Tag Archives: pekka kuusisto

SCO / Kuusisto

City Halls, Glasgow

That he styles himself “Fatboy” on social media, and persists with facial hair that is more shipwreck than seafarer, speaks of a character that does not take his vocal ability too seriously, but tenor Allan Clayton’s talent is immense, even if his girth hardly measures up to his Twitter handle.

That employees of Scottish Opera turned out for his appearance with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto also spoke of the regard in which he is held in that field. Some of the audience currently packing out that company’s Puccini triple bill would have found tickets available had they ventured to Glasgow’s City Hall on Friday, and heard one of the finest tenors in the world currently.

Kuusisto had provided him with a wonderful programme too. It culminated in Britten’s Les Illuminations, the young composer’s settings of Rimbaud which may have been sung by a soprano originally but clearly reflected his own relationship with tenor Peter Pears. There was a range of colours in Clayton’s delivery of Rimbaud’s free verse that a singer of any voice would have struggled to match, and his French diction was immaculate throughout, even in the slightly startling staccato of “Marine”, which is a long way from chanson.

That is true of much of the snatched phrasing of the poetry, but elsewhere Britten gives it more melodious context. The instrumental Interlude clearly pre-figures those of the opera Peter Grimes and the following Being Beauteous had the bonus for SCO devotees of a solo from cellist Su-a Lee. The dubious optimism of the closing Départ was delivered with such poise that applause almost seemed vulgar.

With Kuusisto’s usual panache, the programme had begun with a more recent work that reflected, if not directly referenced, the Britten. Nico Muhly’s Three Songs for Tenor and Violin uses more recent French poetry in translation, with the middle one an instrumental interlude, a sort of fiddle obligato. The SCO strings had a great deal less to do here, but the drone accompaniment was just as precise as Clayton’s measured vocals.

Muhly’s violin concerto for Kuusisto, entitled Shrink (which may or may not be a US psychotherapy reference), is a very different side of the composer, even if acquaintance with his minimalist predecessors is still audible. The 17 string players in the orchestra for the work are deployed with fascinating precision, the third cello, for example, sometimes playing with the basses. With little or no repetition in either solo line or accompaniment, the musical material, based on three different harmonic intervals, is constantly evolving from the first bar to the last, Kuusisto clearly revelling in his own role.

Haydn’s Symphony 104, the “London”, the last of both the twelve he wrote there and of his vast canon, may be from over two centuries earlier but it was more than just a token piece of familiar music in the programme. When this orchestra plays music of that era, the natural horns and trumpets come with an awareness of all the music that flowed from the composer’s innovations. The wind soloists sparkled as usual, but Kuusisto seemed to find a spaciousness in the string sound that was very much his own.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Kuusisto

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Vermont-born Sam Amidon, who is now settled in the UK with his singer wife Beth Orton, has impeccable taste in collaborators. His relationship with the contemporary classical world dates from early in his career when composer Nico Muhly supplied string arrangements for the American folk songs he recorded. His was the only male voice on the Kronos Quartet’s Folk Songs project, and his own albums have featured guitarist Bill Frisell and one of the last recordings by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.

Partnership with the similarly-discerning Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra therefore makes perfect sense, even if their collective plan – mixing up four Appalachian folk songs featuring Muhly string arrangements with the four movements of Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet in an arrangement for string ensemble – looked less than exciting on paper.

In fact it worked rather well, and any damage done to the Janacek was more in the expansion of the forces from the edgy abrasive sound of the quartet to the fuller strings, rather than the introduction of the songs into the mix. The dark tone of the Czech composer’s response to Tolstoy’s story was certainly matched by two murder ballads, a crucifixion hymn and slavery-era children’s game chant, even if the latter, and the concluding banjo-driven ballad were rhythmically comparatively up-beat.

Muhly’s music will be more thoroughly explored in the programme Kuusisto directs next week, but his arrangements – supplemented by some vocalising from the instrumentalists – were the bridge between Amidon’s archival trawl and the Janacek here and that set the theme for the whole evening.

Kuusisto directed the strings from the violin in the first half and had his own virtuoso solo turn immediately after the interval. Missy Mazzoli is best known in Edinburgh for her opera Breaking the Waves, seen in an acclaimed 2019 International Festival production by Scottish Opera. Her solo violin work Dissolve, O My Heart takes its title from an aria in Bach’s St John Passion and its inspiration from the famous Chaconne in his Partita in D Minor. While it swiftly departs from the music of the Partita, it never loses site of it in the rear-view mirror, even if its glissando techniques and use of muted strings are a long way from the 1720s. In much the same way that solo Bach is a staple of the violin soloist’s encore repertoire, this is a work regular concert-goers can surely expect to hear again.

Traditional music from Kuusisto’s homeland runs like a stream through the Third Symphony of Jean Sibelius, a work rarely heard outside of performances of the full cycle of symphonies. Not least because of the delicious melody in the slow movement, this is a shame. More compact in every way than other Sibelius symphonies, it suits the SCO well, even if its more expansive moments probably sounded much better in Friday’s performance at Glasgow’s City Halls. What was crucial in the context of this concert was how Kuusisto the conductor emphasised the folk elements in the opening movement and masterfully managed the finale’s incremental build-up to the final C major chord.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Sam Amidon

Su-a Lee / Dialogues

(Sky Child Records)

Fiddler, and founder of the Elias String Quarter, Donald Grant hits the nail squarely on the head in his contribution to the booklet with cellist Su-a Lee’s debut album: “The first time I met Su-a it felt like we’d been pals for years. Perhaps everyone feels the same way?”

That straightforward observation would undoubtedly be echoed by all the musicians who have contributed to the musical partnerships that are recorded here – only the final track (the Burns song Ae Fond Kiss) features the cellist on her own. But those 14 collaborators are just the tip of the iceberg. As a long-serving member of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as a founder of the ground-breaking spin-off group Mr McFall’s Chamber, and in innumerable other contexts, she has been a supremely approachable and generous player, always happy to find time to speak to members of the audience. From South Korea, by way of New York, Su-a Lee has become a crucial part of the Scottish musical infrastructure.

This lockdown project sees her teaming up with a few of those she has worked with in the past – singers Karine Polwart and Julie Fowlis, fiddlers Duncan Chisholm and Pekka Kuusisto, pianists Donald Shaw and James Ross among them – on very carefully chosen repertoire, all quite immaculately recorded and presented as thoughtfully in a visually handsome package.

The three tracks described as “The SetUp” (followed by sections called “The Development” and “The Resolution”) make for a very strong opening, with Shaw’s Baroque Suite followed by duos with bandoneonist Carel Kraayenhof and cellist Natalie Haas. Which excursions are highlights after that will be entirely a matter of personal taste, but Su-a’s collaboration with her husband Hamish Napier is certainly a standout, and his Strathspey and Reel two of the loveliest melodies on the album.

If there is a reservation to be made about Dialogues, it is that the diversity of those opening tracks is not sustained over the whole album, which – not excepting Kuusisto’s contribution – is mainly folk and traditional music-flavoured. Very fine though all the conversations here are, those who have followed Su-a’s eclectic practice over the past three decades know that she is as fluent a player alongside those who work in the jazz and rock fields, and in contemporary classical and so-called “world” music.

Ultimately, then, this volume of Dialogues offers the listener a rich serving of one facet of the versatile Su-a Lee. It therefore makes an eloquent case for further volumes.

Keith Bruce

SCO / Ticciati / Polwart

City Halls, Glasgow

Recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on April 1, this collaboration between the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and folk singer/songwriter Karine Polwart has been long in gestation and had a tricky last few weeks before eventually reaching concertgoers. But not only is it well worth the attention of both classical and traditional music-lovers when they have the opportunity to listen in, it must surely be the basis for an album, or the substantial part of one.

The other crucial contributor to its composition is Pippa Murphy, Polwart’s regular collaborator, particularly on the award-winning Edinburgh Festival show Wind Resistance. That was categorised as theatre, but this four-movement work, Seek the Light, is close kin to it, not least because it begins with a song, You Know Where You Are, that also find inspiration in the migratory birds Polwart sees near her Midlothian home.

There are other themes in common, particularly in the third movement’s mix of spoken and sung narrative in a feminist revision of Greek myth A Love Too Loud, closely linked to the navigational use of constellations referenced in that opening song.

In between sits the most “trad” section, The Night Mare, musically redolent of the early Scots composition canon explored by Concerto Caledonia, and the suite ends with a beguiling lullaby, Sleep Now, its chorus melody distinctly East European in flavour and sung by the entire orchestra, as well as – encouraged by Polwart – bolder members of the audience.

Whether that audience was drawn from the fanbase of the chamber orchestra or its guest vocalist was the subject of a show of hands when cellist Su-a Lee introduced the concert. My guess is that there is a good deal of crossover, with many, like myself, having recordings by both at home. And this was, in the best sense, the acceptable face of “cross-over”.

There are many routes the SCO might have chosen to present this new commission. The imaginative one chosen, in consultation with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, was to intersperse the sections of Seek the Light with contemporary classical pieces from Scandinavia and the Baltic states, kicking the whole sequence off with the Adagio from Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. It was a tactic that was an exceptional success, keeping audience ears as sharply tuned as those of the performers.

There were many notable individual ones amongst the orchestra – and Polwart winningly selected a few of her favourites in her own remarks after the interval – but chief among them was Hugo Ticciati, who had stepped into the role mapped out by the absent Kuusisto. His largest contribution was as soloist in violin concerto Distant Light by Peteris Vasks, a huge work in itself that alternates between solo and ensemble, melody and cacophony, fast and slow, soft and loud and was played second from last here.

He was also responsible for inserting into the programme further eloquent recognition by the orchestra of the plight of the people of Ukraine, first clarinet Maximiliano Martin playing the country’s anthem as a brief solo after Polwart’s first song.

The SCO strings showed their superb individual technical range and ensemble coherence in the other two works in the programme. Swede Andrea Tarrodi’s fascinating Birds of Paradise begins in minimalist mode before becoming much more playful in tempo and featuring extraordinary imitation of bird calls, which were then echoed in the opening of Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur’s Insula Deserta, a hugely evocative score using the sparest number of musicians.

If the music in the programme created imaginative landscapes, stories and ecologies beyond the auditorium, its final choral moments also brought the absent Kuusisto into the hall: I cannot be the only audience member reminded of his memorable encore at the BBC Proms in 2016 that had the Albert Hall joining him in a Finnish folk-song.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Karine Polwart by Suzanne Heffron

SCO / Symbiosis

To my mind, but probably not in those of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra management and musicians, their guest leader and soloist Pekka Kuusisto or, most pertinently of all, composer Greg Lawson, there is an inescapable irony in the title that has been given to the work that partnership has written, performed and filmed as its cultural contribution to the UN Climate Conference in Scotland this autumn.

In the glory days of Glasgow’s self-confidence as Culture City, the arts activity around COP26 would have been carefully curated, promoted and marketed from an expertly-staffed central office. In 2021, however, everyone has to fend for themselves. National companies and small organisations have all stepped up to make contributions to coincide with the event and mark the occasion, many of them very thoughtful indeed, and often forging new partnerships and premiering new work. You will search in vain, however, for any guide or directory to the artistic side of COP, far less any co-ordination of the programme for the benefit of delegates, activists or interested observers. As a result few of the events are finding the audience they deserve. See Glasgow? See Symbiosis? Not as such.

With the sponsorship support of Aviva Investments, the SCO has commissioned this new piece from the man behind the multi-disciplinary GRIT orchestra and former principal second fiddle with the BBC SSO, Greg Lawson, and – as the composer makes clear-ish in the introductory film segment of the package – his hope of Symbiosis is between humankind and the natural landscape.

The orchestra has built on the expertise it acquired during lockdown, when its online chamber music concerts were some of the most attractive produced in Scotland, to make this short film of the 15-minute piece, preceded by footage of Lawson in his home environment at Moniaive in Dumfries and Galloway at work on it.

The countryside looks terrific, and Lawson’s more practical observations on the reality of turning the inspiration to be found there into a score are well worth hearing, but the meat of the work is the performance, in a beautifully-lit studio, by the strings of the SCO, led from the violin by Finnish star Kuusisto.

Symbiosis is in five neatly-dovetailed movements, beginning and ending with meditations on the nature of time. Anyone expecting Lawson to mine Scottish traditional music for his material, as the GRIT orchestra often has, may be surprised. The themes here owe more to the scales and cadences of Middle Eastern music, and perhaps to Lawson the violinist’s work with the small group Moishe’s Bagel.

The gentle, slow beginning takes a darker tone in the third and fourth movements when “Foreboding and Trouble” leads into “Waltzing to Oblivion”. That triple-time section is the undoubted highlight of the composition and perhaps likely to find a life of its own outside Symbiosis, but it did present the composer with a dilemma about how to end the work, whether as a prophet of doom or on a more optimistic note.

What makes the whole package is the way Lawson side-steps this difficulty by handing the baton to Kuusisto, who supplies a wonderful improvisation – an extended cadenza in a sense – over a simple chordal figure as the last movement. Somehow it is clearly up-beat, but it also explicitly states that the future is in the hands of each of us, individually.

Keith Bruce

Symbiosis is available to watch free on the SCO’s YouTube channel.

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)