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?