Tag Archives: RSNO

RSNO / Berman

RSNO Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The air waves have been awash with funeral marches over the past few days, so the prospect of an RSNO programme leaning very much to the dark side could easily have summoned emotional overload. Yet despite the morbid tolling drums that open Elgar’s fulsomely orchestrated Bach Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, the lugubrious symbolism of Vaughan Williams’ incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play The Death of Tintagiles, and the requiem-like Fourth Symphony of Franz Schmidt, this Wednesday matinee concert cast aside potential despair with performances that coupled deep, in some cases brutal, intensity with sparkling brio.

It was clearly music that struck a sympathetic chord with conductor Jonathan Berman, a message he imparted through spoken words, but then turned these thoughts into rich, meaningful music.

Elgar’s Bach orchestration has often been criticised for being a bloated over-egging of the original, but in this instance, a performance that effectively allowed Bach’s contrapuntal genius to comfortably inhabit the thick-set 1920s sound world of Elgar, the outcome was a triumph of anachronistic synthesis. Crisp clean entries preserved the structural clarity, Berman embraced the music’s natural momentum, so that Elgar’s wilful eccentricities – sudden explosive textural infills – bore the (possibly tongue-in-cheek) joy he no doubt intended.

Vaughan Williams’ shadowy score, composed for a one-off London performance in 1913 of Maeterlinck’s play, took us to a more sombre place, its opening gently lapping like Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead. Here and there, flickers of light burst through, just enough to reveal fresher glimpses of that famously rustling pastoralism – a modal viola melody taking flight, parallel harmonies lightening the air. Berman’s easeful reading, however, also emphasised the fundamentally cinematic function of this score – pre-echoes, perhaps, of Vaughan Williams’ later soundtrack to Scott of the Antarctic – and a sense in such a concert performance of a necessary missing parameter, the play itself.

Schmidt’s Symphony No 4 – written by the Austro-Hungarian composer in 1934 essentially as a requiem to his only daughter who died at birth – was anything but incomplete. In four continuous movements, and loaded with the naturally gnawing pathos that comes from a style rooted in Mahler and Richard Strauss but peppered with Second Viennese School influences, its wholeness is both emotional and literal. 

Opening with a soulful, unaccompanied trumpet solo – as hauntingly poignant as Aaron Copland’s in Quiet City – the mood in this thoughtful performance, and as the fuller orchestra gradually announced its presence, was captivating. Even the throbbing funereal underlay of the Adagio seemed less than grave with the cello solo rising above it. A frisky Scherzo, cut short in its prime, lifted the spirits higher yet before the Finale’s ultimate return to the quietude of the opening, that keening trumpet drawing magically to a final solitary note. 

If you’ve never heard a Schmidt symphony – Berman has been recording all four of them with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales – this final one is a powerful introduction. Even with its mournful message.

Ken Walton

Toi, Toi, Tay!

A new opera festival launches this weekend in Dundee. KEN WALTON reveals the plot

Is there really room for another classical music festival in Scotland? The people of Dundee certainly think so. From Thursday to Sunday this weekend (22-25 Sept) the first ever Opera Festival Scotland gets underway in the feisty Tayside city with performances of Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a visit by Scottish Opera’s Highlights Tour, and a supporting programme of lectures, masterclasses and singing competitions.  

Nobody is keener for it to work than locally-born events guru and festival organiser Michael Jamieson, whose brainchild it is, and who has fought against the odds to make this inaugural event happen. “It’s not been without its challenges,” he freely admits. “Firstly we had to be taken seriously, decide on exactly what would happen, then Covid came and we had to move the Festival back a year.”

Even now, he and his organising colleagues have had to deal with the hiatus around national mourning for the late Queen, and the general nervousness of the paying public at a time of economic hardship. “The cost of living crisis is probably our biggest immediate challenge. People are not confident in parting with their money right now,” he says. Nonetheless, optimism is not in short supply.

That’s as much to do with the inclusive nature of a programme designed to involve local opera enthusiasts as it is with the organisers’ prudence and realism in engaging affordable artists, focusing limited funds on where they will make the most impact, and in establishing creative collaborations with key professional bodies. “Those collaborations came remarkably easily,” says Jamieson, who has secured support from Scottish Opera, English National Opera, Perth Festival and the RSNO. 

The centrepiece, Friday’s concert performance of Aida at the Caird Hall, is all about involvement. Yes, the Festival has imported experienced singers to fill the key roles, but to make this the extravaganza Jamieson wants it to be, the hordes of soldiers, priests, prisoners and slaves will be eager and enthusiastic Dundonians. 

“We wanted to involve as many amateur singers as possible from local communities,” Jamieson explains. “Dundee and the surrounding areas are full of small groups who want to do big operas but just don’t have the resources. Different events are forever competing with each other, so we though, let’s do it differently, do something big where they can all join in on neutral ground.” Friday’s performance will be directed by local music teacher and conductor Ralph Jamieson. “Yes, we’re related,” admits Michael.

As for the fully-professional performance activity, Scottish Opera has chosen to open its latest country-wide Opera Highlights Tour in the city’s Marryat Hall. The same venue hosts Opera Bohemia in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday. 

Another highlight has to be the presence of internationally-renowned, Glasgow-born soprano Janis Kelly, once a regular star with Scottish Opera, now chair of vocal performance at the Royal College of Music. 

A number of the Opera Festival Scotland events revolve around her presence. On Sunday morning she conducts a masterclass at Dundee High School, sharing her musical knowledge and experience to two upcoming sopranos, Scots-born Rosha Fitzhowle and London-based Jila Mariko. 

Kelly will also chair the judging panel that afternoon in another key Festival event at the Caird Hall, the Young Artists Singing Competition. She’ll be joined by fellow judges Julia Lagahuzere (founder and general director of Opera for Peace), veteran mezzo-soprano Linda Ormiston, and the heads of casting for Scottish Opera and ENO. “We had over 100 applications from around the UK,” says Jamieson. The winner, chosen from four finalists who will perform with the RSNO, will receive the Opera Festival Scotland Trophy, £1500 career grant, a lunchtime recital promoted by ENO, and a masterclass with Bollywood playback singer Kamal Khan, courtesy of Opera for Peace.

Other Festival events include a Non-professional Singing Competition, and two keynote lectures: one on the History of Opera Performance in Scotland by Fife-based Iain Fraser, co-creator of the website Opera Scotland; and Julia Lagahuzere, focusing on the artist as a world ambassador and their place in society. One further event at Dundee’s V&A, presented by experts Megan Baker and Raymond Uphill-Wood, offers a workshop on Costume and Make-Up Design. The Festival has also been active in local schools in the run up to the inaugural event, introducing opera to children at both primary and secondary level. Pupils have also been offered free admission to Festival events.

Jamieson’s future ambition for Opera Festival Scotland is that it should operate on a two-year cycle. “That depends on what happens this weekend,” he says guardedly. “If it’s something Dundee wants we’ll do everything we can to make it a regular fixture in the Scottish cultural calendar. The first indication it is will be the audience figures and feedback from this event. We’ll see how it goes.”

Opera Festival Scotland runs 22-25 September in Dundee. Full details at www.operafestivalscotland.co.uk

EIF: RSNO | Mahler 3

Usher Hall

Scotland’s own orchestras have been impressive throughout this 75th Edinburgh International Festival, and the trend continued on Tuesday with a thoroughly captivating Mahler’s Third Symphony courtesy of the RSNO, mezzo soprano Linda Watson, women members of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the RSNO’s own Youth Chorus and the orchestra’s music director (soon also to become music director-elect of the Minnesota Orchestra) Thomas Søndergård.

If that proved an earth-shattering entity in itself, there was an added bonus, the world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s For Zoe, a brief and eloquent tribute to the former RSNO principal cor anglais player, Zoe Kitson, who died earlier this year at the age of 44. In what must have been a extremely personal moment for the orchestra, MacMillan’s elegy, inevitably driven by a soulful and expansive cor anglais solo played enchantingly by current incumbent Henry Clay and enshrouded in a mist of ethereal whispering strings, served to honour its reflective intention.

It played a magical part, too, in programming our minds for the Mahler to come. In its gentle wake, and after a choreographed silence, Søndergård’s vision of the symphony emerged with persuasive patience and organic potency. 

The opening movement is, itself, a monumental challenge, any underlying structural logic offset by the nervy extremes of its restless content, a seemingly incongruous series of frenetic mood swings. Yet, with the extended RSNO in thrilling form, such contradictions were the powerhouse of a thundering, directional triumph. The all-important trombone solo, cutting through the texture like an Alpine horn blasting from the highest peak, was a compelling presence, immaculately played by guest principal Simon Johnson, more normally seen in his home patch with the BBC SSO.

But there wasn’t one weak link in this line-up, its breathtaking commitment and precision furnishing Søndergård with the freedom to input insightful and energising spontaneity, not least in the sparkling allusions to nature in Part Two (the final five movements). Luxuriant ease characterised the wistfulness of the Tempo di Menuetto, like wild flowers wafting in an unpredictable breeze. Then to the “animals” of the friskier Scherzo, its rawer rustic charm offset by momentary bouts of nostalgia.

“O Mensch! Gib Acht” (O man, be careful), warns the mezzo soprano in the shadowier Nietzsche setting in the slow movement. Watson delivered this with weighing restraint, deliciously understated but not without an enriching warmth. As such, the sudden clamour of (real) church bells, the thrilling innocence of the children’s voices and the more cautionary adult chorus that embody the penultimate movement was like a brilliant sun suddenly bursting through a clouded sky.

If this performance began with a monumental philosophical statement, it ended with a truly cathartic one, Mahler’s ultimate, ecstatic expression of “the love of God”. Søndergård shaped this concluding movement with unstoppable conviction, from the soft-glowing, hymn-like sincerity of the opening to the bells-and-whistles euphoria of the final bars. Here, Mahler wallows in excess glitter and sentimentality so OTT you wonder just how much of a Hollywood hit he would have been had he lived later and felt the inclination to sell his soul to the movies. He certainly knew how to write a musical blockbuster.

Ken Walton 

Picture by Andrew Perry

EIF: RSNO / Chan 

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Five years ago Lukas Vondracek was a last minute substitute for Sir Andras Schiff in an SCO concert featuring Dvorak’s rarely-performed Piano Concerto that also had to cope with a last-minute change of conductor.

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival the Czech pianist was called upon to step in at the last moment when German percussionist Martin Grubinger tested positive for Covid. Having the Dvorak under his fingers was remarkable, but having Tan Dun’s Percussion Concerto, The Tears of Nature, in his repertoire was unlikely, so the programme was overhauled so that the first half included The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas and the First Piano Concerto of Franz Liszt.

Much like Rossini’s William Tell and The Lone Ranger, for people of a certain age the Dukas will always mean Mickey Mouse in Disney’s Fantasia, but those folk are getting on a bit now, so perhaps younger ears can enjoy the work’s narrative orchestral colour on its own terms, without the pictures.

Its last-minute inclusion probably explained some mushy rhythmic balance between the sections as the pace of the work built, but the orchestra’s bassoons were on point and first clarinet Timothy Orpen sparkled for the first of many solo moments over the evening.

Orpen was a crucial ingredient in the Liszt as well, and conductor Elim Chan found parallels with the Dukas in the dramatic shaping of the work as its later sequence of movements unfolded. Those mourning the loss of the Tan Dun were often reminded that the piano is a percussion instrument in Vondracek’s powerful playing and together he and Chan constructed a compelling case for a work that is not a common inclusion in concert programmes at present. His addition of a Chopin Nocturne as an encore did rather emphasise its melodic debts, however.

All of this built towards the evening’s planned conclusion with Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra as if always intended. Here the RSNO strings sounded more focussed from the start and Chan’s command of the work’s meticulous structure was masterly. There would be no sense in singling out individual soloists because there were quality performances throughout the orchestra. A superb reading of a masterwork, it deserved a fuller house.

Keith Bruce

Søndergård gains Minnesota

RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård has been appointed as the new music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, succeeding Finnish conductor (and former BBC SSO principal conductor) Osmo Vänskä, who announced in 2018 that he would end his 19-year reign next season. 

Søndergård will serve as music director designate throughout the 2022-23 season before assuming his new post in a 5-year contract that commences with the 2023-24 season. He is to continue in post at the RSNO where his current contract runs until autumn 2024. Commenting on his appointment to the 120-year-old Minneapolis-based band, he said: “My impression of the Minnesota Orchestra is that it is an ensemble with tremendous heart. There is a warmth, an openness and a cooperative spirit among the musicians that fits very well into the way that I like to make music.”

RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie offered a note of reassurance that the Danish conductor would sustain his relationship with the Glasgow-based orchestra. “It is a great privilege to work with him and we look forward to continuing to develop our programming and performances under his guidance. 

“Having toured with Thomas across Europe and America we know how popular he is with audiences, which is a testament to the great connection he has with our musicians and staff. We are fortunate to work in an industry that embraces collaboration and the sharing of great talent, and I can’t wait to see what successes Thomas has in Minnesota.”

Søndergård will join the American orchestra at a key moment in its development. Ten years ago, Vänskä briefly resigned from the post amid a contractual fight between the Minnesota management and its players, siding with the latter in a bitter dispute. His action precipitated a speedy resolution and he was reinstated, thereafter leading the orchestra to Grammy-winning heights. 

A statement from Minnesota’s president and CEO Michelle Miller Burns underlined her belief that Søndergård is the right man to carry that success forward. “We were deeply impressed by the connections Thomas has made and the commitment he has shown to the orchestras that he has previously led,” she said.

“He understands the many dimensions of being a music director, including the need to curate imaginative seasons for wide audiences, to bring out the best in musicians and to galvanize the community with an artistic vision. He showed really keen interest in Minnesota and the ways in which we are broadening our programming to include more diversity in composers, creators and artists. His approach is a good fit for our collaborative leadership model. He has the qualities of a great musical leader.”

Søndergård next appears with the RSNO at the Edinburgh international Festival on Tuesday 23 August conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony. In September he will lead Nicola Benedetti and the RSNO in the BBC Proms premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto. He opens the 2022-23 RSNO season with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on Fri 30 Sep (Edinburgh) and Sat 1 Oct (Glasgow). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk

New paths for Dunedin

The foundation stones are still firmly in place, but following its celebration of 25 years in the business of quality music-making, Dunedin Consort announces a 2022/23 season that sees it introducing new faces and welcoming familiar ones in new roles, forging new partnerships, and taking up residence in a New Town forty-odd miles from the one in Scotland’s capital.

Those building blocks first, which begin with an Edinburgh Festival concert in the Queen’s Hall, directed by John Butt and featuring the voice of Associate Director Nicholas Mulroy. The tenor will be in charge of the choral tour next May, which is a programme of Marian music, early and modern, that visits Aberdeen, Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Butt also directs the group’s December Messiah performances in Glasgow, Lanark and Edinburgh, and an Easter outing for Bach’s Matthew Passion in Edinburgh and Glasgow with Andrew Tortise the Evangelist and Neal Davies as Christus. Wigmore Hall concerts of music for Christmas and New Year are also under the baton of the Artistic Director.

Of the new directions, a three-year partnership with the RSNO has already been revealed. It begins in October with Elim Chan conducting side-by-side concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow that bracket soloist Jorg Widmann’s concerto Echo-Fragment with Haydn and Beethoven.

There’s more Haydn in February when Peter Whelan directs concerts of three early symphonies and CPE Bach’s Cello Concerto in A, with Jonathan Manson as soloist. Performances in Perth, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Benjamin Bayl is guest director for an all-Handel programme in March with Nardus Williams the soprano soloist, and in June the solo female voice is featured again in what are thought to be the first ever UK performances of the cantatas of seventeenth century composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.

With its continuing Bridging the Gap initiative providing a step on to the career ladder for young singers, Dunedin is now joining forces B’Rock Orchestra and Concerto Copenhagen to offer similar mentoring for instrumentalists in a new scheme entitled Intrada. The ensemble’s other outreach initiatives are joined by a new partnership at Cumbernauld’s Theatre’s new home, Lanternhouse, with family concerts, cinema screenings, open rehearsals and events for children all on the bill.

After the Edinburgh Festival, the season opens with Dunedin’s biggest venture of the year, performing Mozart’s C Minor Mass in a new completion by Clemens Kemme at Lammermuir Festival, in Perth Concert Hall and in Saffron Walden, as well as recording the work for a Linn label release. John Butt directs and Lucy Crowe, Anna Dennis, Benjamin Hulett and Robert Davies are the soloists.

Full details at dunedin-consort.org.uk

Portait of Nardus Williams by Bertie Watson

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The vicissitudes of Covid (specifically me catching it) meant taking the digital streaming route to the closing concert of the RSNO season, and that proved to have its compensations, if it was still a poor substitute for being present in the hall.

These revolved around the new work in the programme, Our Gilded Veins, Jay Capperauld’s concerto for the orchestra’s popular first flute, Katherine Bryan. Not only does the concert footage available online come with an introduction to the work by the composer, the performance is followed by reflections on it by the soloist – all very helpful with a brand new work.

Helpful, but not absolutely essential, because this is a very approachable piece that may well be the one to lift the young composer another few rungs up the ladder of international recognition. Only the very finest flautists will be technically equipped to play it, but all the best ones will surely want to add it to a concerto repertoire that is far from extensive.

Postponed because of the pandemic, Capperauld and Bryan have been working together on the piece for more than five years and that shows in the maturity of the writing for orchestra and soloist, and the way it is tailored to her voice. There is little that is fey and wistful in Bryan’s rich tone – she wants her instrument to be competing with the strings, brass and percussion for solo attention, and Our Gilded Veins is all about turning deficiencies and limitations into attributes.

The composer’s plan of the concerto may be that it journeys from sharp-edged fragments to ensemble unity – a percussive climax followed by a sequence of musical dawns on the lower register of the flute and then the whole orchestra – but Capperauld’s cacophony is still melodious and his resolutions far from placid, even a little bit funky.

While Our Gilded Veins is a terrific showpiece for the soloist, it is also a demanding work for the orchestra in its different rhythmic pulses and has some magnificent widescreen string and brass writing.

Once scheduled as a season-opener, the concerto came to rest in the season finale company of Beethoven’s Choral symphony, in which the RSNO Chorus were on especially strong form, most singing from memory, and the sopranos producing a united ensemble in those top notes from the start.

To my ears the four soloists – Eleanor Dennis, Stephanie Maitland, Benjamin Hulett and Bozidar Smiljanic – did not blend as well as one might like, but the bass-baritone began the Ode to Joy in superb robust style.

Conductor Thomas Sondergard had given an early indication of the crisp, sharp style of playing he wanted from the orchestra in the opening of Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, which began the orchestra’s programme, and that was especially evident in the symphony’s epic Scherzo movement.

The concert was prefaced by the RSNO’s contribution to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in a solo performance of Diu Regnare (Long to reign), a pipe tune commissioned from Stuart Liddell for the occasion and played here by Finlay MacDonald. Apparently the short piece was played a remarkable 5000 times around the world last weekend.

Keith Bruce

Concert available online until June 30: rsno.org.uk

Picture: Katherine Bryan

Letting The Cracks Show

Jay Capperauld’s new flute concerto is a Japanese repair job, but it represents a positive healing process, he tells KEN WALTON

For Jay Capperauld, Christmas has come early. It’s only a matter of weeks since the RSNO performed the 33-year-old up-and-coming Ayrshire composer’s Fèin-Aithne, written originally for the BBC SSO, alongside Strauss’ monumental Alpine Symphony. Last week, the SCO announced that for the next four years he is to succeed Anna Clyne as its associate composer. This weekend, his new flute concerto, Our Gilded Veins, is premiered by the RSNO and its principal flautist, Katherine Bryan.

When we spoke, the SCO announcement was still under wraps, but there was a pent-up excitement in Capperauld’s manner that suggested something big was in the offing. “I can’t say at the moment,” he blurted cautiously, clearly wishing he could.

We’d met to discuss Our Gilded Veins, a work that began life pre-pandemic, was duly postponed from its planned 2020 premiere, underwent subsequent refashioning during lockdown, and will now emerge in its freshly-minted form this week under the baton of RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård and in the exalted company of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. 

Anyone who has followed Capperauld’s upward trajectory since graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland will appreciate to what extent extra-musical inspirations – often surreal, often funny, always potent – are a defining feature of his music. “I generally always write to a concept. I rarely work in absolute abstract terms,” he says. Our Gilded Veins is no exception.

The title refers to the Japanese art of Kintsugi, “a tradition whereby you break a plate or a bowl, then put it back together using gilded lacquer in order to highlight the breakage, as if you are celebrating the history of the object, warts and all,” he explains. “To me that’s just a delicious metaphor for the human condition, especially after what we’ve all been through over the last couple of years.”

“Kintsugi has been a hugely positive influence on me, in the sense it allows you to perceive things you’ve gone through, those bad experiences, in a positive way and not cover things up. The biggest step forward in the past five years or so is that we’re able to talk about mental health. It’s visible in the same way as the ‘gilded veins’ on these objects. It leads to conversations that need to happen.”

The “conversation” explored in Our Gilded Veins had already taken root in a previous piece for solo flute, The Pathos of Broken Things, which itself acted as the prototype for the concerto. Both stemmed from his encounter with Katherine Bryan. Impressed by a work Capperauld had had performed as a participant in the RSNO’s 2015/16 inaugural Composers’ Hub scheme, Bryan had later sought him out and asked if he had written any flute music. The answer was no, but he immediately set about composing one, which led in turn to the concerto commission.

Revisiting a work is not unusual for Capperauld. He did so for last month’s RSNO performance of Fèin-Aithne, rewriting around half of it, and he’s done the same for Our Gilded Veins. “The pandemic played a part in the nature of these revisions. It was, for me compositionally, an opportunity to spring clean. It also made complete sense as both pieces are about self-identity, and my perception of myself had changed significantly during that period.”

That’s reflected  in the altered narrative. “That now starts at a place where trauma has just happened. In the original version, we were seeing it unfold and transpire over the entire narrative. So there’s a fractured sense to the music straightaway, where the lines are unconnected. The whole first half of the piece is now about those lines trying to find each other, gluing themselves together, so we can then explore what that positive aspect of Kintsugi implies. By the end we revisit the trauma material, but in a new and reassuring harmonic context.”

Another key factor in the ongoing evolution of the piece has been Capperauld’s creative dialogue with Bryan. As she herself says, “Jay got to know me well during the process as a player: that I like to tell stories; that I love big-hitting, powerful stuff; that I like the emotional drive behind a piece that I can really talk to an audience with. He must have thought I liked a big challenge. This piece is so hard, but breaking through those challenges really enhances it.”

Katherine Bryan: “I love big-hitting, powerful stuff”

With so much original music excised in the revision process, does it just go in the bin? “No,” insists Capperauld. “I hang on to absolutely everything. I learned that from Harrison Birtwistle, whose advice to young composers was ‘keep everything’. There might be something you’re working on that you don’t have a context for at the time, but years down the line you find one. So who knows, maybe some scraps from the old version will find their way into a new piece of music at some point.”

Meantime, Our Gilded Veins – which Bryan and Capperauld will also be utilising in an outreach project at the Kibble Educational and Care Centre in Paisley – is partnering Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and the Choral Symphony in this week’s close-of-season concert by the RSNO. How daunting is that?

“Hugely,” says Capperauld. “Knowing that was very scary, but all I can do is focus on the matter in hand. I’d be foolish to think that because my piece is being performed alongside Beethoven Nine I must try to express myself to that same level, cos that ain’t gonna happen! I can’t make that judgement call as a composer. That’s for the audience to decide. All I can do is my best work.”

Katherine Bryan and the RSNO premiere Jay Capperauld’s Our Gilded Veins at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh (3 March) and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (4 March). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Gabel

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

There were some younger children in the hall, but the empty seats in prominent positions spoke of a few cancelled family outings after soloist Nicola Benedetti sent her apologies for this week’s RSNO concerts.

By some measures, this is less explicable than it may appear. The orchestra management had swiftly secured the services of charismatic Dutch violinist Noa Wildschut, much nearer in age to school fiddle students as a role model, and she was playing the Mendelssohn concerto, a more accessible work than Mark Simpson’s very fine, but demanding, new composition.

It is also probably true that the RSNO sums were based on a full-house, the ticket income allowing the luxury of the extra musicians required for the other two works on the programme.

Be all that as it may, those who attended had a fascinating evening, starting with the novelty of the orchestral interlude La nuit et l’amour by Augusta Holmes, a Paris-based composer who pioneered women’s rights in the misogynistic musical world of the late 19th century, and an associate of Liszt, Saint-Saens and Cesar Franck.

Although she was of Scots/Irish stock, the work is very French, all flutes and harps and sweeping strings, very Romantic and picturesque and an ideal precursor to the Mendelssohn. Guest French conductor Fabien Gabel, last on the podium for the RSNO a decade ago, was in his element.

Wildschut, who gave a much admired fresh reading of Bruch on her debut with the orchestra two years ago, is perfectly suited to lyrical Romantic repertoire, with a light, precise style that always found a fine balance with the orchestra without ever seeming over-assertive. That there is muscle in her playing was confirmed by her Bach encore, but firstly in a bold first movement cadenza. Gabel and she found a very collaborative reading of the slow movement, and a particularly moving way with the exchanges between soloist and the wind section in the finale.

Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is a sumptuous treat for any lover of orchestral music, poised between Beethoven’s Pastoral and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition but probably less popular than either because it is slightly bonkers. Gabel’s reading acknowledged the work’s eccentricity but preserved the glorious showcase for an orchestra that it is – and not solely a party-piece for timpani and other percussion.

The string ensemble, under first violin Sharon Roffman, was authoritative across the sections from the opening movement, and the combination of Henry Clay’s plaintive cor anglais and the answering off-stage oboe of Rachael Clegg in the slow movement sounded precisely as it should in this hall. Gabel’s pacing of the tense build up to the March to the Scaffold was similarly exemplary, and his grasp of the mental adventure play-ground of the piece thorough. As principal trumpet Chris Hart had amusingly shown in his spoken introduction to the concert, Hector Berlioz’s narrative for the symphony makes little literal sense, but Gabel and the RSNO grasped all its musical riches with style.

The programme is repeated in Glasgow this evening.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Noa Wildschut by Esther de Bruijn


RSNO / Wilson

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

For anyone unclear what a conductor does – particularly one visiting for a single weekend’s concerts in a season – Saturday’s performance by the RSNO under John Wilson provided the perfect illustration. Since his contract with the BBC Scottish ended, we do not see enough of Wilson in Scotland, and his execution of this brilliantly-conceived programme showed what a loss that is.

Music from the second, third and fourth decades of the 20th century, played in chronological order, was as fine a showcase for a large symphony orchestra as might be found anywhere in the repertoire. The mutual admiration between Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin is well-documented – and was amusingly recounted by the conductor in his introductory remarks – but the trans-Atlantic musical conversation that Wilson revealed, with Rachmaninov possibly eavesdropping on the long path to his Third Symphony, is rarely so clearly expressed.

The 1912 orchestration of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales calls for six percussionists, two harps and celeste, and begins in a style that seems a precursor of Kurt Weill and Weimar cabaret music. The eight short pieces are often very beautiful, and benefitted here from the expressive flute of Katherine Bryan, who had a starring role through the evening. The work’s final bars were quite exquisitely shaped by Wilson.

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin was clearly still learning his orchestral craft, the immediate cross-over success of Rhapsody in Blue notwithstanding. Led by the timpani, the Concerto in F, begins like a Broadway overture, but the closing movement starts with a clear “borrowing” from a Stravinsky ballet score before asking the piano soloist to explore his inner Art Tatum and Meade Lux Lewis.

Soloist Louis Schwizgebel revelled in the bluesy chords he was asked to play from the start, as well as in his proximity to the front desk of the violins and leader Emily Davis, who has a few bars in the style of Joe Venturi in a central slow movement that also included a fine solo from first trumpet Chris Hart. There is often a big-band feel to the music Gershwin writes for winds and brass, but he was already a good distance from the work he wrote for Paul Whiteman.

Schwizgebel made the demanding piano part look breezy and capped it with a perfectly-chosen encore of a Jazz Etude by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, which was dreamily atmospheric.

If performances of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 3 are comparatively rare, it’s perhaps because the work lacks the ear-worms that litter the composer’s other work, and persist in the mind afterwards. Instead its riches lie in the thorough exploration of all the sounds an orchestra can make and Wilson was all over every detail of the score, insisting on fine gradations in the dynamics and precision engineering of the balance for the solos, which come from every section and front desk.

The lush orchestration of the opening movement is followed by an Adagio that here glanced back to the start of the concert in sounding startlingly French, while the carnivalesque finale is as much Hollywood as Mittel-Europe. In 1936, sadly, that musical consensus so meticulously expressed here by Wilson and the RSNO was about to be torn asunder.

Keith Bruce

Picture: John Wilson

RSNO / Yashima

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Born and trained in Germany and about to relinquish a position as assistant to Yannick Nezet-Seguin in Philadelphia to take up a senior post at the Komische Oper Berlin, conductor Erina Yashima’s first appearance with Scotland’s national orchestra on Wednesday comes in a year of debuts around the globe, from Canada to Korea, as well as across Europe. If her programmes are all as original as this hour or so of music, she’ll quickly be invited back.

Beginning with a symphonic selection of four from Antonin Dvorak’s 10 Legends for Orchestra, and concluding with Brahms’s violin-less Serenade No 2, one of the composer’s symphonic experiments on the road to escaping the shadow on Beethoven with his own four numbered symphonies, the spicy meat in the middle of this concert sandwich (as soloist John Whitener described it) was the Scottish premiere of Thea Musgrave’s Loch Ness: A Postcard from Scotland.

Premiered by the BBC Scottish and Donald Runnicles at the Royal Albert Hall in the 2012 Proms, it is quite astonishing that the SSO ceded the opportunity to debut the piece in Scotland to the RSNO. A nine-minute piece of enormous fun for the full orchestra, Whitener’s tuba is the featured instrument, portraying Nessie, the secretive and much-sought monster of Scotland’s deepest loch.

With bass clarinet, contra-bassoon and some funky slap string basses sharing that register, the tuba emerges from a low burbling score with shimmering cymbals on top. The music brightens to a climax of ringing chords, half a dozen trumpets and trombones to the fore, before diminishing to a rumble once again, the glimpsed gold of Whitener’s instrument when he stood up briefly once again submerged in the sound of the orchestra.

Musgrave’s gem was played as part of the RSNO’s ongoing series of “Scotch Snaps”, works by contemporary composers living in Scotland, and it would be madness if it was not heard more widely.

Dvorak was being championed by Brahms at the time he wrote the Legends, with his hit Slavonic Dances to quickly follow, yet he was already two-thirds of the way through the composition of his catalogue of symphonies – a job the senior composer found so daunting. If his most attractive melodies were still to come, the brilliant ensemble writing is all there, and Yashima made sure to bring out the way the themes in the horns and other winds are answered by the strings in the big fourth Legend in C that formed the centrepiece of the selection. Preceded by Numbers 1 and 3, the set concluded with the F major No 8, which does carry some suggestions of From the New World.

In a similar way, the third movement Adagio of the Brahms Serenade is the precursor of darker symphonic Brahms after an opening two that are more like large scale chamber music, with all the winds having good stuff to play over some demanding repeated figures in the strings.

There’s much more song and dance in the fourth and fifth movements, and they brought an entertaining afternoon performance to an appropriately lively close.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Erina Yashima by Todd Rosenberg

RSNO In Full Season

As the RSNO launches its first full season in two years, KEN WALTON sounds out the dynamic duo behind its conception

To sit down with RSNO Music Director Thomas Søndergård and Chief Executive Alistair Mackie is to witness first hand the sharp collective minds that are shaping an exciting future for the Orchestra as it emerges from the frustrations of Covid.

Central to their shared vision is ‘trust’. ‘It’s a two-way conversation,’ says Søndergård, who values any opportunity to sit down with his players, listen to their ideas and concerns, and impart his own in return. Mackie, for his part, is fully behind that approach. ‘Every single one of us in this great organisation holds a personal responsibility for shaping its success,’ he believes. ‘Meaningful dialogue is essential in making that happen.’

Such an approach was always in Søndergård’s sights. ‘One of the things I really wanted to do differently, when moving from being Principal Guest Conductor to becoming Music Director, was actually to meet the musicians eye to eye,’ he explains. He initiated these conversations, firstly with individual principal players, but always with a long-term intention of widening that ‘to everyone involved in “the project”.’

‘That’s what happens out there in society. We started doing this here before the pandemic, but when it hit we weren’t even allowed to be in the same room. So we couldn’t continue those talks, which I find so important in terms of actually developing a dialogue about what ensemble playing is, and not just about players coming through the door in the morning, getting through the music, then going back home. The joy of playing comes from the trust that we have together.’

The real test, of course, is how such behind-the-scenes personal development translates into what audiences ultimately witness in live RSNO performances. That’s not a challenge lost on either Søndergård, a former timpanist, or Mackie, himself a former top-ranking orchestral player.

In the forthcoming Season, which marks the midpoint in Søndergård’s second three-year contract as Music Director, the emphasis, he says, will be on moulding the sound of the Orchestra, and the principal vehicle for that will be the symphonies of Brahms, all four of which will feature as a core integral series spread over the latter half of the Season. 

Why this obsession with sound? ‘When I talk to the players we inevitably get round to discussing the things that are really key to the ensemble, and central to that is the quality of the collective sound,’ he explains. ‘For me, Brahms is number one for that, and it so happens that when the pandemic hit, and I realised I was not going to be doing very much conducting, it was to Brahms that I instinctively turned for in-depth study and quiet contemplation.’

Søndergård took the Third and Fourth Symphonies to his seaside home near Copenhagen, where it became clear to him that this was a composer he simply had to revisit. ‘I’d left him aside for a while, but here I was suddenly falling passionately in love with this music. I’d forgotten how beautifully he writes.’

But is there anything new he can bring to a composer that Scottish audiences have plentiful experience of, in a country whose main orchestras have tackled the symphonies from numerous interpretational angles? Views have differed over the years on the appropriate size of orchestra, the quantitative relationship between wind and string numbers, the style of playing (some conductors even prescribing no string vibrato) and such basic defining issues as tempi.

‘This will be no revolution,’ he insists. But it will be a product of serious consideration and informed preparation. ‘I want to present a broader Brahms to our audiences, not necessarily in the way I first conducted these symphonies, which was to adopt a Schumann-like approach with more flow and not so heavy a German tradition. I don’t know if it’s the grey hair, but now I actually want to sink into the music and see if there’s a reason for that luxurious tradition, that expansiveness.’

Søndergård puts Brahms centre stage

If Søndergård’s motives for programming the Brahms are as much about personal choice as about being good for the health of the Orchestra, Mackie is focused on the bigger picture and its strategic justification. ‘I see Brahms as a once-in-a-decade reset for the Orchestra, particularly as a yardstick in recalibrating the rich ensemble sound. The same can be said of Bruckner and Schumann, which also put an orchestra under the microscope in that particular way.’ 

Mackie is also keen to emphasise the excitement and variety of a wider 2022:23 Season where the pre-pandemic scale of performance can be resumed. ‘It’s not just about the Brahms symphonies,’ he says. ‘We open with Thomas conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the world premiere of David Fennessy’s The Riot Act, which didn’t happen last year due to Covid.’ 

He’s also capitalising on the potential celebrity options a piece like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto presents. ‘We have an all-star team of soloists for that,’ Mackie reveals, rhyming off the dream team of violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, two of whom will perform, in the same May programme, a separate piece with the RSNO Youth Chorus. 

Indeed, thinking out of the box is something Mackie believes is essential in ensuring the RSNO maintains its freshness, vitality and edge. And he’s prepared to go beyond traditional orchestral programming patterns and proprietorial grounds to do so. 

It involves capitalising on the investment made last year in adapting the main rehearsal auditorium as a state-of-the-art recording facility for movie soundtracks, and reaching out to smaller, specialist music ensembles in Scotland with offers of creative collaboration, all with a view to increasing the experience, creativeness and versatility of his own players.

When the amazing, multi-talented Jörg Widmann returns in October for the first of two Season appearances, he will perform his own clarinet concerto Echo-Fragmente, postponed from last Season, and written somewhat challengingly for two orchestras: one modern; the other period-instrument Baroque.

‘The intention last year was to make it work by simply dividing the RSNO, but when reprogramming it I thought, why don’t we do this with the real thing? So we’ve brought in the Dunedin Consort to partner us,’ Mackie reveals. ‘That’s given rise to plans for a more extensive three-year partnership we’re now developing with Dunedin.’ 

Other new collaborations are emerging linked to the parallel season of chamber music concerts planned for the new Season, including groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble. Mackie and Søndergård are determined ‘to find a new way’ that will ultimately pay dividends for the RSNO as an artistic powerhouse and for its players.

‘In the long term, we have a vision of a really dynamic group of players, who can do film scores one day, a classical recording the next, while still maintaining top-class live performances at both symphonic and chamber level,’ says Mackie. ‘Then think of the benefits when we take all that quality into schools as part of our educational programme.’

To a great extent the RSNO’s expanding horizons were fuelled, not hampered, by the pandemic. It was well ahead of the game in initiating the online delivery of streamed performances to potentially global audiences. ‘Through Alistair’s insistence, the world now knows so much more about us,’ says Søndergård. ‘We’ve become very proactive at getting things out there, and it’s got to stay that way.’

Again, he turns back to player empowerment, mutual trust, as the fundamental driver of such ambitions, which has played its part in producing so many powerful and moving RSNO performances in recent times. 

‘Often in rehearsals now, I just stop conducting. I don’t need to explain everything anymore. When we played Rachmaninov a few weeks ago I just went into the room and let them play a whole movement without me. That’s when real magic happens.’

(This article is also available in the RSNO 2022-23 Season Brochure. Full concert details for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee available at www.rsno.org.uk )

RSNO’s Succulent Season

Launching a new season brochure of familiar shape and style, but with a few special ingredients, RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie told the orchestra’s loyal patrons last night: “It is important to recognise that, despite the challenges faced over the last two years, with the help of our supporters we have accomplished a lot.”

That means that alongside a 19-concert season, which includes eight under the baton of music director Thomas Søndergård, the RSNO continues to embrace the possibilities of digital streaming of concerts and pursuing learning and engagement goals through online means. Its other performances of film and video game music, in partnership with Children’s Classic Concerts, and involving the young musicians from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and the Sistema Big Noise music education projects are also present and correct, as are the matinee and chamber music performances in its own hall in the RSNO Centre next door to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Søndergård has chosen to focus on the music of Johannes Brahms, which he studied closely during the pandemic lockdown. In the first months of 2023 the orchestra will perform all four of his symphonies, as well as the Academic Festival Overture. The First Symphony arrives last, at the end of May, as part of an All-Star Gala that teams Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Benjamin Grosvenor to play Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

That concert – tickets for which are certain to fly out of the door as soon as they go on sale – also features the last of next season’s “Scotch Snaps” performances of pieces by composers living in Scotland, with Errollyn Wallen’s Inherit the World. Subscribers can book from April 29 and general booking opens on June 6.

Another, postponed, “Scotch Snap” – David Fennessy’s Riot Act – features in Søndergård’s season-opener, alongside Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, followed the next week by the RSNO debut of harpsichordist Mahan Estafani playing the new concerto by Paul Ruders, which the orchestra co-commissioned. He is the first of a star line-up of keyboard players working with Sondergard over the season, which also includes Francesco Piemontesi playing Beethoven’s Emperor and Leif Ove Andnes with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.

Principal guest conductor Elim Chan teams up with pianist Steven Osborne for Mozart K414 in a programme that also includes Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and with the season’s Musician in Focus, clarinettist, composer and conductor Jorg Widman, for her earlier concert at the end of October this year. That concert is also the first to feature Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort, beginning a three-year partnership between the symphony orchestra and the award-winning ensemble. In 2023 the Dunedin has two concerts in the RSNO Centre, and the Hebrides Ensemble will also appear there under the auspices of the RSNO, with the music of Widman on the bill.

The RSNO Chorus, now under new director Stephen Doughty, closes the season with Verdi’s Requiem in June 2023, and will also give the Sir Alexander and Lady Veronica Gibson Memorial Concert on Armistice weekend this year with Britten’s War Requiem, both with Sondergard on the podium.

ll programme details for the 2022-23 RSNO Season at rsno.org.uk

Read Ken Walton’s interview with Thomas Søndergård and Alistair Mackie here

RSNO / Boreyko

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There’s an understandable nervousness among concert programmers to include Russian music at this sensitive moment. But when the RSNO stuck to its guns with its advertised Shostakovich Spectacular over the weekend, it was on sure ground. No-one handed out criticism more viciously, with more obfuscating genius, than Shostakovich in his subliminal, unprovable protests against Stalin and his terrorising Soviet regime. Nowadays, we recognise his music for its true meaning.

And that meaning was made all the more compelling with the unplanned presence of Andrey Boreyko, the St Petersburg-born artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic who replaced an indisposed James Conlon. Boreyko recently voiced his condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by duly cancelling all his Russian concert dates, and prefaced this programme with Mykola Lysenko’s Prayer for Ukraine, an emotional scene-setter to the politically-loaded Shostakovich.

The dramatic switch from this plaintive totemic 19th century anthem against Russian repression to the fearsome weaponry of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, represented here by two of the movements (arranged by the absent Conlon) from its derivative orchestral suite, was pure theatre, much in the spirit of an opera that in 1934 so enraged Stalin to publicly vilify its composer. It didn’t miss the mark in stirring Saturday’s contemporary Glasgow audience.

By this point, Boreyko had the RSNO fully alert to his intentions, plumbing the depths of the initial Passacaglia to an extent that imposed constant checks and frustration on its ripening ambitions, which in turn sharpened the impact of The Drunkard, a madcap burlesque played with vile spit and sardonic sting.

Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski’s flirtatious confrontation with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 made for the perfect follow-up. It’s a work, written for the composer’s son as a test piece for his high school graduation, that professed no concealed motives other than giving the young Maxim a relatively easy time, cleverly made to sound, by virtue of its supersonic sparkle, like a virtuoso showpiece.

Trpčeski invested wit and wile in a performance so laid back he literally bent backwards at throwaway moments to adopt a near horizontal position. He opened with dazzling but captivatingly suppressed finger work, always with a threat of a smirk, throwing down a gauntlet to Boreyko and the RSNO to respond with equal impishness. It worked, the ebullience of the outer movements monetarily calmed by the still, luscious central presence of the lyrical Andante.

Not surprisingly, after leaping off the stool for the final chord, Trpčeski chose to encore unconventionally with the help of RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi and its Belarusian principal cello Alexei Kiseliov in the Scherzo from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2. The internationalism of the impromptu ensemble held its own fascination, the playing brilliantly incisive with a strong, and appropriate, hint of belligerence.

The second half brought us Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5, famous in 1937 for its confessional soubriquet, “A Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism”, but outwardly, as the composer was to hint later through rather clandestine, third party means, more a subversive snipe at cultural dictatorship.

The sense of restraint imposed by Boreyko in the jagged opening, the mountainous climaxes that bore a paradoxical robotic emptiness, the puckish rat-tat-tat of the Scherzo, the expansive, molten angst of the Largo, and the pungent irony of the Finale – what erstwhile RSNO music director Alexander Lazarev once described as “hollow rejoicing” – all came torridly together in this energised, if very occasionally unclean, performance.

But the overall message of the evening was powerful, provocative and relevant, even if much of that came about by chance. 

Ken Walton

(Photo: James Montgomery)

Edinburgh International Festival 2022

It may be couched in terms of sustainability, and the avoidance of needless consumption of resources in the pursuit of artistic excellence from around the world, but the programme for the 75th Edinburgh International Festival also looks back to the shape of the event in the years after the Second World War with its residencies by companies and orchestras bringing more than one programme of work.

That the founding director of the Festival, Rudolph Bing, was a refugee from conflict is also marked in the programme – a thematic strand that has proved more appropriate than the EIF team could have foreseen as they shaped the anniversary event.

The orchestras “in residence” are the Philadelphia, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, and the Philharmonia, under the baton of new Principal Conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Sir Donald Runnicles, making his debut with them. The Czech Philharmonic also has two Usher Hall concerts with Semyon Bychkov, as do Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic, one of them a concert performance of Strauss’s Salome with soprano Malin Bystrom.

The BBC SSO gives the Opening Concert, with Runnicles on the podium and the Festival Chorus singing Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and the RSNO gives the closing one, Sir Andrew Davies conducting the Chorus in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. The RSNO also appears under the baton of Elim Chan to play Bartok and Tan Dun and with Thomas Sondergard to perform Mahler 3 with the RSNO Junior Chorus and the Festival Chorus.

The Chorus’s busy August also includes Janacek Glagolitic Mass with the Czech Phil and Beethoven 9 with the Philadelphia, while the National Youth Choir of Scotland sings in the opening and closing Usher Hall concerts as well as at the 2022 Festival’s free opening event at Murrayfield Stadium, which is expected to attract an audience of up to 20,000.

The Philadelphia’s residency also includes a free 75th anniversary concert at the end of the Festival, details of which have yet to be announced, as well as a further Usher Hall concert including Szymanowski and Florence Price, and Mozart chamber music at the Queen’s Hall, featuring Nezet-Seguin at the piano.

Douglas Boyd conducts the Philharmonia in the Festival’s only fully-staged opera, a Garsington production of Dvorak’s Rusalka by Jack Furness with Natalya Romaniw in the title role, and Runnicles conducts a concert performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio. In a further nod towards the Festival’s origins, its chamber music programme at the Queen’s Hall includes a String Trio by Hans Gals, another refugee who made his home in the Scottish capital and was a founding figure of the event.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has two concerts, one with Nicola Benedetti, the EIF’s recently-announced artistic director designate, performing Bruch, and playing Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland under the direction of pianist Wayne Marshall, the musical director of last year’s A Grand Night for Singing.

The Usher Hall programme is completed by appearances from Les Siecles and Francois-Xavier Roth, featuring music from 1913 by Lili Boulanger and Igor Stravinsky, Hesperion XXI and Jordi Savall with music from the 14th century, the LSO, Sir Simon Rattle and a Daniel Kidane premiere, Zubin Mehta conducting the Australian World Orchestra, Bernard Labadie directing Handel’s Saul with Iestyn Davies and The English Consort, and the Festival debut of the Helsinki Philharmonic, conducted by Susanna Malkki.

The Festival’s return to the Queen’s Hall after the pandemic includes Brett Dean playing with the Hebrides Ensemble, pianist Malcolm Martineau with Florian Boesch for Winterreise and with Steven Osborne and a quartet of voices, soprano Golda Schultz, mezzos Magdalena Kozena and  Anne Sofie von Otter, Richard Egarr, Dunedin Consort, Ronald Brautigam and the Takacs and Pavel Haas Quartets.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from August 5 – 28. General booking opens on April 8.

eif.co.uk

Picture: Natalya Romaniw by Antonio Olmos

The Comic Opera Man

Composer Jonathan Dove talks to KEITH BRUCE about Flight and a possible Scots premiere for his newest work

Although American Jake Heggie, less than two years his junior, out-scores him internationally, on this side of the Atlantic composer Jonathan Dove is the most produced contemporary opera composer of his generation.

Among performers, and some directors, that status might come with airs and graces, and even diva-like behaviour. Composers? Not so much.

So when the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s head of opera studies Philip White requested a reduced score of one of Dove’s biggest hits, Flight, to meet the strictures of social distancing in the pit of the New Athenaeum Theatre in Glasgow during the pandemic, the composer immediately sat down and re-wrote his work for 19 players.

In the event, further restrictions made it impossible to stage the production at all until earlier this month, when it happened to coincide with the RSNO and theatre company Visible Fictions taking a newer Dove work, Gaspard’s Foxtrot, setting the children’s stories of Zeb Soanes, out on the road to primary schools as well as presenting it on the orchestra’s digital platform.

There, in a nutshell, was the range of Jonathan Dove’s work for the stage, and the main ingredients of his compositional life, if Scots music-lovers were minded to explore it, although his full catalogue stretches into many other areas of orchestral and chamber music, as well as songs.

“I am always happiest if I have an opera project on the go or on the horizon,” he told me on the day James Bonas’s production of Flight at the RCS finally opened. “I describe myself as a musical story-teller, even when it is not an opera, like Gaspard’s Foxtrot with Zeb Soanes and the RSNO.

“The RSNO co-commissioned it and they’ve done a lot with it. Writing songs and choral pieces is also story-telling, but it is a Peter and the Wolf kind of piece – that is very obviously the model.”

As for Flight, it is a work that has been performed all over the world since 1998, with Scottish Opera’s adapting an Opera Holland Park staging in 2018.

Rosalind Dobson as The Controller in Flight at RCS, picture by Robert McFadzean

“There have been two productions this year in the US alone, one in Utah and one in Dallas, and over the years people have asked for a slim down version, so I knew there was some demand for that. But I hadn’t had time and I didn’t want anyone else to do it, because I didn’t trust them to do it well.

“I came to Glasgow specifically to hear if the new orchestration works, and I think it helps that it is a bit leaner for young voices. I am obviously very pleased that Flight is seen in conservatoires. There is something for every voice type in it: a stratospheric soprano, a lyric soprano, a counter tenor and a bass alongside tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano.

“It is quite a good showcase, although that wasn’t what I was thinking when I wrote it. For me the airport was a sort of microcosm of a community. But you get know these people but you also get to hear them singing in quite a lot of states and moods, so you can hear what people can do.”

Lindsay Johnson as Minskwoman in RCS Flight

Making the reduced version of the orchestral score took Dove back to his own beginnings as an opera composer, and to memories of the man who was a mentor in the process, director Graham Vick, who died last summer after contracting Covid-19.

“A very important part of my musical education in my twenties was re-scoring masterpieces of the operatic repertoire for his touring company. I rescored La Cenerentola, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, La boheme and The Ring for orchestras of between 15 and 18 players.

“Graham was a shockingly late victim of the pandemic, just when you thought the world was getting safer. It was really only after he died that I saw clearly how much he had changed my life. Re-scoring masterpieces of the repertoire and seeing him direct them was an amazing education.

“The most important experience was one particular production, an Opera North outreach project with West Side Story in a disused cotton-mill. That production introduced me to so many things. At that point I was assistant chorus-master at Glyndebourne, but the experience of working with 200 people from the community in that production was a revelation – how hungry they were for it.

“That was very different from working with a professional opera chorus – they’ve trained for that, they know that they can do it. That show introduced me to community opera, and to site-specific work and promenade performance. At that moment I never wanted to see another proscenium-arch production, because it was so much more involving.”

If Dove has now rowed back from that position it was not before he had taken the lessons of Vick’s work and applied it to his own practice – a journey that led to his breakthrough opera.

“I wondered what it would be like if the community cast were telling their own story and not a New York story. Around the same time, Glyndebourne was thinking about an opera involving a couple of school and I said: ‘Why not involve a whole town?’ So we did that in Hastings with about 200 people, including any musicians and performers that wanted to be in it. There was the Boys Brigade band, there was a symphony orchestra, there was a yodelling harmonica player and Morris dancers.

“Another one followed in Ashford where there was an accordion club and a guitar orchestra and a rock band, and then one in Peterborough, and I found things for them all to do, and it always felt like the most unquestionably worthwhile thing that I was doing.

“The total experience of everyone in it, and what they learned from it – that was my road to Damascus experience. Those three community operas for Glyndebourne led directly to them commissioning Flight, which is still the work of mine that people most often tell me that they have seen.

“So it was from Graham I got the belief in opera as a medium whose importance should not be restricted to opera houses: that mission that opera is for everyone. He was a unique spirit.”

The relationship with the director continued, notably with 2012’s adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream for Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company. Dove’s other operas have drawn on classic novels (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), the troubled life of Buzz Aldrin (Man on the Moon) and the death of Princess Diana.

Parallel with those have been the works for young people, from Tobias and the Angel in 1999, via The Adventures of Pinocchio in 2007 to 2015’s The Monster in the Maze, based on the classical tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and created in partnership with conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

“It is the opera of mine that was been translated most. It was a co-commission between the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Aix festival, so there were three productions just weeks apart, all conducted by Simon Rattle, in German, English and French.

“It was also done in Taiwan in Cantonese and Taiwanese and I couldn’t get to that, but I have seen it in Swedish, in Portuguese in Lisbon and in Catalan in Barcelona, where it has now been done three times.”

The Dove children’s opera currently on his desk is for Zurich, based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, with Act 1 already completed.

Philip White’s students at the Conservatoire staged 2015’s post-Apocalypse The Day After as a sort of companion piece to the Scottish Opera Flight four years ago, and Dove’s most recent work for an adult audience, Marx in London, was first seen in Bonn and could be destined for a Scottish outing soon.

“Marx in London was the idea of director Jurgen Weber, who had directed an amazing production of an opera of mine, Swanhunter, written for an intended audience of teenagers. His idea was that Marx’s life was like a farce and that it would make a good comic opera.”

With a libretto by Charles Hart, whose past work includes Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, Marx in London premiered at the end of 2018, when it was co-produced by Scottish Opera. At the time there was speculation that the production might be seen in Scotland in 2020, and if it is still on the cards, Dove cannot confirm.

“Scottish Opera have made a financial commitment so it would be natural if they were the first to do it here,” he says. “There are still hopes that it will be staged in the not too distant future.”

RSNO / Helsing

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky may have fallen in and out of love with his Fifth Symphony, but it remains a firm favourite of audiences, which would explain the good turn-out on a sunny Wednesday afternoon at the RSNO’s home venue for a short programme destined to form the core of concerts in Dundee the next day (with young musicians from the Big Noise/Sistema music education initiative sharing the platform) and in Musselburgh’s Brunton for a Sunday afternoon Mother’s Day concert.

Assistant Conductor Kellen Gray is on the podium for the latter, but this and the Caird Hall were in the hands of  the Finnish Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, Anna-Maria Helsing, who made her RSNO debut with a filmed concert during lockdown and returned at short notice to replace Tianyi Lu and direct the musicians in front of an audience for the first time.

She was not the only unfamiliar face onstage, with a number of guests on the front desks of the winds for a work that begins in the hands of the first clarinet and has a prominent role for the principal bassoon. Alongside those, the all-male flute trio made a first movement impact with the figure that punctuates the strings as they pick up the melody.

The big slow movement tune was in the safe hands of first horn Chris Gough, and although there were some rough edges in the first violins when he passed it to them, Helsing’s dynamic control of the symphony’s opening was exemplary, and every detail of the marvellous orchestration clear in this auditorium’s sparkling acoustic.

That was especially so in the rhythmically teasing opening of the third movement waltz and then in the development of that tune at the start of the fourth. This was a hugely dramatic rendition of the finale, guided by big gestures from Helsing, driven by the pulse of the basses, and with very brisk and precise last few bars.

The symphony was preceded by the Overture in C by Fanny Hensel, nee Mendelssohn, elder sibling of Felix. It is a curiosity that her married name is now preferred as an assertion of her independent identity, as it has become accepted that the gifted big sister may have had a significant hand in the early work of her precocious brother.

Whatever we are missing of her own acknowledged creative output, this sole surviving instrumental work for orchestra is no mere family salon piece, with big string writing, a vibrant palette of colour from the winds and brass and great deal for the horns to do. It deserves to be heard on the concert platform as often as the more familiar Mendelssohn overtures.

Alongside the unfamiliar, this concert also marked the Glasgow farewell for one of the stalwarts of the RSNO’s viola section, David Martin, who retires after these performances and over 30 years with the orchestra. That contribution was warmly acknowledged by colleagues and audience at its start.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Anna-Maria Helsing by Tage Rönnqvist

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)

SONICA / RSNO

Tramway, Glasgow

Amid the myriad events of a stimulating Sonica Glasgow 2022 festival, composer Gavin Bryars’ expected presence to conduct the RSNO in his own works (and one of Arvo Pärt’s) held a certain cult status. The substantial bustling audience was testament to that, the late start simply heightening the anticipation. All that was missing was Bryars himself.

It was given over to Cathie Boyd, artistic director of the festival organising body Cryptic, to explain that Bryars couldn’t be with us in person, due to testing positive for Covid, but that he would speak to us virtually from his Glasgow hotel room. The asymptomatic icon, writ large on a massive rear screen, duly engaged between performances. All was not lost.

His place on the rostrum was taken last-minute by Robert Baxter, a frequent trumpeter within the ranks of Scotland’s orchestras, whose crisp and authoritative baton technique saved the day. 

He wasn’t needed for the opening work, the most iconic of Bryars’ ruminative output, Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Written 51 years ago, it is memorable for its looped recording of a homeless old man incanting, with haunting simplicity, a religious song, around which the orchestra  weaves a harmonic wrap of increasing density. Saturday’s performance was self-generated by the orchestra. 

That, in itself, generated a fragile intensity to match the old man’s voice, a solo string ensemble creeping in with tentative delicacy before growing gradually in number and amplitude to the point where the harmonic riff took on a life of its own. If some of the ensemble’s cohesion teetered on the brink – the angelic valedictory chorus of high strings, for instance – its accidental potency was weirdly moving.

Baxter’s presence was welcomed when it came to Pärt’s more complex 1970s’ curiosity If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper. Originally composed for harpsichord, small ensemble and tape, and ironically (for the then Soviet subjugated Estonian) subtitled Portrait of a Musicologist Against the Background of a Wasp Nest, it has since undergone several adaptations, including this last on in 2019 for larger ensemble. 

Not only did this performance embrace the textural busyness of the score, in which adapted Bach motifs and quotations vie with buzzing string effects and volatile piano incursions, but its meaning was usefully amplified by the first of digital artist Alba G Corral’s live visual projections, a restlessly mercurial landscape, vividly detailed yet unobtrusive.

The concert ended with the UK premiere of Bryars’ Viola Concerto, subtitled A Hut in Toyama and inspired by the long, dark Australian nights of the southern winter solstice during which he composed it. Completed in 2020, it was premiered the following year in Tasmania by its dedicatee Morgan Goff, a long-standing violist in Bryars’ own ensemble, who also starred in this Glasgow performance.

Its writing is typical of Bryars, faintly morose in character, but with a carefree composure that plays to both its advantage and its disadvantage. Yes, there’s a lugubrious charm to a concept that pits the warm-hearted viola against predominantly low-set orchestral textures, but when the lyrical momentum and character is constantly subdued by the flatness of the compositional contours, the task is all the greater. 

That may have been why Goff’s performance seemed so frustratingly laid back, in extreme cases awkward and uneasy. Baxter also faced his own challenge in addressing a work that probably needed more time to bring fully to life than he was given. Nor was it all down to Corrall that her added visual illumination, for all its crafted eloquence, seemed less purposeful than in the Pärt.

Ken Walton

RSNO / Chan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

It’s very hard to dismiss Russia from our minds at this troubling time, and particularly for music lovers to separate its rich cultural legacy from the hideous bully-boy tactics of its current warmongering leader. Especially when the RSNO’s digital programme booklet this weekend bannered prominently that evening’s Shostakovich opposite the prospect of Rachmaninov two weeks hence.

The fact is, Russians wrote some of the greatest music that exists, some of it composed under the threat of state censure. The existential dilemma was diplomatically dealt with by RSNO principal guest conductor Elim Chan in her carefully-worded introductory remarks on Saturday. Yes, everyone is praying for the people of Ukraine, she said, but we should also remember that oppression is a way of life for the ordinary Russian people. And Shostakovich, himself, operated under punishable Stalinist tyranny.

The harrowing misery that haunts his Cello Concerto No 2 is actually more to do with the later Brezhnev era, written for the great Mstislav Rostropovich in 1966 while the 60-year-old composer was staying in the Crimea. It even uses an Odessa street song as the basis of the central Allegretto. 

Its placement in this programme, however, was more a vehicle for the RSNO debut of popular British cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. That appeared to be the reason for the biggest Glasgow audience attendance for the orchestra since Covid struck, confirmed by those who took to their feet and cheered once it was over.

It was a cool and calculated Kanneh-Mason performance that emerged broodingly, proceeding with grim perseverance via the vivid mockery of the Allegretto to the climactic surges of the final moment and its ruminative solo cello sign-off. Kanneh-Mason and Chan worked seamlessly together, the latter giving Shostakovich’s gnawing, bitter percussion writing the hideous prominence it deserves.

In fact, it was the orchestral performance that provided the essential electricity, Kanneh-Mason’s visible reserve contradicting to some extent the full intensity and true expressive potential of the solo line. There was minimal gutsiness in his playing, some troublesome intonation in the double-stopping, but its level-headed composure won the day for his fans. A pensive improvised encore satisfied the call for more.

The feistiest playing of the evening had come beforehand, a gripping performance of Grazyna Bacewitcz’s short Divertimento, written by the Polish-born composer in the same year as the Shostakovich concerto, also under Soviet influence. From the very first note, Chan’s alert persuasiveness made its mark, the dry, dissonant energy of the music exploding into action, the RSNO strings maintaining its infectious rhythmic spirit throughout.

As Chan also promised in her opening spiel, the second half of the concert would dispel warring shadows. And so it did, with the RSNO Junior Chorus constituting a truly angelic (split treble voices) presence in Fauré’s sublime Requiem, positioned above the intimate instrumental forces. Chan elicited muted delicacy and precision, unhurried but never laboured, evoking quintessential innocence and hope. 

From the chorus came the uplifting freshness of children’s voices, from soloists Marcus Farnsworth and Katy Anna Hill a matching purity, cushioned by the plaintive wash of Fauré’s restful orchestration. The seraphic In Paradisium transported us, finally, to a better place.

Ken Walton

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