Monday, 30 November 2009

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Comes Home

Not that they've ever really been away, mind. No, the title is a reference to the fact that Saturday's concert was part of Homecoming Scotland 2009, an attempt to boost tourism by celebrating Scotland's culture. No bad thing, in and of itself, since there's lots of great stuff to celebrate, however the wisdom of the scheme has at times eluded me (such as when I sat through expensive cinema trailers in Edinburgh cinemas exhorting people to come home to, erm, Scotland, which still included Edinburgh when I last checked).

Whatever you may think of the spin, however, it's always nice to have an interesting programme of new music. At least, if you're moderately adventurous. To be honest, the programme was not terribly difficult, certainly not by the standards of some that I've been to in Aldeburgh. All the same, the Queen's Hall had an awful lot of empty seats. I really wish the audiences here weren't quite so stand-offish to new music. Still, those who came were amply rewarded.

First up was Kenneth Leighton, who while being an English composer, had a long association with the University of Edinburgh, thus qualifying for homecoming inclusion. The SCO played his Concerto for String Orchestra very well. The more I hear works for string orchestra the more I enjoy them, and this was no exception. The pizzicato second movement was a particular joy to hear.

This was followed by James MacMillan's Tryst. It was a slightly strange choice, since it was only two months to the day since the SCO last played it. Don't get me wrong, it's a fabulous piece, but MacMillan's written lots of other stuff, so if you're going to play two of his works in a season, why not actually play two and not just the same one twice? With its myriad of time changes and other challenges, it's a tricky piece, but the orchestra played well and conductor Garry Walker kept a tight grip on everything. That said, I think I preferred Lowe's reading in September (though this may well just be because that was preceded by an illustrated talk, and therefore I got more out of it that time).

After the interval it was the turn of Edward Harper. The programme was intended to feature his third symphony. Sadly, his death earlier this year left the work uncompleted. Instead the orchestra were joined by the SCO chorus to perform his second symphony. This was a powerful work, though at times it would have benefitted from more restraint volume wise, as would Tryst. When you have an orchestra and chorus in a comparatively small hall, it can all to easily overwhelm and Walker, as so many before him, didn't always get this balance quite right. However, overall it was a moving and compelling reading, particularly third movement, a poem by Ron Butlin describing families on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict who'd allowed the organs of victims of the conflict to be donated to those on the other side.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus were on particularly fine form. I've heard glowing reports about their current guest chorus master, the youthful Gregory Batsleer, from members of the chorus, and their performance certainly confirmed these. The orchestra should engage him permanently post haste. The only choral reservation concerned the soloist Alexander Robin Baker. I don't want to be too critical since he was a last minute replacement after Leigh Melrose dropped out. However, there was a tone to his voice that I didn't care for at all.

Still, minor reservations aside, it was a fine evening of modern music very well played. The more stuffy residents of Edinburgh really should give it a try sometime; they might actually find they like it!

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