BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on a roll
As other orchestras lurch from crisis to crisis it is great to see the BBC Scottish Symphony on a winning streak. The orchestra is playing better than ever, in Ilan Volkov they have one of the hottest young conducting talents as Chief Conductor, and they have just moved into a superb new concert hall in the centre of Glasgow.
The BBC Scottish was formed in 1935, and is first and foremost a broadcasting and recording orchestra. Almost all its performances are aired on BBC Radio 3 or Radio Scotland, and it has recorded for record companies including Hyperion and BIS. 27 year old Israeli born Ilan Volkov is the youngest conductor ever to lead a BBC orchestra, and his first concerts with the orchestra drew superlative reviews from the notoriously cynical Scottish critics. Volkov has already guested with the New York, Boston, Detroit and Gothenburg orchestras, and he follows a distinguished line of conductors who have worked with the orchestra. These include Simon Rattle who was their Associate Conductor at the start of his meteoric career.
Can it get better? Yes, it does - the BBC Scottish has just moved into the totally refurbished Glasow City Halls, built in 1841 and located in the city's historic Merchant City. The old building has been rebuilt as a major music performance and education centre. There are three main performance spaces all linked to the BBC's sound and vision production suites. The largest auditorium seats 1100, and has thankfully retained the glorious, and justifiably famous, acoustics of the original building. Adjacent to their new home is The Old Fruitmarket which can be used for jazz and contemporary music.
I listened last night to the BBC Scottish's first live broadcast from their new home. The programme was designed to showpiece both the superb acoustics of the hall and the talents of the orchestra and its Chief Conductor, and it certainly succeeded in doing this triumphantly. The complete score of Stravinsky's Firebird sounded quite magnificent, crystal clear orchestral lines, bass only when it was in the score, and huge open climaxes. This is broadcast music as good as it gets, and was in sharp contrast to the lacklustre playing and poor technical values from other 'star' orchestras who contributed to the European Broadcasting Union's recent New Year's Day music schedule.
I have to confess to being a great fan of the BBC Scottish. When I lived in Scotland I attended many of their concerts at the MacRoberts Arts Centre in Stirling and elsewhere, and have written about them here before. They are among the unsung heroes of the musical world, turning out top class performaces day after day when the only visible audience is a red light, and they have doggedly championed contemporary music - last night's concert opened with the first performance of a work commissioned from Jonathan Harvey. But there is an even better reason why I love the BBC Scottish, and I suggest all the fans of free MP3 file downloads from the BBC and Danish Radio read the following carefully.
The BBC are a major, and vitally important, supporter of classical music. But they have a "love them, hate them" attitude towards the arts. In Februrary 1980, under increasing pressure to balance its budget, the BBC proposed (with the support of the Scottish Broadcasting Council) a package of drastic cuts to save £130 million ($235m). This involved the closing of five BBC orchestras, including the BBC Scottish Symphony whose players were to be given dismisal notices. These cuts would save £500,000 ($900,000) a year, or 8% of the BBC's total expenditure on music. Please note this, the BBC maintained it could get enough live broadcast music out of freelance players, independent orchestras, and a reduced number of house orchestras (eleven down to six).
In May 1980 the Musician's Union voted to strike against the BBC, and the support of the London based BBC Symphony Orchestra meant that the 1980 Proms season was cancelled - something that even Hitler's bombs had failed to achieve. There was fantastic support for the beleagured Scottish orchestra both from within the UK and overseas. Among those sending letters of protest and support, and even money, were the Berlin Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonc and Carlo Maria Giulini. The dispute dragged on damagingly and painfully until a compromise settlement was reached on 24th July 1980. The compromise involved the disbanding of three BBC orchestras (although their members were to be offered freelance work), the BBC Scottish Symphony was to be spared, but suffered swinging budget cuts from which it took years of total commitment from the players and management to recover.
Now, if there are any takers, here is the link to those free Mozart symphony file downloads supplied by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and played ironically by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Or why not support musicians who have really proved that Music will rise from the wreckage and click over to the most excellent BBC Listen Again service to hear two hours of the wonderful BBC Scottish Symphony and Ilan Volkov playing their hearts out in their new concert hall? (This audio file will only be available until 26th Jan 2006, so don't miss it)
- Is the Red Light On - the story of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra by John Purser. (Published by BBC Scotland but takes the musicians side in the 1980 dispute, ISBN 0563205202). Out of print and difficult to find.
- The BBC Symphony Orchestra 1930 - 1980 by Nicholas Kenyon (Published by BBC and toes the party line about the 1980 dispute, ISBN 0563176172) In print.
* Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
* Image credits - all from the photo galleries on the BBC Symphony's excellent web site where there are lots more excellent pictures. But the header picture isn't of the new City Hall (it is the Music Hall Aberdeen). The City Hall redevelopment is so new there aren't any good performance pictures available yet.
* Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. If bandwidth is a problem with your permission I will host your image.
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Farewell to Stromness
4 stars City Halls, Glasgow
Monday January 23, 2006
A piece that features an "Ensemble of Eternal Sound" sounds like either a new-age indulgence or a prog-rock nightmare. In fact, Jonathan Harvey's Towards a Pure Land - the first of his commissions as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra's Composer in Association - was a deeply felt orchestral meditation. The music was as sensuous as it was moving in its world premiere performance with the BBCSSO, conducted by Ilan Volkov.
Harvey's piece was the perfect way to assess the acoustics of the magnificently revamped City Halls in Glasgow, the BBCSSO's new home and a venue transformed from municipal drabness into a gleaming, modernist auditorium. Hovering weightlessly on the verge of audibility, Towards a Pure Land began with a rustle of strings trills and percussive shimmers. On top of this musical stasis chirruped choruses of birdsong in the woodwind before an explosive dance for full orchestra.
Harvey's "pure land" comes from Buddhist philosophy, a "state of mind beyond suffering", but the piece is no mere bland depiction of unalloyed bliss. Instead, the relationship between the Ensemble of Eternal Sound, with its music of still contemplation, and the worldly activity in the rest of the orchestra made a for a dynamic, unpredictable experience. The piece was helped by the marvellous flexibility of the City Halls auditorium, which was able to cope with the extreme quiet of Harvey's score as well as its moments of clattering orchestral brilliance.
Volkov's second half was even more of a test for the new hall: the outrageously lavish original version of Stravinsky's Firebird. Volkov gave the ballet a sturdy symphonic sureness, creating a seamless arc from the chromatic gloom of the introduction to the climactic hymn of rejoicing. On this evidence, the City Halls are far and away the best place in Glasgow to hear orchestral music, and among the finest halls anywhere in the country.