Concert review: SCO 40th birthday concert, Edinburgh

Robin Ticciati, principal conductor at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Picture: ContributedRobin Ticciati, principal conductor at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Picture: Contributed
Robin Ticciati, principal conductor at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Picture: Contributed
THE Usher Hall’s organ gleamed under red spotlights, mountains of flowers stood either side of the stage and a net of golden balloons quivered above the audience.

SCO 40th birthday concert

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

* * * *

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra was ready to mark its 40th birthday in style – but very much on its own terms. This anniversary concert was suitably festive and high-spirited, but thoughtful and refined, too.

Take the opener, Six Speechless Songs by the SCO’s Glasgow-born associate composer Martin Suckling, specially commissioned for the occasion. Asked by conductor Robin Ticciati for something celebratory, Suckling instead produced six exquisite miniatures, each a self-contained world of developing ideas that made wonderfully inventive use of the SCO’s laser-precision playing. From its vivid, rhythmic opening, all unison melodies and Messiaen-like birdsong, to the icy mystery of the third movement, Suckling created a work of rich, almost decadent lyricism that proved an ideal showcase for the orchestra’s finely-wrought playing under Ticciati. It might not have raised the roof, but it drew you deep inside its glistening textures, and that felt magical.

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It felt a bit strange, though, to opt for Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto as the anniversary concert’s centrepiece. Sparkling showpiece though it is, it casts its orchestra in what must feel like an unrewardingly accompanying role – there’s little of the give-and-take you get with Mozart or Beethoven concertos, for example. It all hinged on soloist Maria João Pires – and her poetic playing indeed stole the show. She was surprisingly assertive in the serious first movement, with bold, confident octaves that suddenly cracked to reveal a fragile vulnerability, and in the slow movement’s cascading runs she seemed at times to be caressing the keyboard. Yet there was no affectation: she played with sincerity and modesty, even tossing aside the last-movement mazurka’s grandiose conclusion. Spellbinding stuff – if only it had been in a piece that involved the orchestra a bit more.

The SCO players had plenty of chances to shine in Beethoven’s Fifth, though – but if you’d been expecting raw power, Ticciati’s brisk, driven account instead seemed intent on delivering lightness and transparency. Beautifully shaped and big on contrasts, it still felt a bit too polite at times. His transition into the blazing light of the finale was perfectly judged, though, and his scherzo slithered deliciously. It only needed a witty arrangement of Happy Birthday by SCO violist Steve King – and for those hanging balloons to rain down on the stalls – to end the evening in a mood of celebration.

(Seen on 6.2.14)