The Arts Desk: **** Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Mozart/ Birmingham
Playing with such energy, such synergy and such general camaraderie at the start of a tour must surely pave the way for even greater things to come. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra with Nicola Benedetti kicked off their European tour at Birmingham Town Hall, ahead of performances in Denmark, Switzerland and Germany. Opening with Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto, Benedetti gave a captivating solo performance, while directing the orchestra with assurance and style. Commanding the SCO, Benedetti’s leadership from the violin was strong and compelling, as were her cadenzas, where her solo playing captured the hall.
The entire concert was without a conductor. Benedetti directed the Mozart concertos which book-ended the concert, and leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore directed the rest of the programme. During both concertos, Benedetti and Gilmore’s dialogue when playing was a joy to watch, though the less obvious interaction between players throughout the rest of the orchestra – subtle glances here and there and communicative body language – was equally striking. Mozart’s Symphony No 35 had an unbridled energy, the orchestra, though fairly small in number, making a hugely powerful sound. The shifts in tempo were measured and clear, with the whole band moving together as one unit. Some of the symphony’s detail could have perhaps been a bit more finely tuned, but the overall effect was one of uplifting joy.
The second half opened with London-born composer Anna Clyne’s 2008-09 piece for string ensemble Within Her Arms (the composer, pictured right). The work has been compared to English renaissance composers Thomas Tallis and John Dowland due to its polyphonic layering, though Celtic folk influences are also in abundance throughout the lilting melodic fragments. Written as an ode to the composer’s mother, the piece is a meditation on loss, love and life. Part of its beauty is found in the spaces created by the interweaving strings. This was a sensitive and graceful performance of what is a truly beautiful piece of music, though maybe a bit too much of the jubilant energy of the earlier Mozart remained, not quite giving Clyne’s music the breathing space it needed.
To finish, the orchestra returned to Mozart, with his “Turkish” Fifth Violin Concerto. This was a strong determined performance, Benedetti once again commanding the orchestra’s forces with powerful design. Bringing forth swathes of orchestral colour, she led the players in a robust, meaty interpretation of this work. Its ending was perhaps a little subdued compared to the flamboyance that shone through in the earlier bars, but it was rounded off with a delightful flourish.
Of course, no tour is really complete without bringing an encore from one’s own country, which in this case was former orchestra member Kevin Macrae’s Kirkwall Sessions – an orchestral piece inspired by folk sessions in the pubs and bars of Kirkwall, Orkney. Played with a swagger and really sense of fun, the unity within the group was as evident here as it was throughout the programme. If this team keeps this kind of spirit up, then its European audiences are in for a treat over the coming days.