thu 23/05/2024

Hughes, SCO, Kuusisto, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh review - Clyne shines, Grime fragments | reviews, news & interviews

Hughes, SCO, Kuusisto, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh review - Clyne shines, Grime fragments

Hughes, SCO, Kuusisto, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh review - Clyne shines, Grime fragments

Playing and programming admirable, but this concert bulged at the seam

Pekka Kuusisto as violinist with the Scottish Chamber OrchestraChristopher Bowen

Most concert promoters will tell you that contemporary music tends to be, to put it politely, a tricky sell, which is one of the reasons why it’s most often programmed alongside Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. A whole programme of the stuff tends to be box office suicide, so it’s almost never done.

It’s a testament to something or other, then, that not only was (almost) everything in this Scottish Chamber Orchestra programme written in the last 50 years, but that they got a remarkably good audience for it; certainly nothing smaller than another regular season concert. What’s their secret?

Anna ClyneSome of it must have been the man in charge. Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto is a regular guest with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (main picture), and his two or three concerts a year are always hot tickets. That’s partly because he’s a terrific violinist, but also because he conducts the orchestra so sympathetically, and he chooses programmes that forge links across genres and forms in a way that both welcomes the newcomers and challenges the regulars. The SCO’s audiences trust him, therefore, and if he has chosen a contemporary programme then they’ll happily follow him into it.

Having said that, this programme felt a little like a rootle around in the store room. Kuusisto had two UK premieres in his goodie bag, one from Anna Clyne (pictured above right by Christina Kernohan) and the other from Helen Grime, and he must have chosen the Nordic works that went with them: Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Lighthouse and Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus. All well and good, I suppose, though the programme would have been fine without the folk tunes played by Kuusisto and Aidan O’ Rourke. They fiddled their way through some of the original folk tunes that Clyne used in Time and Tides, her new pieces, and it was fun both hearing their musicianship and seeing them flash sparks off one another. It felt expendable, though, a bit like throwing paint at the wall simply because you had some lying in the back of the cupboard.

It was beautiful paint, though. O’Rourke and Kuusisto drew the audience into the great time they were clearly having together, and their folksy playing was a useful introduction to Clyne’s piece, which took each tune as a starting point and often moved to surprising places from it. That could be eerie, half-heard glissandi from the back desk of the orchestral violins, or the tune steadily decomposing and then coming together again. She’s such a terrific talent, and she handles her musical material with such confidence that she surely qualifies as one of the top composers we have around today.

Ruby HughesI’d normally say the same of Helen Grime, but I struggled to love her new song cycle, It Will Be Spring Soon. Ruby Hughes (pictured left by Phil Sharpe), the soprano for whom it was written, sang it with terrific focus and vocal concentration, but the music felt very bitty, almost fragmentary, like looking at a big picture through a microscope so that only certain components of it came into focus at any one time. The string writing for the first two songs was constantly shifting, flickering in its ceaseless movement, which made it difficult to cohere as a unit. Some resolution came in the final song, which was slower-moving, suggesting depth that hadn’t previously been there, but it was a bit hard to love as a whole.

No such problems for Tüür’s Lighthouse, which contrasted big blocks of chords with dashing lines of string sound, or Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, which sounded hypnotic in its beauty. Kuusisto beautifully judged its combination of stasis and movement which, like nature itself, seems to speak of eternity, particularly in those ceaselessly trilling winds that flow in and out of the slower music, and the string playing throughout was warm enough to melt a polar ice cap.

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