First published in The Herald on 4 January, 2017
First highlight of the new year comes as early as next week, when the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performs a rare concert-staging of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper. Imagine grand ritual meets temporal implosion — a morally confrontational, perception-warping, very human music drama that telescopes two millennia of Christian mythology into a kind of friends reunited scenario for Jesus and his disciples. Roderick Williams sings Jesus, Jennifer Johnston sings Ghost, Martyn Brabbins conducts. (City Halls, Glasgow, January 14.) Brabbins and the BBCSSO also continue their exploration of Michael Tippett’s symphonies with the Second, a searing work from the 1950s that avows its message with bright and rigorous optimism. (City Halls, Glasgow, February 9.)
Scottish Opera’s spring season features, refreshingly, not just one but potentially two worth-travelling-for productions. Debussy’s symbolist glory Pelléas et Mélisande — lush, penumbral, limpid — was one of the first works Scottish Opera ever staged back in 1962 when it was a bold young Turk of a company. Now director David McVicar teams up with the design team behind War Horse for a production “inspired by the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi”. Carolyn Sampson is Melisande, Andrei Bondarenko is Pelleas, Stuart Stratford conducts. (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 23 – March 4; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, March 7 – 11.)
For Bartok’s dank and gleaming Bluebeard’s Castle, Scottish Opera collaborates with Matthew Lenton and his theatre company Vanishing Point and together they create a new companion piece for Bluebeard called The 8th Door with music by Scottish Opera composer-in-residence Lliam Paterson. But the major allure here is the chance to hearing Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill sing the role of Bartok’s Judith. Sian Edwards conducts. (Theatre Royal, Glasgow, March 28 – April 1; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, April 5 & 8.)
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra forges ahead with plans for a new concert hall in Edinburgh, estimated to open in St Andrew Square in 2020 earliest, but in the meantime normal service continues at the orchestra’s regular haunts. This month Maria Joao Pires, she of the most lucid keyboard poetry, plays Mozart’s last piano concerto and the noble C Major, K467 with Robin Ticciati conducting. (Perth Concert Hall, January 25; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Jan 26; City Halls, Glasgow, January 27.) The SCO season closes with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the dee[;y intelligent sibling musicianship of Christian & Tanja Tetzlaff in Brahms’s Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. (Usher Hall, Edinburgh, May 11; City Halls, Glasgow, May 12.)
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra tours Spain and Florida this spring, part of chief executive Krishna Thiagarajan’s mission to tug the heartstrings of Scottish expats globally. At home, principal flautist Katherine Bryan plays a new concerto written for her by Martin Suckling (Usher Hall, Edinburgh, February 3; Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, February 4) and Jonathan Biss plays the first of Sally Beamish’s three new piano concertos (Caird Hall, Dundee, April 6; Usher Hall, Edinburgh, April 7; Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, April 8). The orchestra also celebrates the 80th birthday of Neemi Jarvi, blazing-spirited Estonian who helmed the RSNO from 1984-1988 and specialised in big Russian repertoire that glowed. He’s back in Scotland to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony for his birthday concerts. (Usher Hall, Edinburgh, February 17; Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, February 18.)
I would sacrifice several limbs not to miss the annual Bach Passion performances from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, who unearth joyous and instructive detail on each fresh account. If you caught their Messiah tour before Christmas you will know just good Scotland’s baroque specialists are sounding at the moment. They’re earning rightful acclaim internationally; we are lucky to have them on our doorstep. This Easter they perform Bach’s Matthew Passion. (New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, April 4; Perth Concert Hall, April 13; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, April 14.) Before that, don’t miss a special collaboration with viol consort Phantasm to make the 400th anniversary of the Scottish Progress and the music Orlando Gibbons wrote for James VI’s visit to Holyrood in 1617. Phantasm plus Dunedins — better than all the cats in Wales standing on the wall in a row. (Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, March 29.)
Two guest leaders join the Scottish Ensemble this spring, and rather than simply parachuting in big names for a concerto or two, the ensemble tends to craft whole programmes around the musicians they work with. Alina Ibragimova explores music by Mendelssohn, Arvo Pärt, Hartmann, Pēteris Vasks and Bach (Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, February 16; New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, February 17; Wigmore Hall, London, February 18) and Bartosz Woroch brings an Eastern European theme with works by Gòrecki, Chopin, Bacewicz, Czyz, Dvořák (Caird Hall, Dundee, May 31; Theatre Royal, Dumfries, June 4; Eden Court, Inverness, June 6; Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, June 7; Cottier Theatre, Glasgow, June 8).
It’s well worth getting to Perth Concert Hall of a Sunday afternoon, where an excellent though woefully under-attended series of piano recitals continues with Bach’s Goldberg Variations from Lars Vogt (January 29), Chopin and Liszt from Sophie Pacini (February 12), Bach and Ravel from Angela Hewitt (March 5), Brahms and Beethoven from Steven Osborne (March 26) and Schubert and Beethoven from Christian Zacharias (May 14). Elsewhere, look out for the bijoux Loch Shiel Spring Festival — chamber music at Glenfinnan and environs from 20th-23rd April.
The BBCSSO’s fifth annual Tectonics festival of experimental orchestral music will take place in May — details yet to be confirmed — and Counterflows, Glasgow’s valiant series of underground and DIY musical happenings, runs April 6-9 with multi-instrumentalist/composer Ashley Paul as featured artist. “We were first attracted to Ashley’s work by her striking take on song form,” say the festival organisers. “A delicate but utterly focussed tip-toeing between melodic free-form structures and scratching, scraping, clattering sound, bridging the liminal gap between intimate bedroom folk stylings and the unpredictable dynamics of early British improvisation.”
Beyond that rolls out the summer and programmes as yet mostly unannounced. If you’re poised for early diarising, the East Neuk Festival is June 28-July 2 and features music Schubert wrote specifically between 1816-1826; musicians include Elisabeth Leonskaja, the Belcea Quartet and Thomas Oliemans. St Magnus Festival is June 16-21 in Orkney; Music at Paxton is July 14-23 near Berwick-upon-Tweed; the Edinburgh International Festival is August 4-28; the Lammermuir Festival is September 15-24 in East Lothian. More and sundry anon.