Interview: Robin Ticciati on the SCO ’15-’16 season

First published in The Herald on 18 March, 2015

“I know that whenever we meet to talk about the next season I say how excited I am,” Robin Ticciati says, excitedly, “but what makes this year different is, ah, the intensity of it…” The Scottish Chamber Orchestra announced its 2015-16 season yesterday and its principal conductor is taking me through the highlights. Headline message is Brahms: over the course of the season Ticciati will conduct the composer’s four symphonies, two overtures and German Requiem, a work never performed before by the SCO or SCO chorus. In fact, each time Ticciati appears with the orchestra next year (bar one Schumann programme in November), he will conduct a work by Brahms.

But then, Ticciati doesn’t generally do much by halves. We’ve met for lunch at his favourite Glasgow seafood restaurant where even the act of ordering is a passionate business. (The chef comes to the table to suggest a chilli seafood gnocchi and Ticciati looks horrified, his Italian heritage mortally offended by the notion of seafood and gnocchi AND chilli. “What the hell – let’s order it,” he says, looking furtively around the restaurant. “Just as long as no other Italians see me do it.”)

There is a welcome breadth to the 2015-16 season as a whole. Richard Egarr conducts Handel’s Theodora; Pekka Kuusisto plays Nielsen’s Violin Concerto; Karen Cargill sings Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder; Oliver Knussen conducts Henze, Britten, Mendelssohn and Martin Suckling; John Butt conducts Mozart and various generations of Bach. Yet more than any previous theme he has programmed at the SCO — more than Berlioz two years ago, more than Schumann last year, more than the Mahler and Haydn we’ve been treated to this year — Ticciati considers ’15-16 a kind of total immersion as far as his own relationship with the orchestra is concerned. Previous seasons have amounted to a focus, a strand, “but with Brahms we’ll be really, really concentrated,” he says, taking a bite of gnocchi and holding up one hand until he pronounces it ‘so wrong but so wonderful’.

“I don’t mean a narrow kind of concentrated,” he continues, back on Brahms. “Hopefully this will open out an amazing world for the listeners. The challenge, and the thing I’m really excited about, is to find a Brahms sound with the orchestra. To find something so unbelievably dark, autumnal, and yet steeped in counterpoint and Bach. I want people to say, ‘we’ve got to hear the next instalment’, because you can bet that’s what I’ll be feeling myself.”

In his written introduction to the season brochure, Ticciati draws a line from classicism into Brahms, suggesting this is the natural approach for an orchestra steeped in Haydn and Mozart. He points to Brahms’s own use of a small string section, Brahms’s proclivity for natural brass, Brahms’s in-depth knowledge of the composers who came before him. Yet most of his programmes pair Brahms not with classical works but with Second Viennese School composers: the First Symphony with Berg’s Violin Concerto (played by Isabelle Faust); the Second Symphony with Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto (plalyed by Lars Vogt); the Third Symphony with Berg’s Seven Early Songs (sung by the magnificent soprano Dorothea Röschmann).

In this sense, the season looks at Brahms as a kind of pivot between classicism and modernism — “I’m fascinated with the idea of Brahms as the progressive,” Ticciati explains. And what’s so striking is that within the space of just two years since he jolted the orchestra into technicolour Berlioz, Ticciati has now nudged the orchestra to the point where Brahms can indeed function as the early work on a programme with Berg or Schoenberg. Ticciati’s programming have always been poised; now a subtle long-term strategy seems to be emerging, too.

“I’ve been aware of that!” he laughs when the I make the point. “But honestly, it’s nothing too calculated. Actually, there’s a very personal reason, which is the fact that as I grow, I feel my heart beating wilder, bigger, smaller, in more of an explosive way in relation to how I relate to the world. Somehow this romantic music calls me, wants me to dive in there. It feels very natural. Of course it also has to do with becoming more and more free to express myself on the podium. One gets more comfortable being there, so the risks of playing later repertoire with a chamber orchestra feel more natural… But what I’m saying about emotions becoming more technicolour — well, I’m talking on a really serious level. It’s essential to who I am and the type of musician I want to be.”

The orchestra itself has heritage with Brahms, and made a set of illuminating recordings of the symphonies with Sir Charles Mackerras in the late 1990s. Brahms himself was acutely aware of the weight of history on his shoulders (he didn’t write his first symphony until he was in his 40s, paralysed by thoughts of Beethoven). Does Ticciati ever dwell on the footsteps of Sir Charles?

“Well,” he replies, thinking for a moment, “in my first week of my first season with the orchestra I did Brahms Two. I wasn’t even aware of what I was embarking on then. And in ’10-11 I did Brahms Four, which I was hugely disappointed by. I really had no idea how to approach that score; I felt lost in it. Add to that the fact it’s with a chamber orchestra, without the cushion of a plush symphony orchestra making it all sound good with a small ‘g’… Well, unless there’s rigour and decision-making, unless you really know how [19th century violinists] Joachim or Ferdinand David were discussing certain bow-strokes, then I don’t think it’s worth doing this music with chamber orchestra. So,” he circles back to the question, “so yes, I think that back then I was very much aware of what came before me. But now? Now there’s still respect, of course, and excitement, but not one cent of shadow or worry or even trepidation. Now it feels completely right to dive into this music.”

SCO 2015-16 season highlights

  • Brahms’s four symphonies and German Requiem (with Kate Royal and Matthias Goerne as soloists) conducted by Robin Ticciati
  • Dorothea Röschmann singing Berg’s Seven Early Songs
  • Karen Cargill sings Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder
  • Richard Egarr conducts Handel’s Theodora with a cast including countertenor Iestyn Davies
  • French violinist Renaud Capuçon returns to play Sibelius’s Violin Concerto; Emmanuel Krivine conducts
  • Premiere of a new 30-minute piece by Edinburgh-based Icelandic composer (and former principal SCO cellist) Hafliði Hallgrimsson
  • SCO debut of the Spanish conductor Antonio Mendez in a programme including Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony
  • Principal bassoonist Peter Whelan performs CPE and WF Bach; John Butt conducts Mozart’s Symphony no 40
  • Steven Isserlis plays Schumann’s Cello Concerto; Alina Ibragimova plays Schumann’s Violin Concerto