Bernstein’s Halil was a new piece to me before tonight. The title means “flute” in Hebrew, and the composer wrote it in 1981 to commemorate a 19-year-old Israeli soldier (a flautist) who had died in the Yom Kippur War. It deals with big themes like war, terror, the spirit and the afterlife, but it’s typical of the composer that it draws from him some of his most eclectic music, laying down contrasting blocks of massively diverse music, ranging from serialist twelve-tone rows to Broadway razzle-dazzle. It’s partly for this reason that the piece is a delicate balancing-act, and another element of this comes from the unusual instrumentation, featuring solo flutes, string ensemble and six percussionists plus timpani.

François Leleux © Thomas Kost
François Leleux
© Thomas Kost

This performance achieved that balance, and therein lay its success. Alison Mitchell, the SCO’s principal flute, seemed to dance on air as she embodied the flute’s many different moods, sometimes floating delicately above the hurly-burly and sometimes embroiled in it. The orchestral sound was similarly chameleonic, transitioning effortlessly from the shuddering angst of the opening to the beautifully atmospheric tone of consolation that followed, and managing a gorgoeus soft tone for the music late in the piece that seemed to stand for the essence of life. The ending was especially well realised, the flute seeming to vanish upwards as the orchestra was still lost in its search for consolation.

Conductor François Leleux was instrumental in achieving that tricky balance, with some very insightful decisions of shaping and mood. He’s best known on these shores as an oboist, and during Ludwig Lebrun’s Oboe Concerto no. 1 in D minor he achieved the considerable feat of wearing both hats simultaneously. If you’ve never seen someone directing an orchestra while playing the oboe, then take it from me that it’s quite a sight to behold! However, the virtuosity of the task played to the showman in Leleux, and he seemed to relish the opportunity to dash off all those runs and roulades while at the same time weaving, bobbing and dancing to give cues to the orchestra. It’s quite something that he could do all that while maintaining such astonishing breath control, not only in the quickfire of the outer movements but also in the seamless long line of the slow movement. He evidently won over the Edinburgh audience, who greeted the end of the concerto with a spontaneous cheer and an unusually large ovation. That also drew an encore out of him – Carmen’s Chanson bohème in a duet with Alison Mitchell – that elicited the same response.

His conducting of Bizet’s youthful Symphony in C major was also a real delight, with outer movements that were sharp as a tack and a Scherzo of irresistible bounce, as well as a slow movement that was gorgeously lyrical without being indulgent. For all these things I could forgive a disappointingly four-square reading of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite, which was surprisingly forthright from a French conductor who professes it to be one of his favourite pieces. The assertiveness of the Prélude was a world away from the whispered half-light of Maeterlinck’s play, and at Mélisande’s death she didn’t so much drift away as stride out the door and slam it behind her.

That quibble aside, this was a lovely evening and, I hope, the start of a great partnership. Leleux returns for four concerts in the 2018-19 season, which has just been announced, and I suspect they’ll be shows to look forward to. One thing that really struck me: I can’t remember a recent SCO concert where I saw the orchestral musicians smiling as much as they did tonight. That surely tells its own story.

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