An interesting concert turned out to be an unmissable event. Martyn Brabbins (visiting Professor of Conducting at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra have had a busy week in Glasgow, working with emerging conductors from conservatoires across the UK and Helsinki in a series of masterclasses culminating in a showcase performance featuring their talents. Separately, conductor and orchestra have been workshopping three new student compositions. With the future funding of BBC orchestras in the spotlight, this activity gives but a small snapshot of what actually happens beyond the concert platform.

Martyn Brabbins
© Hyperion S Perry

This programme celebrated a 30-year association of the BBCSSO with Brabbins, but also looked back to the premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s Veni Veni, Emmanuel, Dame Evelyn Glennie returning to the work which so thrilled the BBC Proms in 1992. Completing the Glasgow musical circle was the world premiere of a work by Errollyn Wallen (visiting Professor of Composition at RCS) and a chance for a dozen RSC players to join the orchestra in Elgar’s First Symphony. 

Wallen composed The World’s Weather in 2000, before she moved to a remote windswept peninsula in the northwest of Scotland overlooking the Atlantic. A random book spine inspired the title, but this muscular work took us on a dramatic meteorological tour, grumbling basses and harp glissandi setting the scene, more turbulent music suggesting scudding clouds as flutes added spindrift. The constrained energy of muted brass and urgent strings hinted at storms to come, yet there were lighter moments with the leader and flute exchanging solos, harp and strings exuding dappled sunshine. Brabbins enjoyed being master weatherman, rolling his shoulders, his arms in sweeping curves as he directed icy trumpets, piccolo skirmishes and a general joyous raucousness. The unleashed brass and percussion whip rounded off this splendid piece, Wallen beaming as she took her bow.

Veni Veni, Emmanuel is one of MacMillan’s more performed pieces, Glennie returning to it in the presence of the composer giving this performance an exciting edge. Glennie’s huge array of instruments arranged across the stage made enormous physical demands, but from the initial tam-tam crashes, she was mesmerising to watch. The single-movement, dramatic work takes us through Advent, the heartbeat motifs representing the human presence of Christ, but there are dances along the way and an ancient French plainsong threading through. Brabbins guided the orchestra perfectly through this complicated, dense score, but all eyes were on Glennie who gave a monumental performance, a whirl of drumsticks, as equal partner with the orchestra. Her extended marimba solo was a highlight as time and again she disrupted the orchestra’s soft insistent plainsong chords. Whether or not you see this work liturgically, the ending is spellbinding and astonishing. The majestic and terrible music eased and players began softly tinkling bells as Glennie climbed up to the tubular bells, slowly building a chime to an immense resonance filling the hall. Gradually, she gently muffled each note one by one into a silence of deep emotional impact as we held our breath to the very end.

Finally, the orchestra plus a dozen RCS players brought Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 in A flat major to vivid life. Brabbins took brisk tempos, keeping the music fresh with careful phrasing and balance, building the noble and magisterial tune yet allowing more tender moments and woodwind details to emerge. The Allegro was taut and precise, violas launching a jaunty theme, and I enjoyed the sound world with the first and second violins split antiphonally. Brabbins brought out a tender mellowness from strings and horns in the wistful Adagio before the burnished vigour and swagger of the noble tune returned, a wonderful way to celebrate his 30 years with the orchestra.