Unlike a week on Monday (when I've scored an invitation to the press launch of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's 2009/10 season), I had to make do with downloading the brochure and then leafing through the copy they'd kindly sent first class once I got home from work. Which is by way of explaining why I'm writing this tonight whereas the The Herald and The Scotsman had theirs ready for press this morning. (If anyone from the SCO is reading this, any chance I could get on that mailing list? Contact details can be found on the left.)
But I digress. At first glance, the programme is rather nice, certainly I find the blue cover much more appealing than the RSNO's rather garish gold. I'd also note that the SCO's is a much greener effort (only two significantly smaller pages longer, despite nearly twice as many concerts). That's not important though (for heavens sake let's not lose perspective and get bogged down in silliness over cover design), what matters is what's inside. And there things are even better. Last year, I remember feeling wowed by the RSNO programme (so much so that I dashed to Glasgow for several that were not occurring here), this time round the tables are turned. It makes me very much regret that I have other commitments on Thursdays which make me more selective than I'd like (perhaps a few more trips to City Halls are in order). I'll confine myself to discussing the Edinburgh season, though brochures for Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews are also available (the Glasgow programme should be pretty similar for the main concerts, the Aberdeen and St Andrews seasons being quite a bit smaller).
First things first, and I'm not going to start with the big thing that, judging from the papers, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra want everyone to start with; instead, those things that I won't be passing up for anything. There are two of these. Predictably, Charles Mackerras's appearance with the orchestra in January is one of them. He plays Mozart's Haffner (35th) symphony and some Strauss, which he's been doing a fair bit of lately, in the form of the first horn concerto and Le Bourgeois Gentillhomme. The second is the reappearance of Paul Lewis, and again with Andrew Manze (the two teamed up back in January for Mozart's K595 concerto). This time the programme contains Beethoven's third concerto and Schubert's 6th symphony. There's a good bit of Schubert this year, of which more anon.
Those aren't the dominant theme of the brochure, however. That honour goes to Robin Ticciati, the orchestra's new Principal Conductor, of whom I've heard promising things. He conducts five programmes, most of which look pretty unmissable. Carelessly, though, I know already that I'll be missing the first. This comes on Saturday 12th December in a programme including Henze's chamber symphony, Mahler songs (with Magdalena Kozena singing, doubtless being a Rattle pupil has helped him secure the conductor's wife - from the looks of things, the Dunard fund's cash has helped too) and Brahms' second symphony. The programme also highlights another point - the dropping of the Adventurer brand for new music. Having said that, almost all the new music is still in the Saturday concerts, and still programmed with easier stuff, so it will be interesting to see whether this will boost attendance at all, I hope so. But, as is the way with these things, I'm in London that weekend for a double bill from Jansons and the Concertgebouw. Still, I will be able to hear him the following Thursday for a programme of Faure and Berlioz with the wonderful mezzo Karen Cargill, whom we've often praised and who features heavily next season, and Haydn's Clock symphony (101). Berlioz is big too, as when Ticciati returns in February it is for L'Enfance du Christ (again with Cargill). His final two programmes include Ligeti, Mozart, Bartok and Beethoven. All in all, it looks very promising and most interestingly chosen.
Other potential highlights include Maximiliano Martin playing Weber's clarinet concerto, Oliver Knussen's appearance for Maxwell Davies' fourth symphony and Stephen Osborne playing Mozart's K595 concerto. Amongst the most enticing is Christian Zacharias. His programme is interesting, not least because the orchestra doesn't feature in the first half, which is simply Schubert's D845 sonata. This is followed by the Great C major symphony, D944 (the ninth, or not, depending on how you count). Given the quality of the orchestra's recording with Mackerras, and the fact that I adore the work and haven't heard it live for five years, I can't wait.
After his fine performance this season, it's nice to see James Lowe return to the podium for a dissection and performance of MacMillan's Tryst, something that, in a feat of creative accounting, takes place before the opening concert. It's a shame, though, that we don't hear him in a full programme too.
It's not quite all positive. While programatically almost everything grabs me, there are one or two things I'll steer clear of as I don't care overly for the conductor involved (Elts' programmes, though I may go to May's Ligeti/Sibelius concert in spite of myself, Richard Egarr and probably Louis Langree, though he is doing Schubert's unfinished..). My greatest reservation concerns the chamber ensemble concerts. I've praised these repeatedly and, in my view, they are one of the crown jewels of the SCO's seasons. To see them cut from three to two is, therefore, deeply disappointing, particularly when one remembers that there were four in the 2007/8 season; at this we will have none by 2011. This decline should be arrested and reversed post haste. Of those we're getting, one features Karen Cargill, the other Brahms' sextet and more. The loss is the more galling when one notes that there are still four Cl@six concerts. I've made my feelings very clear about these before and I find it baffling that the orchestra still has the nerve to programme anything in a hall so manifestly unsuited to the performance of live music.
Another complaint is the variety of the programme, or, rather, the lack thereof. For example, there is just one Mozart piano concerto this year, and while I don't object to that, per se, I do find it annoying that Osborne is playing K595 which is one of the two programmed this year: the man did write 27 (depending on how you count) and most of them are great, give us some of the unjustly neglected ones. Similarly, the closing concert features Beethoven's fourth concerto (which Pizarro played this year, albeit only in Glasgow, and again a couple of years before that). Indeed, looking through the programme shows too many works, given the vast repertoire available, that have appeared either this season or last: Beethoven's fifth, sixth and eighth symphonies, Mendelssohn's third (not to mention The Fair Melusine, which unlike most of the others listed isn't even a terribly great work), Prokofiev's first, Mozart's Prague, Beethoven's third concerto, Dvorak's wind serenade. I wouldn't mind so much, but there's great stuff that they haven't played lately and could: the symphonies of Dvorak and Sibelius (we'll have had two of the latter over the last three seasons). What about rounding off the torso of this year's Brahms cycle doing some more Schumann. Wouldn't Mendelssohn's London symphony have made a superb showcase for the chorus rather than dusting off The Scottish for the third time in three seasons (EDIT - 2009/08/25 - as noted in the comments below, Mendelssohn didn't write such a symphony, I meant the second symphony, Hymn of Praise). I know we're in Scotland, but come on! Enough already, you'll wear it out.
It is a pity that Rachel Barton Pine is not appearing (we must pin our hopes for a Scottish appearance on the BBC) and it would have been nice to hear Frans Bruggen after illness kept him from us back in December.
However, such niggles aside, it is a very compelling programme. I await the BBC Scottish with interest so I can get down to the business of booking (I need to know what clashes with Runnicles' Glasgow appearances, which annoyingly will likely be on Thursdays too, before handing over any money). In order to end on a positive note, I'll point out that Truls Mork has a CD coming out with the orchestra in a couple of weeks, the featured work is Hallgrimsson's cello concerto. I loved their performance last year, so the fact that they've recorded it is a wonderful surprise. Lastly, the season will mark a welcome return to the Usher Hall for the bigger concerts (though I'll believe that when I see it: it still looks worrying unfinished to me, it is an ominous sign that the opening concert there is a programme of unfinished works).