City Halls, Glasgow


Although the man himself did not seem at all perplexed by the attendance, Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto deserved a larger audience for the last concert of his Spring residency with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Not only is he a star attraction, the programme featured the Scottish premiere of a concerto written for him by one of America’s current rich crop of young composing stars, Nico Muhly, and the other soloist on the bill was Britain’s tenor-of-the-moment Allan Clayton.

All these ingredients came together in the opening piece, Muhly’s Three Songs for Tenor and Violin, setting the sensual mid-20th century verse of André Breton and Jacques-Bernard Brunius. With the orchestra strings providing a quiet drone underscore, Clayton’s first vocal entry was a masterclass in soft-toned precision and that high bar of performance was the level he maintained all evening. There is a reason why the male tenor voice is so highly regarded by composers of all genres and Clayton demonstrates that in such a relaxed style it can be quite awe-inspiring.

Kuusisto’s violin role in the piece hinted at the more frantic Muhly to come at the start of the second half of the concert. The concerto, entitled Shrink, also used only the strings of the SCO, which were required to produce a demanding mix of pizzicato and bowed accompaniment to the soloist’s virtuoso line. There is the memory of the comkeiposer’s earlier drone style – and his debt to the music of Philip Glass – in the slower passages, but the main interest is in the fluid top line, its conversation with orchestra leader Joel Bardolet, and the constantly evolving musical ideas based on different harmonic intervals.

In between the two Muhly works, Kuusisto programmed the last symphony of Haydn, a work that was clearly setting the foundations for the composers who followed him, specifically Beethoven. At the opening of the “Spiritoso” Finale, however, Kuusisto – directing “with” rather than “from” the violin, as Bardolet was in his place for the symphony as well – found an opening bagpipe-like drone note that obviously linked to the Muhly.

For the concert’s closing piece, Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, Kuusisto was unambiguously both leader and conductor, with a plinth to perform from. Britten wrote his settings of the verse of Arthur Rimbaud for his partner Peter Pears, but it is not sacrilegious to suggest that Clayton’s interpretation of the work may be the gold standard. His range of tones and timbres was astonishing and the closing song, Départ, left the hall without oxygen for a few moments before the applause erupted.