Saturday, 1 December 2007

SCO: Short-Changing Orchestra?

"I will be clear". A simple phrase, though if you believe The Economist's Charlemagne one which according to a guide written by British diplomats for interpreting their French counterparts means "I will be rude". And I suppose that's what I mean with this post. So, before I am, I should say who I'm being clear about: the comments I am about to make are not directed against the players of the SCO themselves, for whom I have great respect and admiration, but against the management of their orchestra, of whom I cannot say the same.

I've been to my share of poor concerts and worse in my time, but it is rarely the case that I genuinely feel short-changed. It was, to some extent, the case with Deborah Voigt's recent appearance at the Festival, as I said at the time, I feel it is something of a liberty to charge that kind of money for a voice that is so far past it. But it was at least interesting to have seen Mr Tilson Thomas, even if it is an experience I have no desire to repeat.

Much the same could be said of the SCO's Cl@six concerts. £12 seems increasingly to represent not much of a bargain. After all, it is half the length of a standard concert, in much less comfortable seats and with much worse sight lines (of course, if your are a student or a pension it is a better deal, but I am not, so they win no points from me on that score).

The idea was, as I remarked after the first one, a good one, having been first though of by Brian McMaster, former Festival director, who pioneered it with a superb series of the Beethoven symphonies from Mackerras and the SCO. However, as I noted then, it was not without its problems, and price was not the most significant. The reverberant venue of St Cuthbert's church was less than ideal for the 13 piece ensemble that played Mozart's Gran Partita, but when the full SCO took to what cannot reasonably be called the stage, it was intolerable.

I would like to review the performance itself, but that really isn't possible. The way the sound resonated the quality of the playing couldn't be judged since the musical lines were so unclear. Titled Invitation to Dance, we got Dvorak's Czech Suite, Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Bartok's Romanian Dances, with Ligeti's Salon Dances from Old Hungary as an encore. The first thing to note is that this programming was a poor judgement on Elts' part. I have little love for him after his poor Sibelius, but less now. The genius of the McMaster 6pm (or 5.30 as his were) slot was that it was one work, to be appreciated in isolation. A beautifully played Beethoven 8th symphony, coming in well under half an hour, could be savoured and didn't feel like poor value for £10. This point seems to have escaped either Elts, the SCO management, or both. Elts' reading, to the extent it could be judged, in no way ever really came close to conjuring anything reminiscent of a dance.

I will be clear: had I known how bad the hall was, there is no way I would have bought tickets. I genuinely feel cheated and I am curious to know who was responsible for the decision to hold the concerts here. Either they had never heard the hall, in which case they were simply negligent, or they had and either didn't mind or didn't care, which shows either an incompetence or a contempt for the paying customer. I understand that if they wanted to use the west end it may have been this or nothing (as the Usher Hall is closed for refurbishment), but on that basis they should have chosen nothing. Or moved things to the Queen's Hall, which has one of the finest acoustics going.

All of which leaves me wondering what I'll do about the next few concerts. One is from the SCO chorus (which I will almost certainly attend). The hall's acoustic may, perhaps, be better suited to that, but also as I have a relative who sings with them. I may also go to the four seasons. I don't really like the work, but the violinist/director is Anthony Marwood who treated us to Ades's wonderful violin concerto recently.

It also makes me hope to high heaven that the people nearby who where chatting away about Elts (and implying there were in the know) were completely wrong in thinking that the SCO have him in mind for the music directorship. If they do, and they're reading this: for the love of God NO. Hire someone worthy of this fine orchestra. I refuse to believe it can be that hard to find someone who fits that criterion.

If the venue doesn't change next year, and this series repeats, I shall be saving myself £60 that could be better spent. I'd advise any discriminating listener to do the same.

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