RSNO in Germany (1)

Heinrich Lades Halle, Erlangen

Scotland’s national orchestra is blazing any number of trails on its Spring tour to Germany and Poland, and it is not betraying confidences to mention that there were those who had put huge amount of effort into making it happen who nonetheless had fingers crossed, and would have been unsurprised to see it collapse at the last minute.

At some point, however, the RSNO was bound to embark on its first excursion since the Covid pandemic and the changes made necessary by the UK’s departure from the European Union and it has succeeded in doing so at what is really the first available opportunity.

Because it is performing with two soloists, violinist Midori and pianist Lise de la Salle, that has meant more repertoire than might usually have been the case for six dates, and because musicians were still testing positive for Covid-19 up until the eve of departure, freelance players were still getting calls to ask if they were available to join the orchestra very late in the day. 

Trumpeter Marcus Pope, who had been responsible for dressing his colleagues in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag a few weeks ago, is one of those now missing. His place has been taken by Cardiff-based Rob Johnston, while the unfamiliar faces in the strings include a British violinist now working in Berlin. From some angles, this is almost a barely recognisable RSNO – although in fact most of the key players are in their places.

After beginning in Coesfeld concert hall, where Midori’s Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was preceded by Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and followed by the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, the second performance with the violinist teamed the Tchaikovsky with the quintessentially English fare of Walton’s Scapino, “a comedy overture”, and Elgar’s Symphony No 1. 

As posters all over the neat Bavarian town testified, the visit to Erlangen by the Japanese-American star was a big deal, so it was gratifying for the RSNO players to see a saltire displayed by audience members in the gallery, signifying a level of appreciation for what looked like her “support band” on the publicity.

The Heinrich Lades hall is a multi-purpose venue that will also welcome the European tour of Glasgow’s Simple Minds in a few week’s time and its acoustic is not ideal for orchestral music, but the reception the packed auditorium gave to the Scots was wonderfully enthusiastic. Yes, the soloist was the star. She played the concerto with her usual consummate elegant stylishness – and she was cheered until she obliged with a Bach encore. But there was as much of an ovation for the orchestra, and they should surely have had their own encore ready to go.

The RSNO’s secret weapon here was the German member of the first violins, Ursula Heidecker Allen, who grew up in Augsburg in Bavaria and, as a veteran of many a pre-concert talk in Scotland, was an adept emcee in her native language. Rest assured that the humour in a Scottish orchestra playing mostly English music was not ignored.

And the Walton is indeed a fun work, and scored for a large ensemble, so a grand showpiece for a big orchestra on tour, while Elgar’s First Symphony may be his most singular, but in the way Thomas Søndergård shaped it there was clear evidence of the 19th century German influences on the English composer.

Keith Bruce