I'm not sure how Saturday's concert came about, whether it was a genius idea cooked up when thinking about what could possibly follow the previous week's blockbuster season opener, or whether it owed more to a need to fit in with Glasgow's minimalism festival which is happening this weekend. Most likely it was a combination of the two. Regardless, Saturday's programme (Friday in Glasgow) was a triumph, what a pity then that the Queen's Hall was so empty, but then with three of the four works by living composers this was, perhaps, to be expected.
There was a strong minimalist flavour running through the evening, though I don't think such a tag quite applies to everything. The stronger theme was the fact that all three composers hailed from America. Conductor Baldur Brönnimann, whom I last heard presiding over ENO's musically stunning production of Ligeti's La Grand Macabre, opened the programme with Ives' Three Places in New England. He started as he meant to go on, providing a tightly controlled reading and drawing some impressive playing from SCO. The minimalist chords on which the St Gaudens was built were followed by the rambunctious Putnam's Camp, depicting the mind of a child at a picnic, Brönnimann himself leaping around the stage with every bit as much energy and mischievousness. The piece displays Ives' love of quotations and these were highlighted nicely. Equally fine was their account of the final place, The Housatonic, a riverside walk with his wife. Brönnimann for the most part displayed a strong understanding that you do not need to play loudly in the Queen's Hall, all too rare (though a couple of the sustained climaxes were a bit too much).
Ives was followed by John Adams. The Wound Dresser combined many elements that would be familiar to fans of Adams' work: low, in some ways repetitive and minimalist string chords, an electronic synthesiser blending cleanly with the acoustic elements, and on top of this a superbly chosen and powerfully set text. The text in question was Walt Whitman's intense and harrowing The Wound-Dresser (or, rather, selections from it), the reminisces of a civil war surgeon. In the solo part, baritone Christopher Maltman filled the hall with an effortless and chilling power, while beneath him Brönnimann ensured the accompaniment was perfectly judged. Repeated and mournful trumpet fanfares, beautifully delivered by Peter Franks, only heightened the emotion. The result was emotionally devastating, such as when the surgeon reflects he'd give his life to save one of his patients, or at any number of other points.
More Adams followed after the interval in the form of his Son of Chamber Symphony, an altogether lighter piece receiving its Scottish premiere. This was a perfect choice for the SCO, limited as it was to one player per part, thus providing a wonderful showcase for the orchestra's many excellent principals, especially David Watkin on cello (virtually dancing in his seat at times) and Alison Mitchell on flute and piccolo to name just a few, not to mention former principal bass Nicolas Bayley (now with the BBC SSO) making a welcome guest return. Certainly players of such calibre seemed a pre-requisite for the exciting and intricate opening movement and they attacked it with all the precision and pizzaz you could have asked for. No doubt their fine Beethoven pedigree helped with the Beethoven inspired rhythms. Alongside this, Adams' expertly coloured his orchestration with a wonderfully deployed range of percussion. A calmer middle movement allowed us to catch our breaths, before a similarly energetic finale. The result was pretty electrifying. Or, for the lady next to me, who perhaps experiences more trepidation as far as new music is concerned, "Well, that wasn't too bad."
The evening's only minor disappointment came with the European premiere of Ingram Marshall's Orphic Memories, originally composed for the famously conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The tone poem isn't meant to precisely describe Orpheus's journey, rather it is intended as a series of memories, grouped into five sections. And here lay the primary problem. It wasn't that the music was poor, or poorly played; it was both an easy and fairly interesting listen, with some fine musicianship on display. However, in the minimal programme note (barely more than a hundred words), Marshall said it was divided into five distinct sections. Sections there may have been; distinct they were not. As I followed the changes of the music, I felt more and more that I could hear no obvious connection between, say, the music and the Stygian Gates. The reason for this soon became apparent as we reached by reckoning the fifth and final section; in point of fact we were only about half way through the piece. I thus felt frustratingly that I hadn't got nearly as much out of the piece as was there to be had, it also becomes nearly impossible to comment on how well it depicted the various memories. So too the various quotations that crop up in the work - at least one of which I knew well but couldn't place - unlike the Ives note, there was nothing to help us track down what it might have been. Perhaps I should have attended the pre-concert talk, but such shouldn't really be a pre-requisite and when one is paying £2 for a programme, this sort of thing should be in there. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't quite the note the evening should've ended on.
All told, though, the concert was a triumph for the orchestra. The only pity is that more weren't there to enjoy it. Doubtless many had been put off by what on paper was an adventurous programme. This is a shame, as it was not difficult listening, and I suspect many of the more conservative elements of the SCO's regular audience might have found a lot to enjoy, had they taken the chance.
If the pre-concert talk in Edinburgh was along the same lines as the one in Glasgow, you wouldn't have gained much more insight into Orphic Memories. The piece wasn't discussed at any great length and the questioning was badly focussed with the result that Marshall rambled on amiably without revealing much of anything.
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