Review: BBCSSO’s Elliott Carter retrospective

First published in the Guardian on 29 May, 2014

Elliott Carter: A Celebration
City Halls, Glasgow

How to sum up a composer like Elliott Carter in just two concerts? America’s great modernist had a staggering eight-decade career and produced some of the most intricate and vivid works in contemporary classical music. Any retrospective could only ever scratch the surface, but the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have paid valiant tribute with theirs. Focusing on the effervescent late works plus a couple of major early-period examples, they grasped – crucially – that the complexity of Carter’s music shouldn’t ever be cold or alienating, but rich, expressive and brimming with life.

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Review: Der Rosenkavalier

First published in The Herald on 23 May, 2014

Der Rosenkavalier
Glyndebourne, Sussex

Richard Jones’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Earlier this week, several prominent opening-night reviews included negative comments about the body shape of the mezzo-soprano playing Octavian (Tara Erraught). A media storm ensued, with cries of chauvinism from the singing world and defensive retaliation from some of the critics. The affair even earned its own Twitter hashtag: #taragate.

And so Robin Ticciati’s debut as Glyndebourne’s new music director came and went under a bizarre fracas. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s principal is the seventh conductor to hold the position in the house’s esteemed 80-year history. With its luxuriously long rehearsal periods and familial atmosphere, it should suit him to a T; no doubt #taragate was what he least expected in his first week on the job.

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Review: Tectonics 2014

First published in the Guardian on 13 May, 2014

There are some juicy anomalies at the heart of Tectonics, the festival of new music curated by Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell and hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Take the last part of that sentence for starters: an orchestra, most 19th century of beasts, hosting indie icons like Thurston Moore and Richard Youngs? The BBC, most upright of institutions, printing off running orders for interpretive dances about fracking and art-rock concrete poetry? It’s to the credit of the BBC SSO that they allow Volkov to pursue his boundlessly gung-ho thing. Few other orchestras could collate such an eclectic programme, and very few could deliver it all with such unwavering skill.

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Review: Madama Butterfly

First published in the Guardian on 9 May, 2014

Sir David McVicar’s 14-year-old take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has become a Scottish Opera stalwart, the kind of bullet-proof production that any company would be glad to have in its stockpile. It’s a handsome period piece (designs by Yannis Thavoris), unsentimental enough to be stylish, perceptive enough to be mildly provocative, safe enough to be a classic. The set is elegant and timeless, all gently askew angles and muted beiges and greys that would never tire the gaze. Touches of symbolism keep the mind ticking over: the butterfly silhouette as Cio-Cio San unwraps on her wedding night, the looming cherry branch laced with pretty flowers but also hinting at a lightening bolt. The final tableau (I won’t give it away) looks impressive and provides a neat jab at the illusionary American dream – altogether it works as allegory, for those inclined to prod, but also as straight, heartfelt entertainment.

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Review: Hebrides Ensemble

First published in the Guardian on 6 May, 2014

Perth Concert Hall

Just two works made up this lunchtime programme, an intriguing pairing of music by Thomas Ades and Johannes Brahms. Both men were in their early 30s when they composed their piano quintets and their vying energy went well together: Ades’s beguilingly finespun one-movement work of 2001 next to Brahms’s muscular, sprawlingly romantic F-minor epic of 1864.

Ades’s quintet is a gem, full of gossamer textures and timeless themes that glimmer just out of reach like beacons in a haar. It’s fastidiously constructed, with intricately shifting rhythms and a structure so classical it seems almost radical, but it isn’t rigid, and the interlacing filigree needs a gentle flux that the Hebrides wasn’t able to muster. Part of the problem might be that the group doesn’t stick to a regular line-up; its membership seems to change for almost every programme. Individual players are superb (here the line-up included violinist Alexander Janiczek, whose pristine, silvery tone was perfect for Ades’s luminous writing) but they didn’t achieve the intuitive ebb-and-flow of musicians who work together all the time.

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Review: Scottish Ensemble with Chris Stout and Catriona McKay

First published in the Guardian on 4 May, 2014

Scottish Ensemble/Stout/McKay
The Arches, Glasgow

“That was a wee bit of Bach for you, folks…” The Shetland fiddler Chris Stout had just arrived at the end of Bach’s Double Concerto more-or-less in one piece – “it’s been a while since I attempted something like that,” he told the audience with a sheepish grin. A polished performance of the concerto this was not, what with trains rumbling overhead, grungy basslines filtering in from the pub next door and some seriously ropey patches in Stout’s fingerwork. But it was spirited: hearty swing to the outer movements, a Largo embellished like an ancient lament, Stout’s foot tapping away session-style throughout.

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Review: BBCSSO, Runnicles, Mahler 9

First published in the Guardian on 27 April, 2014

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony lasts about 90 minutes, give or take. On paper that might look lightweight alone on a concert programme, but this towering score needs no side dish, no starter; with all its torment and transcendence it is more than enough. Still, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Donald Runnicles has a thing for pairings: last season he coupled each act of Tristan und Isolde with works somehow linked to Wagner’s opera, and here he preceded the Ninth with Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. It was an impressively unsentimental reading of the ardent elegy, culminating in a gloriously warm warble from the strings. The problem was that the Cantus wends its own consuming emotional journey; as its blazing climax segued into the tentative, trembling opening of Mahler’s symphony (Runnicles had requested no clapping between pieces) I was already semi-sapped.

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Review: Dunedin Consort’s St Matthew Passion

First published in the Guardian on 15 April, 2014

St Matthew Passion
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

There can be no hurry when it comes to the St Matthew Passion. Plenty of performances scoot along, almost apologetic for the three-hours-plus that Bach’s full score takes to unfold, only slowing up to wallow in the crowd-pleasers. Not so in this thoughtful, lyrical and beautifully spacious Palm Sunday account from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort. Whereas Butt’s steering of the more concise St John’s Passion is thrilling for its racy dramatic thrust, here he embraced the Matthew’s scope for expansive reflection. The storytelling never dragged but the arias were platforms for deep contemplation: often Butt didn’t conduct them at all, leaving expressive direction up to the singers and the lithe continuo band.

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Review: Counterflows (Friday night)

First published in The Herald on 7 April, 2014

Next time you’re hammering nails into a piece of wood, think of the covert musicality: the rough rhythms, the pinging overtones. In a disused underground car park off Renfrew Street, a pair of veteran Japanese improvisers, Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda, unearthed the sounds of industrial hammering and clinking, of bottles dragged across the floor, cassette tapes chucked at the wall and speaker feedback bounced back against their own bodies. They moved with the deliberateness of dancers, by turns spontaneous, urgent and precise, and their chemistry was intriguing: Ondo played the volatile troublemaker while Suzuki patiently constructed a makeshift xylophone from a bucket-full of nails then proceeded to play it with spry virtuosity. It was captivating sound art, unfussy and expertly executed.

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Review: RSNO with Susanna Mälkki and Jack Liebeck

First published in the Guardian on 24 March, 2014

Susanna Malkki has a knack for weightlessness. The Finnish conductor brings luminosity to the darkest score and somehow makes a sprawling symphony orchestra sound feather-light. In this concert she drew the most poised and delicate playing I’ve ever heard from the strings of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and a terrific all-round clarity. There wasn’t enough brawn for the programme’s Russian repertoire, but the sound was just right for the UK premiere of a finespun work by Malkki’s compatriot, Kaaija Saariaho.

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