LIKE many organisations, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra habitually uses this time of year to service the components that make up its well-oiled machine.
The players maybe don’t see it that way, and there are other reasons the orchestra is broken up into its component parts. But the outcome, whether intended or coincidental, is to fine-tune the inner workings the same way an annual service gets a car into tip-top shape for essential year-round usage.
I got an insight into this process in Orkney during last month’s St Magnus Festival, when three of the SCO’s key wind players – horn player Harry Johnstone, bassoonist Alison Green and clarinettist Maximiliano Martin – joined me to chat about what exactly makes their particular section of the orchestra tick, and why this week’s SCO wind soloists’ tour of Crear on Wednesday, Ballachulish on Thursday and Birnam on Friday is so crucial in helping them develop as a unit.
The first thing to remember is that the SCO, as it says on the wrapper, is a “chamber” orchestra, which by definition means it is smaller, more intimate, more immediately interactive, more exposed, and in many cases capable of operating without a conductor to hold things together.
Instinct is paramount, and for that, familiarity and common purpose are essential among all the musicians. So while the wind players are heading off in one direction this week, the strings are off independently to Ullapool, Banchory and Drumnadrochit. And it’s not just about playing the notes; it’s about getting along with one another.
Fife-born Harry Johnstone has had longer than most to get to know his colleagues in the wind section, having joined the orchestra almost 40 years ago. “We’re colleagues in the orchestra and the component parts work as a group even when playing as an orchestra,” he says. “But that is even more intense when the strings are not there. We carry all the music, the melodies, the harmonies and so on, so it is much more intense on the social as well as the musical level. Fortunately for us, there’s a chemistry that already seems to work very well.
“That’s not a given with every orchestra,” he adds. “In some outfits, they’re professionals and they simply get through it, whether they get on or not. But I think we genuinely enjoy each other’s social, as well as musical, company. It’s good to get this chance to reinforce that.”
The SCO Wind Soloists have already been reinforcing that in other ways. “It’s helped that we’ve done a lot of recording recently,” says Johnstone. “The CD we released last February of Mozart’s Divertimenti on the Linn label was very gratifying to record, and had very positive reviews.”
It was also a process that held them up to tough professional scrutiny. “Linn’s Phil Hobbs is an excellent producer who will tell you things most polite people wouldn’t. But it’s useful to experience such blunt criticism,” explains Johnstone.
There are nods of agreement from Alison Green, now 25 years with the SCO, and relative newcomer Maximiliano Martin, who has clocked up 13 years as principal clarinet. But they have their own views. “It’s important we get on, but there has to be individualism, too, if we are to be truly creative as musicians,” counters Green.
“Fair enough, it’s not just one cosy club,” Johnstone accepts. “Speaking for myself and Alec [SCO principal horn Alec Frank-Gemmill], we don’t agree all the time and I make my views known.
“There’s a respect and tolerance between us. Ultimately you have to resolve differences, and we do.”
Size apparently matters in defining the level of democracy that operates within an orchestra, according to both Green and Johnstone. “There’s not really a hierarchy in the SCO,” says the bassoonist. “We don’t have to address matters through our section principal. We have a direct say in how we think something should be played.”
“That’s possible with an orchestra of 37 players, but if you’ve got twice that number, as in a symphony orchestra, it becomes impractical for everyone to have a point of view,” Johnstone explains. “Players in that situation have to bite their tongues, and cynicism and resentment can set in.”
This week’s wind splinter group provides the perfect opportunity for individual players to influence even the repertoire they play, which in this case includes Handel arias for wind band, an arrangement of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Johan Nepomuk Wendt’s wind version of Mozart’s steamy Il Seraglio overture, and Poulenc’s delightful Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, all sandwiched between a Mozart Divertimento and Beethoven’s early Octet in E flat.
“Alison and I had a big input into programming this year’s tour, and it’s such a nice thing that we can play the pieces we really want to do,” says Martin.
“We don’t usually enjoy the luxury of being so involved in the planning process when it comes to the full orchestra. So this is a real pleasure for us.”
But in what way does such activity feed into the main SCO season?
“I think it helps us to think carefully about how we respond to conductors’ views in the bigger repertoire. I’m particularly looking forward to working with [chief conductor] Robin Ticciati on the Brahms’ symphonies next season, and what sort of perspective we as wind players can bring to them,” Martin says.
Johnstone expands from the horn player’s viewpoint: “We’ve already made the decision to approach these from a historically informed perspective. That means we won’t be using modern large bore instruments, but narrower bore ones that don’t make such a big sound, one that doesn’t swamp the rest of the wind section.”
“I can’t imagine I’m going to do anything much different,” says Green. “I’ll be listening to what goes on in the brass, who can easily swamp the rest of the band. The key is how I react to that.”
Meanwhile, she’s been sorting out “some lovely ties” for the travelling wind ensemble to wear. It’s all part of the regular MoT.
• The SCO Wind Soloists tour visits Crear, 29 July; Ballachulish, 30 July; Birnam Arts Centre, 31 July. www.sco.org.uk