Some see September as an ending. Days get shorter and colder (if we’re honest, it’s not been all that hot here anyway). Well, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s newest chief conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth, begs to differ, as we chat about the rejuvenative power of his upcoming debut concert, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. The quartet marks the 30th anniversary of composer Olivier Messiaen’s death, and the piece is much more uplifting than its title suggests. Who knows: its infinite beauty might just provide a glimmer of hope as the seasons change.
SNACK chats with Ryan about the amazing backstory of Messaein’s work, finding a musical home in Scotland, and curating a varied diet for the orchestra.
First of all, congratulations on your new position as Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra! How are you feeling about the role?
Hugely excited. I mean, it’s a wonderful orchestra. It’s wonderful at the [Glasgow] City Halls, where we’re based. It’s a wonderful city. And it’s all exciting to me! What am I…43? And I’ve waited until now to take a job like this, and I feel it is the right time, right place. I’ve always divided my time between composing, conducting, and playing the piano, and sometimes it’s difficult to juggle these things. So I am longing for a home, a musical home where I can put down roots and just feel like we’re creating something in the long term. Glasgow is a lovely place to do it.
It is! One of the pieces you’re going to be directing is Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Could you tell me a bit about its backstory?
When I took the job, I thought it would be exciting to have a few projects which do things a bit differently. My opening concert, the night before the Messiaen tribute, is my official opening concert as chief.
Quartet involves me on the piano and three other players from the orchestra, which gives us a more intimate setting for us to work together. Messiaen is our focus because it’s the anniversary of his death: he died in 1992, and this is a special piece because it has a very interesting history. In 1940 he was incarcerated in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He and three of his fellow prisoners, who happened to be wonderful musicians, created the premiere of the piece together for about 500 people. Messiaen was only 31, and yet it proved to be a breakthrough. It’s where he really creates a new musical language, and part of what’s special about it is that it points towards infinity. It’s unique in the way that it simply hovers at a state of quiet ecstasy. This makes it very challenging to perform, because you have to almost slow down your heart rate to enter into its world. It was an amazing achievement for a young man. And it’s incredibly exciting to be doing it for this opening weekend.
That’s beautiful. How do you think the piece is relevant even now, 30 years after his passing?
I think it is becoming more and more relevant. Because there’s so much noise in our lives, and so little opportunity to be still and simply listen. The music tells you how to listen in this way. It challenges you to get rid of daily toil and contemplate something much, much bigger. As I said, to contemplate infinity; which is impossible for us humans, but it’s worthwhile trying. I just think we need this in our lives. It’s incredibly enriching, to have the chance to simply let everything fall away and be presented with something so pure, honest, and beautiful.
What other pieces are going to commemorate Messiaen at this event?
We’ll be performing a song cycle called ‘Poèmes pour Mi’, which was written for Messaien’s wife to celebrate their marriage.
It’s rather nice because my wife [Sophie Bevan] is singing it. There’ll be the performance of a masterpiece by Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, later in the season.
What are your favourite pieces to direct?
I love so much repertoire from different periods, and adore going back to the Baroque. Hence why I mainly focus on Bach. But I’m also a composer and I’m very naturally interested in what’s happening today. At my opening concert, the very first thing we will perform is a brand new piece by the young composer Jonathan Woolgar, which is terrifically exciting, because no one’s heard this music before. I just want to create a rich and varied diet for the orchestra.
What other plans do you have for the ensemble?
I’m looking to create programmes that are slightly outside the norm. The danger with orchestral programmes is they become narrower and narrower; the repertoire shrinks. So it’s especially important for us orchestras to keep pushing the boundaries when we can and make sure all this wonderful music gets heard; it’s a wonderful challenge for us. We are lucky in that we regularly perform in beautiful concert halls in Perth and Aberdeen and Inverness, and, of course, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the future I hope we can perform in smaller communities, to make sure we’re reaching as many people as possible.
If you can’t make it in person, the Opening Concert will be broadcast live from Glasgow on BBC Radio 3
Picture credits: BBC and Gordon Burnistoun