Tag Archives: RSNO

RSNO / Chan

City Halls, Glasgow

YOU have to have been a follower of Scotland’s national orchestra for a great many years to recall the RSNO’s last run of concerts at the City Halls, the current return there necessitated by Glasgow City Council’s rather unexpected finding of funds for the refurbishment of the Royal Concert Hall.

Had the RSNO management known that was coming, the season’s programme may have been shaped differently. However, it transpired that the last concert conducted by Hong Kong’s diminutive and much-loved Elim Chan as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor was transplanted to the Merchant City, while the same programme – a big colourful opener by Anna Clyne, a Mozart concerto with pianist Steven Osborne, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony – would surely have sold out the larger hall.

A quart in a pint pot it may have been, but Chan’s last hurrah was an evening crammed with delights. Clyne’s This Midnight Hour has nothing to do with either Thelonious Monk or Wilson Pickett but rather the imagery of Jiménez and Baudelaire in their musical poetry, and the specific character of the strings in a contemporary French orchestra. The RSNO strings, especially the violas, had some tricky stuff to play, but the conductor clearly relished the huge palette of colours that Clyne, characteristically, calls for. The composer is an orchestrator par excellence, and the details in the percussion parts and specific deployment of the trumpets make for a terrific fun piece.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 is the middle one of three he wrote for the Viennese market when the newly-wed composer settled there in the 1780s. There is a tribute to the recently-deceased Johann Christian Bach, the “London” Bach, whom Mozart had met as a child, in the central slow movement and that was the focus of Osborne’s reading of the work, which was quite firm and precise in its outer sections, and intensely emotional, and a long way from languid, in the middle.

There was a much smaller RSNO on stage, but the pianist’s spare approach to the music might have been reflected in further reduction in the string numbers, particularly in a hall of this size and for a work its composer undoubtedly saw as chamber music.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5, on the other hand, was intended to be a work of scale, even if Tchaikovsky was plagued by self-doubt at the time. Although it ends with a huge resounding rebuttal of its “Fate” motif – first heard in first clarinet Timothy Orpen’s lower register statement at the start – most modern listeners have found that bold finish unconvincing, a judgement perhaps coloured by the “Pathetique” Sixth Symphony that followed. Chan seemed to take the work more at face value, and the orchestra players – not excepting the guest principals in key positions – gave her big, generous performances in return.

There was a small presentation to the conductor by leader Maya Iwabuchi at the start of the concert, and Chan had dressed very stylishly for the occasion. As popular with audiences as she clearly was with the musicians, she will be much missed as her career focuses increasingly on the US as well as continental Europe.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Wilson

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Among the other ingredients they had in common – most obviously the shared influence of music outside the Western classical sphere from the other side of the Atlantic – the compositions conductor John Wilson chose for the RSNO to perform this weekend had interesting links in their titles.

While Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was always going to be alliteratively just that – that was what its commissioner Benny Goodman was paying top dollar for, after all – both George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninov changed their minds.

The Russian was probably correct that Symphonic Dances was a more sellable name than Fantastic Dances (in 1941 at least), but Gershwin’s Cuban Overture might have had more performances if he’d stuck with the original title, Rumba, given the USA’s subsequent troubled relationship with the Caribbean island.

The three works – written within two decades of the last century – share a lot of DNA, and prefacing the Rachmaninov with the American composers was highly instructive. What Wilson asked of the RSNO players in the Symphonic Dances was U.S. Marine Band precision – this was dance music that was as much Strictly Ballroom as it was refracting the composer’s perennial debt to the liturgy of the orthodox church though a Romantic lens.

The plangent quality to Lewis Bank’s saxophone solo in the opening movement often sounds more pastoral than it did here, while the waltz of the Andante was one that had heard American dance bands. And while the melodic material of the last movement may be identifiably old Russian, the small significant details of the orchestration – not least in the percussion – were of the contemporary West.

The RSNO percussion section was even more to the fore in the Gershwin, in music built around the collection of instruments he brought back from Havana. What a construction he made from his fascination with Latin music. More of a tone poem than an overture, it is a piece full of deliciously complex scoring and cameos for solo instruments both familiar and alien to the Cuban bands he’d heard.

The exacting approach that John Wilson brings to his rehearsal of any orchestra matched the compositional rigour with which Gershwin used his inspiration and that also applied to the way Copland incorporates stride piano, jazz bass, and Dixieland into his Clarinet Concerto.

RSNO first clarinet Timothy Orpen was the star soloist for the work, and he clearly revels in the way it unfolds, with all those influences appearing well through the work, which is also quite beautifully constructed.

In what is an exquisite showcase for his instrument, Orpen gave full emotional weight to the spacious first section, with its spare and specific orchestration, and gave a masterclass in pin-sharp articulation after the cadenza. The interplay between the soloist and his colleagues in the orchestra as the work unfolded was quite joyous, and the climax of the work irresistibly smile-making.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / New

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Whatever the full house in Edinburgh’s big hall came for on Friday evening, they surely got it in spades. It may have ended at a very respectable half past nine in the evening, but the music began at 6pm, with the RSNO providing a showcase for young musicians from St Mary’s Music School as it marks its 50th birthday.

The pre-concert concert stole a march on the symphony orchestra by having an opening just as sonically bold as the Ligeti we would hear an hour-and-a-half later, as sixth former Carlo Massimo let loose the might of the Usher Hall organ on Olivier Messiaen.

That was a precursor to a varied bill of chamber music that included a senior string quartet playing a movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, but shone in the duos. Those nearing the end of their studies at the school gave us Rautavarra (violinist Anias Kroeger and pianist Alexander Kwon) and Sorensen (fiddler Hester Parkin and Kirsty Grant on accordion), but the star turn was a Tchaikovsky Nocturne by first year cellist Paul Oggier and his attentive S3 piano partner Michelle Huang.

The RSNO’s opening salvo was the Prelude and Intermezzo from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, a rather grand title for the madcap fun of three members of the percussion section employing hands and feet to parp a dozen old-school bulb horns for a fanfare that, apparently, parodies Monteverdi.

It was a skilled, if bonkers, start, and the best joke was that it preceded Gershwin’s An American in Paris which famously features the same “instrument” to soundtrack the bustling traffic of the city.

There are fewer car horns required for that work, but they are as crucial as the trumpets, trombones and tuba in the overall sound of the work. This was an evening in which the brass section shone throughout the programme, first trumpet Chris Hart the most obvious soloist, but tuba player John Whitener, and trombonist Davur Juul Magnussen, doubling on euphonium, not far behind.

Making her debut as conductor, New Zealander Gemma New, whose grandmother was once an RSNO violinist, was the other crucial ingredient in the vibrancy of the music. A musician who clearly delights in the power and majesty of the symphony orchestra – and especially one garnished with extra instruments like saxophones – she drew superb work from everyone on stage.

Also making her RSNO debut was the night’s soloist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, and a dynamic duo the two certainly were on Gillam’s pair of pieces. Those came from the 1930s, in an exclusively 20thcentury programme: Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings and Milhaud’s Scaramouche, which has given Gillam the theme music for her award-winning Radio 3 show, This Classical Life.

The sax may have been in its early years as a soloist in classical music, but both are splendid virtuoso pieces, the Milhaud arguably having the edge in its application of the possibilities of the instrument.

Colourful though Gillam and her music were, there was even more to come in this busy night. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a popular work in any of its incarnations and the RSNO enhanced the Ravel orchestration with actual picture-making by artist James Mayhew.

If there was a suspicion that all this might become a bit much, all credit goes to conductor, musicians and to Mayhew, who made the whole thing work so well. The work was as varied, big and bold as it can be, and the artistic skill with which it was illustrated, in time with the score, was quite remarkable.

Using the titles from Viktor Hartmann’s works that the composer deployed in tribute to his friend, Mayhew created ten swift, literal, images of as much vibrancy and colour as the music. It was a multi-media triumph every bit as old-school as those car horns.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Qian

New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Wednesday’s RSNO afternoon programme was a strange concoction. By far its most exciting concern was the early musical travelogue of Richard Strauss, Aus Italien, styled by the German composer in 1887 as a symphonic fantasy, but in essence a precursor the the rich string of tone poems that were later to seal his distinctive reputation.

That was the meatiest part of a concert directed by the orchestra’s former assistant conductor Junping Qian, which had opened with the sure-footed pragmatism of Nicolai’s Overture to his one-hit operatic wonder The Merry Wives of Windsor, followed by the strangest of inclusions, music for strings by the award-winning Glasgow-based film composer Craig Armstrong.

Armstrong’s music, of course, stretches way beyond one hit, but most of it is geared towards the silver screen. There were two examples here: the shimmering Balcony Scene music written for Baz Lurmann’s 1996 movie, Romeo and Juliet; and the mundanely titled Slow Movement for String Orchestra, material from which also found its way into the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack.

The problem with both is that they don’t hold well on their own right. It’s not necessary to fill a piece with melodic interest and self-reliance when it’s just part of the complete cinematic experience. Present it in sole isolation, however, and it can seem lifeless.

Qian did what he could, but no silk purse emerged. Yes, he could have suppressed the Balcony music to a whisper, which might have captured more of the magic it elicits on screen, and the longer Slow Movement, again more atmospheric than characterful, needed much more in the way of nuance to be convincing. Their inclusion, as part of the RSNO’s regular Scotch Snap series, seemed more token than fulfilling.

Especially when they came in the wake of The Merry Wives overture, its super-abundance of themes vying for position, skilfully intermeshed, and performed with enriching persuasiveness, from the gorgeously resonant cello opening to the glitter and excitement of Nicolai’s opulent scoring.

But it was Strauss’ Aus Italien that finally established a powerful sense of substance. Each of its four “scenes” possessed sunny countenance, varied according to the subject matter addressed: the humid pastoral glow of Auf Der Champagna, the passionate charms depicting In Roms Ruinen, the glistening ecstasy of Am Strande von Sorrent, and the unchecked Neapolitan exuberance of the dizzy finale.

In all of this, Strauss could be heard experimenting with ideas destined to characterise his daring musical maturity. Qian recognised that in a performance itching to take flight, but adhering equally to the gravitational pull of influences the composer was clearly itching to pull free from. 

Ken Walton

RSNO / Søndergård

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The only scheduled speaking from the stage on Friday night was at the start of the concert, when leader Maya Iwabuchi invited her former violin pupil and now featured young composer, Lisa Robertson, to introduce her premiering work, am fior-eun.

However, music director Thomas Søndergård could plainly not let the evening end without thanking the audience for turning out in such numbers and bringing such vocal enthusiasm. This was an Usher Hall filled to the rafters as the Edinburgh Festival would be delighted to see it, proving that the Celtic Connections festival at the other end of the M8 has no monopoly on January ticket sales.

If the music-lovers came out for the promise of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, they brought ears receptive enough to greet new music with cheers of appreciation.

Robertson’s piece may be briefer than the 19th century works that followed, but it is on no lesser scale. Selected from the harvest of the RSNO’s Composer Hub project, it glories in the opportunity to compose for a full orchestra with a score that swooped across the available talent onstage like the eagles near Robertson’s West Highland home that it depicts.

Here was music that not only realised every word of the composer’s eloquent statement of her intention, but was audibly made in collaboration with those now playing it, extended techniques from strings, winds and percussion included. That’s not to say that others will not want to play it – such a colourful depiction of the Scottish landscape is sure to find further performances – but that these musicians set the bar for those who follow them very high indeed.

It was also a perfect appetiser for what Søndergård and soloist Francesco Piemontesi had in store. In the way of current programme typography style shared by the RSNO and the BBC Scottish, there was an adjective on the cover of this weekend’s booklet: “Majestic”. It was no idle boast, because this was a concert that was all about making a big impression, as Lisa Robertson certainly had.

Piemontesi is a pianist who can tailor his performance to every occasion, and this was him giving it large. In collaboration with the conductor we heard Beethoven in all his majesty, and full of drama.

Did Søndergård overstate the transition into the Finale? Perhaps. But could he have asked the strings to push even more in the slow movement? Possibly also true. Certainly, there was no risk of the soloist being overwhelmed by the orchestra – Piemontesi was on fire from the first bar to the last.

The Brahms was just as epic, Søndergård drawing a clear distinction between how a full-sized symphony orchestra should play this music and more modest “period” interpretations, using bold fluctuations in tempo without sacrificing any precision. There may have been swifter Brahms symphonies, but few as rich.

Keith Bruce

RSNO: Viennese Gala

Perth Concert Hall

The challenge with any traditional orchestral Viennese Gala is to make it more than just a routine January roll out. There’s not much you can do with the music itself – it will always be a core diet of Strauss family favourites, otherwise what’s the point? So it boils down to a presentation and performance format that will give the evening the necessary zing factor. This Perth performance by the RSNO was the first in a line of repeat presentations heading around parts of Scotland till next weekend.

By the time it reaches Saturday’s final destination in Greenock I suspect this particular Viennese Gala will be as svelte as any Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s Day broadcast, but with more of a homely flavour as befits an audience probably reared on the couthy fireside charm of The White Heather Club. 

Thanks then to Scots broadcaster and versatile tenor Jamie MacDougall for doing not so much his Andy Stewart, but a creditable Bill McCue in peppering this tinselly sequence of Strauss perennials with an engaging mix of song and patter.

This was welcome in periodically whisking us away from the stylised 19th century Vienna populism so monopolised by the Strauss family business. MacDougall unleashed his inner John McCormack in the glorious sentimentalism that characterises such schmalzy numbers as pre-World War II German film composer Werner Richard Heymann’s Ein blonder Traum, Rudolf Sieczyński’s one-hit wonder, Vienna, City of My Dreams, or one actually made famous by McCormack, Charles Marshall’s I Hear You Calling Me.

The only detraction from these was a seemingly low-set amplification level, which left MacDougall partially unheard in the earlier songs. Correction made all the difference in the second half, making such further gems as Juventino Rosas’ The Loveliest Night of the Year and the more melancholy hue of Paolo Tosti’s L’ultima Canzona easy listening in every sense.

If MacDougall livened up the continuity, the conductor David Niemann – in his RSNO debut – responded with equally lithesome musical direction, evident straight off in the opening Overture from Johann Strauss II’s popular opera Die Fledermaus. For the most part, he garnered a rich response from the orchestra, at their best in the same composer’s febrile Thunder and Lightning Waltz, the more reserved ebullience of the Emperor Waltz, and in a quirky novelty piece, Künstler-Quadrille, that pieces together snatches of themes by other composers, almost too many to count.

Things weren’t so refined in the famous Blue Danube, where Niemann’s excessive temporal deliberations seemed to fox the players. Among the non-Strauss works, the same issue imbued Delibes’ Pizzicato Polka with a few stray plucks, unlike the hearty confidence exhibited in the foregoing Brahms Hungarian Dance. 

Other Strausses featured: brother Josef’s Ohne Sorgen! Polka, with its additionally notated guffaws from the players; and Johann Strauss I’s rousing Radetzky March as a programmed encore that very nearly didn’t happen. Niemann lingered overlong on his return to the stage, resulting in the audience applause fading prematurely. He made it, just in time to make it happen. 

Having served Dunfermline and Langholm since, and with Inverness and Musselburgh to come this week en route to Greenock, this enjoyable programme will probably be running like clockwork now.

Ken Walton

Further performances at Eden Court, Inverness (12 Jan), The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh (13 Jan) and Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock (14 Jan)

RSNO Messiah / McGegan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Messiahs come in all shapes and sizes, from old-fashioned, heavily-populated Edwardian-style marathons that take forever and a day, to the meatless extremes of the ultra-purists who favour briskness and a cast-size that would just about fit into a lift. Thankfully the music is mostly indestructible.

With bouncy septuagenarian Baroque specialist Nicholas McGegan in charge of Monday’s traditional New Year performance by the RSNO, Handel’s evergreen oratorio came as a sleek, svelte and stylish package. What really mattered, though, were the alluring intimacies, theatrical subtleties, refreshing surprises and the quietly overwhelming unity he brought to a work that many of this sizeable audience could easily have sung along to.

Some did, like those around me unable to resist joining in the Hallelujah Chorus, clearly imagining a sound in their head far removed from the tuneless grunts that actually emerged. But maybe that’s what Classical Music is missing, that spontaneous urge to go at it Glastonbury-style if the urge takes you. Next we’ll be waving our phone lights to For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.

In truth, it merely reflected the personableness of McGegan’s vision, brought seamlessly to life by a nimble RSNO Chorus, the sprightly bite of a Baroque-sized RSNO, and a superbly matched solo quartet notwithstanding the unexpected presence of Peter Harvey as a last-minute replacement for the advertised bass-baritone Stephan Loges, who was ill.

The latter group were a star act. Tenor Jamie MacDougall set the scene with his opening Comfort ye and Every valley, his eyes fixed firmly on the audience rather than the score, immediately establishing a warm and vital connection. 

From hereon in, the narrative was foremost, whether issued through the gorgeous willowy countertenor of William Towers (magically enhanced by the delicate darting incision of the strings in For he is like a refiner’s fire), the seraphic purity of Mhairi Lawson’s soprano (thoughtfully changing her garb from angelic white in Part 1 to a more demure black in Parts II & III for such golden reflective moments as her I know that my redeemer liveth), or Peter Harvey’s triumphant The trumpet shall sound.

The chorus, trained by Stephen Doughty, echoed impressively that charisma, negotiating Handel’s contrapuntal trickery with effortless precision. And I did like McGegan’s mischievous quirks in getting them to stand up amusingly at key moments in the soloist’s texts – “The kings of the earth rise up,” for instance. 

They presented a neatly balanced front, beautifully blended, words clear as crystal, intently responsive to McGegan’s nuanced direction. As did the lithesome RSNO, pert and essential in its role, quietly supportive yet crucial and characterful at every turn. 

Perhaps the most satisfying outcome of this Messiah was the success with which McGegan’s limited forces managed to fill the vastness of this 2000-seater hall, not just with actual sound (there were, to be sure, odd moments where a greater explosion of sound might have been welcomed), but with an expressiveness that genuinely pierced the soul. Granted, there were one or two unsynchronised glitches in Part II, but only passing ones and never so much as to undermine the compelling spirit of this sprightly performance.

Ken Walton

A trad New Year

The conductors of Handel’s Messiah in Glasgow and Edinburgh on January 2 talk to Keith Bruce

As young musicians they came to Handel’s masterwork as a trumpet player and a flautist, but this year James MacMillan and Nicholas McGegan are on the podium for the New Year concerts of Messiah in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. For one it is a conducting debut, while the other has been part of the revolution in historically-informed performances of the work for more than four decades.

“I went to performances of it as a boy in Cumnock,” remembers MacMillan. “The local choral union was the Kyle Choral Union and they used to put on performances of Messiah and other oratorios. In fact one of my earliest trumpet memories is of playing third trumpet in a performance of Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in New Cumnock when I was 12 or 13 with the Kyle Choral Union. So they performed Messiah as well, with amateur players from around Ayrshire.”

McGegan recalls playing flute in the Prout orchestration of the work when he was at high school in Nottingham, and then being disappointed to find out that Handel had not written flute parts at all.

He was at the harpsichord when he played it in a seminal performance at Westminster Abbey in 1979, under the baton of Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music.

“It was about zero degrees and I was wearing fingerless Bob Cratchit gloves, and soprano Emma Kirkby had thermal underwear underneath her Laura Ashley dress.”

Understandably, however, McGegan recalls that era as a thrilling time when baroque repertoire was being re-thought.

“I ran intro Chris Hogwood at Cambridge in 1970. He was living at the top of a house owned by Sir Nicholas Shackleton, whose collection of wind instruments is now at Edinburgh University. I was loaned an 18th century flute and I went to the library and got hold of a treatise to learn how to play it, so I ended up playing second flute on the first recording of the Academy of Ancient Music.

“It was an exciting time; Trevor Pinnock was also around and a lot of this music was being done for the first time in many years. I was a slightly junior member of the team: Chris and Trevor and John Eliot Gardiner were all about ten years older than me. I played the harpsichord for them and, when necessary, the flute, and I was part of the project.”

It was in the USA that McGegan graduated to conducting the work, in the middle of the following decade.

“I remember directing my first Messiah absolutely to the day. It was December 1986 with the St Louis Symphony and the soprano, as she was then, was the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it was her first Messiah too. She was a remarkable artist and in 91 I was able to record it with her.”

This year McGegan is once again at the helm of the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, with soloists soprano Mhairi Lawson, counter-tenor William Towers, tenor Jamie MacDougall and bass-baritone Stephen Loges. On the same afternoon, composer James MacMillan conducts the work for the first time for Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, where Catriona Hewitson, Catherine Backhouse, Kieran White and Paul Grant are the soloists.

“I sang bits of it later in my student years,” says MacMillan, “but a lot of the music I sang at school and university was earlier and I never sang the big choral union sort of pieces. So preparing for this performance there has been a lot that felt like seeing and hearing it for the first time.

“Some of the arias I really didn’t know and the breadth that Messiah travels over its three parts is incredible, not just from Christmas to the Crucifixion but as a piece of music drama. It really takes you on a journey with a whole range of emotions and moods. I can see now why it established itself as a deeply loved masterpiece.

“The hinterland now is the difference of approach from the big choral union tradition to what the early music world has brought to it, with smaller choirs and a tighter, more authentic instrumental approach.

“All that has to be taken on board and that might be the reason why I’ve never conducted it before, because there is a specialism and scholarship to Baroque and Pre-Baroque music that puts barriers up for the rest of us. My choral music was earlier, unaccompanied music, but most of the orchestral music I’ve conducted in the last 20-odd years or so is later, so coming to Messiah for the first time is a new thing for me.”

At the same time, MacMillan’s own composing life has moved from smaller, unaccompanied motets toward exactly the shape of work that Handel undertook after his operas.

“In recent times I’ve written a lot of big oratorios – the Christmas Oratorio, the St John Passion and the St Luke Passion – and I suppose they acknowledge the historical hinterland of Handel’s oratorios and Bach’s cantatas and passions – it’s all there in the mix. You grow up with this music and it leaves an indelible mark, sometimes subliminally, on a composer’s mind.”

The Covid pandemic had yet to silence choirs around the world when McGegan last conducted in Glasgow, where he thinks he counts as a local boy because of his years as Principal Guest Conductor at Scottish Opera, and the flat he still has in the city’s west end.

“New Year 2020 was the last time I was with the RSNO, just before the pandemic, so a lot of the same people will be playing in the orchestra and I hope some of the audience will be the same too.

“What I do is bring my own orchestra parts, with my bowings, the dynamics and articulation written in. I’ve worked with nearly all the soloists before, either in Messiah or other projects – people like Jamie MacDougall and I go way back, Will Towers and I have done opera together as well as Messiah – so it is like organising a dinner party for friends.

“I first came to Glasgow in 1991 and did The Magic Flute with Scottish Opera two years running. My father was an Edinburgh boy and I had a clutch of rather terrifying great aunts in Morningside, who were horrified that I wanted to work there!

“I had the best time at Scottish Opera, I always enjoyed it. I’ll be 73 next month, but I hope I’ve still got a few Figaros left in me. I did Figaro, Giovanni and Cosi at Scottish Opera and loved every second of it.”

MacMillan may be making his Messiah debut in Edinburgh next week, but he has other concerts of the work upcoming.

“This time is very experimental for me, but I get to do it again a couple of times in December next year in Australia. I have been asked to conduct it with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the week before my Christmas Oratorio. I think they thought if they were having me for one week they might as well have me for two!

“So it is something that will grow as I get to do it a few times. Keeping the pace lively is important and that is something we have all learned from the early music revolution. I’ve taken a couple of rehearsals now and I’ve been delighted how chorusmaster Michael Bawtree has trained the choir. It is very lithe and very light on its feet.

“I’ll bring a composer’s inside view to the process, and whether that’s valuable is for others to decide! I haven’t had a conducting lesson in my life, but I did have a consultation with Sir Colin Davis, who said that I should keep doing what I do, because there is something about a composer’s perspective that is unique. He thought that a contemporary composer’s view of the music of the past is valuable, and I was always encouraged by that.

“And the more I have lived with Messiah, I think there has to be a sense of through-composed travelling and of drama in the performance. I am wondering about whether some of the stopping and starting is really necessary and I might want to push on, so there’s not much hanging about between arias and choruses, and a non-stop feel to where the music is going.”

It is the non-stop sequence of performances of Messiah that McGegan identifies as one of its unique characteristics.

“It is one of the very few pieces I know that has been in more or less continuous performance since it was written. I know some musicologists would disagree, but I just see the basic story of the prophecies surrounding the birth of Christ, Christ’s life and passion and the resurrection, with the basic tenets of the religion without delving too deeply into the tricky stuff.

“It’s unusual for Handel because nearly all his oratorios have people singing roles. Jesus does not appear as a singing role and in some ways I think that makes it easier for everybody. It is not a portrait of Jesus, it is a portrait of the idea of the religion.

“Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, chose the texts very carefully to find the words that were easiest to sing and Handel sets those words very carefully. Handel is a master of writing for choirs, but the choruses are actually much more difficult than people who don’t sing realise. It is a masterpiece of very varied choral writing. That’s why people love it so.”

MacMillan also notes the way the work appeals as much to those of no faith as to the devout.

“When Messiah was first performed in the 1700s, I wonder what kind of mood there would have been in the hall. Would people want to applaud?

“How secular was it? How sacred was it? It seems to be a hybrid form that brought together the sacred and the secular in the world of music.”

The Edinburgh Royal Choral Union Messiah begins at noon in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on January 2. The RSNO and RSNO Chorus perform the work from 3pmon the same day at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

RSNO / Chang

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

IT is not going too far to say that Han-Na Chang’s take on Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony will be one against which to judge other performances of this crucial work by Scotland’s national orchestra. Whether it remains a favourite may, however, be a matter of personal taste.

It was certainly highly individual and impossible to listen to without complete attention, and that in itself is remarkable for such a familiar war horse of the Western classical canon. The South Korean, who has become the toast of Trondheim in Norway, where she is Artistic Leader and Chief Conductor of the symphony orchestra and opera company, conducted from memory and created a performance of Beethoven’s Third that played by her own rules. There were period band elements in there – most obviously in Paul Philbert’s smaller timpani – and a light chamber music touch to the strings in the first movement, albeit with the heft of six double basses.

Where there was muscle from the low strings, Chang asked for a featherlight touch from the violins and the balance at the start of the second movement Funeral March was quite remarkable. Instead of being dense and doomy, there was so much space in the sound. Details of the score were sharp and clear because they seemed to be floating in the ether.

If that airiness was often unlike other Eroicas, so too was Chang’s pacing. After the two opening chords, there were none of the brisk tempi we are now accustomed to hearing in the composer’s early works. Even the Scherzo was taken at a quite deliberate pace, and the entrance of the horns was comparatively muted.

But it was the Finale that seemed especially bold, finding rhythmic echoes of the funeral march but also seeming quite remarkably quiet and very slow indeed. Whether that was actually the case is almost beside the point – it was an absolutely compelling listen.

Chang’s conducting style is a mix of big gestures and surprising immobility at times, but it is clear that she gets her intentions across, and misses none of the detail. A cello soloist before her conducting career, she also gave us an Elgar Cello Concerto that was refreshingly free of cliché.

That was clearly also the intention of Bruno Delepelaire, the French first cello with the Berlin Phil, who was the soloist here. Although he had told RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi, in a pre-concert talk, that seeing the famous film of Jacqueline du Pre playing the work had made him want to learn the instrument, his approach was intense and precise and very much his own – and not at all demonstrative. Nothing was overplayed or overstated, as it often is, and another oft-heard work sounded all the fresher for it.

The same might be said of the concert opener, Rossini’s Overture to William Tell. Everyone knows it for the brass charge at the end, whether it is military cavalry or a Wild West posse that springs to mind, but Chang’s William Tell – again conducted without a score – will be remembered as much for the precision of the cello section in its opening bars.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Jessica Cowley

RSNO / Gray

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Like most conductors, the RSNO’s South Carolina-born assistant conductor Kellen Gray is marking his particular tenure with some of his own passions. In this Wednesday matinée concert his focus was on African American Voices, composers of colour whose names are not so well-known as, say Gershwin or Copland, despite being contemporaries, but who certainly deserve to be heard.

Gray’s enthusiasm was palpable, expressed personably in a spoken introduction, but equally championed through performances that recognised the fluid reverie that is George Walker’s  Lyric for Strings, the showman skills of William Grant Still’s Symphony No 1 “Afro-American” with its single banjo striking up in the hottest jazz moments, and the neatly-integrated stylistic fusion that gives William Levi Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony its own self-identifying intensity.

Walker’s sumptuous idyll, its thick-set string writing offset by ever-shifting layered detail, provided a restful opener, Gray unfolding the smooth, mellifluous contours with patience and understanding. It was the least characterised of the afternoon’s music, but its quiescent satisfaction sat well as a post-prandial meditation.

On the other hand, Still’s ebullient symphony would not have been out of place in the dance hall, at least those rumbustious tracts within its four movements that had the RSNO switching to jazz orchestra mode, the swooning muted brass, kaleidoscopic wind embellishments and searing string flourishes adding their own chipper choreography to stomping bass and percussion.

If, as a result, the structure relies more on episodical blocks and bluesy melodies than any long-term organic vision, this performance, full of colour and energy, offered plenty delights to compensate, not lest on the Finale home straight, a cartoonesque menagerie equal in fast-changing narrative to the Tom and Jerry soundtracks of Scott Bradley.

Dawson’s symphony offered something more classically-bound, a language still deriving its song-based thematic soul from African American culture, but doing so within a more obviously symphonic context. Thus it was often hard to distinguish between the actual modally-characterised Spiritual melodies and other invented motifs reminiscent of Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. 

Most notable, though, was the vibrance of this performance by Gray and the RSNO that completed their warm-hearted case for this concert’s attractive, neglected music. If you missed it, and wish you hadn’t, the entire programme is available on the RSNO’s African American Voices disc, out on Linn Records (CKD 699).

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Heyward

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

One of the most exciting aspects of any orchestral concert can be the dynamic struck up between the conductor and the concerto soloist. It can be synergic or combative, thrustful or accommodating; it can result in an explosive sum that is greater than the parts, or a resigned cancellation of opposites that merely produces benign compromise. 

The outcome arising from the partnership of Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin and American conductor Jonathon Heyward in Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto with the RSNO – both late replacements for the advertised Joyce Yang and Edo de Waart – was up there in the starry high ground, Kozhukhin’s feisty unpredictability bouncing off the efficient and alert Heyward in a way that multiplied the enjoyment. 

Mostly, it was a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster ride, Kozhukhin’s dry, side-stepping whimsy close to mischief-making, which the cooler-headed Heyward did well to translate into as tidy an orchestral response as was possible. There were certainly hairy moments where absolute coordination was challenged, but that in itself created an explosive tension that ensured this Grieg was anything but run-of-the-mill.

It was clear, even in the familiar opening piano cascade, that it was to be Kozhukhin’s way or the highway. Reaching deep into the keys, every degree of touch had meaning and intent. The outer movements sizzled with bold and athletic musicality, the central slow movement found him toying with its lyrical quietude. There was possibly more in colour terms that Heyward could have coaxed from the RSNO, but this was ultimately a powerful showcase to which both artists contributed vital thoughts and crackling energy.

Before that, the 29-year-old conductor – newly appointed as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra – had proved his quiet adeptness in James MacMillan’s 2017 orchestral reworking of an earlier 2009 choral setting of the Miserere, now called Larghetto for Orchestra. Given its similarity in character to Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings – that same heavenly lyricism, its unhurried richness and warmth – you wonder to what extent the title is a deliberate allusion.

But it is MacMillan through and through, luxuriously devotional, haunted initially by subliminal references to his own famous Tryst melody (think back to Karen Cargill’s sung performance of that two weeks ago with the RSNO, forming part of the Three Scottish Songs) which finally appears, fully harmonised, in the heart-stopping closing bars. Heyward captured the reflective stillness of the work, but also its moments of heightened sentiment.

He ended with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, choosing to do so without controversy or novelty, simply expressing it in calm, rounded terms. If that was to play down the maximum theatricality of the opening movement and paint the Scherzo in honest unsensational light, there was no lack of individuality in the organic shaping of the Allegretto and exuberant flourishes of the finale.

It’s worth mentioning the encouraging turn-out on Saturday for an RSNO Glasgow series that has struggled with audience numbers so far this season. A very good sign.

Ken Walton

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There was something very radical about Thomas Sondergard’s first War Requiem with the RSNO.

The ingredients and shape of Benjamin Britten’s perennial concert of remembrance, themselves a mirror of those that made the Edinburgh International Festival 15 years earlier, are so familiar – to many contemporary schoolchildren as well as those of 1962 – that the work seems to require concentration on the structure the composer created.

The RSNO’s music director, however, looked beyond that from the first bars of his War Requiem on Saturday evening.

Of course, all the building blocks were there: the orchestra’s chorus, now directed by Stephen Doughty, in the choir stalls, and the RSNO Junior Chorus, drilled by Patrick Barrett, invisible to most but very audible in the balcony; a packed platform with John Poulter’s percussion at the front of a chamber orchestra led by Maya Iwabuchi stage left, and Lena Zeliszewska the first violin of the bulk of the ensemble on Sondergard’s other side.

The conductor was also flanked by tenor Magnus Walker and baritone Benjamin Appl, while soprano Susanne Bernhard, as is now customary, was amongst the musicians and nearer her choral partners in the score.

That chorus, though, began its Requiem Aeternam almost at a whisper, and without standing. And when Walker, an on-the-day dep for the indisposed Stuart Jackson, intoned Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, it was entirely without tolling bells or rattling guns, but as a quiet cry of despair. The “pity of war” was no memory here – it was a lamentable presence in the hall.

If this was startling and disconcerting – this is not how Britten’s War Requiem is supposed to begin, surely? – it was also incontrovertibly true. We live at a time where war in Europe is no history lesson, but on our televisions daily, in a way that it was not when the composer’s work premiered.

Sondergard’s War Requiem played out in real time as an operatic soundtrack. It was as slow as I have ever heard it, and more integrated as a piece of through-composed music. Anyone without a libretto on their knee would have been pushed to identify all the switches from Latin liturgy to 20th century verse, and the contrasts between those elements, as sung by the choirs and soprano on the one hand and the male soloists on the other, and played by each of the teams of instrumentalists, were never a distracting part of the mechanism of the performance, where that is often the crucial engine of an interpretation.

Instead, from that disconcerting opening, where listeners familiar with the work might have struggled to find their path, the 90-minute score blossomed as a debate and dialogue between all those instrumental and vocal ingredients. If you share the faith expressed in the words of the “In paridisum” towards its end, there is comfort there, but the message that little has changed in our own age was stronger, and the final prayer for eternal rest for those who have fallen and will fall held Saturday’s audience in solemn silence at the work’s end.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Susanne Bernhard by Christine Schnieder

RSNO / Hahn 

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 

The day after a scratch orchestra had played film music to a reportedly packed house in a concert organised by a commercial promoter, it was disappointing that the RSNO was greeted by a half-filled hall for a programme of equally attractive concert music with the bonus of a Scottish premiere from the country’s best-known living composer performed by an international star. 

That soloist was mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and the Three Scottish Songs were new orchestrations by Sir James MacMillan only previously heard in March this year, when the singer was Ian Bostridge and the orchestra the Britten Sinfonia. 

Superficially, they make an odd trio, the first two in Scots and intimate words of love and loss composed by MacMillan to sound akin to folk songs of an earlier era. The third, The Children, also sets words by William Soutar, but written in English and a harrowing evocation of the war-time loss of innocent lives, written during the Spanish Civil War. Its sound-world is entirely different, distinctly in the composer’s style, and as explicit as the text. 

There is, however, a consistently spare style to all three, Cargill beginning the first two unaccompanied and singing solo for most of the first stanza of The Children after an initial chord. The composer uses only strings and percussion, and the instrumental silences are often as eloquent as the music in his arrangements, with the focus always on the singer, at least until the cataclysmic percussive conclusion. 

Who knows how Bostridge, whose Englishness makes him a great interpreter of Noel Coward’s songs, coped with the linguistic transition inherent in the set, but it presented no difficulty to Cargill and there was in her interpretation a clear line from the personal to the universal. What links all three of William Soutar’s poems is the veracity of their emotional truth and MacMillan and the mezzo masterfully communicated that. 

The concert was to have been conducted by Maestro “Sasha” Lazarev, the orchestra’s Russian Conductor Emeritus, whose presence was impossible because of the global situation. Perhaps his absence was linked to the number of empty seats, but if so, those who stayed away missed a debut on the podium that was worth witnessing. 

Austrian conductor Patrick Hahn is still in his 20s, and already has a list of senior posts in Germany on his CV, and apparently sings cabaret songs and plays a mean jazz piano as well. Taking over the existing RSNO programme this week, the spare essence of the MacMillan was bracketed by huge orchestral stuff – three movements from Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4. 

A diminishing number of folk must now hear the former and see a tall ship in full sail battling the waves, thanks to its use in the BBC TV drama The Onedin Line, and that will certainly not be the case for the young conductor. That theme was presented here at the centre of a suite that started quietly but swiftly unleashed the full power of the symphony orchestra and concluded with a triple-time section to rival the Armenian composer’s other great waltz, which the touring RSNO played as an encore under conductor Peter Oundjian, and a great brass climax. 

Tchaikovsky 4 also featured in an Oundjian touring programme. Hahn took the work at his own very measured pace, a quietly deliberate way with the dramatic opening that paid dividends later. I don’t think I have heard the orchestra play quite so quietly before the first clarinet’s entry. There was a very precise ebb and flow in the pizzicato Scherzo too, and a full range of contrasts and dynamics in the Finale – and another huge finish. I’d wager that the whizz-kid from Ganz will be back. 

Keith Bruce 

RSNO & Dunedin Consort/Chan

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The first noise of Friday night’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth by the RSNO and Elim Chan was not those famous four notes, but the stomp of the diminutive Principal Guest Conductor’s boot on the podium as she laid down the beat.

I imagine she may regret that, but it was an early indication of how she would serve the symphony: at pace, with a rigorous precise rhythm, and utterly magisterial control of the dynamics of the work.

The way the conductor presented the Beethoven, including a last-minute reduction in the size of the orchestra from the strength in the published programme, was the result of the musical discussion the concert was all about. It was the first in a new three-year partnership between the RSNO and Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort, so ticket-buyers heard two bands for the price of one.

At the heart of the programme was the work that had given birth to the collaboration, Echo-Fragmente by clarinettist Jorg Widmann, the orchestra’s “Musician in Focus” this season. Written for celebrations of Mozart’s 250th anniversary in Freiburg, the score calls for a modern orchestra tuned to current pitch of A=440 alongside a period band playing at baroque pitch, with the virtuoso clarinet soloist (Widmann himself here as well as at the 2006 premiere) using extended multiphonic and note-bending techniques to straddle both worlds.

If that sounds demanding, it is not the half of it, with all sorts of aural adventures in the work’s fragmentary structure – and much of it a great deal less tiring to listen to than that probably sounds.

Widmann’s own playing was extraordinary, but his writing is just as original. The work began with an unlikely trio of himself, Pippa Tunnell’s harp and Dunedin guitarist Sasha Savaloni on slide mandolin, and used all sorts of interesting combinations of instruments in its 20 minutes, those three joined by Lynda Cochrane’s Celeste and Djordje Gajic’s accordion in a central unit between the RSNO players and the Dunedin on either side of the stage.

Specific moments seared themselves into the consciousness, including the soloist’s combining with four RSNO clarinets, including bass and contrabass instruments, in a resonant chorale, and his virtuosic soloing (sounding like more than one player himself0, accompanied by the low strings of the period band.

The four natural horn players of the Dunedin were required to become a big band trombone section in tone at one point, which was in marked contrast to their earlier appearance in Haydn’s Symphony No 39 in G Minor. In the Consort’s performance which opened the programme, they stood with their instruments vertical, bells upwards, as contemporary images suggest was 18th century practice. Directed by first violin Matthew Truscott, the smaller group filled the Usher Hall with beautifully textured sound, lovely string phrasing in the Andante second movement, and skipping dance beats in the Trio before the stormy Finale, which surely prefigures Beethoven.

Likewise, Chan’s attention was on every detail of the Fifth, with the dynamics of her interpretation turning on a dime. That was obvious from the first movement but rarely does the Scherzo become quite as sotto voce as the RSNO did here, the tension palpable before the explosion into the Finale.

It is often noted that the work of historically informed performance groups like the Dunedin Consort has in turn informed the way modern symphony orchestras go about playing music of previous centuries. With this new collaboration, audiences can hear exactly what that means in one evening. There are other fascinating works in the pipeline for them to present together in an exercise in mutual appreciation that is a win-win for audiences as well.

Keith Bruce

Repeated this evening (Saturday, October 29) at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Rehearsal picture by Jessica Cowley

RSNO / Reif

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The recent trend among orchestras to rediscover music by composers of African-American heritage, especially females, has unearthed some forgotten gems: not always, but assuredly so in the case of Julia Perry. Born in Kentucky in the 1920s, she died at the age of 55 in 1979, but in her curtailed lifetime studied at New York’s prestigious Julliard School and later with the go-to European teachers of the time, Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola. The RSNO opened last weekend’s programme with one of her 1950s’ works, A Short Piece for Orchestra.

It is, as it says on the tin, short, but within its seven-minute span it reveals a red-hot creative focus and intent, which this performance under German-born conductor Christian Reif vividly illustrated. Structured in five concise and continuous sections, it wasted no time in making its point, Perry’s stylistic language progressive and bold. Reif exerted incisive control on its initial explosiveness, a cascading torrent of aphoristic soundbites ripe for the picking, variously calming the mood (a delicious flute-led second section) or revelling in ecstatic adrenalin rushes along its journey.

As such, it functioned as the perfect springboard for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, a sumptuous assimilation of the composer’s Hollywood epic film score style and influences derived from his native Vienna upbringing, echoes of Mahler and Strauss. If that demands a soloist of big personality, then American-born violinist Philippe Quint, making his RSNO debut, was a solid choice.

Visually, he was a commanding presence centre stage, with a physicality responsive to the music’s flamboyant cut and thrust. His tone was assertive and passionate, his agile facility at the topmost end of the fingerboard (there’s a lot of that!) bright and thrilling, and where Korngold luxuriates in golden lyricism, Quint’s realisation was gloriously rapt. Occasionally such all-consuming fervour distorted the perfection of the intonation, but it was a performance – along with his solo encore version of Charlie Chaplin’s famous melody Smile – that was both engaging and enthralling.

There wasn’t quite the same sustained intensity in Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, which certainly had its triumphant moments, but which, under Reif’s busy direction, lacked sustained compulsion and the sharpest of responses from the orchestra. The opening two movements seemed weighted, sluggish even, made up for by a welcome zest in the Scherzo and ultimate flourish in the Finale. 

Ken Walton

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There have been several notable examples in modern times where composers have found a means of giving the old harpsichord a bold, contemporary voice, rather than viewing it as a musty museum piece suited only to the airing of early music and in small intimate settings matched with its restricted dynamics.

What Poul Ruders has done in his Concerto for Harpsichord, written two years ago for the explorative champion of the modern instrument, Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, is both daring and impressive. This, its UK premiere, was the centrepiece of an intriguing RSNO programme, framed by neoclassical Stravinsky and heart-warming Saint-Saëns and holding its head high alongside such colourful and illustrious company.

Ruders, first of all, challenges the historical purists by prescribing artificial amplification for his soloist, an effect that triumphed on several counts: mostly it gave the harpsichord sufficient volume to compete with a full symphony orchestra; but it also introduced new sound possibilities, notably a cutting synthesiser-like timbre that allowed Esfahani to conjure up spells of darkness and a weirdly resonating density in contrast to the tinkling, workaday busyness more readily associated with the instrument.

That said, and through necessity, much of this concerto fed on the seeds of tradition, its outer movements driven by a determined, underlying moto perpetuo. Esfahani responded with nimble finger precision and punchy articulation, his role a defining one in establishing the obstinate persistence that drives this work. 

But the amplification also enabled him to explore a whole new sound world, moments in the slow movement characterised by beguiling otherworldliness – think 1970s’ Hammer Horror soundtracks – and a growling exchange with lower strings in the finale that eventually erupted in more supersonic virtuosity. The RSNO, under Thomas Søndergård, responded with crystalline sparkle in a work that is as charming as it is provocative.

The other huge success of the evening was a performance of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No 3, the “Organ” symphony, that treated this post-Lisztian warhorse as if the ink was still wet on the score. Søndergård was meticulous in his attention to detail, every integrated melodic line given due prominence, every detail oozing character yet judiciously woven into the whole. Respecting that was organist Michael Bawtree, who found just the right colours on this digital instrument to edge over the soft orchestral cushioning of the Poco adagio, and judged his options well in administering the chordal explosions that ignite the homeward journey.

It all seemed a world away from the mischievous belligerence of Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes, his 1937 ballet score based on the choreographed personification of a poker game, which opened the concert. Søndergård’s approach was cool-headed, a performance variously purposed to tease with understatement and dazzle with inflated exuberance. From sensuous waltz to pompous march, and shameless parodic references to Handel, Ravel and Rossini, the RSNO revelled in its riotous irony.

Ken Walton

RSNO / Sondergard

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

While it is probably unlikely to provoke a popular uprising on the streets of the second city of the empire when Glasgow first hears David Fennessy’s new composition The Riot Act in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall this evening, you would bet that it will go down a storm, judging by the reception in less revolutionary-minded Edinburgh on Friday night.

Fennessy’s composition, delayed by the pandemic but arguably immaculately timed now, takes its inspiration from the attempt to read that 18th century piece of legislation to the boisterous populace at the “Battle of George Square” in 1919. Commissioned by the RSNO, it came with the gift to any composer of the same huge size of orchestra required to perform Stravinsky’s orchestral concert revision of his ballet music The Rite of Spring, which had famously inspired a “riot” among the audience at its 1913 Paris premiere.

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland based composer has taken that opportunity and added to it – his Russian predecessor’s score does not call for four field-sports whistles crying “foul” at the back of the orchestra or a declamatory tenor singing the text at the top of his range at full volume.

Mark Le Brocq, the singer with that brief but challenging job, was rightly cheered to the rafters in the Usher Hall at the end of the six-minute work, as was Fennessy, who packs an extraordinary amount into its brief span, with the percussion section also turned up to 11 and the whole orchestra required to sing at the work’s end. A great deal of mythology surrounds the story of the events in the centre of Glasgow 100 years ago, but it has never had a soundtrack as compelling as this one.

The premiere of the piece ended up preceding the work whose equally myth-garnished first performance provided its forces, in what was a brilliantly-constructed programme. The first half had opened with Stravinsky’s even briefer explosive Fireworks, a dazzling orchestral display from 1908 that clearly set the composer on the path, via The Firebird, to the Rite.

It was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, played with panache, and some swagger, by Stefan Jackiw. The RSNO’s Thomas Sondergard and the American violinist will work together again on the work with the Cleveland Orchestra in November in concerts that pair it with Stravinsky’s Firebird.

The soloist had some recourse to an electronic version of the score here, but it hardly impeded his expressive interpretation of a virtuosic work, whose difficulty is the chief impediment to more performances. That it was predictable that Jackiw would play an encore, and that that would be music by Bach, did not make the pleasure of its inevitable arrival any less.

As for The Rite of Spring itself at the conclusion of the evening, that was the RSNO and Sondergard – who started his musical life as a percussionist – working at peak performance. The last time this hall heard the work was in August’s acclaimed Edinburgh Festival performance by Les Siecles under Francois Xavier-Roth. This was a different beast, more widescreen but fascinating for the way the conductor steered through its linear but episodic structure and the split-second timing of transitions from one section to the next. There were excellent solo turns too, of course from bassoonist David Hubbard in that exposed high-register opening, and also from Henry Clay on cor anglais and timpanist Paul Philbert.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Stefan Jackiw

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

« Older Entries