Tag Archives: BBC SSO

BBC SSO / Chauhan

The Sage, Gateshead

It’s always refreshing to have a change of scenery, and that applies as much to orchestras like the BBC SSO who were on Tyneside – literally – on Friday to repeat the all-action programme it had delivered the previous evening to its home audience in Glasgow and live across the nation on BBC Radio 3. A healthy turn-out greeted the visitors to Gateshead’s smart riverside Sage venue, where the SSO’s outgoing associate conductor, Alpesh Chauhan, addressed the swashbuckling adventurism of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote alongside the questioning euphoria of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

Such intense repertoire was subjected to inquisitive exploration, at times probing originality, by Chauhan. Where he sought restless irascibility in the Strauss, the focus of his Shostakovich was surely its tangible dichotomy, a work written “in response” to Stalin’s personal attack on what he saw as increasingly “non-Soviet” tendencies in the composer’s music (chiefly in his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District), but which has nowadays come to represent a stinging, concealed expression of intellectual, if not political, dissent.

The latter was the most thoroughly convincing of the evening’s performances, all the more for the horrifying relevance it harnesses right now as the west faces up to – and maybe Russians themselves begin to question – the humaneness of one man’s repressive, dictatorial will. Chauhan elicited an all-important steeliness: those endless aching melodies that take flight in the opening movement offset by a chillingly spare dehumanisation; the throwaway curtness brutally exaggerated in the Scherzo; the breathtaking sumptuousness of the slow third movement soaked in irony as a deceptive foil to the agonising, empty ecstasy of the finale.

There was an unpredictability to Chauhan’s tempi that enhanced the boldness of the message, which the SSO responded to with fearsome exhilaration, the richness and focus of the ensemble as thrilling as the exceptionalism of the passing solo contributions. 

Where the Shostakovich was spine chilling, the concert opener – Don Quixote – seemed happier just to tickle the senses. The former bore the 3-D vibrance of an oil painting defined by the physicality of its bold brushstrokes, whereas the latter conveyed more the pallid self-contentment of a pretty watercolour.

This wasn’t so much an issue with the soloists, guest cellist Pablo Ferrández playing the starry-eyed eponymous hero against flamboyant support from SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson (in evocative conversation also with orchestra leader Laura Samuel), and prominently featuring tenor tuba, bass clarinet and ravishing oboe. And for the most part, Chauhan captured the cut and thrust of the music, its stormy abandon, wild cameos and generally restive abandon.

What it missed in places was a more piercing precision, sharper orchestral colourings to bring the narrative more vividly to life. There were plenty rosy moments, those characteristic Straussian eruptions filling the hall with wholesome enchantment, but such curious cacophonies as the discordant bleating sheep needed greater confidence in themselves to make a convincing musical point. 

That aside, this substantial pairing went down a storm with the local audience, making the SSO’s day trip to Newcastle in such unpredictable weather a more gladdening experience than it might otherwise have been.

Ken Walton 

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

There is a suggestion that Bach’s 1738 harpsichord concerto in E major, BWV 1053, has come down to us as a keyboard work having begun life as an oboe concerto. Whether or not that is the case, it shares melodic material with two cantatas Bach wrote for Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, so the sense of a singing solo line is understandable. It is not always in the hands of the soloist, however, with the strings – who would have been the composer’s music college students at the first coffee house performances – having their share of the tune, especially at the start of the Siciliano slow movement.

Played here on a modern concert grand piano by the SSO’s Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, this was more the kind of performance one might hear in this hall from Maxim Emelyanychev and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but the ever-versatile BBC Scottish proved equal to the challenge of leaping across the centuries in the second of Wigglesworth’s interesting programmes pairing Bach with Stravinsky.

When Bach created a concerto for the keyboard he was at the cutting edge of musical development, and that was certainly one thing that linked the work with that of the Russian composer on Thursday evening, although logistical considerations meant it preceded the two Stravinsky works rather than being the filling in the concert’s musical sandwich as originally intended.

In the 1953 score for Balanchine’s Agon Stravinsky is concerned with stripping things back to their essence for a work that is all about the number 12 and its divisions. That was the size of the company of dancers from New York City Ballet when it was premiered in 1957 (memorably re-created by Scottish Ballet at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival) and it is also the number of the notes in the chromatic scale and the structure for using them proposed by Arnold Schoenberg.

Stravinsky playfully combines the twelve-tone row techniques of serialism with classical forms (Sarabande, Galliarde, and Bransle rather than Siciliano here) in twenty minutes of music that is less austere than it at first appears. Exotic combinations of instruments, with percussion and brass joined by a mandolin as well as solo violin, are featured over the twelve movements, but the large orchestra never plays as an ensemble.

Just as Balanchine made work on his dancers very differently from Nijinsky, so the music of Agon is very different from that of The Rite of Spring, from four decades previously. Wigglesworth’s Rite was not riotous in the least, and much more about precision than passion. If it lacked the excitement of some performances of the work, it would undoubtedly have served the purpose for which it was composed very well indeed. As we had heard in Agon before the interval, the conductor never forgot that this was music composed for dancers.

Keith Bruce

Available for 30 days on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Sanderling

City Halls, Glasgow

Musical dynasties can be problematic for some, but not, it would seem, in the case of conductor Michael Sanderling, son of Kurt and brother/step brother of fellow conductors Stefan and Thomas. He proved his independent worth, without question, in the driving seat of the BBC SSO last week.

The former cellist – and one of considerable, international prizewinning note before he picked up the baton full time just over a decade ago – established instant chemistry with the orchestra in a relatively youthful symphony by Mozart, his 13th, written mostly in Milan at the age of 15. Sanderling wasted no time sourcing a stylish bite from the players – just horns and oboes in addition to the reduced strings – that captured the music’s exuberant decency.

It was a neat touch reducing the Menuetto’s trio section to solo strings, giving added intimacy to this airborne movement, and in the broader context of a performance that packed no shortage of musical surprises and delights, from the teasing tunefulness of the Andante to the rhythmic dash of the outer movements.

Mozart featured again in this affable afternoon concert, as seen through the thicker lens of heavy-duty German Romantic composer and academic Max Reger, his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart. The theme in question is the siciliano-like opener from the A Major Sonata, which in Mozart’s hands was already subjected to exhaustive variation. Reger, as you’d expect, deals with it in more circumspect, a times torrid, terms. 

Sanderling never once allowed dark clouds to assert their presence, instead giving a fleetness of foot to Reger’s restless harmonic contortions – some pretty ingenious ones at that – and therefore freer flight to internal chromatic meanderings that, in less-intuitive hands, might so easily have muddied the momentum. Such, too, was the refinement and grace of the orchestral colourings that the journey towards the concluding fugue, and its exultant closing restatement of the Mozart theme, was one of several thrills and much overall satisfaction.

Coming back to musical families, the afternoon’s solo spot was filled by one of the many prodigious Kanneh-Mason siblings currently in circulation. This was Isata, a pianist of growing stature and musical maturity, as witnessed in recent previous appearances in Scotland. She featured this time in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, noted for its bristling energy and dynamic physicality, but also for the quintessential mysticism that offers some spellbinding contrast in the central movement.

Kanneh-Mason’s performance was beautifully poised and not without fire. She doesn’t yet have the full shoulder power to fully address the ferocious dimensions of this concerto, but the fiery agility of her finger work compensated, and where gentle reflection was called for she delivered it with poetic perfection.   

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Runnicles

City Halls, Glasgow

If Sir Donald Runnicles proved anything in this unmissable reunion with his former Scottish orchestra (he is, of course, still connected to the BBC SSO as conductor emeritus), it was that great conductors have an innate ability to connect viscerally and impulsively with the players, even when they’ve been apart for some time. 

As such, there was a deep-rooted nostalgia hard-wired into this thrilling performance of one single, monumental work – Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – in which the Edinburgh-born maestro reminded us just how electrifying and passionate the SSO can sound working in response to such magnetic charisma.

Mahler’s last completed symphony, written in the final years of his life, takes us on a journey of initial despair – the so-called “faltering heart beat” – and elemental frustration, to the all-but- Bacchanalian frenzy of its central escapism, and to the grim acceptance of a finale that fades to nothing yet powerfully encapsulates the unquenchable rapture of inner peace.

It all looked so easy for Runnicles, a robust mainstay of a figure on the podium whose economy of gesture gave all the signals necessary to mine essential and complex detail, while also allowing the big picture to unfold with inexorable potency and organic inevitability. What resulted was a spine-tingling awareness of the SSO working with him, not for him: moments where little was asked for but absolutely every telling morsel was delivered.

Capturing that big picture is so important when much of Mahler’s writing in this symphony is like an endless tapestry of broken threads, dizzy intertwining snatches of signature, recollected material that collide in mid-air, often abruptly dismissed, yet making such unquestioning sense in this all-consuming performance.

The Andante comodo was marked by virtuosic savagery at its height, but in the course of its steady progression combined molten resignation with the penetrating incision of multiple competing motifs. The inner movements oozed Mahlerian grotesquerie, tantalising and mischievous in the deliberate Ländler-like awkwardness of the second movement, endlessly high-spirited and ultimately brutally dismissive in the Rondo-Burleske. Runnicles’ finale was truly breathtaking, its prime thematic cell – essentially a drawn-out musical turn – single-mindedly dominating the overriding, at times crushingly euphoric, solemnity. The dissipating ending was met by stunned silence. 

There are moments when we are drawn so deeply into a performance that the world outside ceases momentarily to matter. This was one of them.

Ken Walton

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen to on BBC Sounds. It was repeated in Aberdeen (10 Feb), with a final performance on Sunday (12 Feb) at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh 

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

If anything marks the BBC SSO out as distinctive in Scotland – and there have to be certain benefits to that in a climate where strangulation of the arts is an existential threat – it is surely its commitment to the most challenging outposts of contemporary music. No other orchestra would or could place such unapologetic emphasis on it, let alone take the commercial risk.

Thursday’s programme was specifically designed, and recorded, for BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show, yet it was also a weirdly entertaining revelation for a sizeable audience curious to discover who composers Stefan Prins and Øyvind Torvund were, and how a concerto for electric guitar and a reworking of 1950s pop “exotica” might brighten up a drizzly Glasgow evening.

It probably wouldn’t have done so without SSO principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov, whose track record in exploring and communicating the wilder horizons of the contemporary landscape is second to none. With a few words of welcome, and an invitation to enter a psychedelic twilight zone, madcap ideas were transformed into stimulating sonic experiences.

Both performances were UK premieres, and both were delivered with utter commitment and consummate skill, right down to violinists bowing over aluminium foil-clad fingerboards in Prins’ 2021 concerto, under_current, or the simultaneous virtuoso whistling that cast an anarchic, playful mystique over the opening of Torvund’s The Exotica Album. 

Such were the bracing novelties of these substantial works. The visual power of under_current was awesome, electric guitarist Yaron Deutsch using his instrument more as a generator of effects facilitated by the pedals, cables and signal processing units surrounding him, and the totemic presence of a towering thunder machine centrally positioned behind the large orchestra.

There wasn’t a melody, hardly even a motif, in sight. With guttural explosions from the guitar, wailing responses from the orchestra, Prins’ 40-minute work consciously defies conventionality, perhaps over too long a time scale. But so visceral and purposeful was the playing that Deutsch silenced the audience during the final applause to say this was the best orchestra he’d ever played with. It was a tough gig for all of us, but Volkov’s self-belief turned this seeming jumble of nuts and bolts into something organically akin to a kinetic sculpture.

Where Prins’ music is uncompromising, Torvund’s The Exotica Album (Sinfonietta with modular synthesiser and saxophone) is a triumph of exaggerated nostalgic indulgence. Taking its lead from the origins of late-1950s “exotica” – Martin Denny’s album Quiet Village – Torvund sharpens the concept of seriousness versus kitsch to such the point it transmits as the musical equivalent of an LSD trip. 

Set in ten short movements – with titles like Starry Night, Wind up Paradise Birds, Rainbow Crystal and Jungle Alarm – the overriding sensation was one of escapism, where soaring Hollywood-style strings vied with synthesised birds and frenetic electronic bloops, courtesy of Jørgen Træn on “modular synthesiser and noise”, and the pungent, provocative sax of Kjetil Møster. 

It was enormously pleasant to listen to, those whistlers in the opening Ritual 1 initiating a prophetic sense of the surreal, later moments where you might imagine noted bird-enthusiast Messiaen encountering the Clangers, the occasional confectionary spillover into wacky cartoon land, the sassy honking polyphony of Jungle Alarm, but altogether a feast of titillating excess that proved the perfect complement to the earlier concerto, and transformed a journey into the unknown into an invigorating night of discovery. 

Ken Walton

Recorded for later broadcast on Radio 3’s New Music Show, then available for 30 days via BBC Sounds.

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow 

This was a programme that invited multiple layers of curiosity. How does Bach sit full-on, head-to-head with Stravinsky? Is repertoire that uses bits and pieces of a symphony orchestra, but never its full complement at one sitting, an efficient use of resources? Would such a stylised programme from the BBC SSO, augmented by the London-based BBC Singers, pull in the crowds? Under the programme’s originator, SSO chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, these questions were duly answered.

The pairing of Bach and Stravinsky was, indeed, an inspired proposition, especially as the latter was represented by two of his Neoclassical hits – the chilling intensity of the Symphony of Psalms and steely austerity of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments – and Stravinsky’s own arrangement of Bach’s Canonic Variations on “Von Himmel hoch”, originally for organ, here impishly rewired for mixed-bag ensemble and chorus. 

Against that, Bach’s funeral cantata, “Komm, Jesu, komm!”, and his exuberant D major Magnificat offered contrasting visions of a composer whose life’s work was dedicated “to the greater glory of God” – the contemplative genius reaching deep into the human soul, and the unharnessed virtuoso illuminating the famous Song of Mary with inimitable lustre.

It was a juxtaposition well worth savouring and contemplating. Wigglesworth seemed infinitely more at ease with Bach. In the cantata, requiring only a three-man continuo in support of the chorus, he adopted a poetic approach, which certainly gave the singers ample latitude to express the suppleness of the writing. In the wake of the Canonic Variations, a veritable cornucopia of Stravinskian hooliganism, the calming aura of such pure-grained Bach was a welcome touch.

It also cleared the air for the ensuing Symphony of Psalms, now with a larger ensemble in a work that uses near-mystical restraint to power its emotional soul. A cautious start from Wigglesworth had its worrying moments. His grasp tightened as the performance progressed, but not always with enough rhythmic tautness, or that vital sting in attack, to generate the “wow” factor. More a safe performance than a moving one.

Similar issues denied the Symphonies of Wind Instruments the sustained captivation and momentum it crucially needs. Not so with Bach’s Magnificat, though, which earned its place as the evening’s sparkling peroration. Now there was fire in the belly, spirited and stylish Baroque playing from the SSO topped by the nimble virtuosity of the trumpets, deliciously eloquent obligato solos from the woodwind, and a polished, solid performance from the BBC Singers, the solos issued from within its ranks.

So yes, this programme, courageous and ingenious, was also stimulating and coherent. The smooth choreography that eased such extreme switches in orchestration and layout between successive pieces was, in itself, a work of art. And there was enough of an audience to appreciate the boldness of the venture and to play its part in animating the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3. 

Ken Walton 

This programme was repeated in Perth. Listen again on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Böhm

Ayr Town Hall

So many times in the past, a programme by the BBC SSO geared primarily for its Glasgow City Halls’ home has either proved unsuitable for its repeat in Ayr, or is downscaled to suit the acoustical constraints of the smaller venue. This programme, however, was already of perfect dimensions and may even have benefitted more from the intimate warmth this bijou municipal venue favours. 

The larger-scored of the works – Prokofiev’s feverishly sweet Violin Concerto No 2 and Schubert’s crystalline Fifth Symphony – are hardly symbols of orchestral brute force. Instead, Prokofiev’s concerto, played here by the characterful Dutch-born violinist Rosanne Philippens, pits a zestful protagonist against a mutable kaleidoscopic spray of orchestral colour, its spiced delicacies only marginally threatened by the irksome persistence of the bass drum. Schubert’s Fifth looks back to Beethoven and Mozart, lithe and cheery, softened by the composer’s instinctive lyrical genius.

The young Austro-Spanish conductor Teresa Riveiro Böhm was in many ways a refreshing presence on the rostrum. A few years ago she spent time at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland  on a Leverhulme Conducting Fellowship that included mentorship via the BBC SSO, and has recently been appointed associate conductor at Welsh National Opera. On this latest evidence she was a visibly safe pair of hands, clear and precise with a decisive spring in her step. 

That certainly helped energise the Prokofiev, which was rhythmically catching and where conductor and soloist shared a mutual spark. Philippens was the prominent driving force, her fiery outer movements dancing to the music’s sardonic pleasures, contrasted in turn by the bittersweet tensions of the central Andante. Böhm’s handling of the orchestral balance wasn’t always as acute as it could have been, some of the most sensitive delights lost to what seemed a textural free-for-all. Philippens endorsed her dazzling persona with a Romanian folk-inspired encore by Enescu. 

Böhm’s Schubert did her far greater justice. Elegance and crispness underpinned her vision, as well as a far greater control of motivic interaction as the directional force. The slow movement may have underplayed Schubert’s prescribed “con moto”, but there was ample poetic soul in the lingering, lyrical lines to give it meaning and bearing. It was the expressive heart of a performance whose opening and closing Allegros harnessed natural, life-giving energy, and whose Menuetto was as naturally breezy as it was tightly disciplined.

Both works alternated with refreshing curiosities by female composers. The opener was by Bacewicz, her Divertimento for string orchestra, written four years before her death in 1965. Its combination of beguiling modernism, as influenced by fellow Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, with the pragmatic austerity of, say, Bartok or Hindemith, had clearly reached a point of magical synthesis by this stage in her life. The SSO strings captured that well in an incisive performance, clinically assertive in the outer movements, conjuring up an air of unworldly suspension in the central Adagio.

The Schubert was prefaced by the UK premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Eterniday (a linguistic elision of “eternity” and day”), which the American composer wrote in 2010 in response to the loss of her sketches the previous year in a fire at her New York studio. Formatted like a Baroque concert grosso, the central solo quintet vying with the larger surrounding ripieno, it represents, according to the composer, “something everlasting and fragile, yet blended together into one”.

Sure enough, the sound world is outwardly translucent with a heated density countering its natural inclination to float away into the ether. There’s drama in the series of fearsome, coruscating crescendos, abruptly shut off as they reach deafening point to reveal awesome punctuating silences. The impact of a glistening celeste diametrically opposed to the menacing cipher of the bass drum adds a signature surprise. 

Like everything else on Friday, it was of a scale that blossomed in this compact venue. 

Ken Walton

BBC Music Show Cuts

BBC Radio Scotland’s rumoured plan to axe a huge swathe of its specialist music programming has now been confirmed. A news exclusive this week by the Scotsman’s arts correspondent Brian Ferguson extracted a response from the press office at Pacific Quay that neither denied BBC Scotland’s intentions nor offered a convincing argument for the controversial decision.

Widely discussed over the festive season, Ferguson’s story confirmed that both Classics Unwrapped, presented by tenor Jamie MacDougall and Jazz Nights, fronted by singer and violinist Seonaid Aitken (pictured), had been “decommissioned” in response to the freezing of the licence fee and a shift from broadcast to digital output.

Added to the news that pipe music programme, Pipeline, was to lose its broadcast slot – revealed to writer and piper Rab Wallace before Christmas – the changes amount to the cancellation of the BBC Scotland’s commitment to much of its weekend broadcasting of traditional and classical music, opera and jazz.

Although BBC insiders believe that the cost-cutting measure is unlikely to be reversed, political condemnation of the organisation has been swift and widespread. Two of Scotland’s best known musicians, tenor saxophonist and educator Tommy Smith and composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan, have started online petitions opposing the decisions to cut Jazz Nights and Classics Unwrapped.

The new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, violinist Nicola Benedetti, quickly added her voice, and the campaign has also been supported by Creative Scotland’s Head of Music, Alan Morrison.

The justification for the axing of the programmes has looked desperately thin, with Smith and others pointing out that the programmes’ budgets will represent a small saving and Ferguson speculating that sports coverage has been ring-fenced at the expense of the arts.

It certainly looks like an abdication of responsibility on the part of BBC Scotland to curtail its support, reporting and discussion of areas of music that are a distinct national success story and whose funding is built into the political settlement of devolved government in Edinburgh.

Although its main paymaster is BBC Radio 3, it is also true that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is a local asset paid scant attention by BBC Scotland itself, and whose long-term future is hardly helped by the decision.

Few will also be persuaded by the BBC Scotland spokesperson’s glib statement about a shift towards digital, when more thoughtful strategies of parallel development are being pursued elsewhere in the BBC. As the range of formats and platforms employed for recorded music has long demonstrated, consumers do not follow such a linear path but prefer to be able to choose and use the full range of what is on offer.

That it has been left to an un-named press officer to justify the cuts also speaks volumes of a decision that has been made to achieve savings without affecting BBC Scotland’s narrow definition of its core activity and staffing. A senior management representative should be called to account in the face of the vociferous opposition to the changes.

BBC SSO / Volkov

City Halls, Glasgow

When the weather outside is frightful, the music can be delightful – and under the baton of Ilan Volkov it needs no garnish of tinsel and holly.

It was admirable how the BBC Scottish put some promotional muscle behind this typically bold programme from the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, which he enthusiastically commended to music-lovers who don’t feel the need to tuck in to the usual seasonal fare at this time of year. The result was a good attendance, doubtless including some who savour the taste of Volkov’s Tectonics weekend at the same venue in May.

The audience’s reward was a brilliantly-crafted concert, both in its planning and the way the different works – all from the last century but spanning six decades – spoke to one another, and in its execution by the musicians.

The earliest work was Debussy’s Jeux, composed to a Diaghilev commission at the same time as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but now as likely to be heard for a revival of the tennis court love triangle ballet as in the concert hall. It requires a vast orchestra (there were a few familiar faces from other Scottish outfits as well as freelances augmenting the SSO) and has a huge range of tonal colours. The perhaps predictable harps and flutes feature alongside an extended cor anglais solo and late interjections by the trombones.

What made all the details of the score leap out was the fact that Volkov had preceded it with the rarely-heard Xenakis work, Atrées. More by coincidence than design, the five movements of that piece, composed as the 1950s blossomed into the early 60s, utilised some similar instrumental techniques, picked out in detail by a very specific chamber octet, plus percussionists.

Long before the late Johann Johannsson’s career-making exploration of early IBM computing in Iceland, Xenakis was working with IBM France on music that explored probabilities and referenced mathematical thinking of three centuries previously. The result is a work that exploits the sonic range of each of the instruments as well as the orchestral possibilities of their combination, developing over its 15 minutes in a unique and compelling way. It demanded much of the players, but Volkov’s direction of them could not have been more lucid and precise.

Some of those sounds – especially the use of glissando and pizzicato – would be explored after the interval as well, when Bartok’s masterpiece Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was prefaced by Ligeti’s Ramifications for strings, from the later 1960s.

Both works require mirroring symmetrical set-ups on stage, with the 12 stringed instruments in the Ligeti in two groups tuned a quarter-tone apart, a dissonance that is sometimes corrected by the fingering. Again it seems unlikely that Ligeti is specifically referencing the Bartok in any way, but Volkov had identified elements of shared language and common reluctance to settle for any conventional notions of harmony. Just as importantly, the exercise of listening to the Ligeti prepared audience ears to appreciate a stonking performance of the Bartok which was full of foreboding in its opening movement and gloriously expressive in its dancing finale.

It is hard to imagine anyone but Volkov delivering such an immaculately-structured programme, and ensuring that it was executed with such precision and finesse. Approaching two decades on from his arrival at Glasgow City Halls as a preciously young Chief Conductor, he still exacts the pinnacle of performance from the members of the BBC SSO.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Coelho

City Halls, Glasgow

Last-minute changes of conductor have become a regular occurrence these days, so Thursday’s replacement of the indisposed Tabita Berglund by Portuguese conductor Nuno Coelho registered as little more than a minor, necessary alteration. Coelho, a diminutive figure with a massive presence, made only one change to the programme – Dvorak’s Othello Overture for the advertised opener, Johan Svendsen’s Zorahayda. Otherwise, the advertised works by Rachmaninov and Sibelius remained in place.

Few will have regretted either substitution, for not only did Coelho demonstrate an instant rapport with the orchestra, but this particular Dvorak overture – the last of three he composed in the 1890s – provided the perfect vehicle. 

It’s a work crammed with subtleties of colour and emotional extremes, in this instance breathtaking from start to finish. Coelho’s insistence on a succulent warmth from the strings made for a captivating opening, a gorgeous hymn-like scene-setter beyond which the musical characterisations raged between the wistful and tender to forthright and menacing. 

It certainly set the bar high for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 and its chief protagonist, the now-knighted pianist Sir Stephen Hough. For two-thirds of the way it certainly didn’t disappoint. Hough played steady composure against surprise in the opening movement, a thoroughly comforting vision heightened by frequent pressing gestures that suddenly, like rocket boosts, upped the energy and fired the momentum. The slow movement was sublime, Coelho by then perfectly attuned to the pianist’s persuasive idiosyncrasies and moulding an alert and endearing response from the SSO.  

Things didn’t go so well in the finale, where Hough’s previous reliability gave way to moments of near panic as he seemed to wrestle with accuracy and tempo. Ever the professional, he pulled things together, with some mesmerising pianissimos that challenged the orchestra to follow suit, flashes of revelation where melodies and often underplayed countermelodies interacted mischievously, and a glorious finish that was, understandably, as defiant as it was resolute.

Coelho ended the programme with a wonderfully rugged, at times vividly rustic, performance of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite, each of its four constituent tone poems ravishingly sculpted, from the opulent bravado of Lemminkäinen and the Maidens to the triumphant sunburst of Lemminkäinen’s Return. Yet again the SSO responded with rhythmic brilliance and expressive warmth to Coelho’s ever-meaningful precision. And once again, the SSO found itself totally inspired by a conductor it never expected in the first place.

Ken Walton 

Recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

BBC SSO / Scott of the Antarctic

City Halls, Glasgow

Whatever the modern viewer might think of Ealing Studios’ 1949 adventure film Scott of the Antarctic, with its Boys Own derring-do and plucky stiff-upper-lip, it’s worth remembering it was a child of its time.

It was Ealing’s first colour movie, scripted in the wake of the Second Word War, with the clipped lines of Sir John Mills as the quintessential “English” hero alongside such notable other castings as Kenneth More, Derek Bond and James Robertson Justice, even early sightings of a certain Christopher Lee and Dandy Nichols. Directed by Charles Fend, it recounted the bittersweet fortunes of of Scott’s tragic 1910-12 expedition, which in the 1940s would still have been fresh for the telling. And it did so with some spectacular camera work.

What we shouldn’t forget is the brilliantly moody and emotive film score composed by Vaughan Williams – especially this year when the musical world has been celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth – and that was the purpose of this wonderfully fluent “Live in Concert” screening featuring the BBC SSO, the women of the Glasgow Chamber Choir and soprano Katie Coventry, under the baton of the super-efficient Martyn Brabbins.

That it coincided with the anniversary was, it should be said, an accident of circumstances. The original intention by the event production company Big Screen Live and its creator Tommy Pearson, working with global film production company StudioCanal, was to stage it in 2020, but Covid put paid to that. Pearson masterminded the preparation of the film, overseeing the excision of the music from the original soundtrack, not an easy task, he explained, given that the score didn’t exist – as is the case nowadays – on a separate track from the spoken dialogue.

A sure sign of success in such ventures – where the orchestra performs in real time to the projected film – is when the orchestra’s physical presence gets forgotten. So smooth was Brabbins’ engineering of its entries and exits that it simply felt like a regular night at the movies, but with the musical dimension infinitely more visceral, and rather refreshingly no mass exodus as the credits rolled! 

The eeriness of the wordless female voices, over which Katie Coventry (a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Elizabeth Watts) cast her own siren-like descant, possessed a haunting, palpable otherworldliness. Vaughan Williams’ bold harmonies and uncompromising orchestral textures played on equal terms with the film’s awesomely crisp snow-filled camera work. And how that slowly ascending motif, appearing over and over again, matched the arduous but doomed march for survival of Scott’s diminishing team. Its ominous inexorability took on a life and soul of its own in this illuminating context.

Pearson, in his opening introduction, also explained that music originally discarded from the final edit had been judiciously reinstated for this performance, but more intriguingly that he had also created a concert prelude out of Vaughan Williams’ used and unused material. It proved an added fascination, rather like the film outtakes you get these days on a modern DVD, but as a foretaste rather than a tail-end curiosity. 

It also reminded us that Vaughan Williams later made his own full capital from the ideas, when he incorporated many of them in his “Antarctic” Symphony, completed in 1952. 

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow

As we near the end of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, conductor Martyn Brabbins concluded his latest programme on the podium for the BBC Scottish with the composer’s Fifth Symphony before he directs the soundtrack of Scott of the Antarctic with a screening of the 1948 film on Saturday.

The score of the latter would be reworked as Vaughan Williams’ Seventh, the Sinfonia Antarctica, five years later, and it was the revised 1951 version that we heard the Fifth. Although its thematic material is richly various through its four movements, Brabbins made a coherent argument for its overall shape. The symphony begins with solos from the first horn and principal flute – guests Christopher Gough and Katherine Bryan here – and has a colourful and fun Scherzo second movement before a melancholy third movement Romanza featuring further solos from among the winds and strings.

Vaughan Williams dedicated the symphony to Sibelius, who admired it, and the musical material of the outer movements owes much to the Finnish composer, with specific echoes of his late work, Tapiola, which appropriately opened the concert. As impressive as they were in last weekend’s Wagner, the SSO strings were on superb form again here, the violas in particular at the start. Brabbins found a really sparky narrative drive in the work, with its evocation of a bleak and mystical environment, lashed by wind and rain.

However, the main attraction for many on what was a well-attended Thursday evening was the gentler autumnal sound of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Unlike Kurt Weill, Strauss finds a very short way from Spring to September in his setting of the words of Herman Hesse, and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn brought a beautifully shaped, never indulgent, legato to that journey.

Having been a stalwart of Scottish Opera’s outdoor operas in its Edington Street car park during lockdown, Llewellyn has her own Glasgow following, alongside that of Brabbins, which doubtless helped at the box office. She also has her own distinctive way with the Four Last Songs, lighter of voice than many, but expressive and alive to all the details of interaction with the instrumentalists. Those included fine solo playing by orchestra leader Laura Samuel and lyrical work from flutes and piccolo.

The intimations of mortality in Hesse’s Beim Schlafengehen and Eichendorff’s Im Abendrot may have been more obviously realised by a fuller mezzo voice, but Llewellyn brought an individual ambiguity as well as a musical clarity to the cycle.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

It was a bit of a risk for the BBC SSO to programme a Wagner opera, albeit a shortened form of Götterdämmerung remodelled as a “symphonic journey” by the orchestra’s multi-talented chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, given that anything so heavyweight is guaranteed to test the limits of the City Halls acoustics. Then again, this is a venue that, in the 1980s and prior to modernisation, accommodated Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, so maybe it wasn’t such a crazy idea.

Wigglesworth’s original motive for creating his 50-minute version was, he claims, to provide a shortened concert alternative to the whole without resorting to what has often been termed “bleeding chunks”. And to a great extent he succeeds, majoring on the prologue and Act 3 music with its critical and conclusive Immolation music, while padding the musical progression out with relevant infill from elsewhere in the massive score. 

So yes, it was Wagnerian heaven, eventually. Wigglesworth has a habit of over-controlling things, which was more evident earlier in the performance, in a safety-first sort of way, than in the later stages, especially once the resplendent soprano Katherine Broderick let rip with those final epic moments as Brünnhilde. Her voice powered through the orchestra, and the heat of the opera suddenly became more ecstatically real.

It was here, too, that Wigglesworth awoke to the drama, the SSO responding in turn with gushing waves of true Wagnerian exhilaration and passion. Then, the cathartic transformation of the closing bars, and a quiet intensity that hung magically in the air. Even so, I was left unconvinced that this is the final say in how concert adaptations of Wagner can best work.

In a shorter first half, Wigglesworth offered another of his pet enthusiasms, music by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, indeed the UK premiere of his Vers le silence (Towards the Silence), written during lockdown. 

It opened with a shattered glass effect, a shrill tutti that busied itself intently until exhaustion quashed its searing euphoria, revealing a more restful, ethereal landscape. This appeared to be the game plan for the first three movements, each subtly altered in mood, but frustratingly repetitive in concept, only to be extinguished by an uneventful, slow-moving finale. Abrahamsen has a gift for texture, not so much for harmonic warmth. And strangely enough, it was the piccolo-heavy tuttis in this work that challenged the ears rather more than the Wagner did.

Ken Walton

This programme is repeated at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Sun 20 Nov

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Anyone unfamiliar with Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta will still have suspected that something big and exhilarating was on the cards for this well-attended afternoon concert – Bohemian Rhapsodies – by the BBC SSO under its chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. The clue was in the expectant line of music strands splayed across the rear balcony, a sure sign that an additional grandstanding phalanx of brass would be appearing anytime soon.

But way before that, Wigglesworth opened with something rarer and altogether more populist by Janacek: his Lachian Dances, which arise out of the same rustic nationalist genre as fellow Bohemian Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. They are tuneful, picturesque, with exuberant rhythmic surprises that thrill, moodily countered by curious modal colourings that frequently cool the ardour. 

That didn’t prevent the SSO homing in on the music’s overarching optimism, plentiful in the swarthy, celebratory Pozehnany and swaggering Celadensky (Country Bumpkin’s Dance). Wigglesworth generally let them speak for themselves, though a further reining in of the wind and brass would have warranted a better-balanced presence by the strings.

Then came the highlight of the programme, a diversion into the whimsical world of Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi and his tongue-in-cheek concerto treatment of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, more quaintly known as his Variations on a Nursery Song. With its sidestepping jibes at all the greats – Liszt, Richard Strauss, Brahms, Bruckner and others – the satirical impact was made all the more effective by the clean, unfussy, matter-of-fact virtuosity of pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, pitted against Dohnanyi’s sparkling orchestration.

The comic set-up – a growling opening right out of the Wagner-Liszt camp – made its mark, power-driven by Wigglesworth only to be slapped down by the smirky fausse naïveté of Kanneh-Mason’s nursery theme entry. The partnership remained frivolously alert throughout.

The second half opened with four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, their natural ebullience captured equally in spirit and lively content. 

Finally, the massed balcony brass lined up for Janacek’s Sinfonietta, a daring challenge for the City Halls’ limited acoustics, but one well met by the molten, tumultuous quality of the brass ensemble and the overall orchestral spectacle this work exudes. Momentary untidiness in attack and balance issues aside, the overall impression was one of awesome spectacle. For that alone, it was worth waiting for.

Ken Walton

Picture: Isata Kanneh-Mason

BBC SSO / Lintu

City Halls, Glasgow

For the second week running, the BBC SSO came up trumps with a conductor it instantly warmed to, and a programme that pulled in the crowds. The latter was significant on a day that saw the surprise announcement of a new UK-wide Head of Orchestras and Choirs, the current BBC Philharmonic boss Simon Webb, whose stated objectives include building audiences for all the BBC orchestras at a time when the BBC as a whole is undergoing a serious critical debate about its future.

On the basis of Thursday’s buzzing concert – a substantial complementary pairing of Shostakovich’s edgy Violin Concerto No 2 and Rachmaninov’s spine-tingling Second Symphony – you’d think the SSO had little to worry about. Under Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, both performances bore a responsiveness and virility that was instantly engaging: very different in each case, but together symptomatic of an orchestra that clearly wanted to give its best.

Added to the mix was the formidable American-born Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, whose unshakeable, coruscating presence in the Shostakovich injected fire, obstinacy, tenderness and pathos into a complex, at times harrowing, late work, which the composer fills hauntingly and fleetingly with reminiscences of his earlier music. 

Such a vital concoction of responses filled this riveting performance, the gathering storm of the opening movement powered by the orchestra’s swelling presence, but also a piquancy arising from delicate interchanges between the soloist and orchestra principals, like a chattering dialogue with the piccolo, or endearingly with the flute in the central Adagio.

But it was in the finale that Vähälä found every opportunity to showcase her combative energy and stimulating musicality. Like a mischievous child, she threw truculent pronouncements at the orchestra, whose matching responses were just as incendiary and belligerent. Lintu played both fellow protagonist and artful arbiter in this electrifying trading of insults, forging a synthesis that held things together while maintained the inexorable swagger.

All was very different in the Rachmaninov, a reading by Lintu that was as sweeping as it was elemental. He made that clear in the opening minutes, a slow fashioning of strength that eventually blossomed and ceded at the broadest level, yet centred on delicious minutiae. He breathed radiant energy and sparkle into the scherzo, filled the Adagio with a timeless, but never laboured, expansiveness, and in the frenetic finale wrapped up a wholly satisfying programme with a rip-roaring send off.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Muñoz

City Halls, Glasgow

Despite the last-minute change of conductor and soloist, it was heartening to witness a decent-sized audience at the City Halls, the first in a long time for the BBC SSO, and the sense of occasion and excitement such numbers duly generate. That the programme – music by Clyne, Chopin and Bartok – had a drawing power of its own easily mitigated the change of personnel. Even so, conductor Tito Muñoz (in for Joana Carneiro) and pianist Eric Lu (replacing the advertised Russian soloist, Zlata Chochieva) brought their own distinguished qualities to the performances.

Muñoz, the current long-standing music director of the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in his native America, made his mark in an instant. He’s a no-nonsense conductor, with a whip-like beat that immediately pulled us into the murky world of Anna Clyne’s high-energy This Midnight Hour. 

The composer – an Edinburgh University graduate most recently known to Scots through her stint as associate composer of the SCO – calls it “a visual journey expressed in sound”. In that respect, its cinematic flow – a restlessly unceasing soundtrack to what could easily be an imaginary film noir – is self-explanatory. The frenetic narrative changes gear at the drop of a hat – adrenalin-charged propulsion gives way to smoky cabaret ballad gives way to hymn-like calmness – but there’s rarely a moment’s breath en route.

Muñoz nailed every change of tempo and mood with resolute insistence and conviction. It was perhaps a mistake to ask the two onstage trumpeters to step out of the orchestra at such a quiet point in the score and make their way up to the rear gallery for a final offstage coup de théâtre. It provided an unnecessary distraction, even if the final result was thrilling.

Fellow American Eric Lu’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 immediately reduced the temperature. His first bold entry signalled an approach that favoured care over caution, and indeed, what followed was a deliberately contained exposé that steered clear of effusive gesture or extrovert indulgence, instead harnessing the natural energy of Chopin’s writing and allowing its filigree meanderings to speak instinctively for themselves. 

Where the opening movement enjoyed limitless free-flowing pianism set against a robust structural framework, the slow movement shone a more intimate, nocturnal spotlight on the young Lu – it’s only four years since the 24-year-old won the Leeds International Piano Competition – only to be thrust aside by the rhapsodic delights of the finale.

The focus shifted back to Muñoz and the SSO for the closing work in the programme, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and one of the 20th century’s most virtuosic orchestral masterpieces. The symmetrical relevance to Clyne’s opening work was not lost, once again dark features, sardonic references and blazing euphoria variously at play. 

Muñoz’s pacing was masterfully gauged, moulding the organic volcanism of the opening movement, the pithy playfulness of the scherzo, the eery “night music” of the Elegia, the edgy lampooning of Shostakovich in the Intermezzo, and the whirling finale into one glorious aural spectacle. He certainly had the SSO playing their best so far this season.

Ken Walton 

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Pintscher

City Halls, Glasgow

It is not so very long since the symphonies of Robert Schumann were rarely programmed, which now seems strange. Whatever kept them out of the repertoire, conductors clearly relish tackling them today, and orchestras playing them.

The first, the “Spring” Symphony, has the energy a young man, newly wed to Clara Wieck, and Matthias Pintscher, returning to the orchestra where he was an associate artist, communicated that from the podium with enthusiasm, bouncing on the balls of his feet. The conductor was on top of all the details of the score, and in command of the overall shape too, with a sense of pace building through the complexities of the third movement into the Allegro finale.

The chain of communication within the strings was just as apparent – across the front desks and through the sections in a fine ensemble sound. There was excellent work from principal oboe Stella McCracken and first flute Bronte Hudnott in that finale too.

There are more 20th century oboe concertos than manage to elbow their way into 21st century concert schedules with any frequency, but they have a fine ambassador in Spanish soloist Cristina Gomez Godoy. The story of the genesis of Richard Strauss’s 1945 Oboe Concerto is a particularly good one (suggested to the composer by an oboe-playing G.I. stationed in Bavaria at the end of World War 2, it was eventually premiered in the US by the man who subsequently signed Aretha Franklin for her first recordings, but passed on The Beatles for the American market) and it is a great showcase for a virtuoso player from the first bars.

Gomez Godoy was also very engaged with the work the orchestra was doing, in the many echoes and exchanges with the other winds, and especially principal clarinet Yann Ghiro. Predictably, given the timbre of her instrument – and Gomez Godoy plays an impressively “bling” gold-keyed one – the plaintive central Andante was a highlight, but the faster music on either side of it was equally lyrical, the most upbeat of Strauss’s compositional Indian Summer.

The real rarity of Pintscher’s programme was Alexander Zemlinsky’s 1934 Sinfonietta, which opened the concert in its first performance by the orchestra. The work demands much of the strings from the start, and they delivered clear, focussed playing across the sections, with fine solos from leader Laura Samuel.

Zemlinsky’s score is edgy and colourfully orchestrated and sounds increasingly of its time as it progresses – not at all in a bad way – through the central “Ballade” to the cabaret and jazz inflections of the third and final movement, building in pace and volume.

This is very dramatic music, which had its US premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1940, only two years before the Viennese composer died in exile in New York. Unlike some more fortunate fellow refugees from the Nazis, he was a great loss to Hollywood.

Programme repeated at Aberdeen Music Hall on Friday September 30 and available on BBC Sounds.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

Ryan Wigglesworth’s opening programme as new chief conductor of the BBC SSO told us much about what to expect from him as he nurtures his relationship with his new orchestra. It was anything but run-of-the-mill, offsetting the sparkling French textures of Ravel and Messiaen with brand new music by the interesting young Yorkshire-born composer Jonathan Woolgar. The musical journey, which also featured the pitch-perfect BBC Singers, was endlessly adventurous and repeatedly exhilarating. Wigglesworth has set his own bar unquestionably high.

As a composer himself, he has as eye – and an ear – for latent talent. In Woolgar’s new BBC commission, Symphonic Message in memory of L.R. (referring to the drama teacher Lynda Ross whom, the composer writes, inspired so many at his former school), Wigglesworth focused on the frenetic impatience of Woolgar’s musical characterisation, a fast-moving exchange of sharp-textured contradictions that paradoxically spelt completeness. 

Wigglesworth could have pressed a little more to punch out the detail, even where Woolgar’s motivic invention itself lacked a natural spark, but this was a performance that lived by its adrenalin and sense of constant surprise. As such, it served well as a springboard to the French feast that lay ahead.

On their own, Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi – a musical gift to his wife Claire Delbos, pet name “Mi”, rather in the manner of Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – are a 1937 set of orchestral songs fulfilling enough in themselves. But with the BBC Singers to hand, why not offer a scene-setter in the form of the contemporaneous Messiaen a cappella motet, O sacrum convivium? 

It was a magical moment, Wigglesworth’s contained gestures eliciting a mystical perfection from the 36-strong chorus, in both the thrilling unanimity and sustained stillness and slowness of the performance. 

Without a break, Canadian soprano Jane Archibald (replacing Wigglesworth’s indisposed wife, Sarah Bevan, as soloist) unleashed a glowing interpretation of the nine Poèmes pour Mi, probing every expressive possibility, from internalised intensity to outward rapture. It wasn’t always possible to hear every word she sang above the glittering orchestration, but as a whole, and with the SSO extolling the full virtues of Messiaen’s orchestral sweetness and translucence, this was an utterly sublime and moving performance. 

Much of that was down to Wigglesworth’s highly prescriptive conducting. He appears to be something of a perfectionist, each gesture carefully pre-considered and ultra-clear in its intentions. 

That was certainly a prime factor in ensuring that the concluding work in this concert, Ravel’s full 1912 score for the ballet Daphnis and Chloe, shone to its fullest and finest potential. Infinite colours abounded in a performance that variously sparkled and sighed, revelled and acquiesced. Acute textural detail informed mostly every moment, the wordless chorus spreading a comforting glow, like a red evening sky, over the shifting orchestral iridescence. It triggered off instant cheers and applause, and bodes well for Wigglesworth’s future relationship with his new orchestra.

Ken Walton 

EIF: Opening Concert

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

In any typical year for the Edinburgh International Festival, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana would hardly be considered a genuine heavyweight opener to the Usher Hall orchestral series. Even for this historic 75th anniversary event, and in its more immediate relevance as the back-to-life adrenalin shot after two years of pandemic suppression, it is a cantata more generally regarded as a populist blast – to some extent the German composer’s one-hit wonder – offering more quick-hit than deep-rooted resonance.

It avoided that pitfall on two counts. This high-octane programme opened with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, affording a psychedelic wonderland of orchestra colouring, moments of seething harmonic adventure, and yes, its own brand of unadulterated thrill. The Orff, itself, had as its messenger the ravishing combination of the BBC SSO, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, NYCOS National Girls Choir and a glorious trio of soloists under Sir Donald Runnicles’ magisterial baton. No absence of emotional impact, then, but justified by its general excellence.

The Pines of Rome – a lustrous sequence of responses to Roman life set against the binding metaphor of the ancient trees that dominate its landscape, and one of the Italian composer’s trilogy of Rome-inspired works – is a stirring creation, its sound world reeking of Mediterranean warmth, historical mystery and sun-filled optimism. 

As such, it was right up Runnicles’ street. He inspired a swashbuckling performance, red hot from the offset, a kaleidoscopic feast that explored every level of aural titillation from quietly succulent to feverishly terrifying. No more so than in the final moments, a seemingly limitless crescendo in which the gradual addition of rearguard offstage brass (spread liberally behind the dress circle audience) and the thundering might of the organ drove the decibel level to delirious heights. 

This was adequate preparation for the primal force that is Carmina Burana. For so many of us, more used to the deliberately modest stage forces preferred in the recent exit-from-Covid months, it was a glorious sensation – the massed vision of the orchestra and choirs made all the more electrifying by the vivid combination of red-shirted NYCOS choir and black-clad adult choir and orchestra.

The singing was just as exhilarating, the wholesome precision of the Festival Chorus offset by the pristine projection of the youngsters, especially in such famously fervent numbers as Tempus est iocundum. Not every moment held perfectly together, with some panic-rushing by the men near the start and moments of under-projection from the women, but the sheer vocal ebullience that spilled out from the stage, and from the resplendent SSO, was mesmerising.

Then there was the tastiest icing on the cake from three perfectly-matched soloists, the soprano Meechot Marrero, tenor Sunnyboy Dladla and baritone Thomas Lehman, whose theatrical antics brought a lascivious edge to what were already riveting musical presentations. Marrero and Lehman hammed up the Cours d’Amours no end, flirting mercilessly in the process. Dladla, too, realised the dramatic potential in his caricature Roasted Swan showpiece.

It was exactly what the doctor ordered, intoxicating escapism to wash away the prevailing gloom and welcome joy, mindless or not, back into our lives. 

Ken Walton

Image: Ryan Buchanan

Letting The Cracks Show

Jay Capperauld’s new flute concerto is a Japanese repair job, but it represents a positive healing process, he tells KEN WALTON

For Jay Capperauld, Christmas has come early. It’s only a matter of weeks since the RSNO performed the 33-year-old up-and-coming Ayrshire composer’s Fèin-Aithne, written originally for the BBC SSO, alongside Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Last week, the SCO announced that for the next four years he is to succeed Anna Clyne as its associate composer. This weekend, his new flute concerto, Our Gilded Veins, is premiered by the RSNO and its principal flautist, Katherine Bryan.

When we spoke, the SCO announcement was still under wraps, but there was a pent-up excitement in Capperauld’s manner that suggested something big was in the offing. “I can’t say at the moment,” he blurted cautiously, clearly wishing he could.

We’d met to discuss Our Gilded Veins, a work that began life pre-pandemic, was duly postponed from its planned 2020 premiere, underwent subsequent refashioning during lockdown, and will now emerge in its freshly-minted form this week under the baton of RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård and in the exalted company of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. 

Anyone who has followed Capperauld’s upward trajectory since graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland will appreciate to what extent extra-musical inspirations – often surreal, often funny, always potent – are a defining feature of his music. “I generally always write to a concept. I rarely work in absolute abstract terms,” he says. Our Gilded Veins is no exception.

The title refers to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, “a tradition whereby you break a plate or a bowl, then put it back together using gilded lacquer in order to highlight the breakage, as if you are celebrating the history of the object, warts and all,” he explains. “To me that’s just a delicious metaphor for the human condition, especially after what we’ve all been through over the last couple of years.”

“Kintsugi has been a hugely positive influence on me, in the sense it allows you to perceive things you’ve gone through, those bad experiences, in a positive way and not cover things up. The biggest step forward in the past five years or so is that we’re able to talk about mental health. It’s visible in the same way as the ‘gilded veins’ on these objects. It leads to conversations that need to happen.”

The “conversation” explored in Our Gilded Veins had already taken root in a previous piece for solo flute, The Pathos of Broken Things, which itself acted as the prototype for the concerto. Both stemmed from his encounter with Katherine Bryan. Impressed by a work Capperauld had had performed as a participant in the RSNO’s 2015/16 inaugural Composers’ Hub scheme, Bryan had later sought him out and asked if he had written any flute music. The answer was no, but he immediately set about composing one, which led in turn to the concerto commission.

Revisiting a work is not unusual for Capperauld. He did so for last month’s RSNO performance of Fèin-Aithne, rewriting around half of it, and he’s done the same for Our Gilded Veins. “The pandemic played a part in the nature of these revisions. It was, for me compositionally, an opportunity to spring clean. It also made complete sense as both pieces are about self-identity, and my perception of myself had changed significantly during that period.”

That’s reflected  in the altered narrative. “That now starts at a place where trauma has just happened. In the original version, we were seeing it unfold and transpire over the entire narrative. So there’s a fractured sense to the music straightaway, where the lines are unconnected. The whole first half of the piece is now about those lines trying to find each other, gluing themselves together, so we can then explore what that positive aspect of Kintsugi implies. By the end we revisit the trauma material, but in a new and reassuring harmonic context.”

Another key factor in the ongoing evolution of the piece has been Capperauld’s creative dialogue with Bryan. As she herself says, “Jay got to know me well during the process as a player: that I like to tell stories; that I love big-hitting, powerful stuff; that I like the emotional drive behind a piece that I can really talk to an audience with. He must have thought I liked a big challenge. This piece is so hard, but breaking through those challenges really enhances it.”

Katherine Bryan: “I love big-hitting, powerful stuff”

With so much original music excised in the revision process, does it just go in the bin? “No,” insists Capperauld. “I hang on to absolutely everything. I learned that from Harrison Birtwistle, whose advice to young composers was ‘keep everything’. There might be something you’re working on that you don’t have a context for at the time, but years down the line you find one. So who knows, maybe some scraps from the old version will find their way into a new piece of music at some point.”

Meantime, Our Gilded Veins – which Bryan and Capperauld will also be utilising in an outreach project at the Kibble Educational and Care Centre in Paisley – is partnering Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and the Choral Symphony in this week’s close-of-season concert by the RSNO. How daunting is that?

“Hugely,” says Capperauld. “Knowing that was very scary, but all I can do is focus on the matter in hand. I’d be foolish to think that because my piece is being performed alongside Beethoven Nine I must try to express myself to that same level, cos that ain’t gonna happen! I can’t make that judgement call as a composer. That’s for the audience to decide. All I can do is my best work.”

Katherine Bryan and the RSNO premiere Jay Capperauld’s Our Gilded Veins at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (3 March) and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (4 March). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk

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