Friday evening found me sitting on a train to Glasgow, sadly not to take advantage of Donald Runnicles' debut as music director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, for which I will have to wait another two years. But for another debut, that of Olari Elts, the new Principle Guest Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. This also marked the opening of the SCO's 2007/8 season and the start of a new series of posts dedicated to that season (since I've been foolish enough to buy a season ticket). Actually, though, that season ticket hadn't included this concert and I'm not sure I would have headed over to Glasgow, but for the fact this was an all-Sibelius programme. Elts is a young (36) Estonian conductor who should have good pedigree in this area, having won the International Sibelius Conductors' Competition in 2000.
The move to Glasgow and the nice City Halls venue had, apparently, been necessitated by the closure of the Usher Hall for refurbishment (which means all Edinburgh SCO concerts this season are being played in the smaller Queen's Hall). Apparently this programme required too great forces to be done there. If they say so, though apparently it will have no problems accommodating Mendelssohn's 3rd symphony or his and Tchaikovsky's violin concertos.
Elts opened the first piece, The Swan of Tuonela, very quietly. A novelty, for an SCO concert, was the sight of a timpanist in addition to Caroline Garden (who was playing the large bass drum - with which she produced a wonderful sound). He took a delicate, carefully sculpted approach, the orchestra's playing always very light and a little pretty. Indeed, it was rather too light much of the time, as was shown by the wonderful richness the orchestra was capable of on the rare occasions when he let them go. He brought a nice symmetry with the quiet end, and yet it would have been nice to have a little more edge to the playing.
This was followed by the violin concerto, with soloist Antje Weithaas standing in impressively at the last minute. Both soloist and orchestra produced a lovely string tone. Weithaas played with a real passion, accentuated by her angular bowing style. But this was in stark contrast to Elts' rather laid back accompaniment (though this did improve towards a rather exciting close). For the beautiful slow movement they seemed much more on the same page and Elts got a good balance between soloist and orchestra. One thing that begins to stand out is that he is clearly not one to go in for forte. The finale was good too, but Elts' passion didn't always match Weithaas's.
The second half opened with Valse Triste and Scene with Cranes from Kuolema. And he had tough competition since it is but a few weeks since Jansons gave the former in a wonderful encore, next to which this was very dull. The orchestra had a very thin sound, perhaps because Elts insisted on going rather slower and quieter than they could. His readings of both pieces seemed overly intellectual. The reception was decidedly lukewarm for a hall so full.
The concert closed with the 7th symphony. The start was horribly rushed, so much so that it took me a few moments to take it in. The orchestral sound was also rather nastily blurred and the big themes lacked emotion, although this improved somewhat after the cello theme. There were some annoyingly flouncing, Tilson Thomas-esque gestures. The first entry of the trombones, one of the wonders of this symphony, was spoilt by poor balance, managing, impressively, to overwhelm them with the rest of the ensemble. Frequently the music was garbled due to the speed and the reading hewed the work of the faster and slower contrasts its various sections usually provide. The lovely icy wind theme on the violins and other strings was devoid of any kind of chill. Again and again I found myself wishing Elts would slow down. Towards the end, as Elts built to one of the work's climaxes, he finally let the orchestra go for the first real forte of the evening, but the richness of the orchestra was transmuted into a musical cacophony. Again the trombones were drowned out, giving no sense of symmetry, but to some extent that didn't matter since the reading as a whole had none of the sense of journey that I find so key to this work. Funnily enough, though, the work's closing bars were well played and satisfying. What really crippled the reading was its tempo. It came in at less than 20 minutes. Bernstein's sluggish reading lasts just shy of 25 in comparison. But even compared with Oramo's 21.19, certainly not one to hang around, this is very quick.
All in all, not an especially promising start and boding ill for the rest of the season. The performance raises three questions for me. Firstly, how on earth did Elts come to win the Sibelius competition in the first place, though it must be said that these things are to some extent a matter of taste? Secondly, why cannot the SCO attract a new top notch conductor? Mackerras is still affiliated, as is Swensen, but the music directorship has been vacant since he left. They are a top band, one of the finest chamber orchestras in the UK, finding a really good conductor to lead them shouldn't present the slightest difficulty (any more than finding the top notch section leaders they have presently was, I'm thinking particularly of cellist David Watkin and clarinetist Maximilian Martin). And, thirdly, was buying this season ticket a hideous mistake? Well, I've only heard Elts in one composer, granted one he claims expertise in, so it would be premature to judge, but if the rest of his concerts aren't better, they will be an endurance.