The three trays of tuned wine glasses onstage and a highly eclectic programme of music were sure signs that this concert from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was going to be unusual. There was a buzz of expectation in the air in the busy Queen’s Hall as the dynamic Pekka Kuusisto bounded onto the platform and asked how we were all doing before chatting about when to applaud – whenever the mood takes you is okay by him. Kuusisto is a disruptor, but in a playful and brilliantly creative way, taking a fresh approach to directing an ensemble as a player, his high chair forming the front desk of violins with the Leader.

Pekka Kuusisto
© Kaapo Kamu

A continuous sweep of music formed the first half, the four movements of Ravel’s bright Le Tombeau de Couperin interspersed with his Allegro (Sonata for Violin and Cello) Bartók, Messiaen and Crumb providing a brilliant showcase for soloists within the orchestra. The shadow of war was a theme, beginning with Bartók’s short tender Katonanóta (Soldier’s Song from 44 Duos), Kuusisto and Leader Benjamin Marquise Gilmore’s violins gently trading folk tune phrases moving in and out of dissonance. Ravel dedicated his Allegro (Sonata for Violin and Cello) to Debussy, Kuusisto and cellist Philip Higham taking turns to accompany each other in a sinuous exchange, passion growing more urgent before falling away to a deep sadness.

Ravel and Messiaen were only born a generation apart, yet wrote utterly different music. Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin de temps was written while a prisoner in Stalag VIII-A, the section for solo clarinet Abîme des Oiseaux a desperate yearning for escape and freedom. A sparse solemn piece, it was given a vivid and technically brilliant performance by Maximiliano Martín, developing long notes out of nothing, allowing the silences to grow and the bright hopeful fluttering fragments to fade in a truly mesmerising account. The mystical theme continued with George Crumb’s God Music from his Black Angels, written during the Vietnam War. Kuusisto, and two players bowed the tuned wine glasses producing a sound like an ethereally wayward organ stop, while Philip Higham’s cello sang softly across the strange sound, disappearing off into high harmonics.

Wrapping round these intense pieces, Kuusisto directed a brilliantly sunny performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin, his approach encouraging the players to listen to each other resulting in an organic sound, allowing space for musicians to emerge out of the mix. Flowing flutes in the Prelude, colourful woodwind in the Forlane and perfectly judged climaxes in the Menuet, Kuusisto and the players were having real fun. The infectious mood burst out in the lively Rigaudon, Kuusisto pushing the excitement and urging on his string players with a grin as wide as a week.

Reduced forces returned for Biber’s Battalia, the eight string players joined by Jan Waterfield’s lively harpsichord for this arresting account of many aspects of battle in the 1600s. Kuusisto led the players at speed through the opening Presto with stamping feet adding to the drama. A cacophony of voices-off accompanied the second movement with its different drinking tunes all played together, like songs at the end of a very long merry night on the town. More order returned, the players throwing themselves into the battle scenes with percussive cellos contributing to the excitement. The piece finished, not with glory of victory, but a solemn lament for the dead.

Kuusisto noodled a folk piece while the chairs were being rearranged and players returning, bringing a laugh as he ended on an A for general tuning. Haydn’s Symphony no. 45, “Farewell”, was a performance full of joyous ensemble playing. Kuusisto’s infectious energy seemed to pass right across the orchestra, players leaning forwards in their eagerness, almost jumping as the accents in the first movement were delivered as if by electric jolt. Beautiful oboe playing and rich inner part development produced an Adagio full of yearning with bright and airy natural horns a feature in the Minuet. A lively Presto before Haydn’s joke of the musicians leaving the stage one by one was nicely managed, leaving just two violins left to end the evening, as it had begun.

Pekka Kuusisto is Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Featured Artist in the 2019/20 season. Going by the reception in the hall after his Swedish folksong encore, players and audience are all in for an exciting treat.