A country on the eve of an independence referendum is surely more attuned than ever to the counterpoint of multiple mindsets: of feeling nourished by tradition; alive in the present; housing visions for the future, whether they involve continuity of tradition or radical departure. Does such an equilibrium exist in the arts? Do Scotland's three main orchestras programme as though parity between musical eras were a given?

Kaija Saariaho © Maarit Kytöharju
Kaija Saariaho
© Maarit Kytöharju

Perusing the current and coming season's brochures for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO) it immediately became clear that my own definition of the term 'contemporary music' was more vague than I had realised. Ought only living composers to be included? Should the recently deceased feature? Should a composer be included if 50 or more years in the ground has not lessened the challenging nature of his or her musical legacy? Do 'national treasures' such as Britten still count as contemporary? Is tonal dislocation an essential qualification for modernity? In the end, I decided to align with Virginia Woolf who opined in her 1924 essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" that "on or about 1910, human character changed".

 In addition to balancing programme content, orchestras are required to balance the books and, given the perceived gamble involved in programming 'new music', entirely contemporary programmes are rare. Exceptions include those works of sufficient length to rule out other items such as Britten's War Requiem and Messiaen's Turangalîla symphonie. Both of these well attended 2013-14 RSNO concerts also ruled out intervals, opting for a 90-minute performance which sustained each work's narrative arc. I note a lone modernist titan in the forthcoming BBC SSO concert performance of Berg's Wozzeck.

What I found interesting, while zooming out for the larger view, was noting the placing of programmes' lone contemporary works, often as the opening item. Examples include the RSNO's performances of Saariaho and Dean; SCO's programming of Maxwell Davies and Ligeti and BBC SSO's placing of Kernis and Schnelzer. The relatively short nature of some works qualifies them as ideal openers whereas the stature and drama of, say, John Adam's Harmonielehre or Doctor Atomic Symphony would tend to dwarf any work following them.

Sally Beamish © Ashley Coombes
Sally Beamish
© Ashley Coombes

In addition to performing new works the three main Scottish orchestras have been responsible for many commissions and co-commissions. For concert goers this often results in the added authority of a composer's programme note and perhaps even participation in a pre-concert talk or interview. In one of the finest such experiences, Sally Beamish not only discussed the creative process of the SCO commission, Flodden in interview with Dr. Elaine Kelly, but welcomed questions from an attentive and erudite audience.

Surveying two years' programming for three orchestras allows one to notice features that might escape the weekly eye. The preponderance of Stravinsky should perhaps not be surprising. Sheer size of output is obviously a feature. Moreover, Stravinsky's chameleon reinventions allow him to fit snugly into more programme slots, and for more reasons, than many composers. Few rivals seem equally capable of furnishing both the (now) reassuringly mainstream and the (still) challenging.

Perusing the many lesser known composer names in BBC SSO programmes it's not difficult to see why they enjoy such a reputation for championing new music and new composers. Most of these feature in their Glasgow season. Oddly, the works in their coming Edinburgh Season are comparatively conventional (Beethoven, Sibelius, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Mozart, Shostakovich). Perhaps this says something about the way Edinburgh is perceived by its age-old rival city. On a less flippant note, I should like to mention premonitions about the BBC SSO's post ‘Yes’ vote future, voiced in an article by esteemed Scotsman Classical Music columnist, Kenneth Walton ('Will Benedetti be last Scot to win music award?', Scotsman, 10 May 2014).

No account of the health of contemporary orchestral music in Scotland should overlook the Scottish Ensemble, whose commitment to commissioning and performing new string orchestra repertoire is outstanding. Recent works include Sally Beamish's Seavaigers, Martin Suckling's Musical Postcards and Luke Bedford's Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale.

On reflection I would contend that those music lovers whose diet feels incomplete without enlivening contemporary roughage are well served by existing orchestral forces in our small country.