Music review: SCO, Andrew Manze & Stephanie Gonley, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Expanded by younger players from its Academy project, a super-sized SCO made a rich, detailed, confident sound under Andrew Manze’s assertive direction, writes David Kettle

SCO, Andrew Manze & Stephanie Gonley, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

Seldom can the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have looked less – well, chamber. With getting on for 80 string players on stage, it was a huge band – maybe not quite up to the 400 or so who premiered the concert’s opener, Vaughan Williams’s Concerto grosso, in the Royal Albert Hall in 1950, but it still made a gloriously rich, detailed, confident sound under Andrew Manze’s assertive direction. This performance was something really special, with the SCO’s own strings expanded by younger players from Edinburgh and Glasgow as part of the SCO Academy project, all of them playing a piece specifically written for musicians of all levels, even virtual beginners. And it worked a treat: Manze spared nothing in terms of intensity or expression, and the players – of all abilities – responded with gutsy, bold playing of utter conviction.

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There was a boldness, too, to the clarity and purity of The Lark Ascending that followed, with SCO leader Stephanie Gonley as a beautifully persuasive soloist. It was an account that never merely wallowed in the piece’s sonic beauties, but delivered them with an almost improvisatory freshness, as if Gonley really were making up the piece’s rapturous, rhapsodic lines on the spot. She received characterful support from her SCO colleagues – a transfer of melody to André Cebrián’s breathy low flute was particularly memorable, for example. But it was Gonley’s own sound and her shaping of her lines that made the performance so eloquent.

Andrew Manze PIC:  Chris ChristodoulouAndrew Manze PIC:  Chris Christodoulou
Andrew Manze PIC: Chris Christodoulou

Last up in Manze’s all-Vaughan Williams evening was a lithe, buoyant and luminous Fifth Symphony, one that replaced the monumentality of sound the bigger symphony orchestras achieve with a transparency of texture and detail. Manze’s opening movement was broad and sweeping, with time taken to ponder its paradoxes, while there was a joyful organic unfolding to his finale, and a touchingly understated close that seemed all the more moving for being so inevitable. A thoroughly involving, moving evening, on many different levels.