New York Counterpoint: Scottish Chamber Orchestra's new gig series

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra teams up with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto for a series of events this March – we take a closer look at the New York Counterpoint programme

Preview by Tony Inglis | 14 Feb 2022
  • Pekka Kuusisto

The cross-pollination between the realms of classical music and the pop music of the day has been a determining point in breaking down cultural, social and class barriers for a musical community that can often, rightly or wrongly, be considered stuffy, highfalutin and inaccessible. Whether described as “neoclassical”, or more rudimentarily (and borderline derogatorily) as “indie classical”, examples of mainstream musicians dipping their toe into the classical world – and, in some cases, taking it by storm – are vast. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto swapped 70s synthpop bops for refined stages; Aphex Twin made a sharp pivot from scattered drum programming to the prepared piano of Avril 14th; the technology used in modern ambient allows its musicians to create the swirl of swelling orchestras on their computers.

The Edinburgh-based Scottish Chamber Orchestra has a rich tradition of forward-thinking, looking to match the classical with the contemporary, in its choice of compositions to perform and its collaborators. For a new season of music in March, the ensemble will lean into this. One hoped outcome of these shows, performed in association with The Skinny and community radio station EHFM, is to get more young and interested bums on seats than ever before. Pairing with Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, New York Counterpoint promises to provide an “informal and social musical experience”.

Revolving around Kuusisto – something of a rock star in this world, someone who seems unbeholden to norms, tradition, genre or style – he will swap his four-stringed instrument for a place mainly directing the three-show series, bringing with him compositions that are representative of the crossover the SCO expects will draw in new audiences, and centred around artists who have passed through New York City.

Bryce Dessner is known for his songwriting and guitar work in one of the biggest bands on the planet, The National. But here it’s his chamber pieces with the strings of Kronos Quartet that get the spotlight – proving truly that the talents of The National are as malleable in the world of highbrow art as they are in that of Taylor Swift – with his composition Aheym, inspired by the story of the arrival of Dessner’s Jewish grandparents as immigrants in Brooklyn. Dessner’s work as a solo artist, a world away from the brilliantly mopey rock of his band, has been inspired by eastern European folk music, and later in the performance this too will feature through the violin duos of Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz.

American Nico Muhly signifies the back and forth between the two worlds of contemporary classical and pop, but via the other direction. Quickly making a name for himself as one of the best bright, fresh composers of his generation with commissions from Carnegie Hall to the LA Philharmonic, even working in installation spaces at the National Gallery in London and the Art Institute of Chicago, Muhly has obtained significant appeal beyond classical music. He has worked on movie scores and with a who’s who of indie music, including Anohni, James Blake and, squaring the circle of the SCO’s night, Sufjan Stevens, who brought Muhly and Dessner together for Planetarium, a conceptual concerto spun by a supergroup. Here, his more playful piece made up of field recordings and clarinet, It Goes Without Saying, will be performed.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw moves in an exploratory space as a composer, straddling the far-flung reaches of the avant-garde and the direct line of the mainstream. She has written for her own voice most recently, with last year’s Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, and has previously collaborated with Kanye West. As multifaceted a composer as they come, it’s Shaw’s Entr’acte – a piece for string quartet – which will hopefully enrapture audience at New York Counterpoint.

Not a million miles away from Shaw’s experimental work, the minimal music of Steve Reich will close the show. This is entirely apt: Reich is an artist whose influence on the more imaginative minds of mainstream rock and pop is hard to summarise. It’s his multi-clarinet piece that will be performed on the day that gives the show its name. All of these pieces, and more, will be woven together by the SCO at Kuusisto’s direction.

New York Counterpoint is just the first in a series of three shows with Kuusisto at the helm. Later in the month, Seek the Light will see him team up with Scottish musician Karine Polwart and composer/sound designer Pippa Murphy, while, later still, America, The Beautiful will see him pick up his violin again to play Shrink, a dazzling violin concerto composed by Muhly, for its UK premiere.

While the SCO’s work on this series is to dissipate the air of seriousness around classical music, these shows will be much more reserved affairs than your average gig, and so present the perfect reintroduction to live music if you’ve still found yourself unable to return.

New York Counterpoint takes place at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 6 Mar, 3pm
Seek the Light takes place at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 10 Mar, 7.30pm; City Halls, Glasgow, 11 Mar, 7.30pm
America, The Beautiful takes place at Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews, 16 Mar, 7.30pm; The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 17 Mar, 7:30pm; City Halls, Glasgow, 18 Mar, 7.30pm