What defines a winning orchestral season? With Scotland’s three national orchestras all releasing their respective 2018-19 programmes in the last few weeks, it seems like a question worth asking. In terms of commanding attention, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is the natural headline grabber. This will be Thomas Søndergård’s first season as music director, so the big news, the big programming, the big glossy cover shot on the brochure, revolves around him.
Søndergård, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor since 2012, will have a greater presence in his new role, conducting ten fantastic programmes. His chosen repertoire is both strategic and exciting. Two Mahler symphonies (Nos 5 & 6) signal the start of a complete Mahler cycle planned over the next four seasons. And besides established repertoire by the likes of Beethoven, Bruckner, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Ravel and Walton, he will feed in a healthy diet of contemporary music by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski (her riotous hi-energy Flounce opens the season), Ken Johnson, Gary Carpenter and Wynton Marsalis.
He’ll be working with a great team of soloists, among them Nicola Benedetti (in Marsalis’ Violin Concerto), pianists Ingrid Fliter and Francesco Piemontesi, Truls Mørk and Scotland’s newest star, mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison, who sings Ravel’s Shéhérazade a year on from winning last year’s BBC Cardiff Singer of the Year competition, coincidentally under Søndergård’s baton. There will also be three appearances by the RSNO’s new principal guest, Hong Kong-born Elim Chan, not to mention violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter in Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No2 and Roger Norrington bringing is idiosyncratic intimacy to Schumann’s Third and Fourth Symphonies.
Without a principal conductor at present, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s season is all about matching up the right visiting artists with the right repertoire. And when you’re dealing with styles as mouthwateringly diverse as Purcell and Biber from the 17th century, Berlioz from the 19th and the contemporary challenges of James MacMillan (a bit cheeky of the SCO to jump in with a 60th birthday concert for MacMillan five months before the big day) and John McLeod, flexibility is clearly going to be key.
So we find multiple talents across the brochure, from the phenomenal oboist-turned-conductor François Leleux as featured artist in three programmes (most notably in Beriloz’s Les Nuite D’Eté with soprano Carolyn Sampson), to the firecracker Baroque expert Richard Egarr in Handel and Purcell, to Benedetti directing and playing Mozart violin concertos.
There’s plenty of Sibelius too: the Third Symphony in a season opener under the baton of Enrique Mazzola, which also sees the SCO debut of soloist Vilde Frang in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto; and the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies in a Joseph Svensen programme that also features the return of Paul Lewis in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2.
Other soloists include virtuoso trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger in a typically wacky concerto, Busking, by HK Gruber; Colin Currie in MacMillan’s well-worn percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmannuel; the same Francesco Piemontosi who opens the RSNO season, this time playing Mozart; and accordionist Owen Murray in the world premiere of a concerto by Jonathan Dove.
As always, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s trump card is it’s freedom - due to the Radio 3 influence on its programming - to take a few risks. Nothing new there, except that any adventurous choices are down to principal conductor Thomas Dausgaard and therefore reflect his preferences.
If anything, programming has been Dausgaard’s forte. There’s a spirit of adventure in his ongoing series of Composer Roots concerts, and there are also centenary celebrations of Bernstein and Debussy, plus tributes to female composers Gloria Coates and 90-year-old Scots-born Thea Musgrave.
Other new music includes Ground, a new work by David Fennessey, and UK/European premieres of work by by Augusta Read Thomas and Simon Steen-Anderson. Then there’s a real peculiarity in Rued Langaard’s Music of the Spheres, a work written 100 years ago for massive orchestral and choral forces, and reckoned to offer a surround sound experience ahead of its time. The SSO’s performance is in Glasgow cathedral in September.
That’s not to say mainstream repertoire doesn’t have its place. Elsewhere in the SSO’s packed season programme are works by Respighi, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Berlioz and a whole lot more. Guest soloists include Steven Osborne, James Ehnes and Colin Currie.
So there we have it: three very different programmes from three very different bands. The best thing about all that is it leaves us spoilt for choice.
For full details, see www.rsno.org.uk, www.sco.org.uk and www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso