Music review: The SCO & Joseph Swensen, City Halls, Glasgow

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra
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Two of the old, and two of the new. That was the balance implicit in Friday’s SCO programme, which offset today’s contemporary style of James MacMillan and the young Glasgow-born Tom Harrold, with the erstwhile contemporary edge (early 18th century-style) of Beethoven. The juxtaposition was electric, thanks in no small way to the energised conducting of Joseph Swensen and the clarity and direction he applies to music of any era.

His body language is a sequence of dance moves that connect directly with the players, and the results were spontaneous and vital.

Harrold’s To the Light – a brand new SCO commission – opened the programme. A soft and sumptuous signature trio of chords pave the way for a charm-filled solo cello melody, both of which are the glue holding together this various diversions the happen en route.

Harrold’s writing is precise and clean-textured, yet he imbues the work with a dazzling warmth and emotive density. This motivated performance did it justice.

MacMillan’s 1996 work, Í: A Meditation on Iona, reflects on the island associated with St Columba, its plainsong-derived motifs illuminated by timbres that combine thickly-scored strings with pungent metallic percussion. The outcome is riveting, beautiful and spiritually evocative, thanks to another mood-invoking performance.

In both Beethoven symphonies – Nos 1 & 2 – Swensen’s attention to detail was matched by his unstoppable enthusiasm, giving these works a thoroughly fresh airing, yet remaining true to the spirit of the age; like giving Beethoven a spring clean.