Friday 15 March 2013

The 2013/14 Scottish Chamber Orchestra season

Next year will mark the 40th birthday of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and their celebratory season has a lot to like. Following on from the model of Ticciati's most successful opening concerts, it begins with a performance of Berlioz's Béatrice Et Bénédict. The cast includes Karen Cargill and John Tessier in the title rolls along with Sally Matthews and others. That said, if I had a reservation, it would be that I think there are other composers and operas to which the SCO would be better suited.

Towards the other end of the season, the principal conductor presents what for me is his most intriguing pair of concerts, mixing Ligeti, Dvorak and Haydn. Early on in his tenure he delivered some impressive performances of Ligeti and some exceptional Haydn symphonies which were among the finest I've heard. Add to this Stephen Isserlis for the Dvorak cello concerto and they should be well worth hearing. In between, Ticciati directs a complete survey of Schumann's symphonies, though for me the most exiting aspect of those concerts is Paul Lewis performing Mozart's 25th concerto.

There are interesting guest conductors, both new and old. Christian Zacharias's return, after a couple of seasons away, is most welcome. His programme in December features Mozart's K271 concerto, Jeunehomme, along with Haydn's La Reine symphony, some Poulenc and some Ravel. Meanwhile towards the end of the year John Storgards is on hand for Sibelius's beautiful 6th symphony coupled with MacMillan and Vaughan Williams.

It's always good to see Oliver Knussen return, though sadly with none of his own music (I wonder whatever became of the unfinished composition from a season or two ago). He premieres a new work by Maxwell Davies and is joined by Peter Serkin for Bartok's 3rd piano concerto. This is something of a mixed blessing as when I heard Serkin at Aldeburgh last year, I found him one of the most alienating performers I've ever seen.

There's some other new music too, though not a huge amount, with new commissions from Sally Beamish and Martin Suckling, both of whom have recently provided works for the orchestra. There are also a couple of pieces by James MacMillan.

Sadly, after his successful turn in this year's family concert, the orchestra haven't turned to James Lowe for an evening programme. Why? Who can say, but I'll be keeping on like a broken record until they see sense on the matter.

There is some impressive new blood as Masaaki Suzuki makes his debut. As those who know his nearly complete survey of Bach's cantatas with Bach Collegium Japan will be well aware, the brochure's description of him as "One of the greatest living Bach interpreters" is no hyperbole. Together with a cantata, he also brings Mendelssohn's 5th symphony. (It's a slight shame that amid all the Mendelssohn the orchestra have found time for in recent years they haven't done the underrated 2nd, which has one of the great trombone themes in music and provides a good outing for the choir.)

Bach appears to be one of the season's themes, appearing at chamber concerts, Cl@six concerts and also in a performance of the B minor Mass with Richard Egarr. Bach and Berlioz aside, the SCO Chorus also get Mozart's Mass in C minor and Beethoven 9 which for the second time in three years more or less ends the season. Indeed, a look back through recent years suggests that the orchestra may be working on a repeating two year Beethoven cycle. Nothing against the great man, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

As with last year, it's very good to see the SCO's talented section principals given a chance to shine as soloists. So we will hear Alison Mitchell in Mozart's K299 concerto for flute and harp, Maximiliano Martin and Peter Whelan in Strauss's Duet-Concertino and Alec Frank-Gemmill in Strauss's 1st horn concerto.

It's good too to see the chamber concerts increased in number from last year's low of two to three. The one not to be missed is December's, which features David Watkin playing Bach's suite No.6 for solo cello, the orchestra perhaps taking advantage of his project to record them this year.

Finally, as suggested above, the early evening Cl@six series returns. And, in a positive note, they have moved away from diabolical acoustic of St Cuthbert's church. The new venue is the revamped Assembly Rooms. Hopefully the sound is okay there; certainly I'll be venturing along to find out for the first which features Prokofiev's small but perfectly formed classical symphony. That said, it's a slight shame that they still appear not to have learnt the main lesson of the early evening Mackerras Beethoven series that inspired this, namely the power of having a single work in a programme.

Actually, my biggest problem with the programme is that most of the concerts are on a Thursday which happens to be inconvenient for me and means I can go to fewer than I would like. If that's the biggest complaint, then the season is pretty good.

On a similarly nitpicking note, it will do no good, but I wish orchestras would stop the scramble to announce their programmes ever earlier. A few years ago the SCO used to launch in April and there's no obvious benefit to being earlier. Add to which your tired amateur blogger would be grateful if they could avoid the same week as the Edinburgh International Festival.

You can view the full programmes online: Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews. (Slightly annoyingly these are via Issuu which I find rather clunky and which requires a login to get a PDF download. The Edinburgh Festival showed the way here with an easy PDF right on their front page.)

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