From Mozart to Berlioz

Rosenna EastMon 25th March 2013

Under Robin Ticciati the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is exploring unfamiliar Romantic paths

If I boil down my motives, I joined the Scottish Chamber Orchestra because I wanted to play Mozart. 

As a postgraduate music student in London, peering in, uninitiated, at the orchestral world, I just could not fathom what passed for a satisfying or feasible life in this profession. So mystified was I, that I was on the verge of giving it all up as a hoax, when I got signed up to a Mozart Opera project at the Royal College of Music. 

From the first rehearsal of that project, the profession had me. I was hooked. Sir Colin Davis was conducting and we were playing Don Giovanni. I was riveted, and I knew then that I could play this music every single day for the rest of my life and never be bored.

So I joined the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, where we didn't play Mozart quite every day, but we played it a lot. It was, and still is, a sheer joy to me. SCO's Mozart is special. It springs from its toes, leaps carefree through the long grass, yet tramples nothing. It sings and it breathes, it laughs and cries. 

I'm not the only one who thinks this. Our equivalent of the Olympic gold medal came, albeit in a plastic CD case, when we recorded the late Mozart Symphonies with Sir Charles Mackerras. The reviews that recording gathered were astonishing – hailed from every corner as the definitive recording of such venerated music.  At the time, friends from other walks of life asked me whether, having recorded such a seminal disc, I was now going to retire, one life ambition surely fulfilled.  But it seemed a bit early at 28.

So here I still am in the SCO, with the conductors getting younger. It's Ticciati's turn now – and with a difference of roughly 60 years between him and Mackerras, he's up to new tricks. Sure, he's doing superb work with us and the Haydn symphonies, but Ticciati is also programming things for us like Berlioz. And Mahler. And this, I invite you to observe, is far from standard chamber orchestra repertoire. 

In fact, the SCO starts to bulge at the seams when we put on these works. We don't double the string forces as Berlioz would have done, but there's no way round hiring in those trombones. And what about the ophicleides? Described by Berlioz himself as an instrument that ‘recalls too closely the tone of the serpent’, we've had to get those along too.

Imagine my consternation. Whose orchestral schedule is this, I ask, as I scan all the unfamiliar romantic repertoire in my diary for the months to come. As a board member, I've spent some time scanning the accounts of such undertakings too. As a player, am I going to take Ticciati aside and point out that this is not what I signed up for? Point out to him that this is simply not Mozart?

Well the rigid and Victorian orchestral hierarchy, which we all endure in this profession, doesn't permit such outspoken personal interventions, so I have no choice but to turn up for work and give it a go. 

And there I was, recording the Symphonie fantastique last season, when it dawned on me. This music fires the same part of my brain as Mozart. It gives me the same sense of flying as we play.  I'm not a neuroscientist, nor a musicologist, so I leave the academic debates and proofs to others.   But I know how different music affects me physiologically.

When handled by the SCO, the silken thread of those Berlioz lines seem to spin out with the delicacy and poise of the classical masters. I am not saying that we play all music the same. Our Berlioz sounds to me like a distinct interpretation, as we enunciate the clear and twisting timbres and textures of his writing. The sheer drama in works like La mort de Cléopâtre rile us up into a fury of storytelling and operatic tragedy. The human characters of his pieces, from the epic Lear to those ghastly witches, emerge from the page, so that from the ink we shape them in the air, until they're dancing around the stage with us. 

It suits Ticciati, this music. And it turns out it suits us too. Just like in a Mozart opera, the human stories in this music seize me, while Berlioz's clear but intoxicating music fills the air. I asked Ticciati why he did it, programming all this Berlioz for us. Maestro replied, ‘I knew that Berlioz was a combination of classical understanding with romantic fervour. And that's also the SCO.’

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s second all-Berlioz CD, Les nuits d’été and La mort de Cléopâtre, featuring principal conductor Robin Ticciati and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, is released on April 15, 2013 on Linn (CKD421).

Rosenna East

Rosenna East is a violinist and writer. She is sub principal second violin of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and also works as a guest principal with other ensembles around the UK. In parallel to her work as a musician, she is a regular contributor in print to The Herald Scotland, Classical Music Magazine and The Big Issue, as well as being a commentator for BBC Radio Scotland.

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