Admiration for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra has once again rocketed with a fine concert of contemporary music. Three out of four of the works performed were marked by a serious exploration into the world of jazz which was tastefully presented despite the unpromising title of the concert, 'Classic meets Jazz'. The line-up included two premières from distinguished composers, Mark-Anthony Turnage (UK première) and Erkki-Sven Tüür (Scottish première), as well as a stunning performance from jazz legend John Patitucci, which rightfully attracted a large audience.
By far the most hotly anticipated piece in the programme was Turnage's (b. 1960) latest UK première, A Prayer Out of Stillness. Having enjoyed a robust collaboration with bassist John Patitucci in previous concerts (including an excellent SCO concert I saw last year at the Barbican Centre, London, of Turnage's Scorched performed with the John Scofield Trio), Turnage dedicated his latest piece to him. A Prayer Out of Stillness (partly commissioned by the SCO) is a four-movement work of harmonic and textural complexity. It incorporates rich harmonic divisions in the tutti strings as well as making use of Patitucci's equal talent both to improvise and to play complex written material. Indeed, Patitucci's extensive solo improvisation accounted for much of the success of the piece.
Scored for strings, solo double bass and six-string bass guitar (with an extra lower B string and a high upper C string), the performance articulated a strong spiritual impression. Patitucci's beautifully wide vibrato on the double bass and seamless shifts expressed a reflective first movement entitled 'First Prayer'. But it was the third movement, 'Call and Response', which excited most. It opened with an irregular two-note motif exchange between an arco solo orchestral bassist Graham Mitchell and solo bass guitar (Patitucci). The complexity of this interplay strengthened as the motif (sometimes executed together, sometimes not) evolved into a fast and virtuosic solo improvisation, beginning with rapid semiquaver accompaniment in the arco double bass. Turnage was no doubt impressed as he took his bow at the end of the final movement, 'Third Prayer.'
The orchestra under the baton of their Principal Guest Conductor, Olari Elts, enjoyed an exciting rapport as they engaged in the second première of the evening, Erkki-Sven Tüür's Oxymoron. As the title of the work suggests, the piece attempted to invoke the fusion of musical opposites including (as the programme notes cite) 'tonality and atonality'. Despite the confusing description of these aims (by their nature, tonality and atonality are already forcefully joined), the performance was a sensationally exhilarating musical work and the highlight of the evening.
The most thrilling moment came near the middle of the piece when the strings' harmonic interlocking rhythms gave way to a flurry of string crossing. Independent rhythmic patterns coupled with a dense texture and a skilful and extensive percussion section created a frenzy of intense sound. The orchestra certainly rose to the demands of the piece.
Darius Milhaud's Le Bouf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof) was the least appealing item in the programme. Although the SCO players struck a great performance making full use of Milhaud's jazz harmonies and performing his technical flashes with flair and gusto, by the time the central quasai-rondo theme came to its fifteenth repetition in the piece, Milhaud's popular melody (influenced by Brazilian music) bordered on monotony.
Opening the programme was Aaron Copland's Music for the Theatre. Surprisingly, at one time this was his most performed work. Elts' lively interpretation and careful negotiation of the changing time signatures spurred on the performance, reflecting from moment to moment in the slower movements of the piece. Rosie Staniforth's cor anglais solo in the Interlude was a haunting breather before the hustle and bustle of the antiphonal melody between the clarinet and trumpet in the following movement, Dance.
A really first class performance.
By Mary Robb
Read recent concert reviews, including a recital by Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Wagner Rarities at the Royal Opera House, here.