SINCE the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra signed a youthful Ilan Volkov to succeed Osmo Vanska, the man with the stick has been the public face of all of Scotland's orchestras.
The SSO has now built a team of four distinct personalities on the podium, and orchestra director Gavin Reid is happy that his quartet remains in place as he reveals the orchestra's 2013/14 season. Volkov continues his involvement as principal guest conductor until 2015, alongside his successor as chief conductor Donald Runnicles, with associate guest conductor Andrew Manze contracted until 2014 and artist-in-association Matthias Pintscher to 2016.
The formula is appealing to the public, with subsciptions for the current Glasgow season up 20% and ticket sales year-on-year up 24%. In Aberdeen's Music Hall, where the orchestra will play six concerts in the new season, ticket sales have shown a dramatic 44% increase. Add a continuing commitment to Ayr (four concerts this year, three next) and two visits each to Edinburgh (outside of the Festival), Inverness and Perth, plus a Lammermuir Festival concert, and the SSO has long ceased to be chiefly a broadcasting band. "We do a decreasing amount of studio-only work," says Reid. "People want to come to bold programming that includes new music, as well as familiar repertoire with a twist."
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There is a distinctly vocal tone to the opening of the new season with five of the seven concerts before Christmas featuring singers. Runnicles concerts open the season, with American baritone Thomas Hampson singing Mahler songs in a programme that also includes the Fifth Symphony, and Robert Levin's new completion of Mozart's Requiem with the National Youth Choir of Scotland following just a month after Runnicles' Verdi Requiem with the Festival Chorus at the Edinburgh Festival. French music expert Jun Markl conducts a Messiaen and Debussy programme featuring soprano Gweneth-Ann Jeffers, Katherine Broderick is the soloist for the Manze's Sinfonia Antartica, as he completes his survey of Vaughan Williams's symphonies, and Elizabeth Watts sings Britten and Mahler under Martyn Brabbins on the day before Britten's 100th birthday. Those composers form another strand of the season, ending in April 2014 when Runnicles conducts Mahler 9, preceded by Arvo Part's Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten.
The season also features a substantial commitment to American music, with Gershwin, Ives, Barber and Copland alongside less well known composers AJ Kernis, George Tsontakis and Sean Shepherd – the latter's Blue Blazes a UK premiere.
Other soloists include top pianists in Steven Osborne, continuing his Beethoven concerto cycle with Manze, Lars Vogt playing Grieg with Runnicles, and the return of the young Russian sensation Denis Kozhukhin, playing Rach 2. Violinist James Ehnes plays the First Concerto of Shostakovich and Sarah Chang the Barber Concerto.
The orchestra's commitment to Radio 3's Hear and Now programmes of contemporary composition includes James MacMillan conducting his own music with a Scottish orchestra for the first time in a decade. Volkov's Tectonics project returns in 2014 and he conducts Varese and Berio at the Edinburgh Festival, a concert in the South Bank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival, and on tour in Holland.
Unlike the concert of John Zorn in January, Tectonics will carry a ticket charge, and Reid admits there is debate about free concerts. While the orchestra's open weekend in Candleriggs in June will continue to be free, "Tectonics is ambitious and strong and worth putting a price on. We are always probing for new audiences but we have to maximise the opportunities to earn income, and it is still very affordable."
Michael Tumelty explores the RSNO's new season in next Wednesday's Herald.