Tag Archives: RSNO

Susan Tomes / RSNO Winds

Perth Concert Hall

One of the great advantages for a pianist teaming up with key wind principals from a single orchestra to form the required ensemble for Mozart’s and Beethoven’s only Quintets for Piano and Winds is its diminishing of the risk factors regarding coordination.

For pianist Susan Tomes, therefore, spearheading this pairing of works for the last of Perth Concert Hall’s engaging week-long Easter Lunchtime Concert Series, the integration here with her RSNO friends is akin to a joining of two minds rather than five. The unified, easeful enjoyment of these performances translate as such.

What didn’t happen as planned was Friday’s associated BBC Radio 3 broadcast, given that the BBC turned over its entire radio network to coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, so the concert’s only current availability is via the film version purchasable via the Concert Hall’s website.

It, too, has its unplanned moments, such as the false start to the opening of the Beethoven: a strangely unedited moment (uncorrected at the time of writing), but at the same time offering a touchingly human moment that could easily have happened in any live context. Such are the vagaries of these uncharted times.

That aside, these are both exceptional works that are a joy to experience anytime in any way, and when the essence of chamber music is adhered to – no place for egos here – the music truly sings. Not even in the Beethoven, who places more soloistic emphasis on the piano than Mozart, does Tomes feel any need to play the prima donna. She is, and always has been, a naturally sensitive chamber musician.

Her interaction with the RSNO players – Adrian Wilson (oboe), Timothy Orpen (clarinet), David Hubbard (bassoon) and Christopher Gough (horn) – is both generous and empathetic; their familiarity with each other in return gives a natural homogeneity and precision to the complementary wind unit.

Nonetheless, the real joy of these performances are those moments where self-expression shines through – a penetrating horn melody perhaps, the surprisingly bullish emergence of the bassoon, or of course the many opportunities for the piano to capitalise on concerto-like opportunities. 

It’s in the slow movements where the most melting musical moments arise. The lyrical warmth of Mozart’s central Larghetto and Beethoven’s Andante cantabile find Tomes and her colleagues at their most spontaneously and most comfortably expressive. The outer movements vary in consistency. 

Should a slight hesitancy of attack in Mozart’s opening Largo – Allegro moderato concern us? Only when the initial mist clears to reveal a crisper, more vital team spirit. And are the solo piano openings to both the Mozart and Beethoven finales deliberately understated? Again, the instant shifts of gear as the winds enter in each case leave you wondering. 

But there’s no escaping the unique brilliance of these hybrid works, the fascinating sound world they explore, and the powerful affection and instinctive musicality elicited in these genuinely inspired performances. 
Ken Walton

Available to watch via www.horsecross.co.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


RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Let us hope that the RSNO is re-energised by the move into the larger space of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the opportunity to perform with larger forces in its recently-announced new digital season, because there is a slight sense of fatigue in this final concert of the current one.

That is no fault of guest soloist Nicky Spence, who brings expressive commitment and an enthusiastic musicality to Britten’s Les Illuminations. These nine Rimbaud settings may have been written for, and dedicated to, a soprano, Sophie Wyss, but that was surely as much because of the restrictions of the time (1940) and the emotions behind both the verse and Britten’s music sound more powerful in the tenor voice. The specific dedication of the seventh of them, the bold and assertive Being Beauteous, to Peter Pears, meant that the composer himself was being neither coy nor particularly careful.

The Scottish Ensemble made a go-to recording of the work with Toby Spence (no relation) and there is a coherence to that group’s string sound – with all the percussive effects and imitation of other instruments in this score – that is often missing here. The current necessity for social distancing might be some explanation for that, except that string players in general, and RSNO ones in particular, have noted some benefit in sitting at individual desks.

The Britten is preceded by George Walker’s roughly contemporary Lyric for Strings. While there is no argument that the compositions of the first African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize are ripe for rediscovery, his reputation might be better enhanced by tackling meatier fare than this early imitation of Barber’s Adagio, lovely though it is.

Thomas Sondergard’s Beethoven Five, which concluded the programme, is neither fish nor fowl – but then a hybrid of historically-informed practice and contemporary brio is what most orchestras and conductors aim for with the work these days. So we have natural trumpets and modern horns, and string playing that is brisk but not quite crisp enough in the first movement.

The conductor may be keeping his powder dry, but there is also an odd imbalance in the sound – uncharacteristic of engineer Phil Hobbs – which continues in the Andante, with the wind soloists, although all on fine form, rather too far up in the mix.

When more muscle comes into the performance in the Finale, that difficulty disappears, as does the lack of rhythmic rigour. The sprint to the tape, at least, whets the appetite for the orchestra’s return in April.

Keith Bruce

RSNO’s New Digital Season

It is a measure of the confident way that Scotland’s national orchestra has dealt with the restrictions imposed on its work by the coronavirus pandemic – and coped with many enforced changes of plan along the way – that it is able to launch a new season in upbeat and positive style.

The headline news is the extension of the contract of Music Director Thomas Sondergard to the autumn of 2024. The further three years of commitment to the RSNO come as the Danish conductor is preparing to make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic on Saturday, stepping into the shoes of Sir Donald Runnicles to direct a programme of Prokofiev, Sibelius and Kurt Weill.

For Sondergard, the important analogy is that he has found the same warmth and eagerness to work in the German capital that he encountered in his first dealings with the RSNO. He also suggests that the work the Scottish orchestra has made available to a global audience with its online programme during the health emergency has enhanced reputations far beyond its home audience, which is likely to prove crucial if touring proves problematic in the future.

That optimistic tone is echoed by chief executive Alistair Mackie, whose pre-COVID enthusiasm to develop the orchestra’s online work has necessarily moved to the top of the agenda over the past year. “It is true that we have made progress,” says Mackie. “We have learned a lot from our first Digital Season, and, as many of our audiences will know, we often had to move quickly and adapt to travel and working conditions that changed with very little notice. I want to thank our audiences for the support they have shown us during this time.”

The new season will begin on Friday April 16 when Sondergard conducts a concert in the strand of Polish music announced nearly a year ago, including the Violin Concerto No 1 by Karol Szymanowski with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. Benedetti also closes the season on Friday June 11, when she plays Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto, working with the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Elim Chan.

Says Sondergard: “It is incredible to think that little over a year ago myself and the full RSNO Orchestra were touring Europe with Nicola Benedetti, performing in sold-out venues, and experiencing standing ovations night after night. We could not have imagined the experiences of the past year were waiting just around the corner. 

“The past year has been difficult for all of us, and sadly tragic for so many people. Music is our way of expressing and sharing our moments of grief and frustration, but also the moments of happiness and hope that help get us through these extraordinary times.”

Up until now, the behind-closed-doors concerts have been filmed in the orchestra’s rehearsal space in the RSNO Centre, but the new programme will be recorded in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall next door following its successful use for the online incarnation of the Celtic Connections festival last month.

The move enables compliance with social distancing guidelines for up to 75 musicians on the extended stage, when fewer than 60 could be playing together in the RSNO Centre, making areas of repertoire possible once more. The two concerts Chan conducts in June will include the Concertos for Orchestra by Bela Bartok and Witold Lutoslawski, the latter partnered by Chopin’s Piano Concerto No1 played by Benjamin Grosvenor, recreating the line-up on last year’s prize-winning recording of the work.

Lutoslawski also features in the May 14 debut of Polish conductor Marta Gardolinska with the orchestra, when his Mala suita prefaces Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, and in a chamber music concert a fortnight later, when principal oboe Adrian Wilson is soloist in his Epitaph for Oboe and Piano and Lena Zeliszewska plays Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata in D Minor.

The season also salvages more of the “Scotch Snaps” planned for the 20/21 live concerts – short pieces by contemporary Scottish composers, with works by Michael Murray, Craig Armstrong and Christopher Duncan. The first of these is included in a chamber music concert featuring pianist Paul Lewis, who featured in the RSNO’s recent all-Grieg concert conducted by Ed Gardner, and the Armstrong precedes Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, played by orchestra leader Maya Iwabuchi and conducted by Angus Webster.

Principal cello Aleksei Kiseliov is joined by pianist Alasdair Beatson for a programme of chamber music by Beethoven, Strauss and Dvorak on May 7 and conductor Kevin John Edusei is on the podium on May 21 for Schumann’s Second Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine and soprano Susanna Hurrell and baritone Marcus Farnsworth singing Schubert as arranged by Brahms.

An individual subscription to the new season is £85, with a household subscription priced at £150. Individual concerts are prices at £10 and £20 and there is a concessionary rate of £27 for all nine concerts, or £3 each, available to full-time students, those under 26 and people with disabilities or who are unemployed.

Download the season brochure and book tickets at rsno.org.uk

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Gardner / Lewis

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Imagine this RSNO digital concert as a priceless painting encased in a tasteful picture frame that enhances, but never overwhelms, the masterpiece within. The latter is Edvard Grieg’s timelessly popular Piano Concerto in A minor; the outer casement consists of the two orchestral suites formed from the incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What’s not to like?

Throw in the presence of British conductor Edward Gardner, whose current position as chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic gives him a direct link to the composer (Grieg filled that post from 1880-82) and a feel for the Norwegian spirit that courses through this music. And Paul Lewis, of course, a pianist with an intoxicating ability to temper rigorous intellectual capacity with alluring simplicity and affection. The entire combination, along with an RSNO in the suavest of shape, is as near perfection as you’d hope.

Neatly filmed and produced, and with unpretentiously informative spoken links from tubist John Whitener, violist Katherine Wren, and Gardner and Lewis themselves, this is also a medium which the RSNO is now well on top of. We’d all like to be back in a live situation, but there’s no denying the new skills that have been learnt through desperate measures, slickly on display here.

Gardner’s shaping of the two suites is masterly, poetically restrained, but engrained with a crystalline folkish dynamic that brings every fresh detail and sighing nuance to the fore. He opens with Peer Gynt Suite No 2, arrestingly dramatic to begin with, but then a subsequent cocktail of vying charms, from the heavily pastiched Arabian Dance (its opening flute duo weirdly reminiscent of Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme tune to 1970s TV sitcom Some Mother’s Do Have Em!), to the sassy Peer Gynt’s Homecoming and calming simplicity of Solveig’s Song.

The more popular numbers – Morning Mood, Ase’s Death, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King – follow the concerto in Suite No 1, again lovingly shaped, the emphasis on richness of tone and unmannered suppleness. The shimmer of muted strings in Ase’s Death is sublime.

At the heart of this programme, though, is the clean-cut, effortless precision of Lewis’ concerto performance. He stops well short of proclaiming total detachment, allowing Grieg’s immortal themes to flow naturally from his disciplined fingers, avoiding temptation to sentimentalise, and knitting together the entire edifice – which too often invites misplaced overindulgence – in a riveting display of explosive control. 

Gardner supports without intrusion, but always with something to add to the mix, a counter-emphasis here, a loving whisper there. It’s that time of the year when the RSNO traditionally offers a St Valentine’s concert. Be sure and make a date with this one!
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

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

RSNO / Lowe / Cargill

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

A “technical issue” resulted in Friday’s planned release of the RSNO’s first 2021 digital concert being delayed until Saturday. Given this glitch offered a version that chopped the final bars off Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the decision to delay was wise. There’s nothing worse than experiencing the same fate as the long distance runner whose legs buckle a few metres short of the finish line.

Be assured, the rectified version takes us all the way, with a rousing end to a performance in which conductor James Lowe and the orchestra finally feel at home with each other and a mutually conducive spark is lit. 

Lowe was brought in to replace Ryan Bancroft and a programme originally intended to feature violinist Midori in the world premiere on Glanert’s Violin Concerto No 2. In its place comes the popular Dvorak symphony and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with mezzo soprano Karen Cargill.

The opening work remains unchanged, Errollyn Wallen’s surging Mighty River, written in 2007 to commemorate the bicentennial of the signing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Like the political momentum gathering pace then for a lengthy ongoing liberation campaign, Wallen’s metaphor of choice is the unstoppable power of water, its vitality, the unceasing journey that a mighty river undertakes in search of the open sea.

Familiar tunes make their presence felt: Amazing Grace feeds through the opening bars like a shared opening prayer; the spiritual Deep River more immersed within the later fabric of increasingly frenetic textures. The language encompasses echoes of Copland’s fresh-faced dissonances, powering minimalism à la Reich or Adams, besides Wallen’s own lyrical, occasionally mystical fingerprints. It is a compendium of 20th/21st century Classical Americana underpinned by incessant, pulsating energy. 

This performance doesn’t quite get to grips with all that. It’s more matter-of-fact than edge-of-the-seat, more routine than gripping, especially where the vital underpinning rhythmic motor seems more content to chunter along than switch to overdrive.

Cargill’s presence in the five songs that make up Wagner’s gorgeous Mathilde Wesendonck settings provide a welcome instant transformation. The rich sonority of her lower range channels their emotional depth from the offset, Cargill brilliantly fractious in Stehe Still – a touch of the Wagnerian nasties – and glowingly ecstatic in Im Treibhaus, spine-chillingly intense in Der Engel and aptly dreamy in Traume.

Hans Werner Henze’s orchestration poses its own challenges, the highly exposed solo lines and curious colour mixes dependent on super-refined management. While Lowe’s direction provides inoffensive, efficient support for Cargill, it struggles to find the vital essence of Henze’s weird and wonderful intentions. They are more convincing than they sometimes appear here.

No lack of conviction when it comes to the Dvorak, despite niggling aspects of (recording?) balance that occasionally vulgarise the opening Allegro molto. Thereafter, there’s the leisurely Largo, sprightly Scherzo and wholesomely conclusive Allegro con fuoco to seal the deal on a programme that takes its time to fully settle.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Meister / Dego : Beethoven 7

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The musicians of the RSNO do a nice line in practical observations in their pieces to camera introducing the music of this digital season concert. It is not so much about demystifying their work as making the audience at home aware of some of the challenges they face. So Chris Hart’s brief guide to playing a natural trumpet and Adrian Wilson’s warning of the trap Beethoven set for unwary oboe players are incidental joys of the last of the series in this troubled calendar year.

For all that the format is well-worn, there are also practical considerations behind a concert programme that runs overture/concerto/symphony, and this is a classic example of its success.

The symphony is Beethoven’s Seventh, the favourite of many, and conducted here, without a score, by Cornelius Meister in the manner of a man with very individual opinions on how it should go. If you only heard the stormy Finale, full of forceful dynamics and taken at an impressive speed, the chances are you would not guess that the first movement is bright and light, but far from as brisk as it is often played these days. And the swift segue from the first straight into the pulse of the Allegretto would not lead anyone to predict the contemplative pause Meister takes between the other movements.

Although the presence of four double basses hardly makes for a huge symphony orchestra, this is as large a band as any of us has seen recently, with the socially-distanced RSNO players filling every corner of the available space in the orchestra’s excellent rehearsal room. It has a superb acoustic, and the recorded sound is full of detail and ensemble richness, with Linn’s Phil Hobbs and the BBC’s Andrew Trinick sharing production duties.

The mature Beethoven is preceded by two distinct phases in the short life of Mozart. His final Violin Concerto, No.5, is known as “The Turkish” for the supposed ethnic influence on the last movement, so preceding it with the Overture to his (later) Turkish-set opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio, makes musical sense. However,  after giving the programme that suitably energetic opening, with Hobbs at the controls, the conductor took a break.

Italian-American violinist Francesca Dego will be recording the Mozart Concertos for Chandos with the RSNO and Sir Roger Norrington, and that team performed the Fourth in February of last year. Here, however, Dego shared direction of the orchestra with leader Sharon Roffman, herself no stranger to working without a conductor, and the resulting creative balance (with Trinick on the desk) is quite magical.

The orchestra makes a full statement of its own sound before the soloist’s first entry, but it is only after appreciating the sophistication, lightness of touch, clarity and precision of Dego’s first movement cadenza that it is possible to appreciate how those qualities stand for the whole of this performance. Even better, both musicians clearly appreciate the slightly sleazy playfulness in much of the music that follows; those up-and-down chromatic phrases are rarely so teasingly phrased while appearing so elegant.

Keith Bruce

Making Young Voices Heard

The guy who does Christmas, NYCOS artistic director Christopher Bell, talks to KEITH BRUCE

The artistic director of the National Youth Choir of Scotland is in ebullient mood when I call him.

This is champion, because no-one does ebullience quite like Christopher Bell, as anyone who has attended any of the Christmas Concerts he conducted over the past quarter of a century will know.

Not this year, it’s true, and we’ll come to that.

The cause of Bell’s upbeat mood is not the start of a vaccination programme that should ultimately see the many-tiered organisation he founded and developed operating as intended, with highly trained young-voices impressing audiences, critics and conductors in packed halls across the nation and the world – or at least not the direct cause.

Whether as a result of the new mood of optimism abroad or not, Bell can now start planning for residential courses for his National Boys and National Girls Choirs in April, because one of the schools in Edinburgh that regularly hosts them had just made clear that it is ready to welcome the young musicians through its doors in the Easter holidays again.

This is in stark contrast to the situation a couple of months ago when his attempt to find even an outdoor playing field or sports ground willing to host a gathering of socially-distanced singers was meeting with a frosty response.

NYCOS has far from shut up shop, of course. When the coronavirus struck, just before last year’s Easter courses, the organisation very swiftly moved its work online, and its invaluable education of Scotland’s young folk at a local and national level, and from toddlers to twenty-somethings, continued. It continues still, with a weekend of online singing by the latest recruits to the National Boys Choir just ended and one with the National Girls Choir about to start.

“Suddenly, things seem a lot more hopeful,” says Bell. And fortuitously NYCOS has a Christmas recording poised in the blocks and ready to remind everyone what an essential treat music-making by young voice is at this time of year. (See review by Ken Walton elsewhere on Vox Carnyx)

The lead single from the seven track Signum release is a Paul Mealor original, I Pray, which features the solo voice of tenor Jamie MacDougall and the highlight of a set recorded seven years ago.

“Christmas is the time when you miss people who have gone, and this Christmas we are all going to miss people because we can’t link up with them. This song that Paul Mealor has written is about the people we are missing and the people we’ve lost. I lost my own father on Christmas Day, so that makes I Pray particularly special for me,” says Bell.

“The music is from a book, called Carols for Everyone, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and published by Novello in 2013. The idea was that these arrangements could involve an SATB choir, or a children’s choir, or both. We were contacted by Tern TV to record a few tracks for the Watchnight Service they were filming in Aberdeen. We got a choir together and we recorded all the songs in the book.

“This year I got in touch with Tern TV and asked what we were allowed to do with the tracks, and they were quite happy for us to use them.”

It is the latest in a sequence of releases that has kept NYCOS in the public ear, including a July 4 selection of music by Aaron Copland and Irving Berlin and a St Andrew’s Day double A-side. The sequence started with an album with the RSNO featuring Sir James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados alongside songs by Eric Whitacre, Thea Musgrave and Sir Michael Tippett.

“Cantos Sagrados reached number 13 in the Classical Charts and had brilliant reviews, including one in Gramophone Magazine” says Bell. “The releases have been very important in terms of keeping the NYCOS sound alive in the year that NYCOS can’t sing in public. It is about awareness, and I think I Pray could do well.”

Mr Christmas, Christopher Bell (credit Drew Farrell)

Mischievously, Bell compares that the current situation for choirs to the resourcefulness of Catholics after the Reformation, meeting in secret to sing the Mass in Latin.

“There are people still singing and keeping the flame alive, and we are trying our best to keep Scotland’s young people singing. We are just having to do it online. The NYCOS regional choirs across the country have been rehearsing online since September, and have had online Christmas events.” 

After detailed risk assessments, one choir met outside, in a park. Groups of no more than 20 gathered to a strict timetable for half an hour of singing, and then had to return, by a different route, to the carpark where parents waited.

“At the end, it left us thinking that those choirs working in areas in Tier 1 and 2 could feasibly have outdoor events.”

There has been a positive side to learning to work online as well.

“For NYCOS it has been a huge opportunity. When we did our Kodaly teaching in August, we had 300 participants including people in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, England, Ireland, and Scandinavia. People joined our online courses who wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“The NYCOS philosophy and NYCOS publications have been winging their way to the four corners of the world as a result of being able to do our courses online. We are currently talking about how we can capitalise on that in the new year.”

And there have been more specific practical benefits in learning to operate online.

“Boys’ voices change, and between our auditions in November and course in April is long enough for significant changes in the voices of the boys we’ve chosen. So frequently at the start of the course I have a mad morning listening to 40 or 50 boys to hear whether their voices have changed since I last heard them. Zoom is going to allow me to do that in the days before the course.

“Singing teachers are now able to do consultation online, and share resources. We are going to be able to be better at what we do as a result of Zoom. Nobody wanted to do a singing lesson online prior to March, but this has opened our eyes to the fact that it is possible.”

But the Christmas concerts that were another aspect of Christopher Bell’s career are another matter. 

He has a good story about being recognised at his local petrol station with the question: “Are you the guy that does Christmas?” His interrogator went on to say that a family outing to the RSNO’s Christmas Concert at the Usher Hall always marked the official start to his festive season.

Bell had handed on the mantle of chorusmaster at the RSNO Junior Chorus and his staff link with the orchestra before the current crisis, but the days of conducting as many as 18 Christmas concerts are understandably on his mind at the moment, and technology cannot replicate the thrill of those events.

“It was about engaging with the audience, giving people that warm feeling at Christmas time. I need the orchestra, the choir and the hall; we inspire each other to create a unique experience.

“I did RSNO Christmas concerts for 25 years, and I will need to find something to replace it next year. I’m not sure if Christopher Bell’s Christmas Concerts would have marketing appeal, but maybe we’ll test the market.”

The NYCOS mini album Until We Meet Again and the single I Pray are out now on Signum Classics.

Earthtones Trio / Christmas Single

Fancy a dash of sophistication with your easy listening? Something warm and Christmassy to cosy up to after a traumatic year? Maybe it’s time to discover the golden strains of the Earthtones Trio. 

They are familiar faces to Scots classical music audiences – principle flautist Katherine Bryan and associate principal cellist Betsy Taylor from the RSNO with cross-genre pianist and composer Euan Stevenson – and they’ve just released a couple of red-hot Christmas crackers as a double A-side single.

The melodies are perennial favourites, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and the normally syrupy O Holy Night. But it’s Stevenson’s classy arrangements that add gilded veneer to what would otherwise constitute routine seasonal fare. Void of sentimentality, energised by the piano’s liquid moto perpetuo and the silken interplay of flute and cello, they elicit irrepressible charm with ne’er a cliched moment.

While Stevenson’s jazz inclinations are most palpable in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, they are neither out of place nor overstated. The rippling piano opening, spiced with pseudo-impressionist harmonies, its rhythmic stresses dreamily out of kilter with the first glimpse of the tune on flute, are just a gateway to a track that radiates autumnal joy. Echoes of Chick Corea inform soft multicoloured harmonies. The cello’s mellowest range is predominant, the flute taking flight with short improvisational bursts. The emphasis is on cool.

If this is the Yuletide claret, O Holy Night is the mulled wine. Sleepier arpeggios from Stevenson set a moody tenor for Taylor’s expansive, rich-roasted unfolding of the theme. With Bryan’s entry – a magical, near-imperceptible presence – comes a blossoming dialogue between the two that is genuinely moving. Tears will be shed, for all the right reasons..
Ken Walton

Full information on how to purchase or stream Earthtones’ Christmas single is at www.earthtonestrio.com

RSNO: Meister / Gough

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Lurking beneath the high-level collective performance prowess of most orchestras is a surprising plethora of subsidiary individual accomplishments. Among RSNO players of recent years, for instance, there has been a novelist, a Magic Circle magician and two church organ builders. Not surprisingly, there have also been composers, one early example (1900-1904) being a certain second trombonist, Gustav Holst.

The latest compositional voice to emerge from the RSNO ranks is its current principal horn, Christopher Gough. He spent most of last year studying abroad on sabbatical for a masters degree in scoring for film, television and video games at the Berklee College of Music Valencia, winning an Outstanding Scholar Award for his troubles, despite the interruptions caused by the pandemic.

It’s clear, from the world premiere of his Three Belarusian Folk Songs – performed in the RSNO’s most recent digital concert and featuring its dedicatee, principal cellist Aleksei Kiseliov, as soloist – that Gough has an instinctive penchant for this particular idiom. Cast in three movements, with a language drawing freely on recognisable influences, cleverly assimilated and recast to serve his own expressive purposes (think John Williams), here is a craftsman who naturally understands the orchestral palate and its ability to express profound thoughts in vital, communicative terms.

On the surface are the three folk tunes successively defining each movement and forming the basis of the solo cello’s rhapsodic discourse, its mood supported and expanded upon by the surrounding strings and percussion. Kiseliov – who performed extensively as a young Russian soloist in Belarus – offers what seems a wholly natural affinity for their beguiling traditional intonations, sometimes weepingly plaintive, at other times dazzlingly rustic.

Gough pulls on a menagerie of musical references, from febrile Bartok and sumptuously dense Vaughan Williams to chiming percussive frissons reminiscent of, say, Lutoslawski or Orff, all craftily woven and ultimately serving their purpose in illuminating the real message of the work, a reflective, soulful response to the oppressive political situation in Belarus. 

Kiseliov’s performance was breathtakingly moving. Gough’s other RSNO colleagues, working under conductor Cornelius Meister (replacing the absent Thomas Sondergard), also did him proud. It will be interesting to see where he goes now with his compositional aspirations.

Where this work signalled the launch of the RSNO’s occasional Scotch Snap series (music by Scots composers), this programme, in opening with Krzysztof Penderecki’s evocative Adagio for Strings, also marked the first in this season’s Polska Scotland series, celebrating 500 years of friendship between the two countries.

Re-crafted from his Third Symphony as a stand alone concert work in 2013, the Adagio is representative of the composer’s later style, a retrenchment away from the harsh modernism of his younger years to a more retrospective tonal language. Under Meister’s urging lead, the RSNO strings evoked its eerie aching serenity, a gauntness that harks back to Shostakovich.

Coming online on a day that Edinburgh was reeling from its thundersnow onslaught, Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, the Pastoral, which closed this programme, might have seemed like small change in meteorological terms. Meister’s view was very different, though, his answer being to apply pressurised containment as a means of heightening its protean narrative. 

The overall vision was sweeping and cohesive, within which lay a world of infinite contrast. The RSNO strings were expansive and as smooth as silk in the “Scene by the brook”; the “Thunderstorm” raged with unpredictable seismic ferocity; the “Shepherd’s Hymn” evoked reassuringly those final moments of peace and contentment.

Ken Walton

Image: RSNO Principal Horn Christopher Gough

French Award for Scots Producer

Philip Hobbs, chief producer at leading Scots recording label Linn Records, has received the prestigious Prise de Son (Sound Recording) Award from the French classical music journal Diapason. 

The magazine described Hobbs, who has over thirty years’ experience in the industry, as an “exceptional” talent, whose professionalism consistently meets the very highest standards in sound recording. In particular, it cited January’s Linn release of JS Bach: The Well-Tempered Consort 1, performed by the viol consort Phantasm, adding that “the assiduous care he [Hobbs] takes in his work gives the appearance of great simplicity”.

This is the second major award in as many years for the Glasgow-based producer. In 2019, his work for Linn on the third of Robin Ticciati’s French repertoire series with the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra earned him a coveted Trophée from French broadcaster Radio Classique for Best Sound Recording of the Year.

Hobbs’ notable expertise has been put to wider use during the current Covid pandemic, producing many digital concerts for the Edinburgh International Festival, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra. 

Back in April, the RSNO also featured among Diapason winners, its album of Chopin Piano Concertos with soloist Benjamin Grosvenor and principal guest conductor Elim Chan netting a distinguished Diapason d’Or. The RSNO previously appeared in the French awards list under its former music director Stephane Deneve.

Christmas Concert On The Box

With live Family Christmas Concerts off the Yuletide menu this year, the RSNO and Children’s Classics Concerts (CCC) have joined forces to create a traditional Christmas Show you can tune into from the comfort of your own home. 

“The Night Before Christmas” has been devised by popular percussionist and regular CCC presenter Owen Gunnell who is seen making frantic attempts to get Christmas organised after inadvertently sleeping through the first 12 days of December, and worse still forgetting to post his letter to Santa. The emphasis is on fun for the whole family, with music to sing along to and favourite seasonal performances from the RSNO, RSNO Junior Chorus and, of course, the irrepressible Gunnell himself. 

The initiative signals a new relationship with STV Player, which joins the RSNO and CCC FaceBook pages and YouTube channels in screening the event. “The Night Before Christmas” is premiered live on 12 December at 2pm, and is available to view free of charge for a further 30 days.  

“We are excited to be teaming up with the STV Player for the first time to bring this concert into homes across Scotland,” said RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie. “It has been a difficult year for us all and we hope this production will bring a little joy to all the RSNO and CCC audiences that have supported us so strongly in recent months.”

Full information at www.rsno.org.uk & www.childrensclassicconcerts.co.uk

RSNO / Widmann

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

He’s a conductor, a composer and a virtuoso clarinettist, so Jörg Widmann came as the complete package to an RSNO digital programme that combined Mozart’s much-loved Clarinet Concerto, Mendelssohn’s robust Reformation Symphony and Widmann’s own capricious Fantasie for solo clarinet.

It also meant that Widmann’s charismatic personality fed through every morsel of this filmed concert, not least that side of him – obvious from his affable pre-performance chat – that is undogmatic, free-spirited and spontaneously musical. If that meant pushing the letter of the score to some extremes in the Mozart and Mendelssohn, eschewing absolute adherence to tempi in favour of greater expressive freedom, it was done with such self-belief that it invariably triumphed.

What that required, in the Mozart, was an RSNO capable of engineering its own coordinated support, as Widmann’s direction was largely gestural and minimal. For the most part, the response was intuitive and beautifully symbiotic, the band instantly reactive to the teasing elasticity which he exercised in many of the work’s unforgettable themes.

Nor was it surprising to witness the smiling Mozartian brio of Widmann’s precision playing, warmed by the gritty tonal personality of his instrument, echoed in an orchestral ensemble fully signed up to his articulate, clear-minded vision. Where ensemble glitches occurred they were minor, the uppermost strings occasionally appearing thin and scurrying, but these were incidental in a thoroughly engaging, thought-provoking performance.

Widmann had the stage to himself in his own Fantasie, a madcap virtuoso concert piece conceived as a one-man musical reimagining of Commedia dell’Arte. Multiple “characters” interact with surreal, often cartoon-like wit, the manic agility of the clarinet writing – even a manufactured 4-part chord – central to its savage cut and thrust. A mesmerising performance.

Nothing quite brings you back down to earth like a Mendelssohn symphony, especially the “Reformation”, written in 1830 to celebrate the tercentenary of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, complete with the gravitational “mighty fortress” presence of Martin Luther’s chorale tune ”Ein feste Burg” as the mainstay of its final movement.

As with the Mozart, but now solely conducting the orchestra, Widmann’s approach was hungry and personal. That same resistance to rigidity opened up intriguing expressive possibilities: slow, punctuating breaths that gave added weight to new phrases; a persuasive energy that fuelled the unstinting momentum; shudders in tempo that sailed close to the wind in the Andante, but never so much as to knock it off course; and solid, brazen tuttis that ripened fully in the final moments.
Ken Walton

Image: Jörg Widmann

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

RSNO Berglund/Giltburg

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

With Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, we’re not in the 18th century anymore, Toto. This is both literally true – the composer began it in 1800 and it was first performed in 1803 – and in terms of the development of music. Although the piano concertos on either side may be considered in pairs, the Third is less a transitional work than the start of the revolution (to borrow the word the RSNO used for its Beethoven 250 strand) that found symphonic form in the Eroica.

The RSNO has its ideal partner for it in the dynamic and intelligent soloist with whom they have recorded Rachmaninov, Boris Giltburg, and the conductor was also to have been the same – Carlos Miguel Prieto. When he was unable to travel as a result of the current restrictions, the orchestra turned to a young Norwegian, Tabita Berglund, who only completed her Masters in orchestral conducting last year.

The reason may be very 2020, and another headache for orchestra managers to deal with, but such last minute replacements are by no means unusual, and this concert may have been the point where this “digital” season stepped up to take its place alongside the pantheon of “live” RSNO programmes – because it will be the one where we first met Berglund.

Not only was this her debut with the RSNO, it was the first time she had conducted the Beethoven concerto, and although she deferred to her soloist in her introductory remarks, there was nothing reserved in her clear, expansive, but detailed, style. In those same remarks she memorably described the work as “neither fish not bird” but she had the shape of the piece very clearly defined, and – although the start of the finale is the home of its big tune – the central Largo pinned as probably the composer’s most beautiful writing for piano and orchestra. This team performed it exquisitely.

After a very generous “encore” of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No.30 (presumably coming soon in Giltburg’s recordings for Naxos), the programme moved to more familiar ground for young Berglund. Crucially, however, if Sibelius 7 is music she knows intimately, it is also, thanks to Alexander Gibson, in the blood of the RSNO. This change of programme was a real bonus that would surely have been cheered to the rafters had audiences been able to hear it. Berglund’s understanding of how the orchestra was this composer’s instrument, and this work the pinnacle of that relationship, was palpable from the start.

With the three trombones providing the crucial supporting architecture of the flow of Sibelius’s precise use of the forces at his disposal, this was big music for these diminished times, powerful and full of emotion. 

Once again, the RSNO’s online presentation, directed here by Jack Hunter, and with crucial vocal contributions from the players, was first class. There were some beautifully placed fixed cameras for the concerto, and the balance, while unlike anything a ticket-holder would hear anywhere in the Usher or Glasgow Royal Concert Halls, was also quite vibrantly distinct from anything you might expect of a studio recording.
Keith Bruce

Image: Tabita Berglund conducts the RSNO at the RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Learning to live digitally

With little or no access to live audiences COVID-19 has forced classical music into the digital age. And there’s no going back, says KEITH BRUCE  

In the way of familiar journalistic overuse, the phrase “the new normal” was very swiftly denuded of any meaning, but it has been clear for a while, even to those most blinkered about the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, that long-term change is upon us.

For those who earn their livings in the arts there was an immediate huge short-term worry, with venues closed and performances cancelled because of the safety restrictions necessitated by the health emergency, and earnings abruptly curtailed.

At the same time, it was impossible not to be heartened by the outpouring of creativity that the situation precipitated. An online performance will never produce the same visceral thrill as the joy of hearing music played in a shared space, but the technology available at relatively little cost enabled talented musicians to produce work that could not be replicated in the recital room, multi-tracking themselves into large one-person groups or becoming a close-harmony ensemble without the help of even other family members.

Working in enforced isolation on opposite sides of the globe, new partnerships were forged as existing ones were maintained and expanded, digitally.

Scots and Scottish organisations have been inspiringly dynamic in much of this. As Nicola Benedetti told VoxCarnyx of her own education foundation: “We were always wanting to move things online, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that.”

At the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recently-arrived chief executive Alastair Mackie had been equally clear that the RSNO needed to embrace the possibilities of the digital future, before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Beginning with fun and games for young people and home-shot party-pieces by players, the RSNO plundered the cache of filmed recordings in its own recent archive to keep the orchestra’s output in the public eye.

Alongside the Benedetti Foundation’s video diet, the National Youth Choir of Scotland was also swiftly out of the blocks with a huge range of music tuition films for all ages and abilities, at the same time as it found ways of allowing its young choirs to meet online rather than cancel their school holiday sessions.

That education work became an early indicator of one of the other upsides of the enforced move to digital – its global reach. The Benedetti Foundation had not had ambitions outside of the UK, and the work of NYCOS, even with its network of area choirs across Scotland, stopped at the border. Now both found they were teaching, and receiving feedback from, young people around the world.

This, of course, raises funding questions as well as opportunities. Scottish Government money, business sponsorship and parental support sustains organisations like NYCOS for the particular benefit of the resident population – is it fair and desirable that parents from elsewhere are able to tap in to that resource?

These are the sort of questions that will have to be asked as the months of living like this stretch on, another acceleration of a process of digital adaptation that sits oddly with the sensation that life has slowed down.

With its current digital subscription season, the RSNO is in the forefront of testing the market. Salvaging some elements of the season it had already announced, as much in the commitment of star soloists as in repertoire, its series of ten concerts, pay per view at £10 each, with a pound-a-gig discount for booking the season, will be easy to do the maths with at the end of the run. Having its own new technology-ready venue to use, where the required space for playing under the current restrictions was available, has been crucial, as will be the loyalty of the orchestra’s live-music-starved fanbase.

Another thing we have learned from the pandemic is that jokes about silver-surfers and inter-generational adaptability to online platforms are so much patronising nonsense.  “Usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged,” Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan told Vox Carnyx in a recent interview.

For the time being the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is still broadcasting its concerts free, with an appeal for donations, which is the model many other organisations have adopted. Scottish Opera, which has also been a pace-setting organisation, has also made its high-quality offerings available for nothing so far.

The opera company was way ahead of the game. By sheer good fortune, it had a brand-new opera film, The Narcissistic Fish, already shot, edited and scheduled to show when that became the only game in town. Swiftly following it with a superb version of Menotti’s The Telephone for the online Edinburgh Festival, it then brought the Lammermuir Festival to a close with a filmed production of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, from the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

Filming of The Telephone, a co-production between Scottish Opera and EIF © James Glossop

When it was briefly possible, the opera company also leapt into the breach with live offerings – three compact Pop-Up touring shows (also free) and a fine La boheme in the car-park of its technical centre, for which the paid-for tickets were probably under-priced, given the demand.

Although the Janacek was free to view – and is still available – Lammermuir was another important Scottish experiment in pay-to-view. Through its partnership with BBC Radio3 about half of its concerts, all from a church in Haddington with no audience, could be heard free, but watching the recitals online required the purchase of a £5 ticket, with a £33 season ticket available for all 12 of them.

A lot of supporters bought the passes, and the box office attracted around half the number of individual bookers the festival would expect, for fewer than half the number of concerts.

What astonished James Waters, who co-directs the festival with Hugh Macdonald, was the spread of the audience, from Switzerland, Bulgaria, Japan, Canada and the USA as well as across the UK. “How did they know about us?” he asks. “We had a vanishingly small marketing budget.”

Echoing Nicola Benedetti’s observation that recent experience has shown the long lead-times in classical scheduling to be non-essential, the Lammermuir online festival was given the go-ahead on August 3 and launched on August 20. Ticketing for the broadcasts proved straight-forward and communication with the online audience went more smoothly than Waters had expected.

The final sums have not been done, but the lessons of the digital experience are clear to him, even if it is possible to return to the previous model of live performance next year. “It would be unacceptable for us not to do something online next year. We’ve learned so much, and it might even pay for itself.”

It will surprise no-one who has experienced this increased digital life in Scotland that Waters reports some issues with establishing a solid, fast broadband connection for the concerts, which effectively dictated that the recitals were filmed and then broadcast “as live”.

That has become the usual model for the orchestras and smaller ensembles too, but there is a huge variation in the amount of lighting and post-production work that comes with digital broadcasting, and for some the nearer the experience remains to the raw live show the better. “If we’d had more time to think about it, we’d have had the chance to cock it up,” notes Waters sagely.

That distinction between “live” and “as live” also explains why the BBC SSO has not been shown to best advantage recently, with genuinely live broadcasting – at which it has so much experience – twice coming embarrassingly unstuck. And the BBC, as if it didn’t have enough problems at present, is the body that faces the biggest, and most pressing questions. Having had a virtual monopoly on live classical music and opera broadcasting in the UK for so long, it now has an obligation to share that playing field with a whole new league of competition.

When organisations need to gain revenue from their music through online broadcasting, can they continue to give the same product away free? Are streamed Wigmore Hall recitals, subsidised by the associated Radio3 broadcast, taking market share from ticketed chamber music? Should the BBC Scottish have delayed its season-opener, when it was clear it was going to hit the ether at the same time as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Quilter Cheviot-sponsored gala with Nicola Benedetti started their programme of concerts?Such questions, or ones very like them, will require answers in the months to come. Whenever the health emergency ends, and even though the return of shared experience in the same space cannot come too soon, there will be no going back to the musical diet as it was before.

Hallowe’en Haunting

Those spoilsports in politics may have insisted that Hallowe’en is cancelled, but Children’s Classic Concerts is having none of it.

Following neatly on from the Ghost Lights in theatres that were the emblem of the Edinburgh Festival’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland back in August, Children’s Classics and the RSNO are unveiling The Haunted Concert Hall at 2pm on October 31. The loyal concertgoers that have packed halls across Scotland for their annual dose of spooky scores will have to don fancy dress in their own homes, but the usual prizes are still available for the best costume, as long as the wearer is snapped watching the film.

With a compact 20-player socially-distanced edition of Scotland’s National Orchestra to play music by Ligeti, Bach, Glass, and Wagner, prankster emcee Owen Gunnell will of course be one of the soloists with his batterie of percussion. Other popular regular ingredients include the RSNO Junior Chorus, working from home, and animations of drawings of The Hall of the Mountain King, made by students at the University of Scotland.

The 45-minute film was made in Dundee’s vast Caird Hall and takes full advantage of the huge empty spaces and secret spooky corners of the venue to combine all the concert elements with stunts and tricks not possible on a live stage. Although free to view on Hallowe’en and for 30 days thereafter, donations are welcome via the CCC website childrensclassicconcerts.co.uk where full details of the concert are available.

Image: Owen Gunnell with the RSNO’s Lorna Rough at La Bonne Auberge ©Martin Shields


RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Exactly twenty-four hours after the BBC SSO’s carelessly-produced live-streamed concert from the City Halls on Thursday, the RSNO put our national broadcasting corporation in the shade with the latest release in its Friday night pre-recorded digital season, imaginatively filmed, supremely presented and with first-rate sound quality.

Sharp eyes may have spotted a curious irony in the final credits. The RSNO’s producer was listed as Andrew Trinick, a figure more familiar to many as senior producer with the BBC SSO. 

This RSNO package looked splendid in the orchestra’s clean, accommodating auditorium. A double dose of Beethoven proved a powerful musical pairing. More critically, preceding the First Symphony and Violin Concerto with brief introductory thoughts from members of the orchestra, conductor Thomas Sondergard and soloist Midori, contributed a welcoming mix of warmth, sophistication, anticipation and excitement that we’re all missing in the absence of live concert attendance. 

In that context Midori was able to share some personal insight on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which she recently recorded with the Festival Strings Lucerne on Warner Classics. Better still, in the first of two appearances she is making in the RSNO’s 10-concert series, was a performance that cut a telling deal between cerebral detachment and instinctive poeticism.

If that gave a certain stoicism to the exposition of the key themes, it was out of such earnest intellectual pronouncements that so many luminous deliberations took flight. The sheer inward intensity of Midori’s thoughts – as in the searing potency of her opening utterances, or the incisive precision of the cadenza – was also their emotional catalyst. A work as substantial as this requires such helpful moments of relief.

In Thomas Sondergard she had a solid and empathetic collaborator. From the opening metronomic timpani motif – clear as a bell on period timps – to the throwaway frivolity of the final bars, his handling of the orchestra was as punchy as it was precise. A lengthy concerto never once outstayed its welcome.

To the same ends, the foregoing First Symphony went like the clappers and seemed over in a flash, in particular the second movement which adhered, rightly, as much to the “con moto” in its title as the “Andante cantabile”. An alert RSNO responded with all-round virtuosity, feisty strings and piquant wind and brass breathing fire into the Haydnesque outer movements, bombastic outbursts discharging lightning strikes into the hurtling Menuetto.

And all done in the best possible taste. Whoever said we’d be fed up with Beethoven by this point in his 250th anniversary year? 
Ken Walton

Changes to RSNO Digital Season

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra has announced changes to two of its upcoming Digital Season concerts as a result of COVID-19 travel and quarantine restrictions. 

The rising Norwegian conducting star Tabita Berglund (pictured) will make her unexpected Scottish debut replacing Carlos Miguel Prieto on Friday 6 November. The Mexican conductor is now unable to travel to Scotland. Berglund, who won the 2018 Gstaad Conducting Academy’s Neeme Jarvi Prize, will conduct Sibelius’ Symphony No 7 instead of the advertised Variaciones Concertantes by Ginastera.

On Friday 20 November, with RSNO principal guest conductor Elim Chan now unable to attend, soloist Jorg Widmann will double up as player-conductor in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, and in changes to the original programme perform his own Fantasie for solo clarinet, and direct Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony. 

Updated details on the full Digital Season available here.

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