Younger than the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, older than the Britten Sinfonia, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has reached middle age with a healthier international reputation than any of its UK peers. This 40th birthday concert found it looking more to the future than the past: it has started a campaign for its own home, with educational, rehearsal, performance and administrative facilities all on one site, instead of camping out across Edinburgh. Much as we might admire such ambition, designed to ensure that the SCO survives a possible cull of orchestral provision in an independent Scotland, thinking on its feet has always been this freelance ensemble’s strength. Institutionalisation would surely change its personality.
For the moment, the orchestra is in fine fettle. How could it not be, with Robin Ticciati in charge? His inspirational speech from the podium, referring to his every SCO concert as “always a beginning”, went a long way to explaining why nothing sounds routine. That’s a huge plus if, as here, the programme comprises music as familiar as Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
In the concerto, the accompanying wind figures were every bit as eloquent as Maria João Pires’s pianism, throwing a benign spotlight on Chopin’s oft-maligned orchestration. In the symphony, Ticciati’s vitality put a positive gloss on a performance that was really too linear to evoke any sense of Beethovenian conflict. The even-numbered symphonies would probably respond better to his contour-softening hands. That’s where Ticciati’s inexperience shows – a factor that was less obvious when the late, lamented Charles Mackerras acted as a counterbalance in the SCO’s work.
The concert began and ended on a celebratory note. Martin Suckling’s specially commissioned Six Speechless Songs was a subtly crafted birthday ode, comprising six miniatures in delicate, understated vein – almost Ravellian in their innocence and intimacy. This is the latest fruit of the SCO’s developing relationship with the Glasgow-born composer, but it’s time Suckling – whose music is the opposite of brash – stretched to something bigger and bolder. As for Steve King’s witty orchestral arrangement of “Happy Birthday”, has this commonplace ditty ever sounded so brimful of melody?