So, who is here for Karine Polwart? The forest of hands raised in the Queen’s Hall in response to cellist Su-a Lee’s question showed that this was not quite the usual Scottish Chamber Orchestra crowd. Multi award winner Polwart is a popular folk singer, keen to push boundaries and seek fresh approaches. Her new work, Seek the Light, co-written with composer Pippa Murphy, was originally to have been performed in 2021 with Pekka Kuusisto and the SCO, so a new date was set. Sadly Kuusisto had to withdraw from a short residency, with Hugo Ticciati gamely stepping in as player/director for the series and for this keenly anticipated programme.

Karine Polwart
© Scottish Chamber Orchestra

With the world on its dark side, this musical journey through darkness and light took on extra significance, the audience held spellbound as Polwart’s four movements of tales of myth, birds and stars were threaded through challenging and reflective contemporary classical repertoire played in two continuous streams. A strange choice perhaps to open with the Adagio from Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, but Ticciati floated phrases among his standing players with care, allowing lovely woodwind solo work to emerge through the delicate texture, the period brass and timpani adding colour to the climax. A seamless transition into Polwart’s opener You Know Where You Are set down a rich mellow tapestry with gently brushed percussion as Polwart soulfully sang about the mysteries of bird migration. 

Birds were the feature of Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi’s powerfully evocative piece for strings, Birds of Paradise. Beginning with loops, unpredictable accents appeared as the music became urgent, double basses digging in before the whole piece dropped a tone, a dense calm developing as the birds arrived. Ticcati’s initial bird call was echoed as others took up courtship displays, the whole becoming a swirling clamour of a tropical forest dawn chorus. Eyes open, it was a string orchestra, but if you closed them for a second, it was definitely birds circling in this extraordinary piece. Polwart’s The Night Mare took us into a darker place with a knocking beat in the percussion and Murphy playing with time signatures, giving the music a catchy, unpredictable menace. Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Insula deserta ended the first sequence in a world of anxiety featuring rumbling lower strings and urgent rhythmic unison, Ticciati driving his players into an uneasy calm.

Polwart’s A Love Too Loud has its genesis at the Hebridean Dark Skies festival, telling the tale of Cassiopeia who boasted of her daughter Andromeda’s beauty, so was banished to the skies by Zeus. Looking up to Polaris, the great north star, Cassiopeia is the scrawled W clinging to it, spending half the night on her head as punishment. Semi-narrated, the music sighed, breathing a mysterious magic, the flutes spinning the constellation in the night sky. 

Latvian Pēteris Vasks' Violin Concerto “Distant Light” formed the profoundly spiritual heart of second stream. Beginning and ending on the highest possible notes on Ticciati’s violin, the four-movement work linked with three fiendish cadenzas took us on a thrilling journey, the distant light of the title being childhood memories but also glittering stars millions of miles away. The music moved from calm unresolved dissonances, Ticciati bravely introducing a lyrical theme, to a brief Latvian folk episode to music so viscerally disturbing and angular that it reminded me of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The strings threw themselves into the melee, Ticciati giving a dazzling performance before a beautiful calm descended.

A final piece from Polwart, Sleep Now, began ethereally with woodwind and brass blowing air through their instruments, a breathing presence for a beautiful lullaby sung at the threshold of light and darkness. The players joined in, and then we too added our voices as magically, soft bird noises re-emerged in the final moments, welcome sounds of hope.