Is this the best British orchestra?

Last night's BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra concert at Snape Maltings was a blinder. Back in January 2006 I wrote that the BBC Scottish was a band on a roll and last night the young Swedish conductor Stefan Solyom really had them rocking and rolling in Richard Strauss and Rachmaninov. In classical music the word ensemble has been devalued to mean a group of disparate musicians playing from the same score. My dictionary defines ensemble as "a group of performers working together" and that is also a perfect decription of the BBC Scottish. This is an orchestra that leaves its egos in the dressing room and plays together as a single instrument. It is a mark of their standard that the playing last night reminded me of one of the truly great European ensembles - Bernard Haitink's 1970s Concertguebouw Orchestra.

Several planets have aligned to allow the BBC Scottish to bounce back from their near death experience in 1980 and become one of the best orchestras in Britain today. They have worked over the years with a series of dynamic young chief conductors, including Ilan Volkov, who have seen risk taking as an integral part of music making. The players' comfort zones have been repeatedly challenged by adventurous contemporary programmes. Not only have these included Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala which featured here recently with Stefan Solyon as second conductor, but as far back as 1976 they performed a cycle of Bohuslav Martinů's neglected symphonies.

The orchestra's Scottish location has been a positive help. It gives them a wide geographic canvas to work on in contrast to the London orchestras who work in a claustrophobic, ego-ridden and often politically toxic atmosphere. It is probably not unconnected that, for me, the other 'stand-out' Prom so far this year was given by another non-London band, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Adès, who together managed to make that weary warhorse, the Polovtsian Dances, sound like new music.

The impact of the BBC Scottish's new home in the City Halls, Glasgow is another important factor in their success story. As I have described here the City Halls have acoustics to die and when an orchestra spends a lot of time rehearsing in a hall where it can actually hear itself play great results are almost guaranteed. Just look at the Concertguebouw Orchestra for another example of great home acoustics helping create a great sound, and at the London orchestras for the opposite result. It is no coincidence that, like Snape Maltings, the City Halls in Glasgow are a refurbishment of an old building, not a computer designed new-build. As Stefan Solyom cued the BBSSO at the start of Rachmaninov's Second Symphony in Snape Maltings last night you could feel, as well as hear, the entry of the low strings. It was living proof both of Benjamin Britten's visionary genius in creating Snape as a performance venue and a much-needed reminder that art is greater than computers.

I first experienced the legendary Snape sound at a concert given by the much-missed Mstislav Rostropovich. It is sobering to think that at the time of that 1977 Aldeburgh Festival last night's conductor Stefan Solyom was not even born. The 29 year old Solyom, who is currently an associate guest conductor with the BBCSSO, is clearly going places, as was another very young associate guest conductor with the orchestra in the 1980s called Simon Rattle. However Simon lost quite a few friends in Scotland when he unashamedly used the BBCSSO to rehearse Peter Maxwell Davies' First Symphony before giving its premiere in London with the Philharmonia - plus ça change.

The Snape Proms continue until August 31 and we will be back there on August 14 to hear another promising youngster called Gustavo Dudamel. You can hear the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the Proms tonight (Aug 3) playing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde under their designate chief conductor Donald Runnicles and tomorrow (Aug 4) under Stefan Solyon when the programme includes Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. Another work in Solyon's programme extends the orchesra's comfort zone further - Ethel Smyth's Concerto for Violin, Horn and Orchestra.

An Overgrown Path article on Dame Ethel is long overdue, but if any advocacy is needed try this extract from Merion and Susie Harries' biography of Elisabeth Lutyens - 'The example of Dame Ethel was a mixed blessing, because her personality, if not her music, tended to reinforce prejudices rather than dispelling them. She was mannish in her dress, which was liable to include cigar, tam o'shanter, country tweeds and a tie - usually in the purple, white and green of the Women's Social and Political Union, another nail in her coffin as far as the male establishment was concerned. Almost worst of all in its consequences for other female composers was her widespread reputation as a pest when it came to pushing her own work and complaining of the victimisation of women.'

Last night's Snape concert started at the unusually early time of 6.00pm to allow the BBCSSO time to travel to London for today's Prom. As we drove out of Snape on a beautiful Suffolk evening I turned on BBC Radio 3 to catch the end of the Stockhausen Prom. A very illuminating introduction to Gruppen was given by Martin Dalby. Could this be the same Martin Dalby who features in the following passage about the attempted disbandment of the orchestra in 1980 from Is the Red Light On - the story of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra? (By John Purser ISBN 0563205202 publisher BBC Scotland and, unsurprisingly, out of print)

'The feelings of the members of the orchestra and of the music staff in Broadcasting House in Glasgow are hard to think of. Martin Dalby, on the verge of being sacked for alleged disloyalty to the BBC ... must have felt utterly betrayed and impotent to express his rage in public, while sustaining the battle in the devious and paper-ridden bureaucracy which had begun to envelop everything. But for the musicians themselves there was the stark possibility of unemployment and for the older members the end of their playing careers altogether. It was at this stage in the proceedings that Patrick Ramsay [Head of BBC Scotland] declared in public [wrongly as it turned out - Pliable] that London, and Radio 3 in particular, were dissatisfied with the level of competence of the orchestra.'

How times have changed.

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Pliable said…
You can hear Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on my Future Radio programme today (Aug 3) at 5.00pm UK time and tomorrow at 12.50am. The latter time is Sunday afternoon/evening for the States.
Civic Center said…
Donald Runnicles gets to inherit this great little orchestra from his own country? Wow. I've been listening to Runnicles conduct for close to the last 20 years as the Music Director of the San Francisco Opera. He has always been a good conductor, but in the last five to ten years, he has been coming into his prime and has been turning into a seriously great conductor. I envy you tremendously, Pliable. You're in for some wonderful music.
Unknown said…
Unfortunately Maestro Runnicles is only conducting one concert with the BBCSSO during the nest Glasgow season. let's hope we hear more from him in years to come.
Pliable said…
Alan, a good point, particularly bearing in mind the story of the peripatetic Jiří Bělohlávek and the resulting lacklustre performances of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

But Donald Runnicles contract "includes a minimum of eight weeks with the orchestra, as well as recording and touring" after he takes up his position with the BBC Scottish in Sept 2009. So let's hope we avoid a repeat of the London situation where Bělohlávek seems to prefer Glyndebourne to his BBC orchestra.
Unknown said…
Last night at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh i heard the BBCSSO in a programme of Ades and Messiaen. I agree the orchestra is sounding particularly good just now but what a disappointing piece Tevot by Thomas Ades was! Echoes of Vaughan Williams and Ben Britten in the slow movement but lacking their genius. I also found it faintly ridiculous that such a large orchestra was required for such a short piece c 20 minutes especially when the pianist was inaudible and most of the percussionists made quite minor contributions. Eclairs sur l'au-dela took up the second half. Messiaen wrote this piece over 15 years ago and it sounded so full of invention that Tevot was made to sound astonishingly mainstream and rather uninspiring.

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