Tag Archives: Rory Macdonald

RSNO / Macdonald

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A fortnight ahead of its official season-opening concerts under Music Director Thomas Sondergard, the RSNO is covering a lot of ground with its pre-season fixtures to celebrate the return of live music before a real audience.

Following Sunday’s appearance by a fully match-fit RSNO Chorus, singing Haydn’s Creation in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall under the baton of Gregory Batsleer, here was a showcase for the orchestra’s new principal clarinet, Timothy Orpen, and Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald – a programming also visiting Dundee and Aberdeen.

The headline attraction was Mozart’s perennially-popular Clarinet Concerto, played by Orpen on the basset instrument with its extra notes at the bottom. The composer was working at the cutting-edge of technology at the time, helping develop a new instrument that was already notable for its range, and in recent years it has become much more common to perform it on the precise instrument intended, or at least a modern equivalent.

With a little ornamentation by the soloist, this was a beautifully-measured, precise, but quite unemotional performance of an old favourite. Orpen is a terrific player and Macdonald kept a very steady pulse in the strings under the lovely melody of the slow movement. He is a conductor of the clearest intentions who would surely brook no impression of vagueness of interpretation, and there seemed a slight tendency to see the work as a laboratory demonstration of the clarinet’s capabilities – but then that may well be exactly how Mozart saw it.

The works around the concerto in the programme were far from obvious choices, but both were beautifully orchestrated for an edition of the RSNO only slightly larger than required for the Mozart. It was a real delight of this concert to hear that range of musical colour in the bright acoustic of the orchestra’s new space in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall complex.

The Overture to Sibelius’s Karelia Music, his first major work, is less often heard than the Karelia Suite he later condensed from the whole thing. The suite makes more of the Intermezzo melody that everyone knows – the only original tune in the whole work – but it does appear here. What was just as audible in this performance was how fully-realised the orchestration skills of the composer were, with his symphonies years in the future.

The Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams sits half way through his varied orchestral output, but in 1943 many saw it as a valedictory work. In 2021 it is hard to say where his works sit in the canon, aside from the regular poll-topping victories of The Lark Ascending as a popular favourite.

Macdonald and the RSNO made the most persuasive case for the Fifth. The third movement Romanza is most recognisable as the work of The Lark’s composer, with its opening solo for Henry Clay’s cor anglais and, more obviously, leader Lena Zeliszewska’s violin at its end.

Elsewhere, though, it is a complex, fascinating work, mixing modernism and the pastoral, with the spotlight falling on every section of the orchestra at one time or another, and rich combinations of them in the scoring.

It is easy to hear why, after the brash Fourth, the wartime audience heard its successor as some sort of summing-up. In fact Vaughan Williams would continue to confound expectations of his orchestral writing until shortly before his death, fifteen years later.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Rory Macdonald by Robin Clewly

RSNO / Macdonald

Wilson: Symphonies Nos 2 & 5

Following on from their excellent recorded coupling of Thomas Wilson’s Third and Fourth Symphonies on the Linn label, conductor Rory Macdonald and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra now turn their attention to the Second and Fifth. 

This effectively completes the series, given that Wilson, who died in 2001 aged 73, withdrew his First Symphony after only its second performance in 1960, unconvinced of its worth. As a result – and unless there are plans to release the discarded score for performance – these two symphonies, written 33 years apart, are effectively bookends to Wilson’s symphonic output.

Wilson was a trendsetter in the functional sense. His decision to base his career in Glasgow – whereas, previously, Scots composers seeking career opportunities felt compelled to go to London – paved the way for future generations of Scots-based creatives, from the likes of Eddie McGuire and William Sweeney to such younger luminaries as James MacMillan and Stuart MacRae. 

Musically, he was of his generation, a style that wrestled with the conflicting questions posed by the postwar European avant-gardists, and a craftsmanship capable of shaping the answers in his own fashion. We hear harmonic dissonance and melodic austerity enclosed within vigorous rhythmic structuring and a fundamental reliance on tonality. Bartok comes to mind, as does Walton, but with a personal twist.

The Second Symphony, premiered in 1965, is a confident and characterful assertion of that ambivalence. Its clear-minded structure – a three-movement format that opens in brooding darkness but with immediate clear and convincing intent – embraces intellect and emotion in equal measure. The powering inevitability of a substantial opening movement not without its tender cameos; the mutable agitation of the central movement; the pugnacious Walton-inspired urgency of the finale: all are addressed with clear-minded singularity by Macdonald, begging the question, why is this work not performed more often?

The Fifth Symphony grew out of material from an earlier 1980s work, Mosaics, written for the then chamber ensemble offshoot of the RSNO, Cantilena. It’s not surprising, therefore, to find this symphony scored for economic forces. It was premiered in 1998 by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Joseph Swensen.

Set out as one subdivided movement, the musical signature is not worlds removed from the Second Symphony. But there is a self-satisfying reassurance in Wilson’s musical discourse that, besides reflecting the quiet, experienced confidence of the older mind, adds eloquence and composure to a voice that still harbours capricious thoughts. 

The symphony opens and closes in shadowy tones, more pensive than threatening, between which the narrative ricochets from introvert retrospection to outward glee. And with such lucid, uncluttered instrumentation the opportunity is not lost in this crisp, thoughtful performance to savour the riches of Wilson’s intricate scoring and the unpretentious profundity of his expressive voice.

It’s wonderful that the RSNO has created this tangible legacy. As so often happens, it takes time beyond a composer’s death for honest and objective reappraisal to be possible. On this evidence Wilson’s symphonies surely deserve an afterlife, and not just on disc.
Ken Walton