In a hypnotic masterclass of a performance, festival favourite Marin Alsop returns to Edinburgh to conduct the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Offering an amalgam of diverse and joyful renditions, culminating in Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Alsop and the orchestra meet long-held expectations with this triumphant performance.
Emerging to a ravenous crowd – eagerly awaiting the renditions of one of the country’s finest orchestral groups – the orchestra begins with Strum, a composition from violinist and educator Jessie Montgomery. It has a distinct resonance with the orchestra’s string section that doesn’t detract from the remainder of the ensemble, giving way to the percussion in regular beats. This evening’s most contemporary piece, Strum carries the unstoppable rhythmic momentum of folk- and dance-inspired composition, with distinctive beats that fall into engaging cadence. As it comes to a close, the orchestra seamlessly travel from the US to the fertile fields of the Orkney Isles as they move into Peter Maxwell Davies’ A Spell for Green Corn.
There is no need for a backdrop, effects, or projections to entice the audience. As Alsop transitions through the consonances and collections, the lighting alters in varying shades of winter’s blue to a delicate, warming ombre. This stripped-back production removes all distractions, allowing the musicians and their art to be main focus.
In returning to local soil, A Spell for Green Corn continues the string motif as the lashing sounds of the Scottish landscapes are soothed and tamed by the island’s ancient ties to the fiddle and folk music. Alsop’s conducting here forces the brass winds themselves to take a bended knee, with the concert shifting from a movement-based rhythm to a turbulent stronghold ready to be calmed.
Structurally, the concert slowly unfolds, initially withholding its splendour. In this long game, the deceptive waiting between notes allows the audience’s anticipation to continually grow, culminating in a glorious release.
The closing number, Beethoven’s Symphony No.5, is synonymous with classical music and holds a place within popular culture. It’s immediately recognisable, and when played professionally – particularly by an orchestra with such world-leading talent – it buries any previous cinematic or comparative experience of the melody.
Alleviating a degree of tempo and tone, Alsop is both a figurehead and extension of the orchestra. Aided by her first chair violinist, there is no room for error, and thankfully none occur. As the sharp counter-points pierce the evening air, so the percussion resonates across the venue, vibrating the floor and stirring the audience into a raucous round of applause.
As the evening comes to a close, audiences may feel the performance was rather short. This is not the case, however: rather, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra manipulate time as their guests lose themselves in the music, transcending the Edinburgh International Festival’s venue and the city surrounding them.