The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's 2012-13 season, announced today, looks a classy and fairly classic line-up, rooting the orchestra in home territory with a Mozart opera opener, major strands called Mozart at the Piano and The Age of Romanticism, and some seriously sophisticated guest soloists.
Next spring also sees a two-week tribute to Benjamin Britten's centenary and the orchestra's first ever performance of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, and there are new commissions from Scotland-based composers Lyell Cresswell and Stephen Deazley.
Compared to 2011-12, the programme stays on the safe side. This time last year the season announcement was a slew of bold and new – doubly impressive in the face of Government cuts. There was Berlioz; the orchestra had never played the Symphonie Fantastique (scored for much bigger forcers) but there it was in full form, first concert of the autumn calendar. There was a superb Ligeti focus, top-flight Baroque programmes and no fewer than five world premieres. For a chamber orchestra whose staple diet is classical and early romantic, the horizons had really broadened – and the results have been a thrill.
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"We haven't consciously retrenched," says the orchestra's chief executive, Roy McEwan. "We haven't felt the need to, because tickets sales are holding up very well." Ticket sales are up 12% on last year, with the number of SCO subscribers in Edinburgh and Glasgow up by 30% over the past five years. Despite a 4% chop in core funding (that's £80,000 in cash terms), plus more cuts promised up to 2015, McEwan is justified in wearing a (cautiously) optimistic smile.
"It's a tough hill to climb when we're trying to maintain the quality while at the same time accommodating increasing costs," he says. "It's great that box office sales are so healthy, but that can only ever be a component of what we do. So we're looking into private sector investment."
McEwan insists the shortage of contemporary music in the forthcoming season has more to do with happenstance than a retreat strategy. "We were happy with the Ligeti," he says, "and we will come back to more new and 20th-century repertoire."
There is new music on the cards – just less of it. While this year we've been treated to high-profile premieres from Sally Beamish, Martin Suckling, Halflidi Hallgrimsson and (still to come) Oliver Knussen, next year's SCO co-commissions number just two: Stephen Deazley's family friendly A Little Book of Monsters, and a triple concerto for the Swiss Piano Trio by Edinburgh-based, New-Zealand-born Lyell Cresswell. We'll also hear the Scottish premiere of James MacMillan's Oboe Concerto and the UK premiere of Einojuhani Rautavaara's In the Heart of Light.
My highlights might well include the Britten centenary concerts next spring. The first sees SCO associate artist Richard Egarr mingling music by Henry Purcell, Arvo Pärt and Britten. In the second, composer/conductor George Benjamin pits the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings against Harrison Birtwistle's Carmen arcadiae and Martin Suckling's excellent storm, rose, tiger, which was premiered by the orchestra last October.
The box-office strength will be in fine visiting soloists. Take the piano front: Mozart from Maria João Pires, Piotr Anderszewski and Robert Levin; Beethoven from Artur Pizarro; Mendelssohn from Francesco Piemontesi and Schumann from Nelson Goerner. There are rich vocal pickings. The season opens with a concert performance of Così fan tutte, with Sally Matthews as Fiordiligi and Christopher Maltman as Don Alfonso. Karen Cargill and Toby Spence team up for a chamber arrangement of Das Lied von der Erde, Matthias Goerne sings orchestrated versions of Schubert lieder and John Mark Ainsley features in the Britten centenary.
And there is Robin Ticciati. The orchestra's principal conductor kicks off his six programmes with Così. "Doing two concert performances of this costs a hell of a lot more than your average opening week," says McEwan, "but it gives a special feel to the beginning of the season, and it plays to Robin's theatrical side." McEwan applauds Ticciati for taking on repertoire in which the orchestra holds clout. "We did all of Mozart's operas with Charles Mackerras. It's great that Robin's coming at them with a fresh mind."
Does Ticciati feel the weight of Mackerras on his shoulders? "I think he does less with operas than orchestral music. He's his own man and he's done a lot of Mozart very well. He's aware of the legacy, but doesn't let it get in his way." Ticciati's programmes also include more Berlioz, the overture to King Lear and Harold in Italy, plus Mahler's Das Lied, Beethoven's Third and Sixth symphonies, Schubert's Fifth and Schumann's First.
Since he took up his SCO post in 2009 Ticciati's career has skyrocketed. New York's Metropolitan Opera, Milan's La Scala, not to mention that minor appointment as music director at Glyndebourne - Does McEwan worry about the stardom? "Robin is aware of the fact he's developing and he talks about it. There is a growing confidence about the way to get what he's looking for. He's developing all the time and it's fascinating to watch."
McEwan talks of Ticciati's talents with the same respect the orchestra shares. "He's going to be huge. I avoid saying 'the next Rattle', but that's the calibre we're dealing with."
Tickets for the season are on sale to subscribers now. Single tickets go on sale on May 7 .www.sco.org.uk.