Keith Bruce

At a time of year when many orchestras are firmly focused on the seasonal war-horses of the repertoire – Handel’s Messiah and the light dance music of the Strauss family and others – the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be rehearsing two entirely new works for its first concert of 2020 at its home in Glasgow City Halls.

The performance is labelled in the brochure as part of the sporadic Saturday Night Hear and Now strand of its season, a label for new music that its paymasters at BBC Radio 3 summarily dropped after the orchestra’s brochure went to press. But whenever the recording is broadcast, those who cannot be at the gig should be sure to tune in. Entitled Scottish Inspirations, the concert features two commissions that are exactly that, orchestral works that have looked to this country for their source material.

It is easy to see how one of them, by pre-eminent Danish composer Bent Sorensen, came about. The chief conductor of the SSO, Thomas Dausgaard, is his countryman and contemporary, and has often directed and recorded his work. The other, on which the orchestra will be joined by mezzo-soprano soloist Lucy Schaufer, has a less obvious genesis.

In fact, its composer Emma-Ruth Richards was contacted more or less out-of-the-blue by orchestra director Dominic Parker, her name recommended by another composer.

“I’d worked with the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican a couple of years ago, but it was a real step up to be asked to write for a full symphony orchestra,” she says.

Richards describes the commission as being “wide-open”, but there were certain specific parameters, principally that the work be a song-cycle and that it was set to the poetry of writers from, or connected with, Scotland. That might have made a young woman from Hampshire appear an odd choice.

In fact Emma-Ruth Richards has considerable history with Scotland and its composers, and a wide geographical knowledge of the country herself.

That relationship was musical from the start, a holiday visit to the Mendelssohn on Mull festival, where a violinist to whom she was engaged was one of the young musicians involved in the workshops and concerts.

Her own eduction was at Cardiff University and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where her teachers have included Judith Weir and James MacMillan. Her excursions to Scotland since that Mull visit have taken her to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Oban, and Skye, while she declares herself to be happiest in the landscape of the Outer Hebrides. Crucial to her development as a composer was a residency at the Orkney Composer’s Course during the St Magnus Festival of 2012, with Peter Maxwell Davies.

Of those mentors, it is Judith Weir who has written works that most closely resemble the commission that Richards was given, notably for Jessye Norman and more recently for Ruby Hughes. If the younger composer was conscious of that, she was determined not to allow it to be a distraction.

“The impact of Judith on me is in the real intimacy of chamber music in everything she writes, but I just kept my head down finding texts for my own piece.”

Initially, with an eye to thriftily avoiding paying copyright fees, she looked to historical sources, but over a three-month period of intensive reading, she was drawn increasingly to contemporary work, until the sequence she assembled, entitled The Sail of a Flame, was entirely the work of living poets and mostly written in the 21st century – hear and now indeed.

The poets who made the cut are Kei Miller, Don Paterson, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, and Robin Robertson, but only a single word, “Edinburgh”, in Kay’s Pencil, Knife, identifies the geographical source of the words, and a writer whose words are not part of the libretto has been crucial to the composer’s working method. Richards’ note for the programme for the January 11 concert cites the work of Robert Macfarlane and his identification with “northerliness” in the book Landmarks.

“I like the way he can use a tiny detail in a landscape as an anchor for his perception,” she told me. “He can zero in on the shell of an insect to bring clarity to a massive vista.”

That is analogous to the effect she is trying to achieve with her music, as is playing with light and shadow, which finds a direct echo in the words of the poems she has selected. Her doctoral thesis at the culmination of her formal studies was in music and architecture, so that combination of the aural with the visual has always been part of her practice.

Beginning with Miller’s Twelve Notes for a Light Song of Light, two poems by Don Paterson follow, one a translation of The Landscape from the French of Robert Desnos, and then his own Palm, after Rilke, from the collection Landing Light. Kay’s evocation of the intimacy of portraiture precedes Duffy’s response to the famous line in Shakespeare’s last will and testament about his “second best bed”, which in turn leads naturally into the concluding landscape-set romance of Robertson’s Trysts.

Mezzo Lucy Schaufer, who has become a friend of the composer through other work together, was her immediate choice of voice for the work, and she has been a collaborator in the writing process.

“We spent days at my house in Bedford when I’d show her my text as it developed and the whole piece was written with her voice in mind,” says Richards.

Schaufer, for her part, plays down her role. “I had no input into the artistic structure of the work,” she tells me. “The job of the musician is to interpret what is in the composer’s head from what is on the page. As a performer, you have to make it work in a sonic world.”

Originally from Chicago but based in the UK for many years, Schaufer has never previously performed in Scotland, but is a regular visitor to see the family of her partner, tenor Christopher Gillett.

“I’ve been invited to sing in Scotland, but it has never worked out. So the family contingent will be there.”

Her recent adventures in new music have included Philip Venables’s 4:48 Psychosis, based on the Sarah Kane play, and Gavin Higgins and Francesca Simon’s first opera, The Monstrous Child. However she is just at home singing Mozart, Sondheim, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.

“I hate the word cross-over, it makes my skin crawl, but people like different things. Whatever makes your bones vibrate!”

And she says that The Sail of a Flame has opened her mind to other things.

“I didn’t know Jackie Kay at all, but Don Paterson blows my mind. I am very excited to be singing it all. It is dense stuff, very chewy, but I believe all that we do is personal, and Emma-Ruth and I have been friends for a long time and I can smell her life in the notes.”

Richards is happy to concede the personal dimension to the work.

“Every time I sit and write, I have a very busy head and the process brings clarity and tidies the boxes, organising everything in my heart and soul. It is a very intimate experience as the music takes on a personality and a life of its own, and becomes a friend.

“The dots on the page don’t judge you.”

The BBC SSO and Thomas Dausgaard perform Emma-Ruth Richards’ The Sail of a Flame with Lucy Schaufer at Glasgow City Halls on January 11.