sharing that register, the tuba emerges from a low burbling score with shimmering cymbals on top. The music brightens to a climax of ringing chords, half a dozen trumpets and trombones to the fore, before diminishing to a rumble once again, the glimpsed gold of Whitener’s instrument when he stood up briefly once again submerged in the sound of the orchestra.

Musgrave’s gem was played as part of the RSNO’s ongoing series of “Scotch Snaps”, works by contemporary composers living in Scotland, and it would be madness if it was not heard more widely.

Dvorak was being championed by Brahms at the time he wrote the Legends, with his hit Slavonic Dances to quickly follow, yet he was already two-thirds of the way through the composition of his catalogue of symphonies – a job the senior composer found so daunting. If his most attractive melodies were still to come, the brilliant ensemble writing is all there, and Yashima made sure to bring out the way the themes in the horns and other winds are answered by the strings in the big fourth Legend in C that formed the centrepiece of the selection. Preceded by Numbers 1 and 3, the set concluded with the F major No 8, which does carry some suggestions of From the New World.

In a similar way, the third movement Adagio of the Brahms Serenade is the precursor of darker symphonic Brahms after an opening two that are more like large scale chamber music, with all the winds having good stuff to play over some demanding repeated figures in the strings.

There’s much more song and dance in the fourth and fifth movements, and they brought an entertaining afternoon performance to an appropriately lively close.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Erina Yashima by Todd Rosenberg

TECTONICS 2022

City Halls, Glasgow

The latest post-pandemic cultural reinstatement got underway at the weekend with the first live Tectonics Festival in three years. Nothing has changed from the now time-honoured format, save the actual music of course, which is, as ever, cutting edge and slightly off the beaten track. 

It has remained contained within the City Halls complex in Glasgow – a timetabled procession, hither and thither, between the august Grand Hall, the cobbled Victorian street ambience of the Old Fruitmarket and the blinged-up retro elegance of the Recital Room. The mark of cofounders Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell persisted through the customary matrix of installations, discussion and concerts. New sounds, familiar setting.

It’s strange to think that the music of Janet Beat still counts among the former. Now in her eighties and quietly retired, it’s easy to forget that she played such a pioneering role, especially as a woman, in the development of electronic music, yet her music has remained in the shadows. Day 1 of Tectonics 2022 witnessed the first of two tribute concerts, The Beat Goes On, in her honour. At its heart, a performance in the Old Fruitmarket of Puspawarna, her 1989-90 piece for voice, gong and electronics, with Juliet Fraser as soprano soloist.

There’s an alluring datedness to the electronics dimension of this work, dominated – aside from Fraser’s dazzling incantations and the tolling gong – by the pungent persistence of a rhythmically sidestepping keyboard riff, much in the mould of early Messiaen. This was a captivating performance, surrounded either side of the Indonesian-influenced Puspawarna by contrasting improvised responses to Beat’s music.

While Japanese sound artist Yosuke Fujita’s Installation in the Recital Room remained self-functioning throughout the weekend, his live presentation on Saturday was the most visceral way to experience it. A thing of visual intrigue –  three miniature aquariums, from which he has synthesised water sounds, set around a primitive pipe organ and mixing desk – Fujita added his own vocalisations to the gradually metamorphosing soundscape, sometimes subliminal, other times gutteral, always with a sense of the spiritual.

It was back to the Old Fruitmarket for a brief double bill presented to some extent as a gladiatorial combat between Volkov and the BBC SSO in the world premiere of Joanna Ward’s “from the trees and from my friends (bean piece 3)” and Jamaican multi-instrumentalist Douglas R Ewart’s Red Hills, spiritedly performed under his direction by the super cool Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra.

Each band occupied opposing ends of the venue, requiring the audience to do a 180 degrees about-turn between pieces. First up, the awkward fascination of Ward’s itinerant experiment, SSO players constantly swapping positions as if engaging in some cross-contamination of musical chairs and speed dating, the music unfortunately forgettable. Ewart’s Red Hills, though, was an exuberant counterweight, its initial sultriness and composure exploding into a jam so energised and frenzied it had the joint jumping.

The big event on Saturday was the BBC SSO’s evening programme, which centred on premieres by French experimentalist Pascale Criton, American-born composer and sound designer Amber Priestley and the Norwegian visually-inspired composer Kristine Tjøgersen. 

Criton’s Alter, written during the pandemic and with a focus on the elemental transformation of sound and texture, re-introduced singer Juliet Fraser, whose own words fed into a vocal line initially inconsequential, but later powerful in echoing the increasing dramatic narrative of the music.

The SSO, as always, found infinite purpose in Alter’s expressive message, equally so in Priestley’s  For Jocelyn Bel Burnell, its title referring to the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars, the process of which Priestley reimagines as a conflict between gravitational references to Beethoven by the main stage ensemble, and ephemeral overlay by the assorted musicians spread all around the audience. The surround experience was exhilarating, the piece itself unhelpfully prolix. What started as a mesmerising juxtaposition turned eventually into an alien invasion.

Volkov saved the best till last, Tjøgersen’s Between Trees, its provocative colours and delicate nuances magically assimilating in a performance that matched ear-catching detail and ample literalism (the odd cuckoo among a clamour of birdcalls and other allusions to the natural world) with the collective clout of its structural arch. Tjøgersen’s background observance of traditional vocabulary made her exploration of new horizons all the more exciting. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: Alex Woodward)

The majority of Tectonics performances were recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 & BBC Sounds

SCO / Carneiro

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro has become a familiar and popular figure on Scotland’s stages, and her relaxed and communicative style was an essential ingredient of the success of this well-attended concert. It is likely, however, that many in the audience were attracted by the accessible programme of music by Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven and the presence of piano soloist Benjamin Grosvenor, just a day after the RSNO had announced a season that includes the box office certainty of a gig featuring him with Nicola Benedetti and Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

He was playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 (actually Chopin’s first), of which he made a chart-topping recording with the RSNO and Elim Chan, and I’d wager that Carneiro shares Chan’s opinion that the view that the young Chopin was no orchestrator is exaggerated. In a performance that found Beethovian echoes in the opening of the first movement before Grosvenor had played a note, she was very aware that the work is all about the soloist, but made sure that the rest of the players had a share of the action. There may be long stretches, particularly in the Larghetto slow movement, when many of them are less productively employed, but the vivacity of the dance music in the finale was as much down to them as the piano.

Grosvenor’s playing was exemplary. The correct balance between rigour and passion seems to come naturally to him for this music, and it is not overstating the case to place him as the foremost interpreter of both Chopin concertos of our times.

On either side we heard composers who informed the Chopin’s style, with Mozart’s Symphony No 32 (really more of an overture, as Carneiro said) and Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral.

With four horns and nearly 30 string players, the Mozart was a big opening statement, shaped by the conductor to wake up the ears. The clarity of her beat and signals of emphasis and dynamics are delightfully readable from an audience point of view, so she is a great asset in selling the music to those with less experience of orchestral concerts, as was perhaps the case here.

Not that the Pastoral needs much help. As probably the most popular of Beethoven’s symphonies, it resists attempts to intellectualise it, and what was clear here was how much it shares with the contemporaneous Fifth in the composer’s endlessly inventive re-working of his basic material – the difference being that Sixth’s is easier to like, prettier and more like Mozart.

Carneiro found a revelatory approach to the Andante second movement “Scene by the brook” with a balance that favoured the undercurrent of the low strings, the violins rippling more quietly on top, and the round-toned bassoon of Cerys Ambrose-Evans a crucial ingredient later. The rural partying that followed was full of fun, ended by a muscular, but not overpowering, storm.

Keith Bruce

Sponsored by Pulsant

RSNO In Full Season

As the RSNO launches its first full season in two years, KEN WALTON sounds out the dynamic duo behind its conception

To sit down with RSNO Music Director Thomas Søndergård and Chief Executive Alistair Mackie is to witness first hand the sharp collective minds that are shaping an exciting future for the Orchestra as it emerges from the frustrations of Covid.

Central to their shared vision is ‘trust’. ‘It’s a two-way conversation,’ says Søndergård, who values any opportunity to sit down with his players, listen to their ideas and concerns, and impart his own in return. Mackie, for his part, is fully behind that approach. ‘Every single one of us in this great organisation holds a personal responsibility for shaping its success,’ he believes. ‘Meaningful dialogue is essential in making that happen.’

Such an approach was always in Søndergård’s sights. ‘One of the things I really wanted to do differently, when moving from being Principal Guest Conductor to becoming Music Director, was actually to meet the musicians eye to eye,’ he explains. He initiated these conversations, firstly with individual principal players, but always with a long-term intention of widening that ‘to everyone involved in “the project”.’

‘That’s what happens out there in society. We started doing this here before the pandemic, but when it hit we weren’t even allowed to be in the same room. So we couldn’t continue those talks, which I find so important in terms of actually developing a dialogue about what ensemble playing is, and not just about players coming through the door in the morning, getting through the music, then going back home. The joy of playing comes from the trust that we have together.’

The real test, of course, is how such behind-the-scenes personal development translates into what audiences ultimately witness in live RSNO performances. That’s not a challenge lost on either Søndergård, a former timpanist, or Mackie, himself a former top-ranking orchestral player.

In the forthcoming Season, which marks the midpoint in Søndergård’s second three-year contract as Music Director, the emphasis, he says, will be on moulding the sound of the Orchestra, and the principal vehicle for that will be the symphonies of Brahms, all four of which will feature as a core integral series spread over the latter half of the Season. 

Why this obsession with sound? ‘When I talk to the players we inevitably get round to discussing the things that are really key to the ensemble, and central to that is the quality of the collective sound,’ he explains. ‘For me, Brahms is number one for that, and it so happens that when the pandemic hit, and I realised I was not going to be doing very much conducting, it was to Brahms that I instinctively turned for in-depth study and quiet contemplation.’

Søndergård took the Third and Fourth Symphonies to his seaside home near Copenhagen, where it became clear to him that this was a composer he simply had to revisit. ‘I’d left him aside for a while, but here I was suddenly falling passionately in love with this music. I’d forgotten how beautifully he writes.’

But is there anything new he can bring to a composer that Scottish audiences have plentiful experience of, in a country whose main orchestras have tackled the symphonies from numerous interpretational angles? Views have differed over the years on the appropriate size of orchestra, the quantitative relationship between wind and string numbers, the style of playing (some conductors even prescribing no string vibrato) and such basic defining issues as tempi.

‘This will be no revolution,’ he insists. But it will be a product of serious consideration and informed preparation. ‘I want to present a broader Brahms to our audiences, not necessarily in the way I first conducted these symphonies, which was to adopt a Schumann-like approach with more flow and not so heavy a German tradition. I don’t know if it’s the grey hair, but now I actually want to sink into the music and see if there’s a reason for that luxurious tradition, that expansiveness.’

Søndergård puts Brahms centre stage

If Søndergård’s motives for programming the Brahms are as much about personal choice as about being good for the health of the Orchestra, Mackie is focused on the bigger picture and its strategic justification. ‘I see Brahms as a once-in-a-decade reset for the Orchestra, particularly as a yardstick in recalibrating the rich ensemble sound. The same can be said of Bruckner and Schumann, which also put an orchestra under the microscope in that particular way.’ 

Mackie is also keen to emphasise the excitement and variety of a wider 2022:23 Season where the pre-pandemic scale of performance can be resumed. ‘It’s not just about the Brahms symphonies,’ he says. ‘We open with Thomas conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the world premiere of David Fennessy’s The Riot Act, which didn’t happen last year due to Covid.’ 

He’s also capitalising on the potential celebrity options a piece like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto presents. ‘We have an all-star team of soloists for that,’ Mackie reveals, rhyming off the dream team of violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, two of whom will perform, in the same May programme, a separate piece with the RSNO Youth Chorus. 

Indeed, thinking out of the box is something Mackie believes is essential in ensuring the RSNO maintains its freshness, vitality and edge. And he’s prepared to go beyond traditional orchestral programming patterns and proprietorial grounds to do so. 

It involves capitalising on the investment made last year in adapting the main rehearsal auditorium as a state-of-the-art recording facility for movie soundtracks, and reaching out to smaller, specialist music ensembles in Scotland with offers of creative collaboration, all with a view to increasing the experience, creativeness and versatility of his own players.

When the amazing, multi-talented Jörg Widmann returns in October for the first of two Season appearances, he will perform his own clarinet concerto Echo-Fragmente, postponed from last Season, and written somewhat challengingly for two orchestras: one modern; the other period-instrument Baroque.

‘The intention last year was to make it work by simply dividing the RSNO, but when reprogramming it I thought, why don’t we do this with the real thing? So we’ve brought in the Dunedin Consort to partner us,’ Mackie reveals. ‘That’s given rise to plans for a more extensive three-year partnership we’re now developing with Dunedin.’ 

Other new collaborations are emerging linked to the parallel season of chamber music concerts planned for the new Season, including groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble. Mackie and Søndergård are determined ‘to find a new way’ that will ultimately pay dividends for the RSNO as an artistic powerhouse and for its players.

‘In the long term, we have a vision of a really dynamic group of players, who can do film scores one day, a classical recording the next, while still maintaining top-class live performances at both symphonic and chamber level,’ says Mackie. ‘Then think of the benefits when we take all that quality into schools as part of our educational programme.’

To a great extent the RSNO’s expanding horizons were fuelled, not hampered, by the pandemic. It was well ahead of the game in initiating the online delivery of streamed performances to potentially global audiences. ‘Through Alistair’s insistence, the world now knows so much more about us,’ says Søndergård. ‘We’ve become very proactive at getting things out there, and it’s got to stay that way.’

Again, he turns back to player empowerment, mutual trust, as the fundamental driver of such ambitions, which has played its part in producing so many powerful and moving RSNO performances in recent times. 

‘Often in rehearsals now, I just stop conducting. I don’t need to explain everything anymore. When we played Rachmaninov a few weeks ago I just went into the room and let them play a whole movement without me. That’s when real magic happens.’

(This article is also available in the RSNO 2022-23 Season Brochure. Full concert details for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee available at www.rsno.org.uk )

RSNO’s Succulent Season

Launching a new season brochure of familiar shape and style, but with a few special ingredients, RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie told the orchestra’s loyal patrons last night: “It is important to recognise that, despite the challenges faced over the last two years, with the help of our supporters we have accomplished a lot.”

That means that alongside a 19-concert season, which includes eight under the baton of music director Thomas Søndergård, the RSNO continues to embrace the possibilities of digital streaming of concerts and pursuing learning and engagement goals through online means. Its other performances of film and video game music, in partnership with Children’s Classic Concerts, and involving the young musicians from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and the Sistema Big Noise music education projects are also present and correct, as are the matinee and chamber music performances in its own hall in the RSNO Centre next door to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Søndergård has chosen to focus on the music of Johannes Brahms, which he studied closely during the pandemic lockdown. In the first months of 2023 the orchestra will perform all four of his symphonies, as well as the Academic Festival Overture. The First Symphony arrives last, at the end of May, as part of an All-Star Gala that teams Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Benjamin Grosvenor to play Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

That concert – tickets for which are certain to fly out of the door as soon as they go on sale – also features the last of next season’s “Scotch Snaps” performances of pieces by composers living in Scotland, with Errollyn Wallen’s Inherit the World. Subscribers can book from April 29 and general booking opens on June 6.

Another, postponed, “Scotch Snap” – David Fennessy’s Riot Act – features in Søndergård’s season-opener, alongside Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, followed the next week by the RSNO debut of harpsichordist Mahan Estafani playing the new concerto by Paul Ruders, which the orchestra co-commissioned. He is the first of a star line-up of keyboard players working with Sondergard over the season, which also includes Francesco Piemontesi playing Beethoven’s Emperor and Leif Ove Andnes with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.

Principal guest conductor Elim Chan teams up with pianist Steven Osborne for Mozart K414 in a programme that also includes Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and with the season’s Musician in Focus, clarinettist, composer and conductor Jorg Widman, for her earlier concert at the end of October this year. That concert is also the first to feature Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort, beginning a three-year partnership between the symphony orchestra and the award-winning ensemble. In 2023 the Dunedin has two concerts in the RSNO Centre, and the Hebrides Ensemble will also appear there under the auspices of the RSNO, with the music of Widman on the bill.

The RSNO Chorus, now under new director Stephen Doughty, closes the season with Verdi’s Requiem in June 2023, and will also give the Sir Alexander and Lady Veronica Gibson Memorial Concert on Armistice weekend this year with Britten’s War Requiem, both with Sondergard on the podium.

ll programme details for the 2022-23 RSNO Season at rsno.org.uk

Read Ken Walton’s interview with Thomas Søndergård and Alistair Mackie here

RSNO / Boreyko

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There’s an understandable nervousness among concert programmers to include Russian music at this sensitive moment. But when the RSNO stuck to its guns with its advertised Shostakovich Spectacular over the weekend, it was on sure ground. No-one handed out criticism more viciously, with more obfuscating genius, than Shostakovich in his subliminal, unprovable protests against Stalin and his terrorising Soviet regime. Nowadays, we recognise his music for its true meaning.

And that meaning was made all the more compelling with the unplanned presence of Andrey Boreyko, the St Petersburg-born artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic who replaced an indisposed James Conlon. Boreyko recently voiced his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by duly cancelling all his Russian concert dates, and prefaced this programme with Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine, an emotional scene-setter to the politically-loaded Shostakovich.

The dramatic switch from this plaintive totemic 19th century anthem against Russian repression to the fearsome weaponry of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, represented here by two of the movements (arranged by the absent Conlon) from its derivative orchestral suite, was pure theatre, much in the spirit of an opera that in 1934 so enraged Stalin to publicly vilify its composer. It didn’t miss the mark in stirring Saturday’s contemporary Glasgow audience.

By this point, Boreyko had the RSNO fully alert to his intentions, plumbing the depths of the initial Passacaglia to an extent that imposed constant checks and frustration on its ripening ambitions, which in turn sharpened the impact of The Drunkard, a madcap burlesque played with vile spit and sardonic sting.

Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski’s flirtatious confrontation with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 made for the perfect follow-up. It’s a work, written for the composer’s son as a test piece for his high school graduation, that professed no concealed motives other than giving the young Maxim a relatively easy time, cleverly made to sound, by virtue of its supersonic sparkle, like a virtuoso showpiece.

Trpčeski invested wit and wile in a performance so laid back he literally bent backwards at throwaway moments to adopt a near horizontal position. He opened with dazzling but captivatingly suppressed finger work, always with a threat of a smirk, throwing down a gauntlet to Boreyko and the RSNO to respond with equal impishness. It worked, the ebullience of the outer movements monetarily calmed by the still, luscious central presence of the lyrical Andante.

Not surprisingly, after leaping off the stool for the final chord, Trpčeski chose to encore unconventionally with the help of RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi and its Belarusian principal cello Alexei Kiseliov in the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2. The internationalism of the impromptu ensemble held its own fascination, the playing brilliantly incisive with a strong, and appropriate, hint of belligerence.

The second half brought us Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, famous in 1937 for its confessional soubriquet, “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, but outwardly, as the composer was to hint later through rather clandestine, third party means, more a subversive snipe at cultural dictatorship.

The sense of restraint imposed by Boreyko in the jagged opening, the mountainous climaxes that bore a paradoxical robotic emptiness, the puckish rat-tat-tat of the Scherzo, the expansive, molten angst of the Largo, and the pungent irony of the Finale – what erstwhile RSNO music director Alexander Lazarev once described as “hollow rejoicing” – all came torridly together in this energised, if very occasionally unclean, performance.

But the overall message of the evening was powerful, provocative and relevant, even if much of that came about by chance. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: James Montgomery)

Bridge Festival / Nachtsmusik

Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow

The inaugural Bridge Festival (21-24 April) opened with a musical statement of its defining purpose, to bring together like-minded ensembles from around Europe, share ideals, and generate a spirit of discovery and surprise among potential new audiences. The venue for Thursday’s launch concert was Glasgow’s iconic Barrowland Ballroom. Who’d have thought this temple to populist Glasgow, its fraying decorative tat, its Buckfast glamour, its aura of nostalgic decay, would have served the purposes of Classical music? Strangely, and excitingly, it did. 

Hemmed in by the low barrel roof – more commonly the soundboard for stacks of Marshall amps – the acoustics encountered by the joint forces of the hosting Scottish Ensemble, Norway’s Trondheim Soloists, Germany’s Ensemble Resonanz and the Estonian youngsters of the PLMF Music Trust were remarkably friendly. It was astonishing, indeed revelatory, to hear the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony etched out so viscerally, screaming at times with gut-wrenching hyper-intensity.

That was just one highlight in Nachtmusik, a gritty time-travelling journey under the baton of Manchester-born Catherine Larsen-Maguire that spanned ten centuries of music, from the exotic medievalism of 12th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen (an enchantingly modernised adaption of her sensuous chant, O Ecclesia!) and the wrap-around polychoral luxuriance of Gabrieli’s Sonata XVIII, to the edgy experimentalism of world premieres by former rock musicians Mica Levi and Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür. 

Things got off to a nervous start. Larsen-Maguire fought bravely to galvanise the dispersed elements of the Gabrieli, but at times it seemed held together only by the thinnest of threads. Yet it was a momentary issue. Once everyone was together on stage, a natural dynamic took hold. Scottish Ensemble leader Jonathan Morton spun a mystical violin solo in the Bingen, instantly obliterated by the abrasive counter-assault of Levi’s new commission, Flag, its nerve-jangling ferocity – a vicious and incessant cacophony of blood-curdling tremolandi – cutting through the air like an Arctic hurricane. Harsh, uncompromising, yet fuelled by a powerful, slow-moving metamorphoses, it made its point.

So did Tüür’s Deep, Dark Shine, though in a darker, more gnomic way. It had the feeling of a “de profundis” about it, shadowy depths through which shafts of light venture to shine. If at times Tüür is given to clichéd modernism, this was a performance with enough purpose, gravitas and belief to bring it off.

The second half was constructed as an intriguing call and response, Penderecki’s 1962 sonic experiment, Polymorphia for 48 strings, answered immediately by 48 Responses to Polymorphia by the Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist Jonny Greenwood. The former, performed with captivating deference to its linear sound world, nuclear clusters, percussive effects, elliptical humour, and that glorious sunburst of a closing C major chord, set a high bar for Greenwood’s response.

It rarely disappointed. Framed over nine sections, and introduced by a Bach-like chorale that soon dissolves into the ether, this pan-European band entered fully into Greenwood’s spirit of deference and curiosity, capturing the outrageous wit that defines its final moments.  Larsen-Maguire nurtured both its subtleties and its provocations, but could have made more of those moments where the sound sweeps around the orchestra like a mutating swarm of bees. It made linear sense, but lacked a vertical dimension.

Nachtmusik attracted a sizeable audience, which bodes well for the remainder of an enterprising festival that is spread around some unusual Glasgow venues. 

Full details of The Bridge Festival events are at www.bridgestrings.eu 

Ken Walton 

Bridge To Europe

Hip new Classical festival goes live at the Barrowland Ballroom, writes KEN WALTON

Fancy a night out at the Glasgow Barrowland? To 1930s’ Glaswegians that would have meant a spot of Lindy Hopping to the latest big band sensation. Fast forward to the 1960s and the associated Bible John murders might have made them think twice. Then came The Clash, Bowie, Franz Ferdinand and Texas, et al. So how come Glasgow’s gritty popular music mecca is the venue this week for the posh punters of the Classical music scene?

Yes, we’re talking high-brow string ensembles from across Europe, spearheaded by our very own Scottish Ensemble, with world premieres, snatches of Mahler, Sibelius and Gabrieli, also in other venues spread around the city. But we’re also talking energy, innovation, DJs, mixed-genre and a genuinely hip abandonment of the stuffiness and formality usually associated with Classical performance.

It’s all part of The Bridge Festival, a European-funded initiative that has brought together four like-minded ensembles – Ensemble Resonanz from Germany, the Trondheim Soloists from Norway, the PLMF Music Trust from Estonia, and the UK’s Scottish Ensemble – to “embed” classical music in “everyday spaces” around Glasgow in a series of events happening between 21 and 24 April that are geared at attracting diverse new audiences, not least the young. 

Which is why Thursday’s opening gig, Nachtsmusik, is at the iconic Barrowland. Mahler’s Adagietto (from his Fifth Symphony) is just one of a couple of familiar reference points in a programme otherwise pulsating with challenging new sounds. All four ensembles are involved, launching two world premieres – one by British experimental rock musician and film composer Mica Levi, the other by former frontman of the Estonian progressive rock ensemble In Spe, Erkki-Sven Tüür – and including indie-rock guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia in dialogue with its muse, Penderecki’s original Polymorphia.

“It’s all about diversity and touching different sound worlds,” explains Jenny Jamison, chief executive of the Scottish Ensemble, which is lead player in this inaugural project for the collaborating groups. “Our advantage is that we can share Classical music in ways some of our larger symphonic peers might not. We’re small and flexible, so we can challenge the boundaries and edges of classical music and take it to different physical spaces. 

“Also, a lot of the music featuring in The Bridge is by composers with feet in different genres. That’s again about the openness and porousness of classical music. There are some conventions that are more formal, maybe more difficult for a new listener, but we’re trying to present it in venues and with repertoire that make it easier for any listener to find a way in.”

Not that the SE is new to such genre-bending projects. On Friday evening at the Tramway on Glasgow’s south side they resurrect Anna Meredith’s Anno, first performed there in 2016, for which the composer created her own electro-acoustic response to Vivaldi’s famous Four Seasons, performed live with the original and with graphic illustrations by Meredith’s visual artist sister, Eleanor. 

Later on Friday the Ensemble Resonanz presents a “club night” – music ranging from John Cage to Lou Reed – in the informal intimacy of Shawland’s Glad Cafe. For Saturday and Sunday, the locations are former ecclesiastical gems: a more traditional programme in the Mackintosh Church featuring the Trondheim Soloists in Grieg and Sibelius; and a finale by the Ensemble Resonanz, Derya’s Songbook, at the eclectic arts hub St Lukes, performing trans-cultural music inspired by Turkish, Anatolian, Kurdish and Greek songs.

“I guess we’re trying to attract a curious audience,” says Jamison, who sees this first initiative as a welcome panacea to the challenges Brexit has wrought on UK artists in terms of European involvement and interaction. Supported by Creative Europe, The Bridge is a  4-year project enabling its participants to develop new ideas to make Classical music more exciting and inclusive to new audiences. 

Twelve audience development events, a summer academy, a bespoke website, and the Glasgow festival itself, are testament to the wider, sustainable goals of the network. “We’re also talking to groups from Sweden, Switzerland and the Czech Republic,” Jamison reveals. In another of the Glasgow events, the PLMF Music Trust teams some of Estonia’s top professionals with a young string quartet from the Tallinn Music High School. Jameson and her European counterparts have also agreed an exchange initiative that will see the professional players feature in reciprocal performance schemes. 

Beyond this week’s Glasgow festival, though, are we likely to see The Bridge extended to further parts of Scotland? “Logistics and cost place limitations on how far we can go with that,” she believes. “It’s more likely that, as a network, as a ‘string super orchestra’, we would be open to collaborating with existing festivals, here and across Europe.”

This week is a prototype, and future plans will be formulated on the basis of its success, Jameson says. But already new projects are in the pipeline. “As well as the commissions this week, we’ve commissioned a composer to do a digital youth and amateur access piece which we’ll be launching after the festival to try and connect with young players across the cities we all work in.

“We would also expect our Bridge partners to continue as our principal commissioning partners, resulting in us being able to bring more new work into our own activity here in Scotland.”  

The Bridge Festival runs from 21-14 April at venues across Glasgow. Full details at www.bridgestrings.eu or www.scottishensemble.co.uk

NYOS / Hasan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The area of music making likely to have suffered most over these past two years of Covid-enforced hibernation has surely been the communal opportunities lost to youngsters in the formative years of their musical development. To see the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland spring back to life last week, in particular the public concerts presented in Edinburgh and Glasgow by the organisation’s flagship Symphony Orchestra, was a heartening sign that the seeds of recovery are beginning to shoot.

An intrepid NYOS fielded a mighty contingent for its substantial and demanding programme of Respighi, John Harle and Shostakovich. Key to inspiring and galvanising it were two intriguing personalities, still young, but established in their fields of enterprise: British-born conductor Kerem Hasan, a 30-year-old alumnus of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, now chief conductor of the Tiroler Symphonieorchester of Innsbruck; and the virtuoso saxophonist Jess Gillam as soloist in a work specially written three years ago for her by Harle.

Gillam was not only the star turn, but an irrepressible force of nature whose electrifying presence, let alone her exuberant blue and yellow sartorial creation, demanded nothing less in return from the orchestra. Harle’s music – the suite Briggflatts, based on the autobiographical poem by the British modernist Basil Bunting – played its own part as a vital stimulant, driven much by an infectious motorised minimalism, restless rhythmic unpredictability, rich jazz-infused melodies and a high-voltage Rant that converts its base material, Cumbrian folk music, into a delirious foot-stamping finale.

But all eyes were on Gillam, whose visible egging-on was the motivating linchpin, encouraging Hasan and the orchestra to take risks they may not otherwise have considered. If such encounters with danger took the performance to the very brink, it inspired nothing less than an explosive triumph.

To some extent Respighi’s ruminative symphonic poem, Fountains of Rome, which opened the programme, could have done with some of that same alertness, not in the brash sense, but in stencilling out its scented, filigree colours. There were magical moments, from poignant solo contributions to deliciously atmospheric nuancing by the upper strings. Hasan shaped the performance with meaningful organic flow and perceptive delicacy. At times, though, it just seemed to lose its immediacy and luminescence.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 10 offered a very different challenge, technically daunting and driven emotionally by the composer’s feverish thoughts at the time of writing,1953, just after Stalin’s death. Again, Hasan captured the broad picture magnificently, from the tortuous granite-like intensity of the opening movement, through the abrupt second movement scherzo and personalised nocturnal reflection of the third, to the ultimate raging force of the finale. 

There was no escaping the eager responsiveness of the young players, even when the briskness of the scherzo sent the upper strings into a near-calamitous flurry. It was ultimately an overall success, but symbolic too, perhaps, of what the pandemic has done to young people. They desperately need regular opportunities again to express themselves with full confidence and in tandem with each other. Good to see them back on track.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Elder

City Halls, Glasgow

In their own way, Mozart, Wagner and Richard Strauss thought a lot of themselves and expressed as much in their music. While that might seem a gross understatement where Wagner is concerned, and a potent but pleasant truth when it comes to Strauss, for Mozart it was expressed in terms of honestly-intentioned free-spiritedness with a capacity to express the frivolous and the wretched with almost unrivalled humanity.

This was a BBC SSO programme, combining all three composers, that was right up veteran conductor Sir Mark Elder’s street. He is a Wagnerian par excellence, capable of eliciting maximum intensity with minimum interference. He translates that naturally to the emotive excesses of Strauss, wisely so in an approach that guards against a potentially riotous free-for-all. In Mozart – in this case with the slimmest of reduced forces – his respect for classical tautness and proportions is flexible enough to accommodate dramatic fire.

He was joined in the last – the rarely-heard concert aria “Ah, lo previdi” dating from the end of Mozart’s Salzburg period in 1777 – by the soprano Sophie Bevan, wife of the SSO’s newly-appointed chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, who, incidentally, will replace Marin Alsop in charge of next week’s Thursday Series concert. 

Bevan’s performance, a pseudo-operatic narrative based on texts from a libretto by Vittorio Cigna-Santi on the trials and tribulations of the woeful Andromeda, was one of passionate engagement, stopping short of melodrama, but with a vocal range that freely explored the score’s volcanic vicissitudes. Elder gleaned empathetic support from the orchestra, bringing principal oboist Stella McCracken front stage for her gently persuasive solo obbligato in the final Cavatina.

The opening Wagner – a coupling of the Prelude from Act I and Good Friday Music from Act III from his opera Parsifal – took time to settle. While a degree of timelessness informed the slow, aching unfolding of the Prelude, it bore a fragility that undermined its intensity, its sense of expectation. Intonation malfunctions in critical woodwind chords merely added to the unease. Elder’s magic took root in the second extract, however, the orchestra now onside with a heart-felt performance oozing soulfulness and sublime warmth.

It was the latter qualities, plus the curbed temptations to overindulge, in Strauss’ 1899 self-serving tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) that proved the outright hit of the evening. Philosophically bound to the Nietzschean concept of man as a hero whose self-overcoming struggles lead to inward fulfilment, and vividly applied by Strauss to aspects of his own life, the musical journey is a whirlwind of impassioned extremes.

Elder shaped those with masterful reserve, leaving much of the initiative to the significantly inflated SSO ranks – among them 8 horns no less, and 6 trumpets – yet always there to draw a red line. That was imperative in matching the explosive magnitude of the battle music to the modest hall, which he impressively achieved; and brilliantly effective in articulating the cacophonous carping of the critics, which Strauss must have had enormous fun in writing. 

But central to this performance, and to a great extent defining it, was leader Laura Samuel’s extended solo violin role, opening reservedly with awe and wonderment, but soon adopting a full-blooded bravado that harnessed the tempestuousness of the composer’s wife, a manic concoction of the sensual and the irrational. It’s unlikely Strauss was out to make too many friends in the references he bravely pursued.

Ken Walton

Available for 30 days after broadcast on BBC Sounds

SCO On The Road

As the RSNO returns from touring in Europe, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has announced a huge list of concerts on tour across Scotland this summer.

The SCO’s version of “returning to normal” after the restrictions of the pandemic is to take every facet of its work out on the road, with everything from full-scale performances by the orchestra and by the SCO Chorus, to the projects for pre-schoolers to secondary students and with amateur adults, as well as visiting more remote venues with string and wind ensembles.

The programme of work runs from June to September and visits venues from the Shetland Isles to the Borders, with showcases for soloists from within the current line-up and return visits by old friends.

Inverness and Shetland are the locations for the SCO’s long-established and admired education and outreach work on the tour, with projects at Eden Court and in Elgin and in Lerwick and Brae in June. The professionals clearly expect amateur musicians to have been honing their chops during lockdown as its “Scrapers and Tooters” initiative offering coaching to rusty instrumentalists has adopted the more expectant “Come and Play” title.

Around the same time the SCO Chorus makes its venture into touring with concerts in Stirling Castle and St Andrews Holy Trinity Church on June 11 and 12. Chorus Director Gregory Batsleer directs a programme that ranges from Byrd to Britten and includes a new work from Associate Composer Anna Clyne.

The summer schedule begins in Inverness and Drumnadrochit on June 9 and 10 when an 11-piece chamber group plays a new version of Beethoven’s First Symphony by principal flute Andre Cebrian, alongside works by Ligeti and Lutoslawski.

The following week, the orchestra divides into its more familiar touring configurations of string ensemble, directed by leader Stephanie Gonley, and wind soloists. The former visits Blairgowrie, Callander and Helensburgh with a programme including Elgar, Schubert and Bartok, while the winds go to Ballachulish, Mull, Seil and Tillicoultry with Mozart, Telemann and Hummel.

Former principal bassoon Peter Whelan conducts the full orchestra in concerts, with Cebrian as soloist, in Castle Douglas, Langholm and Selkirk as June ends and July begins, before the SCO makes its annual visit to the East Neuk Festival with a programme that includes soprano Anna Dennis singing Mozart.

Principal conductor Maxim Emelyanychev joins the touring party later in July with Maximiliano Martin playing Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 2 in Stirling and Dunoon and Philip Higham Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C in Glenrothes and Musselburgh.

At the start of September, after the SCO’s involvement in the Edinburgh Festival, Catherine Larsen-Maguire picks up the baton and Higham is joined by current first bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans as soloists in music by Dvorak and Mozart. That programme can be heard in Kingussie, Findhorn, Fraserburgh and Arbroath.

Ten days later the epic trek to a’ the airts winds up in Blair Castle, Linlithgow and Greenock with Estonian conductor Kristiina Poska, and the music of Shostakovich and Beethoven.

Full details are available at sco.org.uk

SCO / Schuldt

City Halls, Glasgow

Given all that has happened – or failed to happen – in recent years, it says a lot for the enthusiasm of the SCO for German conductor Clemens Schuldt that this was, by my reckoning, his fourth return visit in the past five years. By way of comparison, the soloist for this concert, Colin Currie, revealed that it was his first concert in the city since he moved back to Scotland and bought a home in Glasgow in November 2019.

Thus we have waited a long time to hear the 2018 Percussion Concerto written for him by Edinburgh-raised Helen Grime. It was a touching gesture that Currie dedicated the performance to two composers of an earlier generation – Lyell Cresswell and John McLeod – who died recently and had been an inspiration to both of them.

The work turns out to be a fascinating addition to the expanding catalogue of concertos the virtuoso percussionist has caused to be written. Rather than compose an explosive demonstration for the soloist with an accompaniment and underscore from the chamber orchestra, Grime has given Currie the lead with all the musical material – and there’s a lot of it – and invented a vast range of responses to it from the full palette of orchestral sounds at her disposal.

Currie’s “follow me” start on tuned percussion is immediately answered by slap bass and trumpet blasts and as the piece develops the percussive sounds of timpani, harp and celeste are crucial supports, as are the vibrant double bassoon, cor anglais and E flat clarinet colours in the winds.

The soloist is rarely required to hit the untuned percussion very hard, but some of the writing is very fast indeed. The third of three unseparated movements has a long marimba solo before it ends on a shimmer of glockenspiel, string harmonics and breath effects on the horns.

Grime’s radical modernity was framed by works of Beethoven, Haydn and Anton Eberl, the latter two overtures to operas about islands and women. While Eberl’s Overture to The Queen of the Black Islands made you feel you had seen the opera in its full-on drama, Haydn’s for The Uninhabited Island rather made one yearn to see a full staging of the shipwreck story.

Completing the programme was Beethoven’s Symphony No 4, a work that seems to have featured regularly in Scottish concert schedules of late. Schuldt’s version came in very clearly delineated chapters, with a very bouncy second movement Adagio and huge enthusiasm for the rhythmic games of the Scherzo. Among the fine wind solos, first bassoon Cerys Ambrose-Evans stood out.

Keith Bruce

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