Tag Archives: Anna-Maria Helsing

RSNO / Helsing

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky may have fallen in and out of love with his Fifth Symphony, but it remains a firm favourite of audiences, which would explain the good turn-out on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at the RSNO’s home venue for a short programme destined to form the core of concerts in Dundee the next day (with young musicians from the Big Noise/Sistema music education initiative sharing the platform) and in Musselburgh’s Brunton for a Sunday afternoon Mother’s Day concert.

Assistant Conductor Kellen Gray is on the podium for the latter, but this and the Caird Hall were in the hands of  the Finnish Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, Anna-Maria Helsing, who made her RSNO debut with a filmed concert during lockdown and returned at short notice to replace Tianyi Lu and direct the musicians in front of an audience for the first time.

She was not the only unfamiliar face onstage, with a number of guests on the front desks of the winds for a work that begins in the hands of the first clarinet and has a prominent role for the principal bassoon. Alongside those, the all-male flute trio made a first movement impact with the figure that punctuates the strings as they pick up the melody.

The big slow movement tune was in the safe hands of first horn Chris Gough, and although there were some rough edges in the first violins when he passed it to them, Helsing’s dynamic control of the symphony’s opening was exemplary, and every detail of the marvellous orchestration clear in this auditorium’s sparkling acoustic.

That was especially so in the rhythmically teasing opening of the third movement waltz and then in the development of that tune at the start of the fourth. This was a hugely dramatic rendition of the finale, guided by big gestures from Helsing, driven by the pulse of the basses, and with very brisk and precise last few bars.

The symphony was preceded by the Overture in C by Fanny Hensel, nee Mendelssohn, elder sibling of Felix. It is a curiosity that her married name is now preferred as an assertion of her independent identity, as it has become accepted that the gifted big sister may have had a significant hand in the early work of her precocious brother.

Whatever we are missing of her own acknowledged creative output, this sole surviving instrumental work for orchestra is no mere family salon piece, with big string writing, a vibrant palette of colour from the winds and brass and great deal for the horns to do. It deserves to be heard on the concert platform as often as the more familiar Mendelssohn overtures.

Alongside the unfamiliar, this concert also marked the Glasgow farewell for one of the stalwarts of the RSNO’s viola section, David Martin, who retires after these performances and over 30 years with the orchestra. That contribution was warmly acknowledged by colleagues and audience at its start.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Anna-Maria Helsing by Tage Rönnqvist

RSNO / Helsing / Roffman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

If you can prise your violin-playing daughter away from Nicola Benedetti’s home-schooling videos, this is the concert for her. During an earlier lockdown, RSNO co-leader Sharon Roffman contributed some music for young people to the orchestra’s transmissions from home, and she proves as fine a teacher here in her spoken introductions to the two works on which she is the soloist, Dvorak’s Romance for Violin and Florence Price’s Second Violin Concerto. With Associate Leaders Emily Davies and Lena Zeliszewska on the orchestra’s front desk for this concert, the RSNO is far from short of female role models for violin students.

Taken together with an excellent programme note by Charlotte Gardner, the Dvorak Romance is placed beautifully in context before a very fine performance – it is a work that seems to blossom in the environment of a smaller number of socially-distance musicians.

The Price, on the other hand, requires a full band, complete with harp and celesta, tuba and three trombones. It is a late work by the African-American composer that was salvaged from the demolition of her summer home after her death, and in her own introductory remarks, Finnish conductor Anna-Maria Helsing – making her RSNO debut – implies that the score needs a deal of creative interpretation for it to work. However true that is, the piece sounds the real deal here, rather more expansive than its brevity might suggest and quintessentially of the USA, with harmonisations that are redolent of vaudeville and musical theatre.

The pieces that open and close the concert fare less well by comparison with those. It is hard to be definitive about Richard Thompson’s Suite from The Mask in the Mirror, because this seems a mere taster of a work that is already at a remove from the score of the opera premiered in New Jersey in 2012. While the full suite is a concert version of the narrative, this Scottish premiere of any of the music is just two movements from that. While they lack nothing in drama and atmosphere, with compelling orchestration, it is context that is singularly lacking.

But with Dvorak’s Symphony No 8, it is the composer who is sold a little short. Although its tunes are less well-known than those in No 9 “From the New World”, they are there in profusion. The balance that Helsing produces from the musicians in this performance, however, does not make the best of those melodic hooks, and they are often lost in the mix.

If the first movement could use more delicacy of touch, the third movement waltz is also less than light on its feet, and as for the instruction on the Finale, “Allegro, ma non troppo”, well, there is never really much danger of that. 
Keith Bruce