City Halls, Glasgow
Whether or not it was directly applicable in this case, the BBC SSO made a wise link with the conducting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in the era of Sir Donald Runnicles. A knowledge of young talent able to jump in for a last minute absentee chief conductor is clearly an advantage in these uncertain times.
An alumnus of the RCS in the days when it was still “The Academy”, Geoffrey Paterson last appeared with the SSO for a Hear and Now concert of contemporary music in 2018. It seemed likely, therefore, that he had been chosen because of the world premiere of Erika Fox’s piano concerto, David spielt vor Saul, performed by its dedicatee, Julian Jacobson.
That was only the half of it, however. It transpired that Paterson had the main work of the evening, the Third Symphony of Carl Nielsen – and the first of a projected cycle of Nielsen symphonies planned by Thomas Dausgaard – off by heart. Conducting the piece without a score, Paterson was in precise control of the dynamics of the work as surely as if his hand was on a volume dial as well as clearly having a picture of the entire work, in all its colourful variety, in his head from start to finish.
It was a superb performance of the symphony – and gives Dausgaard, should he return to Scotland in March to conduct the Sixth Symphony as the orchestra management still expects, a tough act to follow. The orchestra was on stellar form for Paterson, from the crisp, sharp strings of the opening through to the anthemic finale with its complex, interweaving rhythms and high profile roles for timpanist, trombones and tuba, and five horns.
With vocal soloists Benjamin Appl and Elizabeth Watts side stage and barely visible from my prime seat, their slow movement contributions were a nicely understated contribution to the overall acoustic balance in an account that was every bit as “expansive” as the work’s title promises.
That description could also be applied to Fox’s concerto however, in which the orchestra has just as large a role as the soloist. Some 30 years in the writing, and taking its title from a Rilke poem, it is a big, bold, modernist piece demanding a huge variety of stylistic variation from the pianist. With brass and winds split across the stage and a particular layout of the string sections, it also keeps two percussionists busy, moving to tuned instruments in the second, softer-edged, more querulous section.
Although it ends without the piano, there was a deserved ovation for Jacobson, whose patience has been well rewarded, as well as for the composer, who modestly took her bow from her seat in the hall.
Paterson used Fox’s prescribed string layout for the opening work, Bartok’s Divertimento, as well. With the musicians once again each having their own music stand, there was no loss of ensemble and real muscle in this performance from the off, the 50 players including a few top “extras” from outside the SSO payroll. The shifts in focus between the front desk quartet and the full string orchestra were expertly handled by Paterson, with leader Laura Samuel contributing fine folk fiddle to the finale.
Currently the only show in town for orchestral music fans, and with that overdue commission as part of a high colourful programme, there was an element of “fulfilling obligations” running as a thread through a concert that was altogether more exciting than that makes it sound. The current chief conductor of the BBC Scottish should, nonetheless, take note.