Ken Walton: The Year in Classical Music

A scene from Scottish Opera's production of Rusalka
A scene from Scottish Opera's production of Rusalka
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New energy is reverberating around the scene as key appointments across Scottish music start to make their mark

Reflecting on the past 12 months, my thoughts turn almost exclusively to the people whose personalities shape the classical music world. Some have sadly left us for good. Others have simply moved their place of work. Either way, the face of classical music now has a very different complexion compared to this time last year.

The death of Pierre Boulez in January marked the passing of a supreme 20th century icon, not just in terms of his radical composition style, but equally as a global definer of modern musical taste through his perceptive writings or analytical interpretations as a conductor. An Edinburgh International Festival concert in his honour aptly reflected that.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ death in March, after a long battle with cancer, was no less significant. Davies, who lived much of his life on Orkney, and whose music remains a visceral evocation of the harsh, unsettling Orcadian landscape he loved, had a huge imprint on Scottish musical life, on its composers, performers and young people, through his personal interactions and involvement, principally via the St Magnus Festival he helped found in 1977.

What of those people still with us? A year ago, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was anticipating a major personnel change. Its heavyweight principal conductor Donald Runnicles was playing out his final season in much the same way he had conducted his entire seven-year term in the SSO hot seat, with epic performances of epic repertoire. He would eventually be replaced in September by Thomas Dausgaard, a pleasant-mannered Dane with a wider taste in repertoire.

It was, to some, a surprise appointment; the original announcement had come out of the blue, even to the SSO players. Initial performances under Dausgaard, at the 2015 BBC Proms for instance, did not score highly with the players or the critics. So have his subsequent appearances – especially since he formally took up the post at the start of this winter season – cemented a more positive opinion?

Dausgaard certainly applied persuasive thought to a biting London Proms performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring last summer, and in October he made as strong a case as possible for the Scottish premiere of an unconvincing committee-style completion of Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth Symphony by a mixed bag conglomerate of composers and academics. But last week’s Scottish Inspirations programme, featuring superb music by Scots-based composers, showed a real connection with his players. My gut feeling? The Dausgaard-SSO partnership is now bearing fruit.

It’s tempting to draw comparisons with the outgoing Runnicles whose swan song appearances ran high in blockbuster emotion, such as the overwhelming power and potency he drew from the SSO and Edinburgh Festival Chorus in Schoenberg’s ultimate late-Romantic whopper, Gurrelieder, which closed this year’s EIF. But Dausgaard has his own original and sincere ideas. Signs are he will, in time, establish his own definitive rapport with the band.

The man who appointed him, former SSO director Gavin Reid, had no sooner welcomed his new conductor through the Glasgow City Halls doors, than he was shooting across the M8 to fill the chief executive post at the Edinburgh-based Scottish Chamber Orchestra, left vacant by the retirement of Roy McEwan.

Reid’s first task at his new desk was a PR gift: to announce that there was, at last, and after many years of dashed hopes, a positive proposal on the table to develop a purpose-built mid-size concert hall for Edinburgh, backed by serious seed money, which would be home to the SCO. It is to be a partnership initiative, situated in St Andrew Square, with the newly-formed charitable arts trust IMPACT, filling the city’s longstanding gap in venue provision. Great news, but there’s a lot of work still to be done to make it a reality.

Reid’s departure, in turn, opened up an SSO vacancy, which was filled recently by Dominic Parker, formerly director of external relations at the Sage in Gateshead. We know little as yet of Parker or his plans for his new charge, but it’s early days.

Aside from all these musical chairs, Fergus Linehan’s 2016 EIF music programme succeeded mostly on the strength of individual stars. Aside from Runnicles’ memorable Gurrelieder, Italian soprano Cecilia Bartoli dominated Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s trenchant production of Bellini’s Norma with a mesmerising performance steeped in theatrical nuance and virtuosic intimacy. It left the rest of the cast in the relative shade, but who was complaining? Something of a one-woman show.

The Festival’s other main opera performance was Mozart’s Così fan tutte – a joint production with Aix-en-Provence Festival by Christophe Honoré which transported the action from 18th century Naples to the Italian Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s; not completely convincingly, though the Freiberger Barockorchester was memorably fit and fiery in the pit.

No sign, yet again, of slimline Scottish Opera at the EIF, but in their home season new music director Stuart Stratford was making promising waves. April’s production of Dvořák’s Rusalka was a delight, bringing to life an underrated musical score built on a Wagnerian chassis, yet fizzing with explosive pre-echoes of Janáček. It was, I wrote, one of the company’s finest musical triumphs in recent years, for which Stratford must take the bulk of the credit.

He also initiated a series of Opera in Concert events at the Theatre Royal, featuring the house pit band, which is beginning to fill the hiatuses that have become an accepted feature of recent Scottish Opera seasons. Signs of a minor musical renaissance at Scottish Opera? Let’s hope so. ■