Tag Archives: Glasgow City Halls

SCO / Zehetmair

City Halls, Glasgow

The violinist-cum-conductor Thomas Zehetmair has, and always has had, an arresting stage charisma. It’s a mix of unshakeable natural talent (especially on the violin) and a strength of personality that eschews outright showmanship though making up for that with an almost pugilistic belief in his own interpretational beliefs.

Look no further than the opening work in this SCO programme – Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor – in which he wielded outright control as soloist/director. The latter role is seldom needed with this orchestra, which has an innate ability to propel its own destiny. But in this instance, it was Zehetmair’s way or the highway. And it was strangely discomforting.

All began well, a crisp, nimble momentum informing the opening bars, but then – where the soloist ventures into flowery offshoots of its own – Zehetmair began to tease his collaborators with extraneous rhythmic liberties that often overstepped the limits of free speech. They rocked the boat, and suddenly the SCO sounded nervous, as if trying to second guess the next move, but doing so with mild signs of panic. 

The slow movement’s lengthy discourse was much more settling, Zehetmair’s greater discipline now steadying the ship, and the jig-like finale was only marginally afflicted, but the performance never completely recovered from its earlier eccentricities.

You could call Zehetmair’s own completion of an unfinished 1790 String Trio Fragment by Mozart equally eccentric, but his approach in giving performance life to the 100 bars of exposition Mozart penned during the last year or so of his life is genuinely fascinating. 

Zehetmair’s solution, premiered last month in Geneva, is to create an extended “response” as opposed to a literal extension. Thus the string orchestra picks up from the opening one-to-a part string trio – petering out as they exhaust the original music – as if on a rescue mission to bring the wanderers home. If that encouraged compositional liberties on Zehetmair’s part, this performance applied them sensitively, just enough to address the strong hints of wild adventure in the extant Mozart material, but careful to preserve stylistic integrity in the new material.

The final two works in this 70-minute programme threw the spotlight wholly on Zehetmair the conductor/interpreter. In Mendelssohn’s 1834 overture Die Schöne Melusine – a work of real worth unearthed by the SCO in one of last season’s streamed concerts – he elicited playing that etched out every minutiae of the drama, from exquisitely-sculpted melodies to dizzying heights of expression.

Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony bears its own eccentricities, not least an opening finale theme that toys mischievously with natural expectations. In that sense, it was right up Zehetmair’s street, and there was no mistaking the fun embodied in this spirited performance. It wasn’t the SCO at its most refined, Zehetmair demanding brusqueness and brittle edge to the detriment of poise and poeticism. 

If it was rough and ready at  times, it was striking nonetheless, portraying Haydn in a spirit of high exuberance and laissez-faire, much of it to be enjoyed if not necessary approved of.

Ken Walton

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.

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

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/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