Tuesday 26 February 2008

Another week, another justly unknown conductor

It's becoming all too familiar a theme. I go to an SCO concert, the billed conductor is a name utterly new to me and I leave with no strong desire to improve my knowledge of them. Of course, I accept that everyone has to start somewhere, and there were doubtless times when even greats like Charles Mackerras, Claudio Abbado and even Donald Runnicles occasioned the response: WHO! But there are two key differences here. Firstly, the sheer proportion of the SCO's roster for this season who fall into this category. Second, even those who would doubtless be dubbed the up and coming don't strike me as being destined to go that far. I've seen several artists at times when they were much less famous than they are now: Daniel Harding is one example, mezzo Christine Rice (who still has some way to go) is another, I'm sure I could think of more. But the point is, when I've seen them, I've heard something that causes a mental note to be made in my brain, a note that in five, ten, twenty years this person may well be delivering something very special indeed. But when faced with the likes of Olari Elts, I just do not see it. Doubtless this situation is due to finances which makes the likes of Mackerras or Zacharius sparse. If so it is a crying shame: the SCO is one of the finest chamber orchestras I have heard and they deserve more conductors of a calibre matching their own.

On Thursday 31st January it was the turn of Paul Meyer. Despite living just round the corner from the hall, I didn't get to my seat with all that much time to spare, I therefore hadn't read the programme as carefully as I might. As I listened to the first piece (Mozart's Incidental Music for Konig Thamos), I became increasingly baffled - this sounded nothing like any Mozart I'd ever heard, and Mozart is generally pretty easily identifiable. My confusion mounted, not helped by the fact that, as is my custom, I'd put the programme on the floor for duration of the piece. In the second movement I caught a glimpse of another programme over someone's shoulder and all became clear: we were not listening to Mozart at all but to Poulenc's Sinfonietta (the confusion had arisen as the programme also contained the information for the previous night's concert in St Andrews). The Poulenc was unknown to me, though after the fine concert at the close of the festival, it is good to hear more. Meyer took it very quickly, and the orchestra held together admirably well. However their sound was very thin, leading me to wonder if Poulenc isn't better served by a larger orchestra, certainly I remember a wonderful richness to Deneve's performances (admittedly of other works) with the the RSNO. However, it was perfectly fine, if nothing to write home about, and certainly a vast improvement over the previous week's train wreck.

This was followed by Mozart's flute concerto with soloist Alison Mitchell (the orchestra's principal flautist). In fairness to all concerned, while everyone who's listened to them played well knows from his piano concertos that Mozart was a master of the form, his flute concerto is not his finest hour. When I'm singing the SCO's praises, one of the main reasons is the quality of many of its principals: cellist David Watkin and clarinetist Maximiliano Martin always spring to mind, they can more than hold their own as soloists. Sadly the same isn't quite true of Mitchell. She doesn't have the same flair and her first few bars were decidedly ropey (leading me to question whether she was fully warmed up). All in all, it was a perfectly adequate performance, but nothing more. That Meyer was not an especially sensitive accompanist didn't help much.

After the interval we got a reliable old warhorse in the form of Mendelssohn's 4th symphony, the Italian. It has some of the best tunes he wrote and is always enjoyable. Meyer turned in a fairly solid reading, though he did seem in something of a rush. I would also have liked a little more contrast to the interpretation. Still, unlike Mustonen, it was at least enjoyable. But I was left wondering what other hands might have done with it: what might Bruggen have done, it would be interesting to hear after his far more compelling Scottish symphony (a work I like less)?

So, if anyone from the SCO is listening: hire more conductors of a higher order (and it wouldn't hurt to issue some dress instructions).

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