From Stranraer to Thurso: SCO launches Scotland-wide summer touring programme

This summer, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will be bringing classical music to communities all over Scotland. Ken Walton looks at what’s in store
Alison Green performs with the SCO PIC: Christopher BowenAlison Green performs with the SCO PIC: Christopher Bowen
Alison Green performs with the SCO PIC: Christopher Bowen

Between them, Scottish Chamber Orchestra second bassoonist Alison Green and principal cellist Philip Higham have chalked up around 40 of the orchestra’s annual Scottish Summer Tours. These happen at the end of the main performing season when the SCO takes itself to mostly outlying parts of Scotland, giving such communities the live experience they might otherwise only get by travelling to the orchestra’s more regular city-based concerts.

“It’s a wonderful experience for us to play to those far-reaching audiences in lovely small venues,” says Green, “where you can go and chat to them afterwards.”

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Green joined the SCO during its 1990 Summer Tour, and she remembers well the disappointment she and her colleagues felt when Covid led to the first ever cancellations of these events in 2020 and 2021.

Higham, who joined in 2016, shares her enthusiasm. “There’s something very different about taking your music to out-of-the-way places,” he says, “whether it’s in a beautiful church, a castle or a gym hall. It’s really important that we don’t just live within the same four walls all the time.”

Such player commitment to these tours – many get directly involved in the repertoire planning – is reflected more than ever in this year’s ambitious and innovative programme, which runs from 8 June until 13 September, featuring ten themed programmes and 25 separate performances stretching from Stranraer and Galashiels in the south to Thurso in the north, and which, in this, the SCO’s 50th anniversary season, boasts exciting new formats alongside traditional concerts.

There’s sunny Summer Serenade music in Dunoon, Killin and Dollar; the lilting charm of a Soirée Parisienne in Inverness, Findhorn and Thurso; and SCO players – more than ever – are featuring centre stage. New to the mix are concerts by the SCO Chorus; the gig-style UN:TITLED 2024, fronted by Dolphin Boy (aka producer and DJ Andy Levy) and associate composer Jay Capperauld as MC in Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy and St Lukes, Glasgow; and the venturing out of Edinburgh of the popular Re-Connect Tea Dance concerts, designed for people living with dementia, their friends and carers.

In the last of these, Green has become a pivotal presence. “There’s no actual dancing,” she explains. “It’s a very informal concert with a lot of chat which we have to constantly adapt to specific spaces.” Getting used to the art of reactive spontaneity required the development of new skills. “When asked to take part in the very first project I actually said no,” she remembers. “I thought I’d be hopeless at it, terrified at having to learn things off by heart, terrified about dealing with people with dementia which I had no experience of.”

Bespoke training, though, through the orchestra’s Creative Learning Department and from a team of health specialists, helped allay such fears. “It’s given me a lot more confidence,” she says. “I can improvise now, a lot of it based on Scottish traditional tunes, which tends to spark memories among those attending and they start to sing along.” She’s joined by nine other SCO players for June’s Tea Dance concerts in Glasgow and Stirling, which open with an improvised walk-on version of Ravel’s Bolero.

The SCO Chorus, directed by chorus master Greg Batsleer and making its Summer Tour debut, opens the series in St John’s Kirk in Perth and Stirling Castle with Earth, Heaven and Sky – a sublime programme of music by John Tavener, Vaughan Williams, Roxanne Panufnik and Tarik O’Regan that also includes the first of many frontline SCO players being spotlighted in solo roles. Higham figures foremost among them, as the ethereal lone cello accompanying Tavener’s Svyati (O Holy One).

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“It’s something we all look forward to in these programmes,” he says. “The SCO and its audiences have always had a close interest in individuals within the orchestra. Brilliant players like Max [clarinettist Maximiliano Martin] and André [flautist André Cebrián] have already built a following which only serves to reinforce the profile of the orchestra.” Together, Martin and Cebrián play Saint-Saëns’ exquisite Tarantella for clarinet, flute and orchestra under conductor Paul Meyer in the Soirée Parisienne programme.

For her Tchaikovsky Serenade concert, meanwhile, violinist Stephanie Gonley leads and directs an all-string programme in Inverness, Stonehaven and Haddington, in contrast to the SCO Wind Soloists’ colourful Summer Serenade concert, with music ranging from Mendelssohn to that of former SCO cellist, the late Kevin McRae.

Cellist Philip Higham performing with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Usher Hall Edinburgh PIC: Christopher BowenCellist Philip Higham performing with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Usher Hall Edinburgh PIC: Christopher Bowen
Cellist Philip Higham performing with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Usher Hall Edinburgh PIC: Christopher Bowen

Higham’s biggest moment comes in the Schumann Cello Concerto, a work he says which contains “all the things I love about Schumann: great psychological depth, poignancy and tender expression”. Most of all, he’s delighted to be performing it alongside the SCO’s irrepressible chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

“It’s one thing to play as an orchestral musician with Maxim, another to work with him like this in a concerto,” Higham says. “I don’t think many of us have encountered someone so attentive and passionate, so tireless in their musical pursuit. It’s impossible not to be infected by that energy. He really believes in empowering every single person in the orchestra. So yes, I’m very much looking forward to collaborating as soloist, because I also know he’ll be completely inside what I’ll be trying to say.”

Then there’s the funkiness of UN:TITLED 2004, a chance to sample Soundbox Live – three new works by Daniel Abrahams, naafi and Emily Scott-Moncrieff – alongside music by Adams, Connesson and Capperauld. A more traditional German romantic programme centres around Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto featuring German-born virtuoso Viviane Hagner as soloist-director.

September’s closing concerts tread familiar SCO repertoire territory with Mozart and Beethoven in St Andrews, Paisley and Linlithgow under Flemish conductor Karel Deseure. In the midst of all this, Emelyanychev is at the helm in June for the Closing Concert of the East Neuk Festival, adding his eccentric trademark on fortepiano to Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat, K482.

For Green, Higham and their colleagues, summer on the road remains a perennial, joyous odyssey that brings its own undocumented adventures. “All I’ll say is I’ve heard stories of missed ferries in the past,” reveals Higham.

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For Green, the greatest pleasure has been to see audience relationships develop over a long period. “In my first tour I was one of the youngest players,” she says. “Now I’m in my 60s. That’s scary, but I’ve got to know our regular audiences really well.”

The SCO’s 2024 summer touring programme runs from 8 June to 13 September, see The Scotsman is the official media partner of the SCO's 50th Anniversary Celebrations. For a 20% discount on tickets across the season, use the code TSMSCO20 when booking.

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