Upcoming classical and orchestral music performances in Scotland

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SOMEHOW, in spite of announcements on virus-enforced restrictions from both Westminster and Holyrood that rarely acknowledges its existence, far less its significant contribution to the economy and the livelihoods of a large sector of the population, the world of arts and culture persists in producing the goods.

Although there is much that is still unclear, long-term planning being impossible and nimble re-thinking of events the order of the day, concerts and performances scheduled for the coming months make the music-lover’s months ahead look bright.

An announcement from the Edinburgh International Festival of the bill of fare it intends to offer this August is now coming a fortnight after Easter.

As is expected of it, the Festival set a high standard for productions possible in the covid era last summer. Performance films made by the National Theatre of Scotland (Ghost Light) and Scottish Opera (The Telephone) were only outshone later in the year by Scottish Ballet’s superb festive film (The Secret Theatre).

And while the chamber music programme from the EIF’s home venue, The Hub, was initially promoted as significant for being broadcast to an outdoor audience in Princes Street Gardens, in fact it was chiefly notable for the high quality sound and video filming, a benchmark orchestras and ensembles then had to match.

Whether or not it is possible for the Festival’s music programme to include indoor concerts for socially-distanced audiences, there are likely to be some live public outdoor shows this year, Scottish Opera having shown how that can be done last September with its car-park La boheme. What is certain is that the Festival will again rely on locally-based artists, with Brexit-exacerbated complications in travel making booking international artists even more problematic. The EIF will also be hoping to keep its powder dry for a spectacular celebration of its 75th anniversary in 2022.

The questions being addressed by the EIF are shared with many smaller festivals, and Fife’s East Neuk was swiftly out of the blocks after the First Minister’s announcement of dates for the easing of lockdown.

Taking place from July 1-4, the event’s outdoor art projects have been joined by a participatory film one that has saxophone-playing ‘arts activist’ David Behrens combining snippets of video East Neuk supporters have shot on their smart phones. The festival’s music programme already announced is a combination of online filmed recitals and concerts being recorded by BBC Radio 3, and the line-up is of the event’s usual standard, including favourite German pianist Christian Zacharias, Edinburgh guitar star Sean Shibe and a first visit by composer and conductor Thomas Ades. The Castalian Quartet provide the ENF’s regular quota of string quartet music and musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are, as ever, in the mix.

The SCO has been letting the whole world see and hear the sort of chamber-sized offerings that it previously toured to rural, highland and island venues in the diet of free concerts it is offering on its website. The current series is being recorded in the superb acoustic of Perth Concert Hall, this last week’s a percussion-featuring programme including music by Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Louis Andriessen that is available online. It is followed this Thursday by a concert of Baroque music featuring baritone Marcus Farnsworth and concludes on April 15 with a programme that includes the world premiere of a new work for a group of wind instruments by the orchestra’s associate composer Anna Clyne, entitled Overflow.

Tonight Perth Concert Hall is the venue for the opening event in the venue’s Easter Festival, with the Dunedin Consort performing Bach’s St Matthew Passion under the baton of John Butt with soloists Andrew Tortise and Matthew Brook. It precedes a run of four lunchtime concerts being streamed online in the week after Easter, also in partnership with BBC Radio 3. The concerts feature soloists from both the RSNO and SCO, the Maxwell String Quartet and pianists Steven Osborne, Scott Mitchell and Susan Tomes.

The Dunedin Consort has its own further Easter concert on the evening of Thursday, April 8, from St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, in partnership with the Hebrides Ensemble. The groups had intended to tour together performing Arvo Part’s Passio, a modern setting of St John’s Gospel, but the single performance will now be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 before being available on video from Saturday, April 17.

The Consort’s next project is at London’s Barbican and it will now also be a streamed concert, teaming Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas with the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen’s Dido’s Ghost on Sunday, June 6. The composer, who is now based on the north coast of Scotland and recently took up a teaching post at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, has boldly imagined a future for the Queen of Carthage after one of the most famous death songs in all music. Golda Shultz sings the role in both works.

The Scottish Ensemble has shown great invention in its presentation of music online, and its next offering, on April 29, is again made with Flux Video. Working in new venue The Engine Works in Glasgow’s Maryhill, First Light is guest-directed by violinist Max Baillie and will, it is promised, “signal our transition from darkness to brighter times” with music by Haydn, Vivaldi, Jessie Montgomery and Steve Martland.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra has also excelled in its range of work online in lieu of playing live for audiences. Its recent premiere of first horn Chris Gough’s composition, marking the 80th anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz, was actually enhanced by the circumstances, being presented coupled with documentary video work by Tony McKee. It is free to view on the orchestra’s website.

The RSNO’s new digital concert season begins with a blockbuster on April 16 when music director Thomas Sondergard, who has just extended his contract to autumn 2024, teams up with violinist Nicola Benedetti, who performs Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1, the work with which she won BBC Young Musician at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall as a 16-year-old.

The orchestra is back in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for the new series, enabling a larger ensemble of socially-distanced players than was possible in the RSNO Centre. Benedetti returns in June to play the Second Violin Concerto of Szymanowski, performing with Principal Guest Conductor Elim Chan for the first time. Chan also renews her award-winning partnership with pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and the music of Chopin with a performance of the Piano Concerto No 1.

There are nine weekly Friday-night concerts in the RSNO’s new digital season, priced at £10 each or £85 for the season, with various household and concessionary rates. The orchestra’s online ticket sales for its first season were well into five figures, and although box office income was less than 10 per cent of pre-covid receipts, the example of the RSNO is being watched closely by the music industry.

Strangely, it was the BBC’s Scottish orchestra that initially suffered worst from comparison with the slicker classical music offerings online, although the SSO has continued to be heard regularly on Radio 3. It has put initial website video difficulties behind it, and this month’s concert with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason became a whole TV programme available on the BBC i-Player, presented by Jamie MacDougall.

On April 22, again conducted by Martyn Brabbins, there is a 50th birthday celebration for pianist Steven Osborne, who plays the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No.2, and on April 6, pianist Tom Poster and violinist Elena Urioste co-direct a programme entitled Dreamscapes. Both are live on Radio 3 and on BBC Sounds. Still to come is an announcement of the menu for two days of experimental music on May 8 and 9 when conductor Ilan Volkov’s much-loved Tectonics festival makes an online and on-air return.

A regrettable casualty of the pandemic has been Scottish Opera’s planned celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of its education and outreach department with its showcase premiere on ice. The company was otherwise another lockdown success story, however, with a long list of filmed projects following the one they’d already made before anyone had heard of Covid-19. With singers now back in rehearsals, the company has a full slate of work for this summer, both on film and for distanced audiences, that it is poised to reveal soon.

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