Wednesday 30 March 2011

The 2011/12 Scottish Chamber Orchestra season

Today the Scottish Chamber Orchestra launch their 2011/12 season, and rather exciting it is too, striking a good balance between the bankable and more adventurous works.

With his performances of L'enfance du Christ and Le Mort de Cleopatre, principal conductor Robin Ticciati, now entering his third season with the orchestra, has shown himself to be a dab hand with the music of Hector Berlioz. As such, it's nice to see the composer feature prominently, and with repertoire outside what one might generally associate with a chamber orchestra. So it is that the season opens with the Symphonie Fantastique, which will be the SCO's first performance of the work. Later in the year we get the love scene from Romeo and JulietLes Nuits d’été and Rêverie et Caprice. In a similar vein, it's also nice to see some Ligeti, who featured in Ticciati's first season, such as his Hamburg Concerto and the Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments.

However, by far the biggest single chunk of the season is given over to the ever bankable Beethoven. On the one hand, it does feel a little safe to be programming almost complete cycles of the piano concertos and symphonies, the Mass in C and more. Yet there hasn't been an overabundance of Beethoven in recent seasons, the present one having featured just two symphonies and an overture. And the SCO have fine pedigree with the composer, as anyone who witnessed their 2006 survey of the symphonies under the late great Charles Mackerras can attest.

Some interesting artists are bringing them too, including Ticciati, Fischer, Manze and Storgårds. The inclusion of legendary pianist Leon Fleisher set my pulse racing, though he is coming as a conductor for the 2nd concerto (Nicholas Angelich will be at the keyboard). It will be interesting to see how he does wielding the baton. The concerto is coupled with the Coriolan Overture and Mozart's Jupiter symphony. The Jupiter is an odd choice though, given we'll have had it only a few months earlier, paired with the Requiem at the close of the current season.

Schumann also features heavily, and Ticciati gives us both the 2nd and 4th symphonies. You may be wondering if we didn't have the latter fairly recently too, and you'd be right, though this is a different version. After his superb treatment of Haydn this year, it's a slight shame that all we get from him next season is the Philosopher, though there is no shortage of the composer from other conductors.

There are plenty of new, newish and more unusual pieces too. As ever, Oliver Knussen's programme in April looks particularly interesting, featuring works by the composer himself (including one so new it doesn't yet have a title, and which will be receiving its premiere), alongside A Cold Spring by the wonderful Helen Grime, and Beethoven's beautiful 8th symphony.

Elsewhere Ticciati pairs H K Gruber's Nebelsteinmusik with Beethoven's 5th symphony and the violin concerto with Martin Suckling's fresh off the page and unnamed work, while Joseph Swensen couples Beethoven 7 with Sally Beamish's percussion concerto Dance Variations (receiving its world premiere). I'm particularly pleased to see that, as percussion concertos are usually fun to watch. Perhaps most interestingly, for me, is Hallgrímsson's new violin concerto, which comes paired with works by Sibelius and Grieg. If his cello and double bass concerti, which the SCO have done superbly in recent seasons, are anything to go by, it should be a treat.

It's a slight shame that Paul Lewis isn't on hand for any of the Beethoven; Christian Zacharias does not make a return either. That said, there is no shortage of fine soloists on offer: SCO regular Karen Cargill returns to sing some more Berlioz and cellist Pieter Wispelwey plays Haydn's D major concerto. Pierre-Laurent Aimard will be here for Brahms' 2nd concerto, under Ticciati. And, possibly drawing the most punters, Nicola Benedetti plays the Four Seasons. Alexander Janiczek joins the orchestra several times though the season, both as soloist and director, such as for Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. Llŷr Williams performs both the Emperor concerto and a chamber concert. I didn't warm to him when I last heard him some years ago, so it will be interesting to have another listen. It's always nice too to see the orchestra's own principals take on solo roles, and this year is no exception as flautist Alison Mitchell premieres a concerto written for her by Gordon Kerry and principal horn Alex Frank-Gemmill takes on Ligeti's Hamburg Concerto.

There's some good material for Gregory Batsleer and the SCO Chorus to sink their teeth into, from Bach's Christmas Oratorio (at the start of December, as you might expect) with Richard Egarr, and the aforementioned Beethoven Mass in C with Langrée (which in the Queen's Hall with that conductor may be a little deafening) and Beethoven's 9th, conducted by John Storgårds and which ends the season. In addition to this, they get their own chamber concert, featuring works by Bach and Poulenc. This is perhaps unsurprising, given Batsleer's views on the importance of choirs having a cappella opportunities, but it is still very nice to see.

Which leads nicely onto the Chamber series, two thirds of which I've already mentioned. I'm pleased to note that not only have the orchestra halted the recent year on year reduction of such concerts, but they have reversed it so there are three this year. And there are some really interesting things too, such as the first on November 6th, where we get Salomon's arrangement of Haydn's London symphony (along with an illustrated talk). It's worth noting that the time seems to have shifted from 2.30pm to 3pm.

The Cl@six series returns, but as it is still in St Cuthbert's church, acoustic problems with the venue mean I won't be there. It's a shame: I'd love to hear David Watkin conduct three Haydn symphonies in one programme. The trouble is, in that space you can't. It's a problem likely to be even more severe with a full orchestra, yet all the programmes are set to feature just that. It's a puzzle.

Another puzzle is the continued absence of James Lowe, after his superb last minute stand in debut with the orchestra a few years back (not to mention the excellent Masterworks concert he did which, alas, does not feature in the main season as it did in 2009 and should do again). I hope this will be rectified in future seasons - I don't want to have to change the site's name! Also absent is any repeat of the excellent Voice of a City. However, I gather it was a huge undertaking and it is possible we may see something similar in future seasons. Let's hope so.

Still, all in all it's exciting stuff and there's a good balance between the popular and the adventurous. Or, to put it another way, I was slightly thinking of scaling back my attendance this year owing to other commitments I have on Thursday evenings. This makes that plan much trickier.

Links to the brochures will be added once they're on the SCO website.

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