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Passing the baton: Scottish Chamber Orchestra previews their year without a principal conductor

Passing the baton

Performing works from Mozart to George Crumb, this season promises to be anything but predictable for the SCO

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's (SCO) 2018/19 Season promises to be an exciting one. In September 2018, they bid farewell to their long-standing Principal Conductor Robin Ticciati and, in September 2019, they welcome their new Principal Conductor Designate Maxim Emelyanychev. The new Season will …

Wait, what?

Excuse me?

Did you just say that the SCO, one of Scotland's most prominent orchestras, will spend an entire season without a principal conductor?

Well, yes.

Isn't that … undesirable?

Not necessarily. Why do orchestras need conductors?

I was hoping you would tell me. What are conductors for, exactly?

Good question. By deciding how the music should be paced, conductors help to articulate its shape, and thereby make it clearer to the listener.

What's the impact of not having a principal conductor for a full season?

The listener hears a more diverse set of approaches than usual, while the Orchestra gets to play with a lot of different conductors. Bear in mind that, before the late Classical era – roughly the first couple of decades of the 19th century – orchestras mostly got by without dedicated conductors. Composers led from the keyboard, or whatever their own instrument was. The SCO's new Season pays tribute to that tradition with concerts including Haydn Oboe Concerto, Schumann Cello Concerto, Mozart with Bezuidenhout, and Benedetti plays Mozart Violin Concertos Nos 3 & 5 in which François Leleux (oboe), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Kristian Bezuidenhout (keyboard) and Nicola Benedetti (violin) each direct the Orchestra. In the Mozart Concertos concerts, Benedetti shares the direction with SCO Leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore. But later in the 19th century, symphonic music got more complex and the individual conductor became common practice. One of the first famous conductors was Felix Mendelssohn, who's credited as having introduced the wooden baton.

Why is a baton considered necessary?

It's not by everyone, but most conductors feel that it enhances their gestures. Also, it's safer! Previously, it had been common to beat the time with a large staff, but during one performance in 1687, 17th-century composer Jean-Baptiste Lully accidentally brought his staff down on his own foot. He ignored the injury, it got infected and, well, that was the end of Lully. It's fitting, therefore, that in such a conductor-oriented Season, the baton-introducing Mendelssohn is well-represented, with no less than three concerts of his music – Laurence Equilbey conducts A Midsummer Night's Dream, Daniele Rustioni conducts Symphony No 1 and a mesmerising duo by SCO's fine clarinettists Maximiliano Martín and William Stafford; and the dynamic Karina Canellakis conducts Symphony No 5.

This Season welcomes a host of eminent guest conductors, starting with the Opening Concert featuring Enrique Mazzola conducting Norwegian violin star Vilde Frang in Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Maxim Emelyanychev makes an unexpected, yet exciting, early appearance as he replaces an indisposed Bernard Labadie for Haydn's The Seasons, before taking up the baton next year. In 2019, early music specialist Reinhard Goebel brings to life music by Mozart and his friends, including the Horn Concerto No 4, K495 performed by SCO Principal Horn Alec Frank-Gemmill on the natural horn. Sir James MacMillan conducts his own 60th Birthday Concert, with the percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel featuring fellow Scot Colin Currie. The SCO's Conductor Emeritus Joseph Swensen returns for a double bill of Sibelius symphonies, in a concert also featuring Paul Lewis performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 2. For musically adventurous types, there are three concerts that feature unusual instruments, or instruments played in an unusual way that might be right up your street. Jonathan Dove's Accordion Concerto has to be one of the few of its kind: Pekka Kuusisto conducts a programme featuring George Crumb's God-Music from Black Angels, arranged for 20 wine glasses and solo cello, while trumpet virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger is the star of HK Gruber's Busking which requires him to play entire passages on the mouthpiece with banjo, orchestral and accordion accompaniment.

Finally, the Season finale is a piece which, without a conductor, would likely fall to pieces due to its epic scale: Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, conducted by Emmanuel Krivine, and paired here with Fauré's soothing Requiem.

Overall, this Season offers SCO audiences the chance to hear a wider range of world-class conductors, tackling musical masterpieces composed across five centuries.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra regularly perform in Edinburgh (Thursdays) and Glasgow (Fridays) from Sep to May.

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