Edinburgh International Festival: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

Rosie Pentreath heads to Edinburgh for a concert of 20th-century classics – and joins some BBC Music Magazine readers for a quick drink

Readers and RosiePhotos: Stuart Armitt

After spending a day exploring the wealth of art and entertainment Edinburgh has to offer during festival season, I headed to the magnificent Usher Hall for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s concert of works by Varèse and Berio at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Before the music started I was delighted to meet the BBC Music Magazine readers who had won a competition we'd run on the website for tickets. Conversation (and wine!) flowed nicely before we took our seats.

This was the first time I had visited Usher Hall and I was impressed by its size – it seats up to 2,800 people – and this concert was a treat.

The artist Georgia O’Keeffe once described Varèse’s Intégrales as being as exciting as ‘Broadway at night’. This performance began with poise and the players really rose to the challenge of very exposed dissonances that the piece offers. The second section had great energy, with the percussion and brass dancing through fabulous syncopated rhythms with flair.

It was incredible to witness the massive orchestral forces – including a huge percussion section – that gathered for Varèse’s Amériques next. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s depiction of the American jazz-age city was stunning, with evocative siren sounds, plenty of timpani and striking syncopated wood claps. I was completely swept up in the atmosphere of it all. If Intégrales is the sound of Broadway, Amériques is the sound of the whole of New York. And this was a charismatic and truly memorable Amériques from Volkov and his orchestra. It left my ears ringing. In a good way.

After the interval the orchestra assembled for Berio’s Sinfonia. The piece had an entirely different feel with the amplified voices and musique concrète elements. The second movement – a deconstruction of the sounds from Martin Luther King Jr’s name – was startlingly beautiful. And the third was startling in another way. Full of quotes from Mahler and other visionary composers, it is a tense and politically charged piece. Lots of fun too, with wry spoken text and wonderful melodies interrupted at intervals by rhetorical brass statements. Then straight into the fourth movement for some calm reflection. And the final movement was a brilliant flourish at the end of this wonderful concert. It’s one I shan’t forget for a long time.

This evening’s concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at a later date. For more information about the Edinburgh International Festival, visit the website