What does the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra get up to when it’s not giving fantastic public concerts on our doorstep? Two pieces of divergent news this week tell us something about the things we do see, and the things we don’t.
On the one hand, last Thursday’s 2014-15 season launch was all about the impressive array of performances we can expect in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh from September – at the heart of which are concerts focusing on Shostakovich, on Shakespeare and Music, and on all three of James MacMillan’s piano concertos.
On the other hand, the majority of the band is off to India this week in an intriguing collaboration with students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) and celebrity Indian composer AR Rahman’s self-financed KM Music Conservatoire in Chennai on an evangelical mission that combines hands-on educational activity with public performances in a country where Western-style symphony concerts are only just catching on.
This is no ordinary tour for the SSO, which in the past has made pioneering inroads into Poland and China, but otherwise has stuck to the more established symphonic touring routes of Germany, Holland, North and South America and Canada. As SSO director Gavin Reid put it, “there are many new challenges for us, but none are insurmountable.”
“These are people we don’t know very well; these are venues on the other side of the world we have never played in before; also, we will be broadcasting live on Radio 3 from Mumbai. In this day and age nothing is impossible, and the BBC has a well-resourced bureau in Mumbai. But it is not like going to Aberdeen.”
For Reid, who toured India as a young trumpeter in 1989 as a member of the European Community Youth Orchestra, this opportunity to take an orchestra back has been a long-held dream. “I had the great privilege of going with the conductor Zubin Mehta and Ravi Shankar back then. We had the most wonderful time,” he recalls. “I got terribly ill, but it just opened my eyes to a whole new world.”
That “whole new world” isn’t one that has completely embraced western classical music. And it’s with that in mind, together with 2014 being the year Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games, that Reid has found support for his dream. “The British Council were very keen to offer support, and put me in touch with all sorts of potential partners,” he says.
From the home perspective, the partnership has turned into something of a Team Scotland, involving 20 RCS students who have auditioned to be part of the touring band, composer and conductor James MacMillan, who will give lectures and workshops to Indian students as well as direct the concerts, musical animateur Paul Rissmann, who will present family and school performances, and Nicola Benedetti as guest soloist.
Over in India, relationships have been formed with Rahman’s KM Conservatoire, students from which travelled with the composer to Glasgow in January to perform with the BBC SSO in Celtic Connections, and also with the Mehli Mehta Foundation, a charity set up by Zubin Mehta in his father’s name, which teaches western classical music to 500 children a week in Mumbai.
Reid explains how the tour will work. “We go to three cities, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai. In each, there is a traditional public concert featuring a Mendelssohn overture, a Mozart violin concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. In between, and as well as the family and school concerts and student masterclasses at Rahman’s Conservatoire, we’ll have smaller-scale ensembles – string, brass and woodwind ensembles, for instance – doing creative demo workshops created by Paul for primary school children. There’s a lot of education work, but I would rather think of it as a sort of integrated residency than going there to give purely educational work.”
And the benefits to the orchestra? “I think it will be utterly life-changing for the musicians. That’s both the professionals and the RCS students,” he says. “Only the BBC could try to do this.”
That’s all happening thousands of miles away, of course, but that other piece of news this week, the launch of the SSO’s new seasons in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen is worth cheering about too.
Among the highlights are performances of Shostakovich’s Fifth, Tenth and Fifteenth Symphonies, along with the Piano Concerto No 1 featuring pianist Garick Ohlsson. Piano concertos appear prominently elsewhere in the season, as Steven Osborne completes his ongoing Beethoven cycle, Peter Donohoe tackles all three concertos of James MacMillan, with other notable pianists revealing less well known ones by John Foulds and Scriabin. There’s no shortage of ambition, either, in October’s Glasgow performance of Berg’s hard-hitting opera, Wozzeck.
As well as the well-established seasons in Glasgow and Aberdeen, the SSO is persevering with its smaller Sunday afternoon Usher Hall presence in Edinburgh. “Four o’clock starts seem very popular with Edinburgh audiences, so we’ll be there three times, all under the baton of chief conductor Donald Runnicles, and including a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus to celebrate Donald’s 60th birthday on 16 November,” Reid says.
The other Edinburgh programmes include Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony on 28 September, and violinist Guy Braunstein in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto on 22 February.
Home or away, times are as innovative and exciting as ever for the BBC SSO. But there remains a lack of clarity – a point I argued in my New Year preview column – over the question of the orchestra’s continued existence should Scotland vote Yes in September’s independence referendum. For now, it’s business as usual. And for the moment, that’s all they’re prepared to say.
Details of the BBC SSO’s 2014-15 Seasons in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh are now available, see www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso