Music review: BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow

City Halls, Glasgow. Picture: Donald MacLeod

City Halls, Glasgow. Picture: Donald MacLeod

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CHALLENGING, provocative, uncompromising. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s Hear and Now concert centred around the music of Rebecca Saunders was everything a great concert should be.

BBC SSO

City Halls, Glasgow

Rating: *****

And playful – sometimes – too, with percussionists bowing polystyrene blocks, and bassists retuning their strings while playing. In fact, BBC SSO managed to produce sounds – or, perhaps more honestly, noises – that you wouldn’t think an orchestra could produce.

It was hardcore stuff, far from easy listening – often cerebral, with music rewrought as texture and almost palpable substance, rather than conventional harmony and melody. Like in the opener, Franck Bedrossian’s cacophonous Itself, which flooded the mind with restless orchestral excess. Or Ann Cleare’s fascinating abstract drama phôsphors 
(…of ether), which cleaved the Orchestra into warring groups, eventually brought together by clouds of percussion chatterings. Johannes Schöllhorn’s witty Dämmerung Schmetterlinge seemed the odd piece out, five ironic miniature rethinks of (perhaps) Ives, Messiaen, Feldman and more, but bizarrely humorous nonetheless.

But it was the two pieces by Saunders herself – London-born, Edinburgh University-educated and now Berlin-based – that truly grabbed the attention. Despite its thorny sonic difficulties, her slow-moving, monumental Traces still managed to move with its closing threnody. And her trumpet concerto Alba, a BBC co-commission, was a spellbinding experience, soloist Marco Blaauw incandescent in a searingly expressive performance, manipulating mutes and controlling his tone with expert, evocative precision.

The orchestra was on astonishingly fiery form, resolutely behind this unremittingly difficult music and playing it with enormous passion – and driven hard by Ilan Volkov, who seemed in his element. Difficult, certainly, but wonderfully rewarding.

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