Friday 10 October 2008

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra starts its season (but first a rant)

I don't envy the SCO's management their task last spring, though it was not nearly so tough as that which faced the RSNO (more of which in an upcoming post): having to cope with the last minute revelation that the Usher Hall would not be ready for the autumn season, nor indeed the spring. Actually, the SCO had it fairly easy since many of their concerts were anyway slated for the smaller Queen's Hall and they could relocate others there. Well, mostly. This seems to be down to the fact it was already booked for Thursday (though whether it was available on Wednesday I am not sure). The management's solution was, in Yes Minister speak, courageous. That is perhaps a little harsh, but it certainly wasn't wise and some of the wounds were self-inflicted. On the face of it, two performances on Wednesday and Thursday would seem to be a passable solution. And, certainly, they could have done worse. The acoustic of Greyfiars Kirk, while not suited to an orchestra of this size, is not as dire as St Cuthbert's was (for reasons passing understanding the SCO has again decided to try and con people out of their money in the Cl@six concerts there this year).

The bigger problem was one that was entirely avoidable and showed an absolute contempt for their audience. I should make clear, I direct this comment not against the SCO's fine players but their managers. £20 is fairly steep for an SCO ticket, indeed it is only £6 less than the price of the finest seats in the Queen's Hall or Usher Hall this season. Further more, that £20 did not receive the discount that is applied to those who buy season tickets, though if you were lucky enough to be a student you got, for reasons beyond my ken, 75% off. The steep price got you not only the poorer acoustic, but also seating that was unreserved. Even arriving with twenty minutes to spare I was a number of rows back and could barely see most of the orchestra. I was glad I had rushed my tea: some people ended up paying £20 to sit on wooden benches with pillars blocking their view. Some people did get reserved seats, I spied at least half a dozen, they didn't seem to be for the disabled, so I'm curious to know who merits such special treatment.

But, you might say, surely you can't expect a church to be run like a concert hall. Well, maybe not, but you can certainly get a lot closer. Next time the SCO are forced into this situation they might like to get in touch with the folk at Aldeburgh: aside from the Maltings and Jubilee halls, they also run a number of performances each year in churches such as those at Orford, Blythburgh and Aldeburgh itself; there are a range of prices to the seats, they number the more expensive areas, the cheaper sections have little view and are unreserved. It isn't rocket science. I was not alone in this view: the people next to me complained loudly and departed at the interval, along five people from the row in front of me; given the second half was Schumann this should concern the orchestra. Roy McEwan, the managing director, owes his audience an apology. It further rubs salt in the wound that, doubtless due again to Usher Hall problems, we are not getting the Mackerras concert in Edinburgh. While this is doubtless beyond McEwan's control, it was tactless to mention it in his 'season highlights' in the programme.

Enough of that, however, what about the music? I had been in two minds as to whether or not I would go, for reasons given above, but two things won me over. First there was presence of conductor John Storgards, whose appearance last year was one of the more impressive concerts, and second there was the emperor concerto, and everyone loves the emperor. Before that, things kicked off with a decent reading of Beethoven's Consecration of the House overture, op.124. The first chords surprised me as they were very loud, and Storgards was one conductor who didn't feel the need to deafen everyone last year, however he soon showed that he was the same man. The winds lost out in the balance, and I presume the acoustic of the church was to blame, though in some ways this helped by hiding some fluffs from the horns. The sound got muddier the louder things became and while it didn't become a reverberant muddle like St Cuthbert's, things could have been clearer. Still, it was an engaging curtain raiser.

After a few moments Storgards and the SCO were joined by Simon Trpceski who, judging from his biography, is the next big thing; aren't they always. While he may have been in the BBC New Generation Scheme seven years ago, I am at a loss to hear why. He wasn't bad per se, but his pianism was of an impressively dull and bland form, often infuriatingly so. He was particularly exposed during the cadenzas or other solo moments. He wasn't quite as much a thumper as many of last year's guests, but he did tend towards hitting too hard, though without the weight or grandeur that a real great finds. Storgards' dynamic accompaniment, and the orchestra's fine playing, proved far more interesting than anything going on at the keyboard. Nowhere was this more of a problem than at the transition between the second and final movements, one of my favourite moments. The orchestra holds a long chord and the pianist strikes some tentative, teasing, tantalising notes before the finale bursts in. It is a moment of exquisite beauty that should have you on the edge of your seat; when the orchestral chord is by far most interesting thing happening it is monumentally dull. The balance of the winds was improved in the concerto, perhaps the raised lid of the piano acted as a baffle to some of the strings but this was poor consolation for a piano part that lacked any real joy or sparkle. The audience seemed more enthusiastic, though not so much so that his encore seemed entirely justified. If played well, there really is no encore to follow the emperor. That wasn't the case here, but even so it showed, to my mind, a disappointing lack of judgement. He played the andante second movement from Beethoven's op.2/1 sonata and while this wasn't exactly inspired, it was more interesting than anything he brought to the concerto.

After the interval, and a thinning of the crowd, we got Schumann's 3rd Rhenish symphony. Storgards didn't hang about, and indeed the opening movement felt rushed rather than the lively marked. The work is somewhat cliched and I like a reading, e.g. Bernstein, that plays to this: it should be a bit over-romantic, it needs that to give it the river's lilt and flow. The scherzo, marked very moderate, didn't really feel it either and the third movement, while marked 'not fast', was taken at a pace that certainly wasn't slow or anything like it. The fourth movement's 'solemn' was much closer to the mark, the opening calling to mind nothing if not Purcell's funeral music for Queen Mary, but became a little too frantic as it progressed. His reading of the finale was exciting and fitted perhaps best of the lot, but all in all it was something of disappointing performance, if not technically then certainly interpretively. Still, this is very much a matter of personal taste and there will doubtless be some who read the last paragraph and think I'm spouting nonsense.

I'm not attending the next two concerts (one is the Cl@six series and thus subject to automatic boycott, the other features Elts who didn't impress me last year) so we will next see the SCO back at their Queen's Hall home on 23rd October for a programme including Haydn's 102nd symphony, Beethoven's first and Truls Mork joining them for CPE Bach's second cello concerto.

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