Interview with Stephanie Gonley, new part-time leader of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra

First published in The Herald on 30 September, 2015

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra opens its season next week with a new leader in place: the violinist Stephanie Gonley takes up the role that the orchestra has been trying to fill since 2009. Or at least, she takes up the role for part of the time. Gonley lives in London and is leader of the English Chamber Orchestra, a position she won’t be giving up. Instead she will commute to Scotland for 35 percent of the SCO’s programmes and the orchestra is still on the hunt for a violinist to fill the remaining 65 percent of the job.

“The process took a year, from my inquiry to being offered the job,” Gonley explained to me over lunch in Edinburgh during the festival; that evening she led the orchestra in a concert performance of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. The orchestral playing was graceful and bright, if a little polite. “But I’ve been coming to the SCO for years as a guest leader,” she said, “so the orchestra and I do know each other pretty well.”

At first the SCO wasn’t prepared to appoint a part-time leader, and with commitments in London — two children aged 6 and 14, plus teaching and the ECO — Gonley wasn’t prepared to relocate north. “They weren’t willing to consider a job share until recently,” she explained. “But eventually I inquired. If they had said no that would have been the end of that, but they hadn’t found somebody who was willing to give up everything, so they said they would consider it.”

Is it telling that the SCO hadn’t found someone willing to “give up” everything? This is one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world: the orchestra founded 40 years ago by its own intrepid players; the orchestra of Charles Mackerras and his ballsy, refined house-style Mozart; the orchestra that commissioned major works from Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Sally Beamish, Oliver Knussen and many more; the orchestra of revelatory recent performances of Schumann and Berlioz under its top-flight principal conductor Robin Ticciati.

And yet the past few years have also seen something of a lull, with several key string positions unfilled, repertoire increasingly less than adventuresome and marketing that has failed to reach out to inquisitive new audiences in the way that, say, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has. A half-empty Friday night SCO concert in Glasgow can be demoralising indeed.

In a 40th anniversary interview for the Herald last year, the orchestra’s Chief Executive Roy McEwan — at the helm since 1993 — told me that “the driving force behind who becomes part of our family is whether they’ve got something special to bring.” So what will Gonley bring to those 35 percent of programmes?

She told me that she sees the leader role as that of an assistant conductor. “I’m there to convey what the conductor is going through. A leader with confidence, who is prepared to say, ‘I’m interpreting it this way,’ well, that gives the orchestra confidence in turn.” She should know, too: she has been leader of the English Chamber Orchestra for an impressive 24 years, having been appointed in that position at the tender age of 24.

It’s worth noting that Gonley has only twice worked with Robin Ticciati, and only once as part of her trial for the job. “If he had strongly liked or disliked me then presumably that would have made a difference,” she laughed, but clearly her appointment didn’t depend on finding a leader who would have a special relationship with this particular principal conductor. Perhaps there’s a tacit acceptance there that he won’t be around for as long as she will.

Gonley says that the SCO’s house style matches her own down to a tee: she loves, for example, the orchestra’s mix-and-match approach to historical performance, with period brass and modern strings playing with minimal vibrato. “I don’t use a lot of vibrato and I have a fairly classical approach,” she said. “I’ll admit that I’ve never played with gut strings” — she looked almost apologetic at this — “but I guess I’ve just been juggling work and family and I haven’t got around to it yet. I’d like to try.”

Gonley’s institutional pedigree is solid. She was a student at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, then in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama — where she still teaches — then at the Juilliard in New York. Her first job was with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe where she worked a lot with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the great pioneers of the period-instrument movement, and she has always loved playing chamber music, mainly in string quartets. She says if she had any influence over SCO programming she would suggest taking on full string arrangements of the late Beethoven quartets, or perhaps Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. She also is comfortable directing the orchestra from the violin chair, something she has done a lot of with the English Chamber Orchestra.

Asked to describe the differences between her job in London and what she expects to find in Scotland, Gonley understandably chose her words carefully. “At the ECO we have a bigger pool of players, so I probably have more of a job to do in terms of implementing stylistic points.” She was equally reticent to talk about the dynamics of the job share. The ECO has increasingly become a part-time orchestra during her two and a half decades there, and she intimates that they’re not particularly happy about her SCO appointment — “they want me to be associated with the ECO, which is understandable, and I always have been.”

Gonley is enthused about the season to come, picking out the Brahms symphony cycle season with Ticciati and Handel’s Theodora under Richard Egarr as personal highlights. The final shape of the SCO is still far from complete: the right principal cello, principal second violin and majority-time leader will do much to determine the direction and special character of the string section, and the ensemble of a whole. “I don’t think the identity of the orchestra is at stake,” Gonley said, “despite there being so much instability.” Further down the line, there’s also the prospect of a new hall in Edinburgh — long desired by the orchestra but yet to be confirmed. News on that soon, we are promised.

The SCO season opens with Robin Ticciati conducting Brahms’s First Symphony and Isabelle Faust as soloist in Berg’s Violin Concerto. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, October 8 and City Halls, Glasgow, on October 9