Tag Archives: Lise de la Salle

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It’s a bold new RSNO season that kicks off with a Keats-inspired tone poem by a female composer born at the tail end of the Victorian era who most people today will not have heard of. Dorothy Howell lived from 1898 to 1980, impressed Sir Henry Wood, had her music premiered, aged 21, in his London Proms earning her the epithet of “English Strauss”, before concentrating more on teaching from her late 20s onwards.

Worth hearing? Absolutely! For in Lamia, Howell demonstrates a sweeping tidal wave of inspiration that transforms Keats’ narrative poem into a swirling musical fantasy, its influences ranging from Debussy and Richard Strauss to the prevailing Englishness of Elgar and inklings of Wagner, even with prophetic hints of modernist thought. 

Yet, as this romantically-charged RSNO performance under music director Thomas Søndergård illustrated, Howell’s imaginative orchestral colourings and solid grasp of structuring were both authoritative and visionary, laced with evocative pictorial detail. 

In a period where tokenism is in danger of throwing second rate music at us for its own sake, here was a truly deserving example of fruitful musical archeology. As with the rest of Saturday’s programme, Lamia will be heading to Salzburg next week where the RSNO is undertaking a 3-day concert residency. 

Also on that trip will be feisty French pianist Lisa de la Salle, whose performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 on Saturday explored a more vigorous option to this familiar work. Steely dynamism informed the pianist’s opening gambit, her assertive touch commanding and demanding, yet never once losing sight of the music’s lyrical essence. 

The slow movement, leisurely in the extreme, unfolded in long, languid phrases, though never without purpose, while the finale was a breathless and dazzling romp to the finish line. If the last few bars took Søndergård and the RSNO momentarily by surprise, they were otherwise magnificent in aligning with de la Salle’s vivid mindset.

A stirring concert ended with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a work this conductor and the RSNO have successfully recorded together, and which certainly sounded like a trusty old friend. A journey in which the composer centrally casts himself as the hero was, as it should be, gloriously indulgent without slipping into self-mockery. Søndergård struck the perfect balance, the hero’s proud emergence, his exhortations of love, his adversaries and battles, and ultimately his repose and fulfilment expressed in a flood of emotional conflict. 

So this new season launched on a musical high; but why have the audience suddenly started bringing multiple food and drink into the auditorium? One group near me tucked into slices of cake. Behind, someone with ice in their plastic cup provided offstage percussion. Is it only a matter of time before the buckets of popcorn and fizzy drinks join in?

Ken Walton

RSNO in Germany (2)

Rudolf Oetker Halle, Bielefeld

To the loudly-expressed delight of the German audience, conductor Thomas Søndergård  announced the surprise of a world premiere at the conclusion of the third concert in the RSNO’s European tour.

For decades, this orchestra – alongside other Scottish ensembles – has dusted off John Fahey’s arrangement of Eightsome Reels as a traditional-music flavoured encore. When they played the piece in the United States, I described it as “bulletproof”, and it will remain so. Now, however, the RSNO has a new weapon in its armoury, courtesy of principal horn Christopher Gough.

In what might be compared to the sort of upgrade Formula 1 teams introduce midway through a Grand Prix season to give them a competitive edge, Gough has re-tooled the Eightsomes, using some of the screen-scoring skills he learned on a sabbatical on the Valencia campus of Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Gough’s re-boot, with its daring changes of pace and time signature, may be trickier to clap along to, but it is a more thorough demonstration of the capabilities of a full symphony orchestra, and this arrangement looks certain to become a familiar bonus at the end of RSNO tour programmes.

It also sat particularly well at the end of this one, which was a unique sequence of music on this tour. It had begun with a more established evocation of Scotland in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and the swelling melody of the sea at Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. Requiring smaller forces than the rest of the programme, it was distinguished by the punchy wind playing Søndergård demanded, and precision trumpets.

From then on, it was an all-Rachmaninov concert, a bold stroke of programming that only seemed a little too rich because the first movement of the composer’s Second Symphony would arguably benefit from a little editing.

Before that, French soloist Lise de la Salle played the Piano Concerto No 2, with which she had wowed the orchestra’s home audience last month. In her hands it is a work designed to demonstrate the literal meaning of the name of her instrument – the pianoforte as a machine that works for delicacy as well as raw power. 

The famous opening bars have been played faster than she chooses to begin the work, but few players approach the dynamics of the score so deliberately. Every note counted and her lead was reflected in the contributions of soloists within the orchestra, notably again in the winds. Like Midori earlier in the week, it was to Bach that the soloist turned for her encore, describing his music as a “prayer for peace” to match the Ukrainian ribbon she wore.

The second movement Allegro of the symphony – with the work’s best tune – swiftly rescued it from the slightly unfocused journey that the opening section becomes, and with leader Maya Iwabuchi contributing a lyrical solo, the slow third movement was followed by a thoughtful pause before Sondergard launched the party of the Finale.

It is not just onstage that this tour has had to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. Covid has  meant a last-minute shuffling of responsibilities in the admin team as well, while post-Brexit regulations mean that the RSNO’s instrument trailer is hooked up to an Ireland-registered tractor unit with sub-contracted drivers. Somehow, the arrival of a brand-new encore work to energise the players and delight audiences seemed both appropriate and positively therapeutic.

Keith Bruce

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

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

In a couple of week’s time, the RSNO will embark on its first overseas tour in over two years with its music director Thomas Søndergård, giving three concerts in Germany and a final one in the Polish city of Katowice. Last weekend’s home programme – music by Walton, Rachmaninov and Elgar – was something of a dress rehearsal.

Going by Saturday’s Glasgow performances, the European audiences should brace themselves for a wholly novel experience. It’s possible that Walton’s comedy overture Scapino and Elgar’s First Symphony will be completely new to them. But nor are they likely to have witnessed a Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2 so impulsive and refreshing as this was in the hands of French pianist Lise de la Salle.

She is a disarmingly powerful player. The opening solo chords came to life with timeless, volcanic immensity, thrillingly sustained as the movement proper got under way, de la Salle pummelling the bass notes to near breaking point and constantly side-stepping expectations with sudden bursts of lightning speed. 

That certainly kept Søndergård and the orchestra on their toes. You could sense the crackling creative tension as they second guessed de la Salle’s next move, hitting the jackpot and finding their own illuminating new things to say, though just occasionally being taken too much by surprise. Even in the famous slow movement, which opened with dreamlike repose, de la Salle’s thoughts venture into heavenly, personalised territory. Anything less than a belt and braces finale would have disappointed. It didn’t.

Søndergård, for whom this Elgar is new territory, took an equally individual tack on the iconic English composer’s Symphony No 1. Indeed, it was decidedly un-English, and what seemed from the slowly affirming start like a probing, unpolluted exploration by the Danish conductor. There was less of the extravagant latitude, the ambling rubato, so beloved by its greatest British exponents. 

Yes, that did cool some of the heart-wringing ardour, especially in the march-like opening, but in its place was an electrifying clarity that threw up new vistas and interrelationships, more the sprightly-tuned spirit of Mahler than six-cylinder Bruckner. Was the RSNO ready for this? Mostly so, as the wealth of colourful detail and the ultimate cohesiveness of the performance – the central movements pivotal as a yin and yang collective – invariably proved.

The launch pad for the entire programme was Walton’s Scapino, and as the titular allusion to the skylarking Commedia dell-Arte hero suggests, it is a bundle of mischievous fun. There was immediate razzmatazz in this performance, driven by dazzling rhythmic twists and the exuberant omnipresence of Walton’s signature smirk. 

Ken Walton

The RSNO’s forthcoming European Tour (3-9 April) will also feature Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (soloist Midori)