As the BBC SSO prepares to celebrate its birthday next week, a former principal guest conductor praises its unique character while voicing concern for the future
MARTYN Brabbins remembers his first encounter with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra as if it were yesterday. "We were doing a piece by Robert Saxton and Nielsen's Fifth Symphony and struggling to get things together in the old studio," Brabbins recalls of an occasion that was also his first ever appearance, as a fledgling conductor, in front of any BBC orchestra.
Two particular incidents remain etched in his mind. One involved the orchestra's long-serving timpanist, Gordon Rigby. "Gordon was very nice to me," says Brabbins. "He said, 'listen, you're not half as bad as the ones we often get in front of us,' which I took to be a positive comment."
The other incident was less complimentary but, says Brabbins, a salutary lesson in what a conductor's lot is all about. "There was a bit in Nielsen 5 that I just couldn't get to work. I was trying and trying, but finally said to the band, 'I can't get this together'. A voice from the brass piped up, saying, 'Well that's your job, mate!'"
That was 1991, three years after Brabbins first made waves in the profession as winner of the Leeds Conductors Competition. Another three years on, in 1994, he was to become the principal guest conductor of the SSO, serving in that position until 2005, but maintaining to this day a lasting relationship that ranks him among their favourite conductors.
"It's Martyn next week; he knows what he's doing," is a typical comment from SSO players when Brabbins is due to appear, as he did last week in the second of the orchestra's "This Sceptred Isle" mini-series, conducting Elgar's overture In the South, Britten's song cycle Les Illuminations and William Walton's Symphony No 2 with a customary combination of fiery precision and cool composure.
No doubt such fondness also led to him being chosen to conduct the orchestra's 75th birthday concert a week on Thursday in Glasgow, being broadcast live on BBC 2 and Radio 3, and pre-empted by a television documentary on the history of the SSO this coming Sunday night.
Over the past week, Brabbins has been working with the SSO on a recording for Hyperion of Walton 2, which will eventually also feature the composer's more youthful First Symphony after its performance in the forthcoming birthday concert. Being with the orchestra at this celebratory time has given Brabbins time to reflect on his long and prosperous association with them.
"There have been many wonderful moments," he recalls. "I remember particularly in 1996 a performance of Britten's War Requiem in the old Harland & Wolff shipyard shed in Govan, which we also recorded for Naxos.More recently, there was that sensational opportunity to perform Peter Maxwell Davies's opera Taverner. Nowhere else could we have done that than under the auspices of the BBC, which has the knowledge and commitment to undertake such a huge, complex and daring project."
Both these examples reflect particular specialities of Brabbins - notably his no-nonsense interpretations of British music (especially Elgar, Britten and Walton) and contemporary music, which has continually underpinned his busy activity as a regular guest with all the BBC orchestras, many of the top European orchestras, in Japan and China, and his current work in Belgium as principal guest conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra.
He owes many of these opportunities to experience he gained with the SSO. "I've been given endless opportunities to explore lots of British music, from Elgar to Vaughan Williams." And perhaps more quirkily, there was his famously obscure discovery (and editing) ten years ago of the music of Scots-born Cecil Coles, who died tragically young, like Wilfred Owen, in the French battlefields of the First World War.
His speed and efficiency in working with contemporary scores made him the obvious person to lead the SSO in its frequent residencies at the St Magnus Festival over the years, where Brabbins soon extended his personal Orkney involvement by founding the Young Conductors Course that, he is proud to say, is still a major part of the festival. Next week's birthday concert is again typical Brabbins' fare. It opens with a new work - Everyone Sang - by one of Scotland's brightest young composers, Helen Grime, and ends with Walton's youthful First Symphony. In between, Nicola Benedetti is soloist in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, marking Brabbins' first collaboration with the popular young Scot.
But it's also a programme well-suited to an orchestra that, for 75 years, has carved a reputation for boldness, flexibility, genuine camaraderie, and above all, a loyalty to Scottish composers. One English newspaper described the orchestra's momentous premiere of James Dillon's four-hour orchestral epic Nine Rivers last week as "unquestionably the most significant new-music event in Britain this year".
"They approach everything with a sense of fun and positive spirit," says Brabbins. "They go into everything, even the most difficult of contemporary scores, with an open mind and a genuine wish to serve the music." Which is exactly what composer Ian Whyte had in mind, as head of music for the BBC in Scotland, when he set up the orchestra in 1935.
This major birthday is as symbolic of what all BBC orchestras stand for as the singular achievement of the SSO. They provide an environment - "more choice of repertoire and more time to prepare things," says Brabbins - that is only matched abroad. "Contract orchestras in the UK don't have that luxury. Time, for them, is of the essence."That said, there are issues currently facing the BBC as a whole that could conceivably spell future threats to the likes of the SSO, which has already had its fair share of scares over the years, including the threat of near-extinction in 1980. Brabbins squirms at the thought. "If anything happened to the SSO it would be a tragic loss to Scotland," he argues. "Once anything is reduced or savage cuts are made, there's no bouncing back. Look what has happened to Scottish Opera."
For now, though, things are rosy for the SSO and Brabbins is personally throwing a party this weekend for the players he loves to conduct. It's a measure of the deep affection he has for this lively 75-year-old.
• Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC SSO in its 75th Birthday concert at the City Halls, Glasgow on 2 December (0141-353 8000). The documentary Happy Birthday BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is on BBC 2, 28 November at 10pm.