City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

five stars

THE day after the launch of the 2018 Edinburgh Festival programme, the afternoon concert of the BBC SSO, which has some pivotal jobs in this year’s event, was coincidentally replete with music of Festival relevance.

The best known work was the 20th century classic that is Copland’s Appalachian Spring, an orchestral suite that showcased the full range of instrumental talent in the SSO and was given the perfect 360 degree performance here, under the baton of John Wilson. Back in 1996, the fiftieth Festival included the Martha Graham dance company, who commissioned the music in the early 1940s, reviving the choreography at Edinburgh Playhouse. The effect the work has on an audience as the composer deploys the melody of the Quaker hymn, which most Brits know better from the more recent Sydney Carter use of the tune, is a perennial joy.

But there was much more of fascination in this programme, which began with the youthful Samuel Barber’s hugely-accomplished, and demanding, School for Scandal Overture of ten years earlier, preceding Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade from ten years later than the Copland. Nicola Benedetti will play that work with Marin Alsop in Baltimore in May, and Edinburgh will hear that partnership this August, on Bernstein’s 100th birthday. Chinese violinist Ning Feng, who has played it with Ivan Fischer and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, made his SSO debut as soloist here with a precise and passionate account of fascinating virtuoso work in which the composer uses a very particular palette of sounds. Alongside Feng, the solo of cellist Sian Bell, some jazzy pizzicato bass from Iain Crawford, and a percussion section very much on their mettle in the finale made for a reading to remember.

Completing the concert was the compact single-movement delight of Roy Harris’s Symphony No.3, a work as challenging in terms of its original structure as the Bernstein, and dating from the late 1930s. From the deceptively simple but arresting opening in the cellos, a hugely complex orchestration – with technically demanding pulses – develops. Those who elected to depart after the Copland missed a rare chance to hear a work well ahead of its time.