New Year in Vienna

Perth Concert Hall
3rd January

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Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Joseph Swenson (dir. and solo violin)
Stephanie Gonley (leader)


Let’s say you wanted to make it to the New Year’s Day gig in Vienna, but couldn’t – where would you go instead? Well, going to Perth on the 3rd might seem on the face of it to be a little like the last of the chocolates you got for Christmas, but a gala concert by a decent orchestra is a gala concert by a decent orchestra, and that’s that!

This concert also promised “your favourite Viennese waltzes and polkas”, so that was encouraging. Just a moment – waltzes and polkas? – what about marches? No ‘Radetzky’? Really? Oh well…

I often say this, but it is worth stating again, that it is a unique experience to sit and listen to an orchestra unmediated by anything electronic, to catch it ‘live’, without anyone twiddling knobs to get the balance right. Live is how it ought to be heard, then you can see how the composers wanted the balance. Edinburgh-based Scottish Chamber Orchestra is a relatively small ensemble, as you would expect, and easier to take in with both eye and ear than a full symphony orchestra. It produces a lean and precise sound which makes it possible for an attentive audience almost to analyse what is happening, hear each section of the orchestra, and then put it all back together as more than the sum of its parts. With a purely acoustic performance such as this, any slight flaw in the balance becomes obvious, and in this case if I have to find fault it is in the three trombones, who sometimes overstated their case. Overall the orchestra, in being precise, sometimes forgot to sparkle; but at other times they recovered, and remembered that this was all supposed to be about having fun. One of the cellists remembered that during the ‘Tritsch-Tratsch Polka’, and spun her instrument round 360 degrees. By the end of the night several of her colleague cellists got in the same groove, and even one of the double basses got a quick spin!

4c77c9e1-c90f-4097-b48e-d32bd40181dc.jpgDirector and solo violinist Joseph Swenson, an American of Norwegian and Japanese heritage, was the orchestra’s principal conductor in the early 2000s. He is himself a composer, and one of the most interesting items on the programme was his arrangement for orchestra and solo violin of Clara Schumann’s ‘Three Romances’. Earlier in the programme his performance of Massenet’s ‘Meditation’ seemed to start with a lack of confidence, but soon recovered; in the ‘Three Romances’, on the other hand, he was all confidence, and it was possible to feel his absolute and direct involvement in the music.

That version of Clara Schumann’s pieces might have been the only presentation that was less than familiar to us in the audience. The rest were crowd-pleasers par excellence, including the “Thunder and Lightning Polka’, the ‘Pizzicato Polka’ (under the direction of leader Stephanie Gonley), and ending with Johan Strauss II’s ‘An der schönen blauen Donau’ (the famous ‘Blue Danube’ waltz). The SCO’s lean sound made the latter stand out as the masterpiece of composition it is.

Yes, all right, the ‘Radetzky March’ did turn up – as the second encore. They were only teasing us. After all, it wouldn’t be a New Year, Viennese style, if they didn’t give us something to clap along to! I’m sure the SCO will be around again next year, so don’t miss them.

Reviewer: Paul Thompson


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