SOME of the SCO’s choices for its new season may spark déjà vu but there are plenty of adventurous picks too
With the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s current 40th anniversary season moving into its final phase, last week’s 2014-15 season launch seemed as good a time as any to ask chief executive Roy McEwan whether life really does begin at that significant age.
“I think we are definitely coming out of it with an improved profile, both at home and abroad,” he says, mindful that the climax of the home season in February was swiftly followed by an epic tour of Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan. “It’s given us huge impetus as a company, on the one hand looking back over the achievements we built up in earlier relationships with the likes of Sir Charles Mackerras and Joseph Swensen, and on the other, celebrating the new repertoire directions that Robin Ticciati, our current chief conductor, is taking us in.”
It’s interesting to see, in the new season programme, ample evidence that these links between the past and the present have a bearing on shaping the SCO’s future. Ticciati’s love affair with Haydn, for instance, seems not a million miles away from Mackerras’ with Mozart, whose symphonies the late maestro performed and recorded with the orchestra a decade ago on the Linn label while he was emeritus conductor.
In a season constructed around themed mini-series, Haydn will be one of Ticciati’s key focuses. He will conduct four Haydn symphonies and record six on Linn, marking the start of a potentially fascinating ongoing Haydn recording series. “Haydn allows one to create the most wonderful stories,” says Ticciati. “I have enjoyed including his works in our concert programmes over the last five years, and now look forward to shining the spotlight on him further.”
But that’s just a part of the seasonal musical jigsaw comprising 21 concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with the usual satellite series in St Andrews, Aberdeen, Perth, Inverness, Ayr and Dumfries.
There’s more Haydn in the form of the Harmoniemesse and The Creation, the latter conducted by the legendary Christopher Hogwood, the former by the celebrated Estonian conductor Tonu Kaljuste. Both performances are part of another mini-series celebrating Great Choral Masterpieces.
Others feature the SCO Chorus in Handel’s Messiah under Richard Egarr (Hogwood’s successor as director of the Academy of Ancient Music) and Mozart’s Requiem, conducted by the eminent Philippe Herreweghe.
Another continuing trend is a choice and scale of works that push the boundaries of accepted chamber orchestra repertoire, among them Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, both of Brahms’ piano concertos, Schumann’s Violin Concerto and Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. However, some might question the wisdom of including that particular Mahler symphony and Ravel’s Piano Concerto when they are also being performed next year by the RSNO. Do Scotland’s orchestras not swap notes when planning their seasons?
“We’ve actually done the Mahler and Brahms before with Joseph Swensen. The reason Robin has programmed the Mahler was, having done some before with featured SCO artist Karen Cargill, he wanted to explore more of the same,” McEwan explains. So besides this symphony – the only one really suitable for a chamber orchestra – Cargill’s awesome mezzo soprano voice will be heard in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and Das Lied von der Erde. No-one will be complaining about that.
Nor, for that matter, about the programme in November, in which pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja makes her SCO debut performing both Brahms concertos. “She came to one of our concerts in Vienna some years ago, then shortly afterwards came to perform in Glasgow, when we met and she expressed not only a wish to play with the orchestra, but to do both these major concertos in one night,” McEwan recalls.
Leonskaja is one of several world-class pianists featuring in one of the season’s most significant components, the Piano Classics series. The brilliantly intense Llyr Williams performs Beethoven’s two earliest piano concertos over two programmes; Francesco Piemontesi joins Ticciati in Beethoven’s Fourth; Mitsuko Uchida – following her eloquent appearances at last year’s Edinburgh Festival – returns to the SCO for the first time in almost 20 years, performing Ravel’s gorgeous Piano Concerto in G. Ingrid Fliter – a regular in recent seasons with the RSNO – plays Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1.
If there’s a sense of déjà vu in some of the programming – it’s not that long since we heard former leader Alexander Janiczek and principal viola Jane Atkins play Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, or the SCO in Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony – there’s also a sense of adventure in repertoire that ranges from Beethoven to Zemlinsky, Handel to Webern (his perfunctory Symphony Op21), Ravel to Pärt, and two new commissions from Toshio Hosokawa and theScots composer John McLeod.
It’s wonderful to see McLeod, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, being recognised by a major Scottish orchestra in this way again. The context of his new work, Out Of The Silence, is itself intriguing. “John was a composer-in-residence with the orchestra in its very early days,” says McEwan. “When I spoke to him, I mentioned we’d be acknowledging the 150th anniversaries of Nielsen and Sibelius in 2015, and would he reference that? So John took as his starting point the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto, which will partner the new work in January’s programme, alongside Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony.”
So, does life really begin at 40? With overall audiences up by 11 per cent and income up by 17 per cent, McEwan reckons the SCO is fighting fit. “We’ve set ambitious targets this season and met them,” he says, with a caveat that Glasgow, while meeting its cautious audience target, remains a challenge. “There is so much orchestral competition there,” he claims, echoing comments last week by RSNO chief executive Michael Elliott. So long as it’s healthy competition, we shouldn’t really be complaining.
• Details of the SCO’s 2014-15 season are on www.sco.org.uk