The setting has moved too, though how much this was necessity due to the closure of the Usher Hall and how much a positive choice to be in St Cuthbert's is not clear. They obviously could have used their regular home in the Queen's Hall, but doubtless they wanted to be close the office district the surrounds the Lothian Road. St Cuthbert's is set very nicely at the west end of Princes Street Gardens, at a slightly lower level than the main road, making for a rather tranquil environment (and not one that is plagued by police sirens as can be heard inside the Usher Hall). It's a nice building inside too, in shape (particularly with regard to its galleries) not unlike the Queen's Hall, though rather larger. The main difference being that where the Queen's Hall has its rear wall (the one the performers sit with their backs to), completing its roughly shoebox shape, St Cuthbert's has a semi-circular and domed area (the religious name of which I do not know), which doubtless would accommodate a choir. Just before this, the performing area is rather hemmed in by the immovable (marble) font and pulpit on either side.
Sitting down, this being a church, and the seats instead being pews, is uncomfortable, even for the relatively short duration of the performance. The ticket price is rather steep too, at £12. Mackerras and the SCO in Beethoven, frankly a bigger name than anything we are getting in this series was a flat £10 in the far more comfortable Usher Hall. Of course, if you're a senior then it's cheaper at £9 and for some reason students get in for just £5. I'm neither; so, if they're reading this, the SCO get a poor score in that regard. A flat rate price would be fairer. The more so since given the high average age of the audience, I had the distinct impression I was subsidising them.
The programme, if such it can be called was rather dear too at £1. Really more of a leaflet, the size of 3 A5 sheets, folded into a booklet. The most interesting information was contained on the back:
Everyone's A Critic
Welcome to pupils from Gracemount High School who are in the audience tonight. They've been working with Rowena Smith, music critic for The Herald and The Guardian newspapers, to learn about the skills needed for writing about music. To find out what they thought of the concert, visit www.sco.org.uk to read their reivews!
Anybody can take part in Everyone's A Critic. Simply write a review and send it to email@example.com. You may see it on the SCO website!
If I was being cruel, I might question how well equipped Smith is tutor people in those skills, but I shall refrain. Foolishly, I'd managed to sit behind four of these aspiring writers and, very possibly Smith herself. Now, as an amateur who is passionate both about music and writing about it, I welcome encouraging the next generation in the same direction. But it strikes me that there is one skill which should be taught possibly above all others: invisibility. These four your aspiring critics sat constantly scribbling and even whispering to each other, and Smith (if, indeed, she it was) did nothing to admonish them. Now, I'll concede that it's difficult to remember all the things you want to about a performance, but I make a point of not taking notes during the playing, and then scribble them furiously during the applause (I usually now do so in the programme, though was prevented tonight as the paper was black). I've developed a few techniques for making sure I remember the things that I want to. But I feel that anything falling by the wayside is preferable to my marring someone else's enjoyment purely for a blog post. It's always easier to remember details the less good a performance is, but, to be honest, even with a notepad on hand, scribbling furiously, I think you'd still struggle to write in a truly inspiring reading.
So then, to the concert. And I realise I've nearly done something I hate in reviews: take up the vast majority not actually talking about the performance. In fairness, though, what irritates me about those reviews, and you see it a lot during the festival, is when you get a long, generic description of the work(s) on the programme that could easily have been written months before, followed by a sentence or two on the actual performance. And while that might appear to be what you're getting here, it is fair to say that this post couldn't have been written yesterday, well, the opening paragraph excepted.
Thirteen members of the SCO, the wind section, took to the stage under the baton, or rather fingers, of Thierry Fischer. As I overheard someone else question, it it worth asking whether a conductor was really necessary for Mozart's serenade for thirteen wind instruments, the Gran Partita. My theory is that since he is here for Saturday's concert of Beethoven's 5th symphony and Haydn's Harmoniemesse, they decided to get their money's worth. Right from the start it became clear what the biggest problem would be: the hall's acoustic. Perhaps the way they were crowded together didn't help, maybe it was the domed ceiling of the area behind them, maybe some other aspect of acoustic science that is beyond my grasp. Whatever the explanation, the hall, or rather church, was far too reverberant. It rather reminded me of the Giulini recording of Bach's B Minor mass that was playing on my iPod for most of yesterday. That was recorded in St Paul's Cathedral, and while the BBC's engineers worked miracles taming it, the problems can still be heard at the end of each track. Here they were omnipresent, and it made for what sounded much less clear playing than it doubtless was. There was some fine work, most notably from clarinetist Maximiliano Martin (when I saw the orchestra in Glasgow on Friday, I did wonder if he was still there, as I had heard rumours he was getting itchy feet, but as the diminutive musician swayed in his seat and played wonderfully, the explanation became clear: he has merely cut most of his hair off).
The other main fault lay with the conductor. As a reading it altogether lacked the sort of sparkle that someone like Mackerras brings to this combination of orchestra and composer. It was nice enough, but it didn't dance, there was never the urge to tape or conduct along. He seemed to plough a slightly unsatisfactory middle ground between that and a more rich and sedate reading. It only really fully caught fire in the allegretto section of the 5th movement. The variations felt a little rushed. It was certainly a perfectly fine, solid reading, and it wasn't as though it was littered with mistakes, but I just wanted something more taught, something with more punch. Something, for example, along the lines of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's recording (showing, incidentally, that a conductor is not needed).
Midway through the concert another issue became apparent, there is a drawback to the six o'clock start: it's teatime. It needs to be a better performance to overcome this. Perhaps November's effort, which eschews the single work formula for dances from Dvorak, Bartok and Kodaly will fair better.