Ken Walton: What’s the score for SCO in 2016?

Bellini's Norma
Bellini's Norma
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THERE are five burning questions surrounding the future of classical music in Scotland

What next for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra?

It’s the end of an era at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as Roy McEwan steps down in May after an astonishing 23 years as chief executive.

He has steered a rock-steady ship, capitalising on the orchestra’s phenomenal performing and recording relationship with the late Charles Mackerras, and encouraging, through younger relationships with the likes of current chief conductor Robin Ticciati, a significant expansion of its repertory base and international presence. Despite recent budgetary constraints, the orchestra is in fine fettle.

So the search is now on for a successor. There is always scope for new ideas and new directions. But the biggest challenge facing any new CEO is surely the question of the SCO’s home profile. It is the only one of our national orchestras to have its base in Edinburgh, yet that is where, facilities-wise, it is least well served. The new incumbent must move what has so far proved unmovable – the reluctance of Scotland’s capital 
city to act on the obvious need for a world-class mid-size concert hall.

Over in Glasgow, the RSNO has just moved into fantastic new state-of-the-art premises that are integral to their principal performing venue, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and which have their own custom-built smaller-scale auditorium and rehearsal space.

Edinburgh owes its own orchestra and concert-goers in general a similar purpose-built space, not least because of the benefits it would bring to the Edinburgh Festival.

Will Edinburgh’s old Royal High be transformed into a new home for St Mary’s Music School?

At last things are moving in the right direction for the old Royal High School on Calton Hill. In the closing weeks of 2015 the city rejected a planning application by Duddingston House Properties to redevelop the listed icon as a luxury hotel. All eyes are now on the more architecturally sympathetic and fully financed rival bid to create a new home there for St Mary’s Music School. Given the inadequacy of the school’s current facilities in Edinburgh’s west end – where it continues, against the odds, to nurture many of our finest young musicians – the decision ought to be a no-brainer. Let 2016 be the year an aspirational decision is reached.

How will Danish maestro Thomas Dausgaard shape up as new chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra?

Thomas Dausgaard takes over from Donald Runnicles as chief conductor of the BBC SSO in August 2016, but many among the music community are questioning whether he’s the right man for the job. On the one hand, American critics have been raving about his Sibelius symphonies series with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and I recall being impressed myself by an early BBC SSO appearance back in 2013.

But recent appearances have raised concerns. There’s no sign yet of the electricity and connection that ignited past chief conductor relationships, from Runnicles and Ilan Volkov to the heady Osmo Vänskädays. More worryingly, Dausgaard’s Proms appearance with the SSO in August was widely dismissed, one prominent critic weighing in with the withering suggestion that Dausgaard “needs to listen to a few famous recordings [of Sibelius] and analyse why they work.” Ouch. Much to prove.

Will new music director Stuart Stratford revitalise Scottish Opera’s fading presence?

The tragedy of Scottish Opera is that we now completely accept it as seasonal part-time operation. It hardly exists in main scale terms from September to December; but early in 2016 it springs into action again, with productions of Handel’s Ariodante, Dvorak’s Rusalka and an extensive tour of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

The one to watch is Rusalka, the first production Stratford will conduct since his appointment last year as the company’s new music director. Could he be the man to revive the company’s fortunes? It badly needs a prominent musical figurehead, and by all accounts Stratford holds ambitious views and knows his opera. He’ll be active, too, in the rebranded Scottish Opera Orchestra concert series that have been moved from St Andrew’s in the Square to the company’s home in the Theatre Royal. Over to you, Mr Stratford.

What will be the highlights of 2016?

There are rich pickings among what is left of the current orchestra seasons. Former RSNO music director Stéphane Denève makes his first return to Scotland since departing in 2012, with an RSNO programme in April that features the UK premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s The Death of Oscar. Among Donald Runnicles’ swansong programmes with the BBC SSO is Beethoven’s choral colossus, the Missa Solemnis, in May, featuring the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. Robin Ticciati completes his enlightening journey through Brahms’ four symphonies with the SCO in March.

By then, Fergus Linehan will have released his second Edinburgh International Festival programme. Already we know that Cecilia Bartoli will resurrect her highly acclaimed title role performance in a production of Bellini’s Norma created originally for the Salzburg Festival. If that’s a measure of what else the EIF has in store, bring it on.