Glasgow Orchestral Society

Caird Hall, Dundee

“It’s all about the organ” was the phrase quoted before each concert in Glasgow Orchestral Society’s 150th anniversary tour.  That’s partly right, as the organs in the four venues – Inverness, St Andrews, Dundee and Dunblane – were featured in all their glory in Saint-Saëns’ Organ symphony. However, it was also all about an orchestra that proved every bit as good, if not better, than many amateur ensembles I’ve had the pleasure to hear. 

Suffice to say it was a successful if gruelling tour, yet in the penultimate concert in Dundee’s Caird Hall there were no signs of fatigue. The performance was fresh, enthusiastic and a credit to all concerned.

The organ crept into the proceedings slowly by surely, opening the concert with the reverberating pedal bass that announces Richard Strauss’ Sunrise from his tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, made universally famous, of course, through Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001 – A Space Odyssey.

Less familiar, but intriguing in its own way, was English suffragette composer Dame Ethel Smyth’s overture to her third opera The Wreckers, a work first staged in Leipzig in 1906. Is it worthy of greater exposure? This performance certainly highlighted its imaginative contrasts of sound and texture, incorporating the organ to symbolic effect in a hymn-like centrepiece.

Given that Smyth’s opera is based in Cornwall, the journey to Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan und Isolde, itself centred on Cornish legend, was minimal, the atmosphere just as moving and dramatic. This orchestra, under Chris Swaffer’s direction, brought out every drop of passion with perfection. The Dundee audience were given a treat that the other tour venues missed out on with the subsequent inclusion of the opera’s magical Liebestod, in which soprano Shuna Scott Sendall conjured up ten minutes of Wagnerian magic. 

Finally, the Saint-Saëns justified its star billing. To have compared all four organs used in the tour would have been an especial luxury, but it was suffice to experience here the mighty punch of the fine Caird Hall instrument, organist Stuart Muir bringing panache to the symphony’s most electrifying moments, while recognising too its more submissive subtleties. The orchestra was in excellent form.

All in all, this was a pretty successful programme for Scotland’s oldest non-professional orchestra to celebrate its century-and-a-half  of music making.

Garry Fraser