During his 23 years at the helm of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Roy McEwan has helped grow its bold repertoire and international reputation. But there is, he says, one big task he will have to pass on to his successor
In a few weeks, Scotland’s main orchestras will announce plans for their respective new seasons, but there’s one chief executive who will be doing it for the very last time. After an astonishing 23 years at the administrative helm of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Roy McEwan has decided it’s time to collect his pension.
McEwan turns 65 in May, so there’s nothing unusual about this decision to step down at the end of the season. Yes, age is one factor, he says. But the other has been to allow the wheels of change at the SCO to turn smoothly.
“One of the reasons I stayed so long was having such a wonderful chairman in Donald McDonald,” he explains. “We had a partnership for 21 of my 23 years at the SCO, which is pretty unheard of nowadays.” It seemed sensible that McEwan should hang around a little longer to see the new chairman in, who could then manage his own successor.
It is, without doubt, the end of an era. McEwan remembers fondly the many wonderful partnerships he has helped nurture: the long and fruitful relationship the orchestra enjoyed with the late Sir Charles Mackerras, whose Mozart recordings with Linn Records are simply genius; the enticement of Joseph Swensen to become principal conductor after a period of shifts in that post; and the Linn partnership itself, which continues today in svelte new recordings featuring the current principal conductor, Robin Ticciati.
It was Mackerras who first suggested the use of natural horns, a stylistic feature of most SCO performances ever since. “The SCO was an exceptional orchestra when I came, but it’s been wonderful to see it grow in terms of its bold repertoire and international reputation,” says McEwan. But there’s one area of unfinished business that has frustrated him, and will now, he says, be the most immediate challenge for his predecessor. And that’s the unresolved issue of a proper home for the orchestra in Edinburgh. There have been numerous proposals to find an alternative to the Queen’s Hall, which can no longer be considered, by world standards, a venue befitting a national chamber orchestra.
The fact the city itself still lacks a mid-sized concert hall comparable to Glasgow’s City Halls, HQ of the BBC SSO, or the wonderful new RSNO Centre, is a shameful reflection on the woeful inertia that makes Edinburgh’s venue provision look third class in relation to that enjoyed by Glasgow and many other UK and European cities.
“I’m disappointed nothing has happened there,” McEwan says. “We were talking about it when I first arrived. For many years before that, people didn’t realise there was an issue, but one of the big changes in the last 20 years, as the orchestra has grown, is that they no longer have that attitude. Yes, there’s a lot of affection for the Queen’s Hall, and rightly so. It has its place, and I imagine it will make its own future as it sees fit.
“But there is an acceptance now that Edinburgh desperately needs a high quality, really international standard medium scale concert hall, not just for us, but for other musical forms and for the Festival. It’s been very complicated, and there have been various attempts to create partnerships that would make it come together. Progress has been made over that time, albeit slow, but I am genuinely optimistic that something will come. I don’t think I’ll be pushing up the daisies when it happens.”
Above all, it simply has to happen if the SCO is to realise its fullest potential, says McEwan. It will, he reckons, be crucial to his successor if he or she is to make any significant mark on the SCO’s future.
“It is absolutely the SCO’s turn,” he insists, conscious of the facilities now enjoyed in Glasgow by the BBC SSO, the RSNO, Scottish Opera (its recent atrium extension to the Theatre Royal), Scottish Ballet’s move to the Tramway, and the National Theatre of Scotland’s planned new facilities at Speirs Wharf, close to Scottish Opera and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
“There’s got to be a case for us, not just that it’s our turn, but a realisation that we already have a really fine orchestra, an international reputation, and a really fine creative learning programme. We can only move forward with facilities that can make progress happen: opening up possibilities to work with new artists, development of our life-long learning programme, the way the orchestra builds itself into the community. There is huge potential, but that requires a place for us in Edinburgh that is absolutely stunning. That really needs to be the next step change for the orchestra.”
His successor will, regardless of a new venue, need money to work with. Is McEwan worried that the current threats to arts funding could stymie the orchestra’s future core activity?
“The kind of stagnation and cuts in funding which have happened over the last few years, and potentially could continue over the coming years, could mean that our ability to attract artists like Robin Ticciati, to then go on tours, to invest in recordings, to really expand our education work, is really vulnerable. If we have to retrench, would we be able to hold on to the very special players we have?
“It has taken decades in the short life of the SCO to get it to this level and have all these wonderful possibilities. [But] it actually wouldn’t take very long for much of that to be lost.”
The SCO is one of our national musical treasures. McEwan’s custodianship for more than half its existence has been one of great integrity and musical adventure. Let the adventure continue.