Sunday 18 March 2012

From Bach to Beamish, a weekend of playing and singing by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

For various reasons it's been a little while since I was last at a Scottish Chamber Orchestra concert, and longer since I reviewed one. To make up for that, this weekend I found myself at two within less than twenty-four hours, and rather fine they both were.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Sat 17 March 2012 -0059

At the centre of Saturday's programme was a piece that had jumped out at me when the season was announced this time last year: Sally Beamish's new percussion concerto. It attracted me in part because I like to support new music, but also because percussion concertos are generally rather fun as they tend to showcase a range of textures beyond that which one normally gets (they are normally also enjoyable to watch). Beamish's Dance Variations did not disappoint.

Based on several different themes, she chose to focus on just a few instruments in each variation, which was an effective choice. So, one variation might be largely on the vibraphone, another on a drum kit. One potential pitfall of the percussion concerto is kitchen sink instrumentation, in that too many or too outlandish instruments may not work. In general, this was not a problem, and some, such as the 'are you being served' type bell and the hanging glass bottles were very effective. Only the rain stick didn't quite fit for me, in part due to the slightly hurried way it was used.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Sat 17 March 2012 -0020

Throughout the concerto, percussionist Colin Currie gave a tour de force performance. My only regret is that I failed to fully read the programme and realise that the piece's seven variations were themed around the seven deadly sins, so I can't really comment on how well this aspect was realised. Hopefully it will be performed again before too long and I will have another chance.

The concerto was preceded by Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks. Under Joseph Swensen, the orchestra gave an energetic performance. Scored for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horns and just ten strings, it gave the orchestra's excellent wind section a nice chance to shine. Particular treats were to be had from the rich sounds produced by bassoonist Peter Whelan and Maximiliano Martin's ever fine clarinet work.

The second half was given over to Beethoven's 7th symphony, a favourite of mine, and doubtless many others. I think the last time I heard the orchestra play it was Charles Mackerras's legendary performance at the 2006 Edinburgh festival, and even if they have done so more recently, that will forever stick in my memory. Nonetheless, Swensen's reading stands well in comparison, helped by the fact that he took a rather different approach. To begin with, brass were playing modern instruments. This was in keeping with a generally heavier approach. Indeed, the stormy and violent take on the opening movement was more in line with what you might expect in the 5th. To be sure, this wasn't the unrestrained joy that I would tend to prefer in an interpretation, but it was an approach that the work responded well to. And there was still plenty of joy and excitement to be had, certainly the orchestra seemed to be having fun (if the almost Cheshire Cat wide grin on cellist David Watkin's face was anything to go by). The SCO play Beethoven as well as anyone and this exhilarating performance was evidence both of that and that, as with all great works, there is no shortage of valid approaches.

Scottish Chamber Orchestra - Sat 17 March 2012 -0069

Sunday afternoon saw a rather different programme in the form of one of the orchestra's series of chamber concerts. This is actually the first one I've made it to this year, so I don't know if the format of slightly more than an hour with no interval has been the norm for this season, but I think it works rather better. It must be noted that one might quibble as to whether it can accurately be described as a chamber concert when you have fifty odd members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus on stage, but when the music making is so fine there is little need to. (Odd, just for the sake of clarity, used here in the sense of approximately, lest anyone misinterpret that as a comment on the chorus members themselves.) True, for such forces I would probably rather have been a little further back, but at the front of the stalls it was by no means overpowering.

When I interviewed SCO chorus master Gregory Batsleer, who also conducted the concert, he made clear the importance he attached to the choir doing a capella work as well as performing with the orchestra. On the evidence of this afternoon, he can place a large tick in that box. They began with Poulenc's Quatre Motets pour un temps de penitence, the choir's harmonies filling the Queen's Hall beautifully. It was also nice to see the chorus's Claire McBride taking the soprano solo part so well.

Poulenc motets were paired with one of J S Bach's, Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227. Here the chorus were joined by cellist David Watkin and chamber organist Stuart Hope. Again, they turned in a beautiful performance, with Batsleer shaping the music well. Here the young quintet of soloists had been drawn from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Not only is it good to see such links being fostered, but they sang generally very well, sopranos Hazel McBain and Fiona Wilkie and mezzo Brynne McLeod in particular. Only tenor Raoni Hubner de Barros occasionally seemed less secure than the others.

Between these two sacred works, we were treated to David Watkin giving us Bach's second cello suite in D minor BWV 1008 (an extremely pleasant surprise, given it wasn't listed in the season brochure). Regular readers will know I am a great fan of Watkin's playing as the orchestra's principal cellist, and as a soloist he acquitted himself no less well. Playing what seemed to be a period cello, he gave a beautiful and unmannered reading, yet one which did not lack for emotion.

All in all, it was a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Thanks to The Queen's Hall for providing the photos. Click on any of the photos to see the full size image or take a look at The Queen's Hall's entire Flickr stream.

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