Tag Archives: Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

RSNO/Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There was no denying the enthusiasm that the players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and its Danish music director Thomas Sondergard, brought to their first live concert in their home venue in well over a year. As the conductor said before he lifted his baton, it was his treat to hear applause from a present audience, but also an important truth that any amount of individual practice only becomes meaningful with an audience in the hall.

The RSNO had chosen a tricky weekend to return, with the rival attraction of an England v Scotland football match for Friday evening in Perth Concert Hall and the televised finale of Cardiff Singer of the World on Saturday, but they did not have a huge number of tickets to sell. Weirdly, more listeners were permitted in Perth’s smaller hall (which had already pioneered post-pandemic live chamber music) than in the extravagantly-distanced seating on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It was a chamber-sized edition of the orchestra as well, but what a brilliantly-conceived programme of vibrant, colourful music Sondergard had chosen for them to play. On the face of it, here were three relative rarities of 20th century French composition, works by Ibert, Francaix and Poulenc; in reality we heard a glorious, compact exploration of the capabilities of an orchestra, as a collection of individual soloists, sections of similarly-played instruments, and as an entire ensemble. If a Parisian PhD student is currently working on a thesis about the supremacy of creativity in that era, Scotland’s national orchestra played the executive summary.

With just 15 strings, six winds and brass, timps, percussion and piano – every part utterly essential – Ibert’s Divertissement is a picturesque excursion that suggests a multitude of pathways (some of them very melodically familiar indeed) and pursues none of them. It is a glorious virtuosic tease of a piece, in which many individuals have engaging moments in the sun, but there are also big ensemble statements.

Principal oboe Adrian Wilson has been one of the recent stars of the RSNO’s online season, and he stepped out in front of the orchestra here for Francaix’s L’horloge de flore, a concerto in all but name, and one that shares as much of its inventive scoring with the orchestra. There was certainly sparkling solo work from Wilson, but the bassoons were also very busy and there are a number of differently-built ostinatos to indicate the workings of the clock.

The concert culminated in Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, which demonstrates both the tunefulness of the Ibert and a brilliance of rhythmic writing that draws the listener compellingly into its narrative, and  featured a lovely solo turn from first trumpet Chris Hart in its penultimate movement.

Welcome back, RSNO. Let’s have more very soon.Keith Bruce

RSNO / Chan / Benedetti

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Regardless of the many obstacles that have had to be overcome, the RSNO has maintained the shape of its programme of work over recent months with a tenacity that does the organisation much credit. And as they have done since live performances were abruptly silenced in March 2020, the players of Scotland’s national orchestra step up to the plate here with thoughtful contributions to the online world, joining conductor Elim Chan and soloist Nicola Benedetti in making interesting spoken contributions to this concert film, as well as playing their socks off.

With a return to performing for audiences scheduled for next weekend in Perth and Glasgow, this concert neatly wraps up the current digital season, Benedetti returning as soloist for Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2 (having opened the series with No 1). That work completes the Polska Scotland strand of the season, while Christopher Duncan’s Stac Dona, which precedes it, is part of the Scotch Snaps strand.

Like the Craig Armstrong piece in April’s last concert, the latter is from the Lost Songs of St Kilda project, arranged by a young composer better known under his pop alias, C Duncan, whose parents have played with the orchestra and whose aunt still does. Scored for strings and harp, it is a very filmic, romantic piece that makes the most of its folk melody.

The Szymanowski also springs from its environment, Chan notes, in particular the mountains of Poland. This may have been the first time she and Benedetti had worked together, but both women are so familiar with the orchestra that introductions were unnecessary. Beginning with a rumbling piano chord and a duo of clarinets, it is a work that quickly becomes very intense, and virtuosic for the soloist, with powerful scoring for horns, brass and percussion.

A single 20-minute movement, its cadenza may be the work of the piece’s dedicatee, violinist Pawel Konchanski, but it is very much of a piece with the atmospheric and picturesque whole. This is a full-blooded performance, with some sparkling dialogue between Benedetti and the wind principals, and some gorgeous playing on the lower strings of her instrument on the Andantino before the frenetic dance of the finale.

Many of these elements mirror parts of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, in what is another ingenious piece of programming, with the virtuosity now being required of everyone on the platform. This is a work that needs the orchestra’s return to the big hall, with the brass in the choir stalls, but it is also intricate, and Chan recognises the dangers of losing sight of the bigger picture when she speaks of taking an approach that is “not nerdy”.

The gentle beginning here is on the low strings, and if the Szymanowski is a political work with a nationalist agenda, Bartok is internationalist, if no less political, writing in the middle of the Second World War and after the diagnosis of the cancer that would kill him. The brooding, mystical third movement may be indicative of his state of mind, but it is surrounded by the distinctive staccato rhythms of the second and the musical japes of the fourth. And just as Benedetti had danced us home, the Presto finale trips fantastically to the last bar.

Keith Bruce

RSNO: Chan/Grosvenor

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If asked to name the main contenders for a Polish-themed concert, Chopin and Lutoslawski would certainly be among the front runners. Not so much Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013), much of whose music lies embedded in the 150 or so film tracks he contributed to, including The Pianist and The Truman Show, yet very much an accomplished composer in his own right. All three feature in this, the latest Polska Scotland concert in the RSNO’s current digital season.

The steely vitality of principal guest conductor Elim Chan suits Kilar’s high-energy symphonic poem for strings, Orawa, to a T. As an opener it is nothing less than attention grabbing. An obstinate solo ostinato folk motif gathers steam as more instruments join in, rising in pitch and intensity, the infectious energy turbocharged by Kilar’s rhythmic surprises, a metrical hiccupping owing much to Bartok and Stravinsky, and a riotous party finish that has the musicians shouting for joy, literally.

If that is Kilar’s visceral rustic impression of life in Orawa, a mountainous region in Southern Poland, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 is a product of time – the universal gloss of 19th century Romanticism – rather than place. A more stylised passion drives this music, albeit coloured by Chopin’s distinctive poeticism, and who better to deliver it than the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

His impact is monumental in this performance, especially when his opening flourish immediately dispels the somewhat general purpose playing that Chan’s initial direction elicits in the orchestral introduction – a little airless, without sufficient delineation between the key themes. 

Grosvenor asserts himself immediately, and from that martial first statement fluid melodies gush like water from a spring, always driven yet thoughtfully crafted. Immaculate finger work colours Chopin’s filigree ornamentation, adding to the enthralling intensity of the performance. Chan even finds moments of illuminating magic in the deceptively workaday scoring of the Romance, and its stormy eruptions remain tempered by a persuasive gentleness. The closing Rondo is a collaborative triumph for pianist and orchestra.

The zest missing from the opening of the Chopin is there in spades in the organic starkness of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Chan summons its demons with fiery intent, once again the pounding elementalism of Stravinsky rearing its head in the opening Intrada. She plays mischievously with the gossamer scurrying of the Capriccio offset by its central terrorising surge, and in the final Passacaglia, Toccata and Corale matches logic and abandon in a thrilling journey from fidgety, elephantine basses to the skirmishing conflagration of the final bars.
Ken Walton

Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO/Edusei

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

For all that it looked unusual on paper, the RSNO’s digital season offering this week makes profound sense as a programme in performance. As precursors to Schumann’s Second Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine and Brahms’s orchestral arrangements of six Schubert songs also showed refreshingly original thinking on the part of German/Ghanaian conductor Kevin John Edusei.

The conductor of the Munich Symphony Orchestra is one of three RSNO debuts onstage, but his appearance has long been expected. When he jumped in to deputise at concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2019 and the BBC SSO at the start of 2020, senior RSNO figures were at Glasgow City Hall for the concerts. As director of the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms, on tour and on disc, his profile in the UK is already high and an appointment somewhere cannot be far away.

The other two new faces are singers Susanna Hurrell and Felix Kemp, the baritone a late substitute for Marcus Farnsworth. They are placed among the players for the Schubert songs, a somewhat random selection from the catalogues of both their composer and their arranger, with texts by Goethe, Schiller and Sir Walter Scott among them. The latter, Ellen’s second song from The Lady of the Lake, is the highlight for the soprano, with delicious accompaniment from the horns and bassoons, although Hurrell makes a particularly beguiling impression with the earlier Geheimes (A Secret) by Goethe.

Kemp has a very fine voice, with excellent dynamic control across his range. Baritone songs open and close the set, and he clearly relishes the operatic possibilities of Schiller’s Gruppe aus dem Tartarus.

The featured soloist in the opening Mahler is associate principal trumpet Jason Lewis, in a curiosity from the composer’s catalogue that began life as part of a lost score of incidental music for the stage, before being repurposed, and then dropped, as the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony.

Although not written for a small orchestra – this is Mahler after all – it sounds very compact in Edusei’s hands, the conductor coaxing a very measured sound, with immaculate balance, in his first music with the orchestra. It sets a template, not just for the Schubert/Brahms, but especially for the Schumann. As well as having an Adagio built on a four-note figure as heart-rending as anything in the canon and first movement cadences that could only be Schumann, the Second Symphony requires some very brisk playing indeed, the scampering runs in the strings for the Scherzo prefigured in that opening movement and more lightning finger-work from the violins in the varied pace of the Finale.

With bold tempi and clear communication, Edusei brings a precision-tooled and full-blooded reading of the work from his new friends at the RSNO.

Available via the RSNO website to July 30.

Keith Bruce

RSNO: Gardolińska / Dvorak 7

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

In her debut with the RSNO, Polish conductor Marta Gardolińska begins on home territory. She recalls, in her spoken introduction, the very folksongs her grandmother once sang to her, which Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski incorporates into his Little Suite (Mała Suita) for orchestra. 

As a starter then – indeed as the single indigenous work in a programme filed under the RSNO’s Polska Scotland tag – this delightful Lutoslawski gem from the 1950s finds the emergent conductor, orchestra and music wholly at one. It’s a fine induction for the earnestly fastidious Gardolińska, whose associateship in recent years with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has not gone unnoticed.

She brings a springlike freshness to Lutoslawski’s occasionally skittish suite, drawing infinite mood and colour from his limitless manipulation of the folk material. Those delicate lyrical strands, variously offset by Stravinskian rhythmic warfare or belligerent or woozy hints of jazz, forever stay refreshed by the persistent polytonal harmonies that spread an even spiciness throughout and give this music its exotic transparency.

The contrasting heft of Dvorak’s Symphony No 7, much more elemental in concept to the instant popularity of the Eighth and Ninth, isn’t so initially comfortable in Gardolińska’s hands. There’s a cumbersome stolidity that weighs down the initial outward journey, which lacks the inevitability pushing onwards and upwards to that first gloriously resolute legato melody. Too much maestoso; not enough allegro, perhaps.

It’s not long, though, before the cogs begin to align, and by the close of the opening movement there’s a sense we’re going places, even if the subdued calm of the final bars crave greater amplitude.

Gardolińska’s leisurely amble through the slow movement recalls the folkish hues of the Lutoslawski, with shapely intertwined soloing from all corners of the orchestra. The scherzo sensibly plays itself, and in the finale, the ignited, inexorable passion is more the force of nature it should have been in the very opening bars.

It’s interesting to see the chemistry between Gardolińska and the RSNO grow as the symphony progresses, even though this is a recorded performance. That alone sends a message that she’ll be very welcome back. 

Ken Walton

Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO: Søndergård / Benedetti

RSNO: Søndergård & Benedetti
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The story of Poland is a volatile one. So it is inevitable, even in the very first programme of an intermittent Polska Scotland mini-series which runs through the RSNO’s new digital summer season, that some of its music should reflect that historic turmoil.

The opening concert, which now sees the orchestra relocated to the de-seated stalls area of the main Glasgow Royal Concert Hall auditorium, enabling the  deployment of a larger contingent of socially-distanced players, is a welcome sight and sound. Moreover, it paves the way for more expansive programming. 

In this case it is music by Mieczysław Weinberg, Karol Szymanowski and Andrzej Panufnik, a strange but intriguing mix of style and influence (musical and political). In charge is RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 (she returns for the second concert at the end of the series), the piece that secured her the career-launching 2004 BBC Young Musician prize.

That was 17 years ago, and it’s a more musically mature Benedetti who garners every ounce of lyrical passion and glistening heat this time round. There is also a wonderful air of composure in her performance, no better illustrated than the floating, timeless initial entry that instantly becalms the orchestra’s restless introduction.

Thereafter, the journey is one of mercurial fascination, expansive eloquence, crisp virtuosity and melting, poetic beauty. Søndergård exerts his own authority where the opportunity presents itself, from rip-roaring orchestral climaxes to the breathiest of moments, where time stands still. But this is triumph of partnership, no better illustrated than in the ethereal melting away of the final bars.

The east-west tug-of-war affecting Poland in the 20th century sent artists in various directions. For Weinberg, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, the ultimate draw was Moscow, encouraged there by Shostakovich whom he admired greatly. There’s no mistaking the latter’s influence, nor Weinberg’s Jewish heritage, in the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, which opens this programme.

From its growling lugubrious opening there is a lingering shadow of nostalgia, even where Weinberg opens the floodgates and unleashes the full orchestral might. That hint of suppressed rapture permeates this mostly trenchant RSNO performance, with only a suggestion of nervousness from the exposed violins in their opening bars.

For Panufnik, the escape route from Soviet-run Poland led west, defecting to the UK in 1954 and leading a successful life as a conductor and composer up to his death in 1991. His Symphony No 3, Sinfonia Sacra, was written in 1963 to mark 1000 years of christianity in Poland. The RSNO gave the Polish premiere in Warsaw in 1968.

Based on the earliest-known Polish hymn, the Bogurodzica plainsong, there are two parts to the symphony: Three Visions and Hymn. With the RSNO brass standing aloft like heraldic warriors, their impact here possesses a thrilling undercurrent of menace. Søndergård plays on that, but equally on its haunting mysticism, at its most sublime in the quiet strings of the second Vision. He also shapes the drama in this powerful symphony with unstinting, ultimately overwhelming intent.
Ken Walton
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

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.

Keith Bruce