Music review: SCO & Nicola Benedetti, Perth Concert Hall

There were intermittent sparks of inspiration in this performance of James MacMillan’s Violin Concerto No2, writes Ken Walton, but a lack of overarching cohesion

SCO & Nicola Benedetti, Perth Concert Hall ***

The SCO had the perfect formula for its season opener. With a brand new concerto premiere from James MacMillan, it had serious musical kudos. With Nicola Benedetti as its soloist and co-dedicatee (the other being the late Polish composer Penderecki) a full house was guaranteed.

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Thus, on Wednesday, Perth’s excellent concert hall was abuzz with anticipation. First up was John Adams’ The Chairman Dances from his opera Nixon in China, and a performance by an extended SCO under its ebullient chief conductor Maxim Emelyanychev that snapped and crackled with seething electricity.

Maxim Emelyanychev and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra PIC: Chris Christodoulou
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Emelyanychev’s hyperactive presence translated instantly into the chattering rhythmic precision that was the lifeblood of this performance, even where Adams strays into ironic parody or conjures up quieter visions of spectral nostalgia.

Then to the world premiere of MacMillan’s Violin Concerto No 2, a work written during the height of lockdown, and by the composer’s own admission, one that is privately introspective.

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It’s certainly a work that challenges the first-time listener: not so much for its musical style, a kind of magical mystery tour of 20th century influences – anything from mischievous Kurt Weill-like burlesque to impassioned reminiscences of Berg, even Walton, with hints of Richard Strauss in the fluttering flutes that underpin the blissful closing moments – more for the apparent incongruity of its structure, hard to fully perceive beneath the many fitful components, and despite the alluring three-chord motif that signals critical junctures.

Benedetti’s performance was often impressive, spurred on by intermittent sparks of inspiration, but not, in this first airing, offering a wholly convincing argument for the piece’s overarching cohesion.

Emelyanychev is known for interpretational eccentricities that mostly prove surprising and inspirational. That wasn’t the case in a wrong-headed, at times laboured and fractured vision of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. It struggled to connect convincingly, even with the SCO.