Classical music: New operatic season promises joyous escape, but what is going on with Glasgow Life?

Scottish Opera and all the main Scottish orchestras have now released their 2017-18 season brochures, and the prospects for classical buffs, between autumn and spring next year, are looking like the joyous escape we'll need from the interminable political fisticuffs of Brexit and Indyref2.
Under Stuart Stratford, Scottish Operas new season looks like its best in yearsUnder Stuart Stratford, Scottish Operas new season looks like its best in years
Under Stuart Stratford, Scottish Operas new season looks like its best in years

There are sure signs, for instance, that Scottish Opera’s new music director, Stuart Stratford, has had a positive influence on the company’s rising artistic fortunes. This is its best season for years. He’ll be conducting a brand new production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek – an anarchic operatic protest work from the Thatcherite 1980s – that marks Scottish Opera’s return this summer to the Edinburgh International Festival. Stratford also heads up a new version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and the Scottish premiere of Stephen Barlow’s highly acclaimed Opera Holland Park production of Jonathan Dove’s comedy, Flight. Verdi’s La Traviata, Strauss’ Ariadne of Naxos and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (to be staged in a real circus tent, location as yet unknown) complete the main season.

As for the orchestras, my colleague David Kettle covered the Royal Scottish National Orchestra season a few weeks ago when it was first announced, so here’s a taster of what the other two bands, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, have in store.

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The SCO’s principal conductor Robin Ticciati throws the spotlight on what he calls “quintessential” Dvořák: the later symphonies, the Violin Concerto (with Christian Tetzlaff), Piano Concerto (soloist Sir András Schiff) and the Biblical Songs, featuring supreme Scots mezzo soprano Karen Cargill. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Parts 1-3) promises to be a resplendent yuletide highlight, and there’s a new Saxophone Concerto from James MacMillan, and a brand new work by the younger generation Scot, Tom Harrold.

Cargill’s mesmerising voice also features in the BBC SSO’s broad-ranging main season in Glasgow, singing Elgar’s exquisite Sea Pictures, and the showstopping Denis Kozhukhin is back as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1. Edinburgh gets its customary handful of visits as part of the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics series.

Principal conductor Thomas Dausgaard’s main focus is on a series of Composers Roots programmes, homing in on the music of Bartók, Nielsen, Rachmaninov and Sibelius respectively. He opens the season with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, while Donald Runnicles, his predecessor, makes a welcome return to conduct Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, an orchestral blockbuster that is surely right up his street.

Meanwhile, it’s good to note that the Usher Hall has every intention of continuing its Sunday Classics, the popular afternoon season that brings in orchestras from around the world. Hall director Karl Chapman has indicated that the announcement of next year’s programme will be made around this season’s final concerts by the Moscow Philharmonic and SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart in May and June respectively.

All of which begs the question: what on earth is going on with Glasgow Life, the city council’s cultural arm that used to promote its own classical music programme?

Up until a number of years ago, its International Orchestra Series, ambitious and complementary to the home orchestras, put the then-dormant Usher Hall to shame. Then, with the appointment of Svend Brown as music director, and the hype that surrounded Glasgow’s designation as Unesco City of Music, the decision was made to concentrate on smaller-scale activities – themed chamber festivals and artist residencies – providing a valuable platform for visiting international soloists and ensembles.

Brown departed last year, and the classical programme stopped dead in its tracks. Look at the classical activity booked in over the next few months, and all it is are regular RSNO, SCO and SSO gigs, plus one or two hall bookings by the city’s amateur choirs and orchestras. There’s nothing to get terribly excited about. Unesco may well wish to review the situation.

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Commenting on the classical music provision, a Glasgow Life spokesperson confirmed there “hasn’t been much recently”, that they will be “presenting some shows next season, but there’s nothing to confirm at this point.”

Brown’s position was never really filled; his replacement, David Laing, occupies the more bureaucratic role of head of art, music and cultural venues. A year has passed with little to celebrate in the city’s once-envied classical provision. If that doesn’t change soon, should we simply accept that the good times have gone?