Interview: Gavin Reid on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

First published in The Herald on 16 November, 2016

Turn on the radio and you’ll recognise the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a flash. Mozart that fizzes, Berlioz that’s lithe and nimble, ensemble intuition that darts and dares and turns on a dime. On a good night, at its best under the microphones, the SCO has a rare elegance laced with a rare explosive charisma and the combination is a thrill. And so it seems there is a disjunct here between artistry and administration. In managerial matters, the general ethos of the SCO has been a lot more sedate than its spry signature sound. A year ago Roy McEwan announced his retirement as Chief Executive after more than two decades in the job, and some felt that now might be the time to inject fresh blood, vision and energy into the select top tier of Scottish orchestral management.

The SCO job should be one of the most sought-after in classical music anywhere. A chamber orchestra of terrific players that enjoys relatively assured public funding, long-established touring structures, a healthy recording contract with a respected Scottish label and loyal relationships with a classy rostrum of international artists? The potential is phenomenal. The potential to match the orchestra’s image and programming to the vigour and spirit of its playing; to refresh the repertoire; to tap into a new inquisitive home arts audience; to renew, even, the notion of what a 21st century chamber orchestra can and should be. Yet when it came, the job description spoke more of safeguarding and preserving. It seemed the board was not looking for a candidate who would shake up the status quo.

In April the orchestra announced Gavin Reid as McEwan’s successor. Reid is an Edinburgh-born trumpeter-turned-orchestral-manager who spent the past ten years as managing director of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra — which is to say, he was McEwan’s counterpart as one of three Scottish orchestral chiefs. When I speak to him six weeks into his new job, he tells me that the sideways shift made perfect sense to him. “I have no intention of leaving Scotland,” he says. “There was no clever plan, I’ve never had a career plan, but when you’re in the position of running one of the national arts organisations in Scotland and you’re committed to staying in Scotland, you can count the opportunities on one finger.”

Reid’s decade at the BBCSSO has been something of a golden era, whether by chance or design. “I came in a month after the orchestra moved into City Halls,” he recalls. “I had the opportunity to develop the sound and reputation of the orchestra in that hall. To create a profile nationally and internationally. All the things we set out to do back in 2006 we pretty much accomplished, so yes, it felt a clean time to go.” Those ten years encompassed the mighty chief conductorship of Donald Runnicles and the consolidation of the BBCSSO as one of the world’s pioneering orchestras in contemporary and experimental music. More than that: its annual Tectonics festival has kickstarted exciting conversations around what a symphony orchestra can mean today and what its role should be within broader cultural ecosystems.

Reid admits that most of the above was not of his instigating. “So much of my job is looking to see where the energy is heading, looking to see what I can do to make that energy grow and come to fruition.” Working within the BBC meant working within a hefty infrastructure, with producers doing a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work. Plus much of the creative direction came from the orchestra’s team of conductors themselves: the big Germanic repertoire and heavyweight soloists from Runnicles, the sleek Euro-modernism from Matthias Pintscher, the zany anything-goes experimentalism from Ilan Volkov. What Reid did have was the sense to let good ideas run.

So what will he do at the SCO, an organisation that does not have any vast infrastructure attached, that does not, currently, prioritise an ethos of adventure? Where does he see the SCO’s energy heading? He talks about shifting from “being a part of a huge global media organisation to the strong, clear focus of managing one of finest chamber orchestras in the world,” and notes the implicit freedom of the latter. But there are binds, too, of a different kind. “You have a whole new set of challenges,” he acknowledges. “You have a whole family of stakeholders to consider. The depth of support, love and engagement is remarkable and it’s something absolutely to cherish and develop. A big part of my job at the moment is trying to get to know these stakeholders and understand what they want to protect about the orchestra.”

The word ‘protect’ reminds me of a conversation I had a couple of years back with an SCO patron who wanted to set up a commission fund for new works — so long as they were written in the style of Schubert. “I haven’t met that particular gentleman yet,” Reid says, eyebrow nudging up with expert BBC diplomacy. “But yes, let’s say there are strong feelings about what this orchestra should be. And I need to respect those feelings.”

Reid takes up his new job just as the SCO has made some key player appointments: Philip Higham as principal cello, a tremendously welcome successor to David Watkin, as well as Marcus Barcham as principal second violin and Felix Tanner as sub-principal viola. News came last month that Benjamin Marquise Gilmore would job-share the leader position with Stephanie Gonley, finally filling the crucial seat that had been empty since 2009. “Some appointments take longer than others!” Reid says, eyebrow again inching upward.

Most pressing on his mind — besides the lingering uncertainty over whether the SCO will ever convince Edinburgh to build it a new concert hall — is the task of finding a successor to Robin Ticciati, whose final season as principal conductor is 2017-18. “No time frame,” Reid pre-empts my question, “but one wouldn’t want to go on for a long time without a principal conductor.” What is he looking for in potential candidates? “It’s not about what I’m looking for,” he replies. “Six weeks into the job, I have lots of questions to ask. Top of the list of priorities is the quality of musicianship and the quality of music making. With an orchestra like the SCO we can’t imagine Mozart or Beethoven will be too far away.“

By and large Reid indicates that he has few plans to make significant changes to the way the SCO operates. He says he adores chamber orchestras, that his musical home is Mozart, Beethoven and Bach and that these composers are the rightful home of the SCO, too. “I believe this music is just as relevant today as it ever was. The question is how we present these works in a way that is going to truly lighten the lives of people living in 2016. The orchestra will turn 50 in 2024. What do we want to be saying about ourselves by then? What do we want to achieve? These are all questions and I have no idea what the answers are. My grand vision for the orchestra? I want it to be at the forefront globally of chamber orchestras, celebrating the core repertoire as it always has done.”