Ken Walton: An (almost) pitch perfect year for classical music

Edinburgh's Usher Hall was transformed by a series of spectacular light projections to mark the start of 2015 Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh's Usher Hall was transformed by a series of spectacular light projections to mark the start of 2015 Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The EIF gave us a glimpse of the future of opera, the RSNO moved into its hi-tech new home, and a state of the art organ... well ... it could still do with some work

As the arts world braces itself for expected budget cuts in the year ahead, there’s at least some solace in looking back at a year that has been mostly refreshing and productive for classical music in Scotland.

The Magic Flute � Iko Freese

The Magic Flute � Iko Freese

In just about every level of professional music-making there’s been challenge and adventure, change for the good and, most of all, world-leading creative standards.

From the operatic world

Who could forget a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Edinburgh International Festival by Komische Oper Berlin that was both radical and mind-boggling? Conceived as a 1920s silent film by the company’s inspirational artistic director Barrie Kosky, it embraced completely the potential to marry traditional opera with state-of-the-art technological creativity. It was, as I said at the time, “a complete solution” that pointed the way forward for opera production in the 21st century. Nothing of the true Mozartian spirit was lost.

It was the most visionary piece of opera production we’ve seen in Scotland for some time. But it did make Scottish Opera’s paltry return to the Festival – a dreary concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore – look like amateur night at the brownies. Another sparse year for our national opera company, though hopefully the appointment early this year of new music director Stuart Stratford will see fortunes turn.

On the festival front

All eyes were on Fergus Linehan’s first music programme as incoming EIF director. He made an impressive mark on the artistic landscape, not least with his knock-out opening event, The Harmonium Project – a mesmerising son et lumière extravaganza which matched the RSNO and 50-year-old Edinburgh Festival Chorus’ pre-recorded performance of John Adams’ choral symphony Harmonium with 59 Productions’ synchronised lighting of the Usher Hall.

It was a daring fanfare to an EIF music programme that peaked orchestrally, in my view, with the Oslo Philharmonic’s dazzling Rachmaninov Second Symphony under Vassily Petrenko, but also scored highly with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress under Sir Andrew Davis.

A week after the call to broaden the EIF’s geographical net, it’s worth remembering that the festival scene outside Edinburgh is already alive and kicking. The St Magnus Festival in Orkney, the East Neuk Festival in Fife and the Lammermuir Festival in East Lothian – with its revelatory coupling of Ligeti and Debussy piano works in a stunning recital by Danny Driver – all came up trumps this year, as did relative new kid on the block, the Cumnock Tryst, featuring the inaugural concert of its own Festival Chorus.

Orchestral manoeuvres

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was in a state of limbo last Christmas as it struggled to fill its vacant chief executive post, and the move to its new premises within the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall building became more and more delayed. Twelve months on, though, it’s an orchestra with a collective smile on its face. For not only did the RSNO find in Krishna Thiagarajan a boss whose quiet charisma matches his solid strategic vision, but under the former pianist’s assertive management style, the new headquarters is now fully functional, and Glasgow has yet another world-class concert venue – capacity 600 – that makes Edinburgh’s appalling under-provision look shameful in comparison.

The acoustics are quite extraordinary too, given the hall can be transformed physically from a full symphonic studio into a smaller, more intimate chamber acoustic at the touch of a button and without compromising sound quality in any way.

Music on a smaller scale

One of the great success stories in Scotland’s chamber music calendar has been the unstoppable ambition of the Cottiers Chamber Project, which over three weeks in June this year featured an embarrassment of riches in various Glasgow West End venues, independent of the concurrent West End Festival for the first time. We had an eye-opening, first-ever orchestral performance of Glasgow-born Erik Chisholm’s 1950s opera Simoon in the iconic Western Baths, and Cottiers director Andy Saunders even managed to secure the debut partnership of world-class violinist James Ehnes and pianist Steven Osborne in a superb dry run for their Wigmore Hall recital in London the following night. It was a sell-out sensation.

What didn’t quite go to plan?

It has to be the new digital organ recently installed in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Serious rethinking of its speaker locations is urgently required to avoid the kind of disorientating experience we all got at its inaugural Poulenc/Saint-Saëns programme with the RSNO a few weeks ago. The current set-up was badly advised. It can be improved with the right people consulting.

Aknight at the Proms

It’s a year composer James MacMillan won’t easily forget. Besides a constant stream of major international premieres – from the blistering first UK performance of his Percussion Concerto No 2 by Colin Currie and the RSNO at the EIF, to the world premiere of his refreshingly abstract Fourth Symphony by the BBC SSO at the BBC Proms – Scotland’s foremost composer was justly knighted for his life’s work.