Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Joseph Swenson

Stravinsky, Dumbarton Oaks; Beamish, Percussion concerto; Beethoven, Symphony no. 7

26 March 2012 3 stars

Robin Ticciati

Making one of his welcome visits as conductor emeritus, the SCO’s former principal conductor Joseph Swensen brought his characteristically ebullient and passionate personality to this thoughtfully assembled programme with its dancing thread.

Though Stravinsky frequently composed for the dance theatre, Dumbarton Oaks isn’t among those works, being a charming response to a commission for an anniversary gift celebrating Mr & Mrs Robert Woods Bliss’ 30th wedding anniversary. For all the talk about Bach’s Brandenburgs, on which the work is purportedly modelled, it is striking how American the work – especially its first movement – sounds, even though it was composed ahead of Stravinsky’s emigration from wartime Europe.

Not only American, but in that particularly polished white-jazz genre that hybridized ‘jungle rhythms’ with the light opera/musical tradition to create that characteristically sweet and shiny sound that Stravinsky simultaneously relishes and subverts. What is particularly interesting is the way in which the groups of three violins and three violas resemble simultaneously the Bach model, and also big-band trumpet/sax harmony, something that Swensen and the ensemble drew from a dense and taut reading which nevertheless gave rein to the generosity that sets this work alongside Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll as the epitome of the musical gift.
Following the Stravinsky, a new work, group commissioned by the SCO as part of a consortium, making this performance the third of four premieres for Sally Beamish’s  Percussion concerto: dance variations.

What – exactly – is a percussion concerto? Unlike any other instrument, the composer has tremendous freedom in writing for the percussionist, who has at his or her command a vast range of tuned and unturned instruments. Yet the tradition is shallow, and the notion of performance practice is correspondingly underdeveloped. That is to say, the idea of composing a percussion concerto is fairly recent, and there isn’t a ‘great American novel’ of percussion concertos that sets a template for others to follow. Sure there are Poulenc’s and Martinu’s magnificent concertos for timpani and organ/piano respectively, but they hardly count (the timpani are bit-part players in both cases).

As a secondary challenge, where does the modern orchestra stand in relation to dance music? We appreciate that the symphony emerged from dance forms, for instance, but in the present day, we have easy access to a variety of oral, technological, and hybrid dance forms that share a visceral connection to the idea of entrained movement. Contemporary classical music, on the other hand, often foregoes that simple foot-tapping dimension in favour of a more cerebral relationship with the listener.

Reading the programme note for Sally Beamish’s Percussion concerto: dance variations in conjunction with the experience of listening put me in mind of Esa Pekka Salonen’s piano concerto heard at the EIF a couple of years ago. The thought there was that on paper the concerto looked brilliant, but it asked too much of the composer’s imagination to realize that concept in notes. In Beamish’s case, there was a range of thought refracting the ‘seven deadly sins’ conceit through the medieval poem Piers Plowman and through dance-forms of divers centuries and traditions, from estampie to swing.

Between them, a beer-bottle windchime (though the occupant of the adjacent seat claimed that they were Fentimans Botanically Brewed Beverages bottles), some felt-tip writing on the back of the stand the wood blocks were resting on, and a brass bell, conjured a memory of those bizarrely resonant percussion instruments that Harry Partch constructed (a resonance both acoustic and semiotic). The trouble with the bell, though, was that it packed a semiotic punch out of all proportion to its ostensible contribution. Just one bing was enough to connect with, for instance, lifts going up, typewriters reaching the end of a line, and angry guests at Fawlty Towers.

At the centre of Mr Currie’s rig was a marimba, and some of the best writing in the concerto was at the bottom end of that wonderfully sonorous instrument. The rest, a splendid array occupying a substantial area of floorspace that certainly looked pretty empty once cleared during the interval, was navigated with typically brilliant virtuosity by the soloist, while the orchestra, its members often called on individually to support the solo line, responded with warm vitality.

A serviceable Beethoven 7th followed the interval. Swensen’s approach is boisterous and at times manic, so that after a mightily sonorous introduction, the first movement proper seemed shouty, with the distraction of the conductor’s gestures making him look like a puppy romping in a cornfield. The second movement was an oasis of reflective intensity, after which a way-too-fast scherzo almost merged with a breathless finale.
A sneak peek at next year’s schedule reveals that Emmanuel Krivine is taking on the seventh, and he likes to take it a lick, too. We’ll see…

By Peter Cudmore