Tag Archives: BBC SSO

BBC SSO/Carneiro

City Halls, Glasgow

Popular Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro, who directed this live broadcast season-opener by the BBC SSO – its first concert for a live audience in its home venue since March 12, 2020 – has no position with a UK orchestra. Might she take on this one, with its undeclared apparent vacancy in the top job with the continuing absence of chief conductor Thomas Dausgaard?

There is clearly a great rapport there already. Carneiro conducted a fine SSO concert of Sir James MacMillan’s music at the 2019 Edinburgh Festival and was in the pit for Scottish Opera’s production of Nixon in China, some of the players from which joined guests from the RSNO in this BBC Scottish line-up.

It was luxury casting indeed to have Carneiro joined by violinist Pekka Kuusisto for what was a clever celebration of the music of his native Finland to launch the orchestra’s return. Starting with a blast of Bach from a brass quartet, a very carefully-constructed programme featured the music of contemporary composer Magnus Lindberg and culminated in the last symphony of Sibelius. The brass was a continuing punctuating feature of the evening, whether in the choir stalls above the orchestra or offstage for Beethoven’s Leonora No.3, but it was leader Laura Samuel’s strings who were the sectional heroes of the day, from their combative then seductive dialogue with Kuusisto’s solo voice in Lingdberg’s First Violin Concerto through to the striking unison ensemble in the Symphony No. 7 of Jean Sibelius.

The Bach chorale that opened the concert began a sequence that ran through Lindberg’s arrangement of that material for full orchestra in his 2001 Chorale to his three-movement concerto, also scored for a very compact string section of 25 players. Early on they swamp the soloist just the same, until an accommodation is reached and Kuusisto was heard giving full expression to a fiery cadenza.

There are echoes of Sibelius in both the blossoming to resolution of Lindberg’s Chorale and the finale movement of the concerto, and the choice of the Beethoven to open the second half (after an actual interval, albeit with no bars open) also spoke of influences, even if the storm in the overture is perhaps more clearly heard in the Finnish composer’s final orchestral work, Tapiola.

Self-evident through all this cross-referencing cleverness was that this supremely versatile orchestra had a conductor of equal range on the podium. She may not be quite as animated as the SCO’s Maxim Emelyanychev, but Carneiro is a very physical conductor with a vast vocabulary of eloquent arm and hand gestures that leave her intentions in little doubt and her tempo and dynamic instructions absolutely clear. It would be a fine thing indeed if the SSO was to sign her up.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Joana Carneiro (BBC/Alan Peebles)

Lammermuir: BBC SSO/Whelan

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

The former SCO principal bassoonist Peter Whelan is forging a formidable reputation as a conductor, not just with his own group Ensemble Marsyas, but with a growing number of orchestras that recognise the spark he brings to the podium. The coming season adds to his conquests a Vivaldi opera the Royal Opera House and a guest appearance in Finland with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

On Saturday, Whelan took charge of the BBC SSO in a programme that reinforced his natural affinity with the clinical panache of the Classical symphony and the ultra-fine sensitivity of Benjamin Britten.

He began with Haydn, and the joyous adventuring of the 1760s’ Symphony No 35 in B flat. It features the composer in a mood of relaxed excitability, and in this performance, as rhythmically taut as it was expressively supple, Whelan allowed its myriad surprises to surface gleefully within a framework of logic and symmetry. 

The SSO horns made light work of Haydn’s stratospheric demands. The strings evoked a warmth that only once – in the exposed violin melodies of the Andante – seemed to waver, perhaps due to the players’ continued social distancing. The curt ending, a kind of “that’s all folks” dismissal, was entirely in keeping with the tempered humour Whelan elicited from its four movements.

Britten’s 1958 Nocturne for tenor and small orchestra, written as a companion piece to the more familiar Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and dedicated to Alma Mahler, transported us into a giddy world of dreams as expressed through selected texts from Shelley, Coleridge, Middleton, Wordsworth, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare. 

Tenor Joshua Ellicott expressed Britten’s continuous sequence exquisitely and intimately, the penetrating purity of his voice capable of harnessing intense passion as well as serene mysticism, and everything in between. The result was a performance of compelling poeticism and powerfully controlled tension, further enhanced by the strings’ gossamer precision and evocative wind solos.

Mozart’s popular Symphony No 40, cheeriness in a minor key, gave a final pleasing symmetry to this programme. It was fast and fearless, with just an occasional blurring of the edges in these generous ecclesiastical acoustics. As in the Haydn, Whelan revealed a willingness to hand much of the responsibility to the players, economic in his gestures, but always at hand to bring down a decisive beat and keep the outer skin firmly in place. 

There was real chemistry in this performance. The SSO should further this conductor relationship.

Ken Walton

BBC SSO new season

Following its return to live performances for audiences at the Royal Albert Hall and Edinburgh Festival, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced an autumn season of concerts at its home in Glasgow’s City Halls, and two Sunday afternoon concerts at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall.

The first home concert is on Thursday September 23 with Sibelius Symphony No 7, when Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro is on the podium and Pekka Kuusisto the soloist for Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No 1. The same team then appears in Edinburgh on September 26 when Kuusisto plays the Sibelius Concerto before the 7th Symphony.

The second Edinburgh concert is on November 28, when Veronika Eberle plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto before conductor David Afkham directs Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, the Third. The Glasgow performance of that programme, which is completed by a new work by Unsuk Chin, is on the evening of November 25.

Schumann’s Symphony No 2 is played the previous month in Glasgow, when Jorg Widmann also directs the orchestra in his own Con Brio as well as playing Weber’s Clarinet Concerto No 1. That programme is repeated at Perth Concert Hall on Friday October 29.

Another wind player and conductor, Francois Leleux, both performs and directs at the City Hall on September 30 for a programme of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Farrenc.

November also sees concerts featuring Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, conducted by Yutaka Sado, and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and the Grieg Piano Concerto, with soloist Garrick Ohlssohn, conducted by Hannu Lintu.

The orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov oversees a performance on October 21 for BBC Radio3’s New Music Show that includes Lucia Dlugoszewski’s Abyss and Caress with New York jazz trumpeter Peter Evans, for which tickets are free.

December sees a two-concert focus on Tchaikovsky, with Associate Conductor Alpesh Chauhan conducting the Sixth Symphony in a programme that also includes Karen Cargill singing Korngold’s Abschiedslieder. In the second Tchaikovsky programme Martyn Brabbins conducts the First Piano Concerto with soloist Pavel Kolesnikov.

Seating for all of the concerts will be partially distanced with reduced capacity, and audiences will be required to wear face coverings. The orchestra hopes to announce appearances in Aberdeen soon and will reveal details of concerts for the new year in November.

bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

EIF: BBC SSO/Alsop

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

The huge welcome the Festival audience gave to US conductor Marin Alsop for her guest appearance with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra speaks volumes. Yes, she has been a trailblazer for women conductors as well as an admired musician across the Americas and in Europe, but such attributes have not always translated into popular acclaim and such obvious affection.

Many in the 8.30pm audience at the EIF’s big classical music tent came well prepared for variable Edinburgh weather, with Tattoo garb of quilted jackets and travelling rugs, but the chillier air did not affect their enthusiasm. Moreover, it was not limited to the reception for the big work of the evening, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Before they heard that, Alsop’s programme included half an hour of newish music that few in the audience were likely to have heard before.

The concert opened with Jessie Montgomery’s Strum, the New York violinist’s work for strings that makes much use of pizzicato playing, as the title suggests. First cello Rudi de Groote and leader Laura Samuel are first to swap to their bows, and all players are required to demonstrate both skills with the second violins in particular having some impressively swift switches between the two. As the score develops it seems to encompass both widescreen pictures of the Mid-West and staccato minimalism of America’s seaboard states with something of a country barn dance at its climax.

Montgomery is a winner of American music publishing’s Leonard Bernstein Award, and there was something of Bernstein in the work that followed, A Spell for Green Corn by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. Would that comparison have occurred under a different conductor? His protégé certainly seemed to bring out the drama in the piece, commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1993 to mark Max’s 60th birthday. Laura Samuel had the soloist’s role here, as the folk fiddler enticing a good crop. Details of the scoring grew around her, from her fellow strings and the winds through to the explosion of brass and percussion. Both Maxwell Davies and Leonard Bernstein knew how to make the sound of a party happening.

Whether it was because the BBC had a hand on the sound-desk, or because my seat was nearer the players, the orchestral sound for that work and the Beethoven that followed was the best I’ve heard in this temporary venue. Directing the musicians without a score, Alsop was all over the orchestra throughout the symphony. The first movement was big, beefy and at pace, the second full and lush, and the crescendo from the scherzo into the finale quite magnificent. The SSO played superbly for Alsop and the audience roared its approval.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / van Soeterstede / Currie

City Halls, Glasgow

For all its negative effects, the pandemic has accelerated the careers of some musicians, and London-based Frenchwoman Chloe van Soeterstede, a product of the Royal Northern College of Music conducting course, may be one of those.

This was her second visit to the BBC Scottish in six months, after partnering cellist Steven Isserlis in a memorable programme last December. Here she was working with Colin Currie in a busy week for the Glasgow-based percussionist, on the UK premiere of the percussion concerto written for him by Dutch composer Joey Roukens.

Currie has championed many new orchestral works for his instrument(s) but this one has been a particular enthusiasm, and it is a real surprise that it has not had more international exposure. It is a full decade since he debuted it, and three years to the day since he gave an acclaimed run of three performances in Holland.

That delay in a British performance is more surprising because it a very comprehensible, and substantial, piece, in four distinct movements, each given a separate quirky title by the composer. The third of those, a syncopated “scherzo” called Protean Grooves seems to have attained something of an individual existence as a stand-alone, perhaps because it is shows the influence of guru of Dutch composition Louis Andriessen, but it works even better in the context of the whole work.

The orchestration it uses, before an extended cadenza for the soloist, is no larger than that of the substantial opening movement, Lines and Colors, which progresses through cymbals and strings through tuned percussion and winds to toms and blocks with the brass. This is big stuff, as percussion concertos need to be, but the wistful second movement, I remember this place, is a succession of gentle duets with solo instruments from the orchestra. Roukens’s tunes are slippery, but they are there, and the combination of all his skills is deployed in the finale (amusingly entitled It’s over, my friend), from the swelling marimba and clarinet opening to its querulous ending. By that point the line between the tuned and untuned instruments at Currie’s disposal was very blurred indeed, which may be exactly the intention.

If Soeterstede again proved her quality on a work that was new to her, the familiar music in the rest of the concert showed her to be thoughtful on that too. The opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni overture was an ominous pre-echo of the Beethoven symphony that followed, and the contrast between those bars and the more “Mozartian” music that follows has rarely been as clear. The Second Symphony of Beethoven, often taken to be a minor one of the nine, was a precursor to the “Eroica” Third in her hands. Her pacing of the first movement could be thought heavy-handed, but there was no mistaking her reading of it as the anguish of a composer facing up to his deafness for the first time.

BBC SSO/Wilson

City Halls, Glasgow

For all the strength of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra across all departments, this programme conducted by John Wilson was a real showcase for the strings, from the huge ensemble sound that opened the evening with the first movement of George Enescu’s Suite No 1 – underscored only by Gordon Rigby’s rumbling timpani – to the solo by leader Laura Samuel in the Fairy Garden conclusion of Ravel’s Mother Goose.

Nicely lit and filmed, with plenty of well-chosen instrumental close-ups, for a live-stream that seems to have been a one-time event now absent from the BBC i-Player, it was clearly audible that the opening work was being performed in an empty hall, and that reverberant acoustic suited it well.

Some echoey page-turning noises sat less happily in the midst of Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, initially a complete sonic contrast to the ominous Enescu but ultimately becoming more edgy than its lush opening. As was noted in the concert commentary, there is evident of Berkeley’s Parisian training in that development, as there is in Vaughan Williams’s orchestral scoring of his song-cycle On Wenlock Edge.

Tenor Benjamin Hulett was making his debut singing that version, as opposed to the piano-accompanied one, and perhaps he began a little uncertainly, but he warmed well to the task at hand. Houseman was reportedly less impressed by this than other settings of his work, and if the poet’s reservations are understandable, the musical arc of the work was given full expression here by Wilson and the SSO. Is My Team Ploughing? is much less bleak than the familiar Butterworth setting, and Hulett captured its ambiguity beautifully before giving full voice to the longest song, Bredon Hill.

The orchestral coup of the concert was another first, the world premiere of a new edition of the complete ballet music for Mother Goose, the fullest version of Ravel’s suite restored to his 1912 intention, replacing the hotch-potch published in the 1970s. I cannot pretend to have picked up the additions and omissions that Wilson alluded to, but it is true that Ravel was working in an era when the whole sphere of publication and proof-reading was becoming more complex and sophisticated. If he missed out on the benefits of modernism it is more than time amends are made.

The detail of his scoring certainly deserves to be as beautifully played as it was here, with the harp, winds and celesta complementing those strings, continuing to demonstrate that distinctive ensemble coherence alongside the front-desk solo virtuosity.

Available on BBC Sounds. Now also available on the BBC i-Player.

Keith Bruce

Tectonics Glasgow 2021

City Halls, Glasgow & online

Of all the events having to adapt to online delivery during the past year, none seems a more natural fit than the annual Tectonics Glasgow festival, run by and featuring at its heart the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Following last year’s Covid-related cancellation of this audacious exploration of classical music’s experimental twilight zone, it was back big style last weekend with a two-day programme. Live presence was limited to being featured on BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show from 10pm till midnight on both nights. Otherwise, it was down to digital content uploaded progressively onto the BBC SSO website over the entire evenings.

Casting aside the missing thrill of actually attending in person, it was effectively business as usual, but with added bonuses. There was a resultant globalising of the content.  “We are at the beginning of something that takes away the limitations of ‘space’”, stated Ilan Volkov in an introductory Zoom discussion with fellow curator Alasdair Campbell and BBC Radio 3 presenter Kate Molleson. 

He’s absolutely right. The requirement on this occasion to feed in performances and related conversation on video from around the world completely redefined the experience as something more universal and less intellectually constrained.

Add to that the availability of the entire festival online now for 30 days. Tectonics, through the very toughness of its content, can often induce sensory overload when experienced in real time. Choosing when and how often we listen to it offers a flexible alternative. Even better, once things return to normal, why not maintain and develop both options? 

Ultimately, the benchmark must always be quality, and by and large this 2021 programme succeeded in delivering technological creativity married effectively to the challenging unorthodoxy of the music itself. 

In many cases, such as Frédéric Le Junter’s quirky visual and sound installation Where Am I, there was even something to (unintentionally) amuse. The sight and sound of the madcap mechanised contraptions engineered in his farmyard workshop was bizarrely Pythonesque. German composer and performance artist Frieder Butzmann’s Street Music, filmed on a Berlin street, road-raged to a surreal electronic symphony of assorted traffic noise.

On more traditional grounds, the impressive Glasgow-based inclusive ensemble Sonic Bothy, led by violinist Claire Docherty, performed Verbaaaaatim, an improvisatory score driven by animated visuals – plenty sheep – and live captioning (accommodating the impaired hearing musicians involved), with a sparky, to some extent cartoonesque, outcome.

All in all, the range and scope of the Tectonics programme was comprehensive and engaging, from Listener Music, a reflective lockdown reverie by Scots composer Ian Findlay Walsh for electronics and small ensemble, to the weird giddiness invoked by Angelica Sanchez’s jazz-infused Piece for Piano and Moog, and much more besides.

As for essential premieres, they were plentiful. Australian composer Cat Hope’s The Rupture Exists, played by widely dispersed SSO players, its diaphanous language defined by Hope’s computer-generated “animated notation” and electronic underscore, offered a haunting and reflective festival opener.

Violinist Ilya Gringolts performed two short solo works commissioned by the I & I Foundation he has established with Volkov to help bring young composers into direct creative contact with performers.

Filmed among the lush vegetation of a Budapest botanical garden, American composer Sky Macklay’s Trrhythms, the elemental energising repetitiveness of which treads on minimalist grounds, glowed in the reverberant acoustics. Yu Kuwabara’s Bai and Dharani, which draws beguilingly on her deep interest in Japanese Buddhist music, is a virtuosic showpiece, Gringolts’ finding none of its complex multilayering a task too far. His performance was utterly compelling.

While the orchestral premieres were predominantly reserved for Saturday’s late-night live BBC broadcast, Sunday also featured the pre-recorded world premiere of Marc Yeats’ the importance of events, which dispenses with conductor and full score, relying on the SSO ensemble players to operate individually via the stopwatches on their mobile phones. Yeats relates the desired result to a “wobbly jelly”, where the outward “construct” remains sound so long as the “internal rendering” is adequately controlled.

Remarkably it works, and the inevitable and excitable sense of menagerie that arises was as robust in this instance as it was vibrant. Exceptional, super-confident playing by the SSO turned a hugely challenging concept into a stimulating delight.

Two live orchestral premieres offered contrasting styles. Michael Parsons’ Saitenspiel (Piece for Strings) was a refreshing reminder of how things were in the late 1960s when he was part of the experimental crowd engaged with Cornelius Cardew, Howard Skempton and the ground-breaking Scratch Orchestra. Re-composed as a strings-only version of a piece created previously for a full-scale Berlin student orchestra, Saitenspiel’s simplicity – question and answer phrasing that smacks of applied naivety – is strangely its charm. Does it run out of steam? It certainly ends perfunctorily, mid-flight.

Not so Scott McLaughlin’s Natura Naturans (“nature doing what nature does”), a more ethereal complement to the dry abstraction of Parsons. Scored for clarinet and orchestra, and featuring Heather Roche as a soloist well-equipped to negotiate the multiphonics on clarinet, the basis is still one of simplicity through limited pitch and harnessed dynamics. Under Volkov, the subdued timelessness of McLaughlin’s music was transfixing.
Ken Walton 

Access all Tectonics Glasgow 2021 events (available for 30 days) via the BBC SSO website.

Tectonics Shifts Online

Violinist Ilya Gringolts talks to KEITH BRUCE about Tectonics and his new commissioning foundation with conductor Ilan Volkov.

From the mouths of some musicians, the assurance to a Scottish journalist that “it is always a joy to come back – Scotland is one of the best places to be at any time of the year” might sound like an audience-pleasing platitude. Not violinist Ilya Gringolts though, who is a man as renowned for his plain-speaking as his virtuosic playing, and varied repertoire.

Lest there be any doubt that he means what he says, however, he adds a codicil: “I am from St Petersburg, so I grew up with bad weather. We take it for granted.”

Of course, at the present time he is not coming back at all, although he is a crucial presence in the upcoming Tectonics weekend of contemporary and experimental music with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, co-curated by its principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and promoter Alasdair Campbell.

Having been cancelled last May, this year Tectonics is an online and on-air event over two days and Gringolts is contributing filmed performances of works that have been commissioned through a new foundation he and Volkov have established. [As previously reported in Vox Carnyx]

In the two decades before the pandemic, Gringolts was a very frequent visitor to Scotland. He was a guest soloist at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival in 2004 and 2008 and until recently the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s International Fellow of Violin. His association with the SSO goes back to appearances under the baton of Osmo Vanska as a teenager. “I have had a relationship with the orchestra for more than 20 years,” he says, “and it has been wonderful every time.”

That Glasgow is still firmly on the violinist’s map should be a matter of civic pride. From his studies in St Petersburg, Gringolts moved to the Juilliard School in New York and the tuition of Itzhak Perlman, before becoming one of the earliest beneficiaries of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists programme. He has been settled in Zurich with his Armenian violinist wife Anahit Kurtikyan, who is a principal in the opera orchestra, Philharmonia Zurich, for 14 years. The couple have three young daughters: two more violinists and a pianist.

Switzerland has been much slower than the UK to vaccinate its population, Gringolts tells me, with only 10 per cent of the population having had both shots when we talk, and his own age group – he’s 38 – not likely to figure in the programme until July at the earliest. This is a matter of more than passing interest to the violinist, who was ill with Covid in January.

“It wasn’t pleasant; I wouldn’t recommend it. And I still have periods when I feel very weak,” he says. Quite recently he checked himself back into hospital, having spent ten days very ill.

As in other cities in Europe, Zurich went through the trauma of opening up too early last autumn and cultural events are only now very slowly resuming. The Tonhalle Orchester is permitting audiences of just 50 and playing its first concerts three times over two days, and the opera house has some small-scale shows scheduled for May.

We are now accustomed to learning of silver linings to the coronavirus crisis, and, before he became ill, there was one for Gringolts and Volkov, in the aftermath of the cancellation of Tectonics 2020.

“I had always admired Ilan’s active engagement with the world of new music and his expertise and fascination with it. A very important part of what I do is working with composers but we have lost the connection with living composers that was common 100 years ago. As performers we have become disengaged with new music and wait for things to be offered to us.

“If we don’t continue to pursue new music as performers, sooner or later it will disappear and I don’t want that to happen. During the first lockdown I had the time to think about all that.”

The upshot of which was the registration, in June 2020, of the Zurich-based I & I Foundation, established by Ilya and Ilan, with some heavyweight support. Verbier Festival founder Martin Engstroem, composer Michael Jarrell and star violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov (who is married to Gringolts’ sister, Olga) are backers, and cultural manager Dorothy Yeung, banker Davide Petrachi and lawyer Anna-Naomi Bandi-Lang serve on the board, the latter as President.

The foundation’s aim, says Gringolts, is simple to describe: linking composers to performers.

“The two are disconnected. We are in the communication business, bringing these people together. Ilan knows young composers who have things to say creatively, and I have colleagues who are too shy or afraid to ask.”

The initial strategy is through “micro-commissions” for solo player or small ensemble, and two of those will be performed by Gringolts as part of Tectonics, filmed in a verdant Budapest location that the violinist intriguingly describes as “a bit Jurassic Park – with palm trees and lots of light and space”.

Young American composer Sky Macklay’s Trrhythms uses short, rhythmic phrases over and over, as its title suggests. Previously commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, her music also includes a chamber opera voicing the doubts of a uterus about the necessity of child-bearing.

Tokyo-based Yu Kuwabara’s Bai and Dharani is based on the composer’s ten-year research into Japanese Buddhist vocal music, Shomyo. “That was a revelation to me,” says Gringolts, “and the violin is not the first instrument you would think of to explore it.”

“We have 12 commissions running, and so far half of them are from me, but that balance will change. It’s not really about me and Ilan. We will come to larger works that require more funding, and work with promoters who are willing to pool resources.”

The key aim of the I & I Foundation is to streamline and simplify the commissioning process and speed up the business of having original music heard, and the swiftness with which the foundation went from being an idea to a reality is emblematic, despite the pandemic prohibiting face-to-face meetings.

“All of this was accomplished on the phone and by Zoom, with Ilan in Tel Aviv, and that didn’t make any difference. Humans can get used to everything. The pandemic gave it urgency, as well as the time to think and realise these projects without other priorities distracting.

“But of course I miss the live experience and it is important that we get back to it – and stay safe and healthy.”

The rest of the year is already shaping up to be busy for Gringolts, with a second volume of Schoenberg’s music recorded by his quartet (which also includes his wife) in March and concerts scheduled for later in the year. In the first lockdown the violinist continued his exploration of baroque violin, discovering more pieces that he wants to play in concert and on record.

“I have new pieces to learn for the autumn as well, and ten students to teach at Zurich University. There are lots of things to do.”

Ilya Gringolts performs at Tectonics 2021 on Saturday and Sunday May 8 & 9. bbc.co.uk/sso

BBC SSO / Brabbins / Osborne

City Halls, Glasgow

The story goes, told in a radio broadcast by Aaron Copland himself, that the spelling of his family name resulted from the edgy twang of the Glaswegian patois. A Clydeside border official mistakenly took Kaplan – the family name his migrating Lithuanian parents gave when alighting in Glasgow en route to a new life in New York – to be Copland, which it can so easily be when expressed in the Glaswegian tongue.

Copland’s musical accent, in such evocative works as Appalachian Spring and Quiet City, could hardly be more different. There’s no harshness in these contrasting evocations of wide open landscape and urban isolation, just a quietly intense optimism expressed through lucid, transparent colours and purified, fresh air harmonies. 

These represented the softer side of this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, against which the subversive Soviet wit of Shostakovich offered the perfect counterbalance. Two of the latter’s works – the ebullient Piano Concerto No 2, with Steven Osborne as soloist, and the pithy concert suite compiled from his music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet – were the acid content.

If it took a moment or two for the atmospheric layers of Appalachian Spring to bed in, what followed was the very stuff of sentimentalised American pastoralism. But Brabbins never allowed sentiment to over-dominate. The emerging wind solos remained suffused with charm but laced with intent. There was sparkle as well as glow in the vivid folksy references, innocent passion in Copland’s human characterisations, and honest magic in the signature appearance of the famous Shaker melody, Simple Gifts. 

The shift to the Shostakovich concerto was all the more incendiary as a result. Short and snappy – it lasts just over 20 minutes – its outer movements are like delirious fairground rides to the sumptuous lyrical calm of the central Andante. Osborne played cautiously with his tempi, relying on disciplined, needle-sharp articulation and feverish insistence to create the thrills. His slow movement, so moodily Rachmaninov, was meltingly luxurious, the SSO equally aglow.

After the interval, in which presenter Jamie MacDougall added a track from Osborne’s superb new CD duetting with fellow pianist Paul Lewis, it was back to Copland and the sublime reflective tranquility of Quiet City, the dreamlike solos of Mark O’Keefe (trumpet) and James Horan (cor anglais) raptly interwoven within Brabbins’ seamless reading.

Shostakovich had the final word, and how bizarre was that for those of us used to the British view of Hamlet? Having written the original incidental music for a 1932 Moscow production by the avant-garde director-designer Nikolai Akimov, whose intent was to turn a tragedy into an absurdist satire, the eventual concert suite retains every ounce of that anarchy. 

Ophelia is given the cabaret treatment, the Requiem – complete with Dies Irae theme – reeks of the macabre, as if Brecht’s Berlin of the 1920s has been transported to 1930s Russia. This performance got the translation, and accent, spot on.
Ken Walton

Available to listen to on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Urioste / Poster

City Halls, Glasgow

There has been no point in the past century or two of musical history at which an orchestral concerto with more than one soloist was anything other than a poor career move for a composer, given the obvious extra requirement for performances. Precocious talent though he was, that difficulty may not have occurred to the 14-year-old Felix Mendelssohn when he wrote his Concerto for Violin and Piano in D Minor in 1823. First performed with his violin teacher and the young composer at the piano, it was unpublished in his lifetime and a definitive edition only appeared in the last year of the 20th century.

Nonetheless, it had its UK premiere in 1968, in a Glasgow studio concert by the BBC Scottish, which would have been a good reason for performing it this spring at the City Halls, although it was not the one here. Instead, the work, which requires virtuoso turns from the soloists, was the culmination of a programme created by life and musical partners Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose relationship began as members of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme.

More recently the couple have been one of the sensations of the “at home” online projects with their Lockdown Jukebox of varied repertoire. That imagination was very much in evidence here, in a 20th and 21st century sequence that preceded the Mendelssohn, beginning with a duet before works that teamed them individually with the SSO strings. Throughout there was a sense of chamber music intimacy that made the concert something of an extension of those broadcasts from home.

For mysterious reasons, between its recording on March 25 and its broadcast, the BBC had changed the title of the recital from Dreamscapes, the name of the work Urioste would play, to Spiegel im Spiegel, the more familiar Arvo Part composition that opened it. Poster claimed a hypnotic state was part of the method of playing the Part, but that can only be true if the concentration for its minimalist rising and falling measures is second nature.

The Gerald Finzi Eclogue for Piano and Strings that followed may be no stretch for a pianist of Poster’s ability, but its pastoral Englishness is the setting of many a dream idyll, with unmistakeable similarity to Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

Dreamscapes itself is a decade-old composition for violin and strings by Clarice Assad, daughter of Brazilian guitarist Sergio, that has its own echo of The Lark at the start. Urioste gave the New York premiere of the work three years ago to the day of this broadcast. After some rhythmically Latin scoring, the work becomes much more edgy about two thirds of the way through its 12 minutes. By some distance a less soothing dream, its turbulence resolves into a more gentle awakening, rather than being suggestive of nightmare.

Urioste and Poster were joined by orchestra leader Laura Samuel for a post-Mendelssohn encore composed by Donald Grant of the Elias Quartet in what was a beautifully-curated programme. A refreshing change from conductor-led thinking, and a relationship that the orchestra would do well to nurture.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Dvorak / MacMillan

City Halls, Glasgow

Sometimes the periphery of a programme outshines its intended core. There’s an element of that in this Radio 3 broadcast by the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins. For at its heart is a performance of Dvorak’s gloriously lyrical and substantial Cello Concerto featuring the highly popular Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloist, the impact of which is lessened by moments of inconsistent tuning, particularly those high solo reaches towards the end of the opening movement.

That’s a pity, because otherwise there is much in Kanneh-Mason’s performance that shows sure signs of a maturing musical voice. Take the slow movement, where the young cellist colours Dvorak’s plangent lyricism with breathy sighs and yielding subtleties, dispelling the untypical shoddiness of the orchestral opening and finding a warmth and intensity that lingers into the finale. 

It’s an unusual version of the concerto, George Morton’s slimmed-down 2018 arrangement distilling Dvorak’s opulent scoring to chamber orchestra size, much of it to great effect. There’s less tension in the mightiest tuttis, the cello sings through without need to force, all of which contributes to a more easeful appreciation of the music. Brabbins grasps that opportunity, minor skirmishes aside, but the key concern remains those frantic periodic intonation lapses by Kanneh-Mason. 

Wrapped around this mighty concerto is a sublime opener from the pen of American composer Augusta Read Thomas, currently professor of composition at the University of Chicago, and an early seminal work from James MacMillan, Tryst, written for the1989 St Magnus Festival and premiered there by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Thomas’ Plea for Peace – a short ruminating work commissioned four years ago to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor – is both questioning and reassuring. In this alternative version, which replaces the original vocalised soprano solo with a sinuous interchanging of solo flute, oboe and trumpet against a sumptuous backdrop of stings, an austere Coplandesque simplicity prevails, magically so in this haunting, atmospheric performance.

It’s easy to forget the starting point for MacMillan, given the 30 or so years that have passed since such launchpad works as Tryst or The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, and the sheer prolificacy of his output ever since. Here, in Tryst, is a vivid reminder of the rawer 30-year-old, tangible conflicting influences exploding in abundance, yet the distinctiveness that was to become MacMillan’s maturer style piercing through the underlying turmoil.

So yes, there is jagged-edged Messiaen, factory-like Stravinsky (or are those incessant repetitive rhythms more Kenneth Leighton, MacMillan’s university teacher?), and becalming Brittenesque acquiescence; but there is also a driving, defining intent that knits such discordant elements into a powerfully argued entity.

The point is well-made in this gripping performance, which Brabbins steers with brutal excitability, hushed tranquility and consequential theatricality. A cathartic complement to the earlier Thomas.
Ken Walton

Available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds

Tectonics online and on-air

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has announced that its annual weekend of new and experimental music, curated by principal guest conductor Ilan Volkov and events promoter Alasdair Campbell, will go ahead this year on May 8 and 9.

Only weeks after last year’s programme had been announced, the 2020 event was one of the early casualties of the pandemic, with an immediate promise that it would return in 2021.

While audiences will still be unable to fill the many spaces of Glasgow’s City Halls and Old Fruitmarket complex for what has become a hugely popular event, a full programme of pre-recorded online performances and late-night broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 is promised this year.

The orchestra has three broadcast concerts before then, two of them also available to view on the BBC iPlayer. The second of those is a 50th birthday concert by Steven Osborne, who is celebrating that same anniversary with a recital at London’s Wigmore Hall on Friday March 12. The Glasgow concert is on Thursday, April 22 and is conducted by Martyn Brabbins. In a programme of music by Copland and Shostakovich, Osborne plays the Russian’s Piano Concerto No.2, which was written a birthday present for the composer’s son, Maxim. It is bracketed by Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite and Quiet City, and the concert concludes with the suite Shostakovich made from his music for an avant-garde 1930s production of Hamlet.

Earlier in April, violin and piano duo Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, whose kaleidoscopic home music sessions were one of the online hits of lockdown, join the orchestra to co-direct a programme entitled “Dreamscapes”. The title work, for violin and chamber orchestra is by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad, and is based on the composer’s researches into Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It is preceded by Arvo Part’s atmospheric and haunting Spiegel im Spiegel and Gerard Finzi’s Eclogue for Piano and Strings, and followed by Mendelssohn’s D Minor Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra, 54 years after the orchestra broadcast the UK premiere of the work.

The SSO is also in action next week, again under Brabbins and again available to view on the BBC i-Player. Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the soloist for the Dvorak Cello Concerto, performed on Thursday March 11 in George Morton’s reduced orchestration. The concert begins with contemporary American composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Plea for Peace and concludes with Sir James MacMillan’s signature 1989 work, Tryst.

BBC SSO / Wigglesworth

City Halls, Glasgow

In these lean times, when orchestral forces are pared to spartan COVID-friendly levels, it says a lot of a conductor when he can glean such richness of string tone as Mark Wigglesworth did from the BBC SSO in this latest Radio 3 live broadcast.

And it came with a dash of style, particularly in the two Classical symphonies that bookended the programme: Haydn’s spirited Symphony No 1 (yes, he had to start somewhere); and Mozart’s Symphony No 40 (the second of his final three symphonies, not that he envisaged them as such).

The instant joie-de-vivre of the Haydn, a natural effusion of craftsmanship and ingenuity integrating prevalent Mannheim symphonic traits with newfound Austrian zest, produced a stimulating opener: nothing trenchant or intellectually taxing, just a no-nonsense, honest appreciation of the music’s charm and integrity. As with the later Mozart, there seemed a conscious limitation on string vibrato, which gave this performance a refreshingly raw, period countenance. 

If there’s anything Haydnesque about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, it’s the Soviet composer’s preoccupation with the cellular motif. Identified immediately by its brusque four-note monogram, Shostakovich powers his concerto with a single-minded insistence that borders on violence, which is why soloist Steven Isserlis refuses to play it on his Stradivarius. “For this, you need an instrument that doesn’t mind being hit,” he revealed in his pre-performance interview.

Despite the warning, Isserlis was careful not to go ballistic. Yes, there was forthright assertiveness and fiery detachment in his opening gambit, but this was not an exercise in basic extremes. Instead, there was a real sense of journey, the opening movement tempered with gnawing undertones, the Moderato equally cautious of overstatement, the cadenza shifting momentously from ruminative soliloquy to fiery springboard unleashing the rumbustious peasantry of the relentless finale. 

Fine horn playing, too, from SSO principal Alberto Menendez Escribano, and the lighter addition of a Kabalevsky dance (No 3 of 5 Studies for solo cello), played as an encore by Isserlis and dedicate to his friend, Berlin Philharmonic cellist Wolfgang Boettcher, who died last week.

Post interval, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante defunte removed any lingering shockwaves from the Shostakovich, its wafting melodies and summer-scented harmonies, plus a sumptuous Ravel orchestration to die for, paving the way for the genius of Mozart.

This may have been 56-year-old Wigglesworth’s first time conducting the G minor symphony, but the clarity and cogency of his interpretation suggest the time was ripe. There was a meaty energy to this performance, essential in addressing the robust counterpoint of the finale, but never at the expense of capturing textural detail. It wasn’t the tightest playing of the evening, the occasional hint of rushed freneticism rocking an otherwise steady ship. But the overall encapsulation of Mozart’s heavier moods, especially that deliciously emotive chain of suspensions at the heart of the Andante, was enough to dispel any minor quibbles.
Ken Walton

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds

BBC SSO / Samuel

City Halls, Glasgow

It is likely that there were few arts organisations whose immediate response to COVID-19 was to make a SWOT analysis to inform their planning, but it has nonetheless become commonplace to point out some benefits to be appreciated as a result of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

With social distancing limiting the size of musical ensembles and travel prohibition making the scheduled appearances of guest soloists and conductors impossible, there has been a focus on the wealth of international and indigenous talent that is resident in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra in particular has been able to let a wider audience see its players in many different chamber music combinations.

This programme from the BBC Scottish was in some respect much more like a programme that the SCO might have undertaken pre-pandemic, with a previous or current leader of the orchestra directing from the violin. But it is also true that even the much larger RSNO has ventured down that road recently, tackling Beethoven symphonies without a conductor and emerging with credit from the exercise.

Battling through the health emergency to meet its commitments, with changes of conductors and soloists, this was perhaps the first time the SSO used the situation to highlight the talent it has within its ranks, and what a buoyant uplifting experience it was.

It is not as if we did not know how good the orchestra’s wind principals are. Stella McCracken (oboe), Yann Ghiro (clarinet), Julian Roberts (bassoon) and even newer member Alberto Menendez Escribano (horn) have all been in the ranks for some years, distinguishing concerts with their soloing.

That quartet had the spotlight for Mozart’s other Paris Sinfonia Concertante, from the year before the one for violin and viola that he probably played himself. Although designated a Kochel catalogue number, it is still not entirely accepted as being by him, in the absence of an autographed score.

If someone else did write it, they have surely been denied credit for a lovely piece of work, which gives all four of the wind instruments a platform, and the interweaving lines of the SSO players were beautifully captured in this broadcast.

At the heart of many an SSO concert, however, is its distinctive string sound, and with leader Laura Samuel directing from the concert-master’s seat, this programme was really a celebration of that strength. If the Mozart is not strongest in that department – in some respects the root of doubts about the score’s authenticity – it was bracketed by Czech works that more than compensated.

Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings was hugely important for the composer, an early triumph on his rocky road to a professional career, and there is ebullience in every bar. That was what came across in this performance, liberated from any directorial interpretation that may have come from the podium. The tempo was not too strict to allow the music to flow naturally, with some lovely languid moments in the rich string sound.

The concert began with a briefer, less familiar, but also beautifully scored piece by Dvorak’s son-in-law Josef Suk, Meditation on an old Czech hymn “St Wenceslas”. Originally written for the Bohemian String Quartet, of which Suk was a member, it was a riposte to the occupying Austrians’ requirement that their national anthem be played at all concerts. Its political message may be obscured by distance and time, but the powerful community feeling it expresses was transmitted to an audience starved of the communal enjoyment of live music by the eloquence of the SSO strings.
Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / van Soeterstede / Isserlis

City Halls, Glasgow

Viola player-turned-conductor Chloe van Soeterstede has a forward schedule that many musicians may currently envy, with concerts in her native France, Germany and England all upcoming early in 2021. This packed hour-and-a-quarter programme for BBC Radio 3’s Afternoon performance strand suggests that it is built on an appetite for hard work to tight deadlines.

Only the Schumann Cello Concerto, for which the orchestra was joined by the silver-maned Steven Isserlis, appears in the repertoire she lists on her website. It was bracketed by two delicious pieces of orchestration by women composers, with a less-often-played Mozart symphony, No 34 in C, rounding things off.

Isserlis gave as masterful a performance of the Schumann as you might expect. His stated intention to be a conduit for the composer to tell his own story may have sounded like the sort of thing all soloists say, but in this case it was demonstrably true from the opening anguished bars. There was no bathetic self-indulgence in the finale either, a movement in which the soloist’s communication with the conductor and her strict tempo was very evident.

Van Soeterstede is both rigorous and lucid in her beat, disciplines essential for the brief Reckless by Sally Beamish, which is punchy in the way of the animation scores of Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott, but with terrific orchestration. The scoring was also what distinguished the opening Concert Overture by Elfrida Andree. This terrific work had its second performance in 1998, well over a century after its premiere, and it alone suggests that the Swedish composer, who was chief organist in Gothenburg for most of her life, is another woman whose work is ripe for rediscovery. Beautiful writing for the winds had the finest realisation by the SSO’s principals, and a lovely silky string sound was provided for van Soeterstede’s crisp direction.

Mozart’s last Salzburg symphony before he escaped to the bright lights of Vienna is an unfinished work of three movements, but it stands happily in the catalogue in that form. The central Andante is the young composer at his most elegantly pared-back, but the fast outer movements were the stars of the trio here. There was an immediate chamber orchestra energy to the first one, and the finale, built around the orchestra’s pair of oboes in close harmony, was most definitely the sound of a young man on the move.

The young woman on the podium is surely going places as well.

Keith Bruce

BBC SSO / Cottis

City Halls, Glasgow

Someone at the BBC SSO has taken action against the fiasco that was its recent livestream broadcast. Thursday evening’s concert under conductor Jessica Cottis was as much a feast for the eyes as the ears. Far greater creative thought went into marrying camera angles with sound cues implicit in a musical journey that stretched from hard core American minimalism to the traditional heartland of the German Romantic symphony.

Cottis was on the podium by default, due to Israel-based Ilan Volkov’s inability to travel. But she made it entirely her own show, exerting a relaxed and confident hold over an orchestra she knows well from her time as assistant to its previous principal conductor, Sir Donald Runnicles. 

And she brought a touch of theatre to the opening minutes, facing the rear of the City Halls where the distant brass and percussion, spread over a balcony normally inhabited by audience, struck up Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No 1 (the now 82-year-old Grammy-winning American composer wrote six of them), a quirky gender response to Aaron Copland’s more familiar Fanfare for the Common Man.

The main equivalence to Copland is the common thunderous drum opening, beyond which Tower veers off on a far less earthbound course. The textures dance, the climax is a whirlwind as ecstatic as (indeed reminiscent of) Janacek’s Sinfonietta, and the glockenspiel serves as a glittery addition of orchestral bling. This performance may have had its reticent moments, but ultimately it swelled big time and served its theatrical purpose.

Back on the main stage, the SSO strings engaged in John Adams’ Shaker Loops, which did invite the troubling question: is such raw, repetitive minimalism really what’s needed when the last thing we wish to be reminded of is the monotony of lockdown life? And this piece in particular, its persistently manic tremolando effects inspired by the frenzied rituals of the American Shaker sects, has an inbuilt tendency to set the nerves jangling. Which it did rather well. 

Yet Adams’ oscillating sound sculpture, while it starts like a rave in a beehive, is not all concentrated superheat. Yes, Cottis sourced the necessary electricity that drives the outermost movements, sometimes with pulverising persistence, always with trance-inducing focus. But she also embraced the rich mystical qualities of the second movement – Hymning Slews – its whistling harmonics, slithering motifs and altogether spookier soundscape representing a welcome respite.

In Schumann’s Second Symphony – a work remarkably positive and buoyant given the composer’s prevailing state of mind – the real thrill was to hear something approaching the full symphonic sound we’ve been missing since March. Cottis exercised a firm hand but with ample lightness of foot, so that the music’s essential solidity, while firmly rooted and warmly expressive in the weeping slow movement, had levity and sparkle conveyed through the SSO’s lithe, crisp playing, its clean textures and alert tempi.
www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso
Ken Walton

Image: Jessica Cottis credit Kaupo Kikkas

BBC SSO / Brabbins

City Halls, Glasgow 

As Martyn Brabbins rightly observed during his interval thoughts on Benjamin Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, there is a disturbing undercurrent that haunts its pungent score. We weren’t about to hear the whole opera, but rather a masterfully crafted concert suite, prepared eight years after Britten’s death by the conductor and Britten collaborator Steuart Bedford.

It was the final piece in a brooding all-Britten programme broadcast live on Radio 3 by the BBC SSO, the common factor throughout being that anxious underswell described by Brabbins, whether in the sombre strains of Russian Funeral, the searing mystical delights of the song cycle Nocturne, the ghostly references of John Dowland cutting through the ruminative Lachrymae for viola and string orchestra, or the constant reminders within the Death in Venice score of the opera’s hovering fear – rumours of a cholera pandemic. How topical!

Russian Funeral, scored for brass only, is understandably powerful and morose, written in the run up to the Second World War when Britten’s anti-war sensibilities were fully wakening. But it’s not just about his pacifist ideals. Structured around a Russian proletarian song, it’s a paean to the victims of the 1905 Winter Palace insurrection, its lugubrious but hot-blooded sentiment roundly embraced by the SSO brass, underpinned by the menace of militaristic drums.

Britten’s final song cycle, Nocturne, took us to a dreamier world. These settings of Shelley, Tennyson, Owen, Keats and Shakespeare, among others, explore rich and varied images of sleep and darkness, from the hypnotic density of Shelley’s On a Poet’s Lips I Slept, the catchy “ting, ting, ting” of Middleton’s Midnight Bell, to the powerful contradictions in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43.

Tenor Mark Padmore’s performance hit the magic button, in one sense capturing that piercing objectivity we so associate with the work’s original exponent Peter Pears, but in another sense finding a range of expression fluid enough to amplify the music’s shifting moods and dramatic surprises. 

He owed much, of course, to the supporting piquant flavourings of the SSO ensemble, notably the thrill of the duetting flute and clarinet in Keats’ Sleep and Poetry, the entrancing harp in Coleridge’s Encintured with a Twine of Leaves, and that gorgeous blanket of strings throughout – a defining, unifying presence.

Where Nocturne looks to English poetry, Lachrymae for solo viola and strings (Britten’s 1976 orchestration) turns to old English song for its inspiration. Almost like a reverse set of variations, John Dowland’s theme, on which it is based, emerges in full at the end rather than the beginning. It’s a transformative moment, and one that seemed especially profound as the inevitable resolution to a captivating solo performance by SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson. The subtle references to Dowland previously were like phantom apparitions, the full string complement equal in capturing such magical moments.

All of which found the perfect destination in the Death in Venice Suite. Bedford’s slick continuous distillation maintains the opera’s narrative flow, but equally it allows us to appreciate the score on its own merit. Yes, the gnawing nuances that reflect the ageing writer Aschenbach’s obsession with the boy Tadzio are intrinsic to Britten’s expressive language, and are hard to discard if you know the opera. Yet this steely, sinewy, often sublime performance illustrated, too, the composer’s own emotional struggles. Disturbing yes, but wonderfully enriching.
Ken Walton

Image: Martyn Brabbins ©Ben Ealovega

BBC SSO/Collon

City Halls, Glasgow

THE space and acoustic of Glasgow’s City Hall was another crucial player, alongside the members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon, in the performance that opened Thursday afternoon’s radio concert.

Grazyna Bacewicz’s Music for Strings, Trumpets, and Percussion is something of a classic of 20th century Polish music, dating from a time in 1958 when the Soviet hold on creativity there was loosening its grip. Bacewicz and her better-known contemporary Witold Lutoslawski were able to have some more progressive music performed, and Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music for strings is of the same year. It is explicitly dedicated to Bela Bartok and the similarity of Bacewicz’s title to Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste suggests the Hungarian composer was at least on her mind.

Perhaps she is less well-known in the West because, although prolific, she did not forge onwards as Lutoslawski did, but this 20 minute work deserves to he heard more often, and as sonorously as it could be appreciated here. Preceding Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, it was possible to hear some pastoral moments, but much more nature red in tooth and claw, and really this is abstract music, concerned with the tonalities of the instruments involved.

While there was some militaristic brass, the five trumpets also showed flashes of being a big band section, especially when muted towards the eerie ending of the second, central movement. It is chiefly the eloquent writing for the low strings that really distinguishes the score, however, and the SSO players provided real richness of tone.

Collon’s account of Beethoven’s Pastoral also boasted a lovely clarity of sound, immediately appreciable in the entry of the winds in the first movement, and in some surprisingly staccato propulsive cellos. Although there is a wealth of melody in the whole work, Beethoven stretches the material in the second movement a long way, and the conductor’s relaxed pace seemed to draw attention to that until the very pronounced birdcalls at its end.

The storm that follows was all the more dramatic as a result, but the whole arc of the piece seemed a little askew, as was something in the orchestral intonation at the start of the finale, in a performance that never sounded entirely sure of its shape.
Keith Bruce

BBC SSO/Elder

City Halls, Glasgow

At a time when we’re all depending on digital expertise to beam music performance into our homes, you’d expect the BBC to lead the way. But what we got on Thursday evening from this live streaming of the BBC SSO under Sir Mark Elder was anything but a technical showcase.

Initial production was shambolic. We experienced the opening countdown and snatches of pre-performance “off air” conversation by the technical team and presenter; an explosive vocal interjection mid-Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 1; and a pre-recorded conversation with conductor Sir Mark Elder that went missing, the lengthy gap filled only momentarily with a brief apology. The faults were still there Friday morning.

All of which seemed to cast a nervous shadow over a Bach performance that took time to settle, but even when it did – most convincingly in the delicate interplay of the slow movement, the sparkling horn insubordination that is the work’s distinctive signature, and the woodwind finesse that coloured so many concertante moments – never really established sustained confidence in its style and delivery. 

Fortunes changed instantly with the shift to Stravinsky’s abstract ballet score, Danses concertantes, a tangible sense of composure now providing the bedrock for a performance that captured the energising tension implicit in Stravinsky’s neoclassical writing, where rhythmic constraint and glittering artifice collide with incendiary results.

There was a stored intensity in Elder’s gestures that sent all the right signals to the players, just enough instruction to inspire a taut, alert ensemble, but which crucially handed ultimate responsibility to them to deliver the quality goods. The outcome was tart, snappy, often burlesque, laced with melodious tenderness at all the right moments.

Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony provided a substantial finale to the programme, transporting us to a very different 20th century world: that of a composer steeped in the Zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and a musical style in tune with the hot-scented modernism of Berg and hangover of opulent Strauss and rustic Mahler.

Elder’s fondness for this 1916 work surfaced from the word go, its faint opening allusions to Impressionism instantly cast aside as the restless narrative took hold. What unfolded was a performance rich in expressive yearning, from angst to frivolity, from shimmers of spectral luminescence to heightened surges that tugged mercilessly at the heart strings. 

What’s more, as a ravishing example of its time, memories of the concert’s earlier transmission problems were almost forgotten.
Ken Walton 

Thoughts of an Elder Statesman

Ken Walton interviews conductor SIR MARK ELDER who returns to the BBC SSO for the first time in 25 years 

Let’s look on the bright side. While the visceral, spine-chilling sensation of the symphony orchestra at its fullest fortissimo is becoming something of a distant memory, the same COVID restrictions that permit only limited player numbers to perform together has created a perfect outlet for forgotten, reduced-scale repertoire.

When, for instance, was Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony last performed in Scotland? I can’t answer that. But the fact it is scored for 23 solo instruments makes it the perfect vehicle for a cutdown BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra whose live online performance next Thursday (22 October) will feature a conducting figure whose Scottish appearances in recent years have also been few and far between.

He is Sir Mark Elder, currently working wonders as music director of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra – most recently in a highly-rated Vaughan Williams’ album on the Hallé’s own label, reviewed elsewhere on VoxCarnyx – which is one of the reasons he hasn’t been north of the border much lately. 

He last conducted the SSO in 1995, filling in for the late Sir Alexander Gibson who had just died. Since then, fleeting visits have mainly been for Edinburgh International Festival appearances with the Hallé.
“As you know, I’ve been in Manchester for 20 years where we had an undertaking that I wouldn’t conduct any other orchestra outside London, so that my profile was focused on the Hallé,” he explains. “I was happy to agree that at the time, but now I’m freer to take up opportunities like this. So it will be wonderful to come back and work with the SSO again, though it’s unlikely it will be with all the same faces I knew 25 years ago.” There will, I assure him, be a few.

The entire programme, Elder believes, will be “a new experience for everybody listening and almost everybody playing it.” Besides the Schreker, a gorgeously sinuous example of post Romanticism, the concert includes Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 1 and Stravinsky’s abstract neo-classical ballet score Danses concertantes. 

The choice of Schreker was all Elder’s. “It’s a piece I’ve known for years and done quite a few times in different countries. I think it’s a masterpiece, but it takes time to get into his idiom. There’s a richness in the harmony which is different from [Richard] Strauss. It feels to me like somewhere between Strauss and Berg, on the fringes of atonal music, and yet there are noticeable key centres.”

Written during World War 1 for the Vienna Music Academy, where Schreker was teaching, its restless spirit echoes the prevailing zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, a musical world epitomised by the soul-searching radicalism of Berg and Schoenberg, and within which Schreker was popular and well-respected. His reputation waned later under Nazi oppression.

“There’s a sense of peace at the end of the Chamber Symphony,” Elder notes. “But it’s not wholly calm. There’s some unsettled quality which was perhaps there in all his music. I think it’s very inspired, hard to play, but very, very beautiful.”

Hard to play? With orchestras forced into rediscovering such rarefied repertoire, might it be perverse to suggest that COVID could actually present them with positive creative opportunities?  

“I think the repertoire we’ve being forced to go towards is full of great chances,” Elder says. “But we have to divide things up between the members of the orchestra so that every time you do, say, the Schubert Octet it’s not always with your first string players. Everyone needs to benefit from it, to feel a part it.” 

He’d happily do Tchaikovsky’s or Dvorak’s serenades for masses of strings. “I think they sound very good that way. You can then balance that with something like Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments or his Symphonies of Wind Instruments so the strings get a rest. I loved the idea my friend Ed Gardner had in London the other day of combining Messiaen’s Et expect resurrectionem mortuorum [for wind orchestra] and Schoenberg’s Varklarte Nacht [for strings] with the LPO. I think that’s exactly the mixture one could do to make sure everyone gets a go.” 

For Elder, now 73, the past seven months have been a time for rich reflection. Without the constant travelling that is a conductor’s typical way of life, he’s been able to enjoy time with his family, including a baby grandchild “who’s a bundle of energy”. Spending springtime in his London home for the first time in his married life was, he says, a precious experience.

“I live at the top of Highgate Hill near Hampstead Heath and I know this area now inside out because I’ve been on so many walks. And to see the spring come to our garden was a real thrill that helped me to think forward, to spend time studying music I’ve never had time to.”

“I’ve really got into Bruckner,” he reveals. “Now I can’t wait to conduct the Eighth Symphony. It’s the most wonderful piece, however unfashionable everybody may say it is. Particularly the marketing people!”
He accepts that won’t be happening any time soon. In Manchester with his Hallé Orchestra, it’s clear the road back to symphonic blockbusters will be slow. The orchestra has been furloughed since lockdown, but the musicians will come off that at the end of this month. “They’ve been very frustrated and hemmed in by this, but we’re now planning a series of streamed concerts in the Bridgewater Hall, which is going to open for us, and that’s terribly exciting,” Elder explains.

“The first consideration in the middle of COVID, however, is persuading the public to have the courage to come back into concert halls.” But the future, he says, lies also in greater flexibility and he’d like to see the Hallé get out of central Manchester more often. “It’s important we seek out unexpected venues in the wider community, to go out and embrace new audiences and show them we have something they could enjoy, especially when they might have a fear of coming to places like the Bridgewater”.

The one thing Elder has avoided over recent months is “crying over spilt milk”. “I’ve concentrated on looking forward to the future as much as you can, in the belief that we’ll all get back to doing some wonderful concerts.” There’s positive thinking.

View Sir Mark Elder conducting the BBC SSO online from Thu 22 Oct, 7.30pm, at bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

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