RSNO/Bloxham: Clydebank 41
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
In different times than these, the 80th anniversary of Scotland’s worst aerial bombing carnage in the Second World War might have been marked by the inclusion of RSNO Principal Horn Chris Gough’s new work remembering the Clydebank Blitz in a live concert by the orchestra.
Instead the premiere of the work, commissioned by West Dunbartonshire Council’s Culture Committee, is on the orchestra’s YouTube channel, the filmed performance in Glasgow, conducted by Tyne-sider Jonathan Bloxham, prefaced by ten minutes of documentary written and directed by Tony McKee and narrated by Liam Stewart.
The collage of film, still images and sound that McKee has provided gives a hugely informative and powerfully compact context to Gough’s music, which then elides into the performance by way of some pastiche black and white “newsreel” of the orchestra in rehearsal.
The piece does not attempt to soundtrack the destruction of Clydebank itself, using an interlude of air-raid sirens and the over-head rumble of heavy bombers (with accompanying video) as an interlude between its two movements. The opening, The Steady Grind of Wartime Life, carries its own echoes of those sirens alongside the mechanical beat of pizzicato strings and muted brass.
Following that interlude (The Blitz Comes to Clydeside), the picture of Desolation begins with a plangent cor anglais, underscored by bass clarinet. The wind section theme, derived from a folk song, On the Banks of the Clyde, which the composer sourced in the Vaughan Williams online archive, is then taken up by the strings, and then brass, becoming a hymn of resilience.
As the work concludes, the names of all 528 who died in the bombing of March 13 and 14 1941 scroll up the screen, the range of ages, from primary school children to pensioners, and the many members of the same families all too evident.
There’s a lot else to notice here: the orchestra’s commitment to new music in its Scotch Snaps strand; the simultaneous link with the digital season’s Polska Scotland theme that the Clydebuilt Polish Navy destroyer ORP Piorun was back at the John Brown yard for repairs and helped repel the Luftwaffe.
In different times than these, much of this might have passed in the brief flourish of, at best, two concert hall performances for an audience of a couple of thousand. There is some reason to be grateful that the fine work of Gough, his RSNO colleagues and their associates is accessible to many more in its online incarnation.