Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Donald Runnicles and James Ehnes

First published in the Guardian on 13 December, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

At the heart of this concert by Donald Runnicles and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was an staggeringly powerful performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with playing so eloquent and direct from Canadian violinist James Ehnes that it just about eclipsed the rest of the programme.

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Review: Scottish Ensemble

First published in the Guardian on 12 December, 2013

Scottish Ensemble
Wellington Church, Glasgow

Scottish Ensemble concerts are never straight-up concerts these days: there’s always some perky twist. For this Nordic-themed programme there were Christmas jumpers and sleigh bells. Management played along in the encore (a peppy string arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride) and dished out party hats to the audience, a handful of whom gamely stuck them on.

The real novelty was the Ensemble’s approach to Grieg’s Holberg Suite, whose five movements they spliced with music by Rautavaara and a new work written for the project by Danish composer Christian Winther Christensen. The architecture was thoughtfully put together. The three scores were bound together by their shared folk roots yet set each other in striking relief with clashing textures and harmonic languages. Rautavaara’s early suite The Fiddlers is gutsy, free-spirited and gleefully dissonant; Christensen’s Pre-Air explores the percussive noises made by fingers on strings and bows scraping out harmonics. It’s whispered, poised and playful, reminiscent of wintry evocations by Vivaldi and Purcell with a nod to Grieg in its bright rhythms.

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Review: Acis and Galatea

First published in The Herald on 28 November, 2013

Acis and Galatea
Mono, Glasgow

The first inspired move by this Music of the Spheres/Glasgow Opera Collective student production was to set it in a Trongate bar that usually hosts indie bands, not baroque opera. The place was packed with eaters and drinkers, including reams of those elusive ‘young people’ whom opera companies covet so much. The bar served burgers and pints during the show yet noise wasn’t an issue. The up-close informality really worked; the singers didn’t have to overstretch their voices and the audience listened with more genuine intent than I’ve witnessed in many an opera house.

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Review: Colin Currie and Nicolas Hodges

First published in The Herald on 28 November, 2013

Colin Currie/Nicolas Hodges
Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

There can’t be many musicians able to bring Stockhausen’s Kontakte to life quite as vividly, and with quite as much cool authority, as percussionist Colin Currie and pianist Nicolas Hodges. It’s not that their performance in the Old Fruitmarket was particularly showy or grandiose; somehow it was their distillation of grace and ferocity, the subtle balance between Hodge’s composure and Currie’s poised athleticism, that made for such an enthralling account.

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Review: Robin Ticciati’s Schumann cycle with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2013

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Schumann’s symphonies don’t require any vast choral forces or orchestral overtime pay, but to underestimate their unique challenge is to deny the world of riches they contain. Schumann doesn’t always finish his sentences or dress up his impulses in formal rhetoric, and yet (or maybe therefore) these works reveal his entire experience of life – and something of our own in the process. How to do justice to his fantastic stream-of-consciousness in a way that hangs together and makes more than the sum of its extraordinary parts?

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Review: Mahler Camber Orchestra with Leif Ove Andsnes

First published in the Guardian on 22 November, 2013

Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Andsnes
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

If ever proof was needed that the ethos of an orchestra affects the sound it makes, look no further than the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It’s been 16 years since this exceptional ensemble grew out of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. It still lives by its founding principles of democratic decision-making and its sound is full of vibrancy and youthful spark. Despite a measly audience turn-out (the Usher Hall can’t have been more than a third full for one of the world’s classiest chamber orchestras), there was a sense of drive and ownership from every musician on stage: rank-and-file string players as much as pianist/conductor Lief Ove Andsnes.

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Review: Red Note Ensemble at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

First published in The Herald on 21 November, 2013

Red Note Ensemble
St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield

Red Note’s residency at the 2013 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is a major feather in the cap for Scotland’s five-hear-old contemporary music outfit. They’ve done plenty of excellent community and education projects (Framed Against the Sky; Noisy Nights), daft music theatre (Pass the Spoon) and ambitious site-specific one-offs (songbirdsongs; 1000 Airplanes on the Roof; Tantallon!). Now these three Huddersfield concerts were a declaration, before the great and good of the contemporary music world, of their international calibre as a ‘serious’ new music ensemble.

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Review: Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Oliver Knussen and Peter Serkin

First published in the Guardian on 12 November, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

Peter Maxwell Davies describes his latest work for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as “a reaction to the Orkney climate and influenced by Orkney folk music”. Ebb of Winter – the name refers to a bizarrely mild period on the islands in early 2013 – isn’t an outright tone poem or a medley of traditional tunes, though. It’s a birthday commission for the SCO’s 40th anniversary but neither is it particularly celebratory. If anything, its atmosphere is reflective and wistful.

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Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Andrew Manze

First published in the Guardian on 11 November, 2013

City Halls, Glasgow

Andrew Manze’s Vaughan Williams cycle with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been a powerful journey so far, scaling the vast terrain of these symphonies with lucidity, steel and some mighty orchestral sounds. Here they arrived at the Seventh: the great Sinfonia antartica, composed by Vaughan Williams in the early 1950s out of his film score for the Ealing Studios epic Scott of the Antarctic.

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Review: Chris Thile

First published in the Guardian on 8 November, 2013

Chris Thile
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

“The mighty fugue!” cried Chris Thile, devilishly dexterous and eclectic American mandolin player, as he polished off the second movement of Bach’s G minor Sonata for solo violin. The 32-year-old has been on stage since about as long as he could hold up an instrument and it shows: he’s a consummate performer, not just in his flash mandolin licks but in his deftly loveable stage patter. He’s funny, a bit wacky, and he held this crowd rapt for two hours straight.

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