Classical: Fanfare for a new era

In the sixth part of our series on the arts in Scotland, Mary Miller finds the country's musical establishment, after a decade of turmoil, well-placed to exploit a reinvigorated cultural identity
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The Independent Culture
In 1990, Glasgow became Miles Better. Exultant with both the new self-congratulatory logo - "better" was a swipe at Edinburgh's assumed superiority - and designated European Capital of Culture, style surfed into the city on a tide of chardonnay and loose black suits, and a decade of Scottish artistic confidence was ushered in, unequalled since the 18th century's young lairds took lessons with Corelli.

Mid-Nineties, James MacMillan's explicit music and Irvine Welsh's expletives swaggered south to be met with something approaching adulation, and it appeared as though Scottish culture would cruise into the new century with merely a smug grin and a casual kicking open of the millennial door. A year on, a raft of young composers nursed stubbled chins and wrote gritty orchestral textures for enigmatic titles. Opera hit lochside village halls, while beaming French hornists encouraged bemused toddlers in urban nurseries to create music theatre with wooden spoons and whistles. Orchestras commissioned arty collaborations between sculptures and strings, and a whole boiling of new novelists erupted into print with vehement views on life.

There were, of course, traumas. Christmas 1992 launched the great arts merger row when the BBC and Scottish Opera announced, with unfestive suddenness, a proposal to combine their two orchestras, a plan that foundered years later from a mix of muddled research, inertia and, most crucially, the lack of a social plan. Multiple redundancies apart, without the financial ballast to support them anguished players found themselves faced, in the new orchestral line-up, with sitting next to ex-wives and colleagues they had left one orchestra or the other to avoid.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, historically used to swerving such body blows, devoted the rest of the decade to reinventing itself, and, with the dynamic Finn Osmo Vanska appointed principal conductor, has emerged as an invigorating and innovative musical force, with a clear eye on its own development, its audience's expectations, and those of a BBC presence in the north that is likely to be expanded post-devolution.

Scottish Opera, left in a serious jam with an under-utilised orchestra and a cavernous hole in its bank account, squawked about becoming a part- time company. After the Scottish Office's offer of a conditional bail- out to all the national companies, it set about with some rigour to put its house in order. Ruth Mackenzie arrived to succeed Richard Jarman as general director - Jarman, having set a great deal straight, left in the hope of a few months' peace and a vacation, only to be swept up by the Royal Opera's storms. Mackenzie's appointment, regarded by many as brilliant, heralded fresh mayhem, as the Scottish Arts Council made it clear to Scottish Ballet that its share of the Scottish Office funds would not be forthcoming unless radical changes ensued. These would necessitate a formidable redistribution of resources, joint overall administration shared with Scottish Opera under the chief executiveship of Mackenzie, and the loss of their part- time orchestra in favour of that of Scottish Opera. The 1999 appointment of Robert North as the ballet's artistic director has hardly helped. He is "the most boring choreographer in the Western world", according to one depressed observer. Mackenzie, it's alleged, is far from thrilled.

Meanwhile, the other national companies made genuine efforts to accommodate each other's activities. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, early leaders with an education and community policy that has attracted gurgles of acclaim, established with the BBCSSO and Royal Scottish National Orchestra a combined out-of-town series. The closure of Edinburgh's Usher Hall for refurbishment in advance of a (fruitless) lottery application then forced a rethinking of the RSNO's main winter seasons in the capital. They were re-housed indefinitely in the Festival Theatre, while an elderly audience raged with the peculiarly self-regarding petulance of the city's concert-going fraternity, and deserted in droves.

As devolution dangles both enticements and alarm, there is the curious sense of an artistic community settling down. The orchestras, their individual routes and roles fairly clearly established, work hard at audience development, now to be assisted by the creation of new post at the Scottish Arts Council expressly dedicated to that area. Scottish Opera no doubt is concerned that a less-than-light step at Scottish Ballet may slow its own progress, but has programmed a strong season with fiercely topical new Scottish work to greet the new government, maintaining an energetic small touring presence across Scotland.

What devolution will bring to Scottish artistic life appears to be, in the short term at least, merely some kind of miasma. No party, other than the SNP, appears to offer much of an arts agenda - and the SNP, which memorably greeted the news of the Scottish Opera/ BBCSSO merger not with dismay at the loss of an orchestra but with joy at the creation of "a brand new national artistic force", has plans of alarming woolliness which include a Ministry of Culture to replace the Scottish Arts Council. This, it claims, would launch a frontal attack on luvvie-led arts quangos, empower the traditional arts community, which it perceives as populated by frail-voiced visionaries. In truth, the romping success of Gaelic television has seen pale Barra teenagers become tycoons after doing television voice- overs, and lone pipers demand the same subsidy as established string quartets.

Labour's Donald Dewar is undoubtedly a cultured man, but installed as First Minister, as he is likely to be, by an only moderate majority, he will be subject to the buffeting of good reason from the Liberal Democrats, impotent squeals from the Tories, and haranguing from the SNP, while he attempts to grapple with a floundering health service and failing schools.

So while the music swirls and the Scottish Arts Council scours the world to headhunt a new director, the campaign trail heads towards the vote on 6 May. The artistic community minds its business, tweaks its budgets and makes art. Those who can, they say, do. The others run an election.