That the SCO has since become one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world is thanks in no small part to its ability to hold down successful long-term relationships. The most celebrated of these, with conductor Charles Mackerras, began in the late 1970s and lasted until Mackerras's death in 2010.
So it was fitting that to launch its 40th anniversary season yesterday the SCO also announced the contract extension of its principal conductor, Robin Ticciati. The news that Ticciati will now remain in post until at least 2018 – three years beyond his current contract – comes as no real surprise. Since he arrived in 2009 Ticciati's partnership with the SCO has been broadly acknowledged as one of the happiest in British classical music. His international career has skyrocketed too, with debuts at the Met and La Scala, and an appointment as Glyndebourne's director of music from 2014. But if anything his work with the SCO seems to have become more important to him as demand increases elsewhere.
"It's easy for people to think that Robin won't want to stay in one place for too long," says the orchestra's chief executive Roy McEwan. "Or that he'd necessarily want to go for a bigger symphony orchestra post, because those are sometimes seen as higher in the pecking order. But I know that Robin, like Mackerras, sees his relationship with us as an integral part of his musicianship."
"Many conductors flit about and take on three or four major appointments at once. They get on a flight in London in the morning and do a concert in New York that evening, really burning the candle at both ends. But Robin has his head screwed on. It's a general gentleness about him – not to say he's not single-minded or doesn't know what he wants, but he's after a more sophisticated way of putting music together. There's no flash. There's no showing off."
The same could be said for the SCO's 40th season in general. It's a quietly classy line-up: no fanfares, just quality programming. The season celebrates the cornerstones of the SCO's reputation: close partnerships with guest artists; core classical and early romantic repertoire; support for contemporary music; an illustrious recording legacy; and international tours.
For the birthday itself Ticciati conducts Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Chopin's Second Piano Concerto with Maria Joao Pires and a new work from Glasgow-born, Manchester-based composer Martin Suckling. McEwan says the aim was "to put together a programme that encapsulates what the orchestra is about. So we've got our principal conductor, a soloist with whom we've worked intensively, some core classical repertoire and a new commission by a fascinating young Scottish composer."
Elsewhere in the season there is new music from Sally Beamish – a 20-minute commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden – and from SCO composer laureate Peter Maxwell Davies. The orchestra also revisits some of its past commissions, including its most popular commission to date, James MacMillan's Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.
The season opener merges two Ticciati specialities: opera in concert and Hector Berlioz. Karen Cargill sings Beatrice, John Tessier sings Benedicte and Sally Matthews sings Hero in Berlioz's romantic Shakespearean comedy Beatrice et Benedicte. The SCO Chorus, which has been sounding particularly fine under chorus master Gregory Batsleer, has further outings in Bach's B Minor Mass and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Visiting conductors range from composer-conductor Oliver Knussen to Bach-specialist Masaaki Suziki, former SCO principal guest conductor Olari Elts and violinist-conductor John Storgards. John Butt, music director of the Dunedin Consort, makes his SCO debut with a baroque programme just before Christmas. Many of the season's visiting artists combine the role of soloist and conductor: violinists Joseph Swensen, Jaime Loredo and Alexander Janiczek and pianists Piotr Anderszewski, Richard Egarr and Christian Zacharias.
Steven Isserlis plays Dvorak's Cello Concerto; Tasmin Little plays Ligeti's Violin Concerto; Llyr Williams plays Mozart, Peter Serkin plays Bartok and Paul Lewis plays Mozart; violinist Alina Pogostkina plays Brahms and Nicola Benedetti plays Mozart. Several soloists come from within the orchestra. "We celebrate the fact that the orchestra has so many fine individual players," says McEwan, highlighting Alison Mitchell in Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto, Maximillian Martin in MacMillan's Tuireadh for clarinet and strings and Strauss's Duo-Concertino with bassoonist Peter Whelan, and Alec Frank-Gemmill in Strauss's First Horn Concerto.
When it comes to recordings the major project comes later in the season: Schumann's four symphonies – the first time the orchestra has recorded these symphonies, and Ticciati's first complete symphony cycle with the SCO.
The tour schedule includes the orchestra's debut in Salzburg, return visits to Vienna, Lucerne, San Sebastian, Budapest and Cologne and, next February, extensive dates in Japan, Hong Kong and China with Ticciati and Pires. Tours are "crucial to our international profile, and to fulfil our remit with the Scottish Government as cultural ambassadors," says McEwan.
"The SCO feels very comfortable in what we are. While the orchestra has been in excellent shape for a long time, it's now reached a point of consistency that is being widely recognized. Reputations tend to be built slowly, and it's safe to say that ours is now secure. A number of people – especially Charles and now Robin – have contributed to that."
The elephant in the room is the need for a new hall: the purpose-built Edinburgh rehearsal and concert venue for which the SCO has long been campaigning. McEwan keeps his cards close to his chest, but hints that an announcement might just coincide with the 40th anniversary in early 2014. Watch this space.
Full details of the SCO's 2013-14 season at www.sco.org.uk