Edinburgh Academy Junior School
There was a marked drop in temperature on Wednesday evening in the giant tent that has been such a successful venue thus far for EIF orchestral concerts. It didn’t help, perhaps, that the RSNO Strings’ all-Russian programme, under conductor Valery Gergiev, ran well over it’s appointed time – thus the partial audience exodus during the final piece – nor that the roof sheeting was billowing wildly from the harsh gusts of wind.
Yet this was a sizzler to start with. When have we last heard this string section play with such zeal and sonorous depth as evidenced in the meaty opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings? It was the perfect vehicle for Gergiev, whose trademark conducting style – a cigarette-sized stick in one hand, the other fluttering incessantly like a butterfly – seemed in this case to communicate a fluidity and eloquence that was manifest in the orchestral response.
That said, there was a noticeable dependance by the orchestra on keeping eye contact with each other, almost manically at times. Is this how Gergiev plays it? Throwing the onus on the players to interact? Whatever, this was a performance that ebbed and flowed with the most natural musicality, that inevitable thematic recap near the end a ripe and satisfying launchpad to the adrenalin-charged sign-off.
That the originally published soloist, pianist Daniil Trifanov, was replaced by Steven Osborne for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 1 was no reason to be disappointed. On the contrary, Osborne’s track record in this repertoire proved itself again with a performance in which his dominance was breathtaking.
It’s a strange work, with a confusing backstory, the outcome of which is the presence of a solo trumpet acting sometimes as muted commentary to the solo piano, at other times as the icing on the cake. RSNO principal trumpet Christopher Hart played his part sensitively and brilliantly, cool as a cucumber but sharp as a tack.
As for Osborne, he nailed the music’s eccentric temperament, moments of gloom and melancholy that switch without notice between fitful moods of flippancy and rage, joy and the macabre. It all sounded very hairy as the concerto reached is final moments, as if things weren’t quite together, but Osborne’s unflinching reliability and energy was ultimately the steadying force.
Had the concert ended there, we’d have gone home buzzing and electrified. But there was still Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète to go. In the right context its gauche neoclassicism and simple sensuality would have had a welcome presence. But here it struggled, in my mind, to assert itself as a meaningful conclusion, even with the eloquent violin solos of leader Maya Iwabuchi and the generally delightful intricacies of Stravinsky’s ballet score.
Maybe it was the increasing cold, maybe also nature’s outdoor soundtrack interfering with the music’s veiled delicacy. Whatever, it just seemed a little like an anticlimax.
Tag Archives: RSNO
Edinburgh Academy Junior School
The RSNO is the latest Scottish orchestra to announce its return to the concert hall with an autumn season running October to December that combines live and digital output for the first time. Glasgow and Edinburgh feature a core of six live subscription programmes, a selection of which also occur in Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth.
A further eight programmes, independent of the subscription series, range from popular seasonal Family to Film Music concerts, the first performances of the RSNO Chorus and Junior Chorus since lockdown, and contribute to the RSNO’s major recognition of the upcoming COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
Following the announcement earlier this year of Thomas Søndergård’s three-year extended contract as music director, the popular Dane kicks off the new season with a bold programme featuring Stravinsky’s Firebird and a new work, The Isle is Full of Noises!, by eclectic British composer Matthew Rooke (a former director of the old Scottish Arts Council).
In two other programmes Søndergård conducts the world premiere of Detlev Glanert’s Violin Concerto with soloist Midori, postponed from earlier this year, and a programme featuring Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été with award-winning Edinburgh-born mezzo soprano, Catriona Morison.
Guest conductors include fellow Danish maestro Michael Schønwandt, who couples Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with soloist Kirill Gerstein. South Korean pianist Sunwook Kim performs Brahms’ First Piano Concerto under the baton of Eva Ollikainen, while Elim Chan conducts Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker alongside Ravel’s two-handed piano concerto with soloist Bertrand Chamamyou.
Further to the experience gained in developing digital output during the pandemic, the RSNO is also launching a new website that will be home to its Live Streams and Video on Demand Season. Live-concert subscribers are eligible for a discount on digital tickets. Chief executive Alistair Mackie believes this means “the live concert atmosphere can be shared with people throughout Scotland and internationally”.
A permeating theme – New World – recognises the ambitions facing Glasgow’s COP26 conference, beginning before the event with Søndergård conducting Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony in the same programme that features Midori, herself a UN Messenger of Peace. At the close of the conference, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja leads an RSNO chamber ensemble and the RCS Voices in Galina Ustwolskaja’s Dies Irae, written as a musical response to climate change.
Other COP26 associated works range from Rautavarra’s Swans Migrating and Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, to a performance of Haydn’s Creation by the RSNO Chorus under its director Gregory Batsleer accompanied by three new specially-commissioned poems from Scots poet Hollie McNish.
Even before the season officially starts on 22 October, the RSNO will be in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee (7-10 Oct) with a programme conducted by Rory Macdonald that includes Mozart’s popular Clarinet Concerto, played by the orchestra’s own Timothy Orpen as soloist. December sees the return of the annual RSNO Christmas Concert, with actor/comedian Hugh Dennis presenting Howard Blake’s The Snowman. Also in December, Baroque specialist Christian Curnyn directs perennial favourite, Handel’s Messiah.
The new season sees the return of the popular Children’s Classic Concerts, including a Halloween special “Ghost Ship” featuring the RSNO Junior Chorus.
Reacting to the RSNO’s return to live concert performances, Søndergård said: “”The Season will be a celebration of coming back together, a fresh start.”
Full details of the RSNO’s 2021 Autumn Season are available at www.rsno.org.uk
Edinburgh Academy Junior School
Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta is something of a favourite in Edinburgh, having wowed Festival audiences in chamber music and orchestral settings and appeared in the Usher Hall’s international orchestral seasons. This was probably her first time in a tent in the capital though.
She was also in familiar company with RSNO principal guest conductor Elim Chan, as the pair have worked together at Chan’s Antwerp Symphony Orchestra – and with the Cello Concerto No 1 of Saint-Saens. Like Steven Isserlis, she has championed the Frenchman’s work, and here – and not for the first time – it did seem baffling that the piece is less often heard than those of Elgar and Dvorak. It is a flowing delight of a work with some sparkling fast-fingered passages for the soloist to demonstrate her virtuosity and beautiful tone. Only on the opening page did the tricky sound issues in this venue leave her temporarily swamped by what was a small RSNO.
Chan’s programme opened with a work by the current hippest name in US composition, Caroline Shaw, the 39-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner from North Carolina whose contact book includes collaboration with Kanye West. There was not a lot of hip-hop in her Entr’acte, a piece for strings that toys playfully with neo-classicism, references Haydn, and teeters teasingly on the edge of losing its way before culminating in a solo for the RSNO’s guest first cello.
Perhaps that looking to the work of earlier composers was intended to be echoed in Beethoven’s Symphony No 1, a work that period bands and chamber orchestras speed through as his tribute to his predecessors. In Chan’s hands, however, it was more a statement of intent for what was to come. It was a point at times too deliberately, even ponderously, made in her reading, but not without its rewards. The arc that the conductor drew from the work’s distinctive opening bars to the beginning of the finale could not have been clearer, although she did seem to be holding the orchestra on a tight rein until the dynamic pace of that closing movement.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Edinburgh Academy Junior School
“Hey ho, the wind and the rain”. Shakespeare might have welcomed a downpour during Twelfth Night, but for A Midsummer Night’s Dream he’s more likely to have wished for something comparable to a summer’s day. That wasn’t to be on Wednesday, as the earlier of two performances by the RSNO of Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the latter play played almost entirely in an accompanying rainstorm.
That’s the risk this Festival, where concerts are effectively under canvas therefore exposed to the niceties of the Scottish weather. In the end, it dampened neither the performance, which flowed with seamless momentum, nor our own enjoyment of it. If anything, RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård’s flexible insight opened our eyes fully to the utter exuberance of Mendelssohn’s musical imagination and sophistication.
This wasn’t just about the music, of course, though with the RSNO in such receptive form there was no escaping the central role it played, striking up the anticipatory joys of the magical Overture before unfolding a musical narrative that shifted effortlessly between autonomous evocation and supportive underscore. Little risk of the well-worn Wedding March sounding hackneyed. It was as it should be: bright, breezy and fresh as a daisy.
The Nocturne glowed, the Dance of Clowns frolicked, the Scherzo captured the essential sparkle. And in those brief moments where Mendelssohn calls for singers, soloists Rowan Pierce and Kathryn Rudge were a sepulchral delight, backed by selected offstage voices from the Edinburgh Festival Chorus.
But key to the success was actor Dame Harriet Walter, whose narration was a masterclass in theatrical poise, a compelling stylishness that required no histrionics, just force of personality and instinct for perfect timing. She and Søndergård worked in perfect harmony. The weather may have had mischief in mind, but mischief has its part to play in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Like Puck it comes in unexpected guises.
Bill Chandler, who has moved from the front desk of the first violins to senior management roles in the last six of his 26 years with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, has been appointed to the post of Orchestra Director with the BBC Concert Orchestra.
The BBC CO played at the Proms on Saturday, with a concert of music from the Golden Age of Broadway, and returns in September with two programmes of British film music and a score by Philip Glass. Its versatility extends to live versions of Jess Gillam’s This Classical Life radio show and Elizabeth Alker’s Unclassified, as well as regular involvement with the London Jazz Festival.
The Concert Orchestra, which is often seen as the most vulnerable of the BBC’s stable, serves two masters on the network, with commitments to both BBC Radio 3 and Radio 2, where its role as the house band for Friday Night is Music Night dates back to the days of the “Light Programme”.
Currently an associate ensemble at the Southbank Centre in London, it was announced earlier this year that the BBCCO would be relocated “beyond the M25”, although its precise new home has yet to be revealed, with speculation including the broadcasting organisation’s MediaCity in Salford, already home to the BBC Philharmonic.
Bill Chandler joined the RSNO from the Houston Symphony Orchestra, having started his career in Florida. He took up the post of Director of Learning and Engagement at Scotland’s National Orchestra while still maintaining his playing position before moving to management full time as Director of Concerts and Engagements. During the interregnum between the departure of Krishna Thiagarajan and the appointment of Alistair Mackie he served as co-chief executive of the orchestra.
He said yesterday: “It is an honour and privilege to join the BBC Concert Orchestra at such an important time in its history. The BBC CO is unique in the music world, renowned for its superb playing, versatility and relevance, all key traits in an ever-changing world. I look forward to working closely with this fantastic group of musicians and staff as we explore this exciting new chapter together.”
In a message to RSNO musicians and supporters chief executive Alistair Mackie said: “Bill has proved himself to be the most passionate campaigner for classical music being open and accessible to all. He has always been a popular and respected member of the Scottish musical community and will be greatly missed by all.
“I know he goes to the BBC Concert Orchestra at a crucial point in their life and I look forward to watching this unique British institution develop and grow under his leadership.”
Those anxious to pencil concert dates into the latter months of their 2021 diaries can look forward to a new RSNO season running from October to December.
In an announcement due to be fleshed out in a full season launch later in the summer, when tickets will go on sale subject to government guidelines, Scotland’s national orchestra has unveiled the headline attractions of seven programmes. All will be played in Glasgow and six of them in Edinburgh, with one-off concerts in Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth.
In a cute terminological nod to the more-indulged sports sector, there are pre-season friendlies away in Aberdeen and Dundee on October 6 and 7 before a home performance of Mozart’s popular Clarinet Concerto in Glasgow on Friday October 8. The season proper begins with Music Director Thomas Sondergard conducting Stravinsky’s Firebird on Friday October 22 and Saturday October 23 in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Sondergard returns to the podium on the first weekend in November and again a fortnight later with Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall concerts of Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony “From the New World”, and then the Second Symphony of Jean Sibelius. On the weekend in between, Michael Schonwandt conducts Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
South Korean pianist Sunwook Kim, who stepped in at short notice to play the RSNO’s last concerts before lockdown in March 2020, returns to play Brahms Piano Concerto No1 in Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow on November 25-27, and Principal Guest Conductor Elim Chan brings the series to a close with seasonal concerts of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in Edinburgh and Glasgow on December 3 and 4.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
There was no denying the enthusiasm that the players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and its Danish music director Thomas Sondergard, brought to their first live concert in their home venue in well over a year. As the conductor said before he lifted his baton, it was his treat to hear applause from a present audience, but also an important truth that any amount of individual practice only becomes meaningful with an audience in the hall.
The RSNO had chosen a tricky weekend to return, with the rival attraction of an England v Scotland football match for Friday evening in Perth Concert Hall and the televised finale of Cardiff Singer of the World on Saturday, but they did not have a huge number of tickets to sell. Weirdly, more listeners were permitted in Perth’s smaller hall (which had already pioneered post-pandemic live chamber music) than in the extravagantly-distanced seating on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
It was a chamber-sized edition of the orchestra as well, but what a brilliantly-conceived programme of vibrant, colourful music Sondergard had chosen for them to play. On the face of it, here were three relative rarities of 20th century French composition, works by Ibert, Francaix and Poulenc; in reality we heard a glorious, compact exploration of the capabilities of an orchestra, as a collection of individual soloists, sections of similarly-played instruments, and as an entire ensemble. If a Parisian PhD student is currently working on a thesis about the supremacy of creativity in that era, Scotland’s national orchestra played the executive summary.
With just 15 strings, six winds and brass, timps, percussion and piano – every part utterly essential – Ibert’s Divertissement is a picturesque excursion that suggests a multitude of pathways (some of them very melodically familiar indeed) and pursues none of them. It is a glorious virtuosic tease of a piece, in which many individuals have engaging moments in the sun, but there are also big ensemble statements.
Principal oboe Adrian Wilson has been one of the recent stars of the RSNO’s online season, and he stepped out in front of the orchestra here for Francaix’s L’horloge de flore, a concerto in all but name, and one that shares as much of its inventive scoring with the orchestra. There was certainly sparkling solo work from Wilson, but the bassoons were also very busy and there are a number of differently-built ostinatos to indicate the workings of the clock.
The concert culminated in Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, which demonstrates both the tunefulness of the Ibert and a brilliance of rhythmic writing that draws the listener compellingly into its narrative, and featured a lovely solo turn from first trumpet Chris Hart in its penultimate movement.
Welcome back, RSNO. Let’s have more very soon.Keith Bruce
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Regardless of the many obstacles that have had to be overcome, the RSNO has maintained the shape of its programme of work over recent months with a tenacity that does the organisation much credit. And as they have done since live performances were abruptly silenced in March 2020, the players of Scotland’s national orchestra step up to the plate here with thoughtful contributions to the online world, joining conductor Elim Chan and soloist Nicola Benedetti in making interesting spoken contributions to this concert film, as well as playing their socks off.
With a return to performing for audiences scheduled for next weekend in Perth and Glasgow, this concert neatly wraps up the current digital season, Benedetti returning as soloist for Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 2 (having opened the series with No 1). That work completes the Polska Scotland strand of the season, while Christopher Duncan’s Stac Dona, which precedes it, is part of the Scotch Snaps strand.
Like the Craig Armstrong piece in April’s last concert, the latter is from the Lost Songs of St Kilda project, arranged by a young composer better known under his pop alias, C Duncan, whose parents have played with the orchestra and whose aunt still does. Scored for strings and harp, it is a very filmic, romantic piece that makes the most of its folk melody.
The Szymanowski also springs from its environment, Chan notes, in particular the mountains of Poland. This may have been the first time she and Benedetti had worked together, but both women are so familiar with the orchestra that introductions were unnecessary. Beginning with a rumbling piano chord and a duo of clarinets, it is a work that quickly becomes very intense, and virtuosic for the soloist, with powerful scoring for horns, brass and percussion.
A single 20-minute movement, its cadenza may be the work of the piece’s dedicatee, violinist Pawel Konchanski, but it is very much of a piece with the atmospheric and picturesque whole. This is a full-blooded performance, with some sparkling dialogue between Benedetti and the wind principals, and some gorgeous playing on the lower strings of her instrument on the Andantino before the frenetic dance of the finale.
Many of these elements mirror parts of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, in what is another ingenious piece of programming, with the virtuosity now being required of everyone on the platform. This is a work that needs the orchestra’s return to the big hall, with the brass in the choir stalls, but it is also intricate, and Chan recognises the dangers of losing sight of the bigger picture when she speaks of taking an approach that is “not nerdy”.
The gentle beginning here is on the low strings, and if the Szymanowski is a political work with a nationalist agenda, Bartok is internationalist, if no less political, writing in the middle of the Second World War and after the diagnosis of the cancer that would kill him. The brooding, mystical third movement may be indicative of his state of mind, but it is surrounded by the distinctive staccato rhythms of the second and the musical japes of the fourth. And just as Benedetti had danced us home, the Presto finale trips fantastically to the last bar.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
If asked to name the main contenders for a Polish-themed concert, Chopin and Lutoslawski would certainly be among the front runners. Not so much Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013), much of whose music lies embedded in the 150 or so film tracks he contributed to, including The Pianist and The Truman Show, yet very much an accomplished composer in his own right. All three feature in this, the latest Polska Scotland concert in the RSNO’s current digital season.
The steely vitality of principal guest conductor Elim Chan suits Kilar’s high-energy symphonic poem for strings, Orawa, to a T. As an opener it is nothing less than attention grabbing. An obstinate solo ostinato folk motif gathers steam as more instruments join in, rising in pitch and intensity, the infectious energy turbocharged by Kilar’s rhythmic surprises, a metrical hiccupping owing much to Bartok and Stravinsky, and a riotous party finish that has the musicians shouting for joy, literally.
If that is Kilar’s visceral rustic impression of life in Orawa, a mountainous region in Southern Poland, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 is a product of time – the universal gloss of 19th century Romanticism – rather than place. A more stylised passion drives this music, albeit coloured by Chopin’s distinctive poeticism, and who better to deliver it than the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.
His impact is monumental in this performance, especially when his opening flourish immediately dispels the somewhat general purpose playing that Chan’s initial direction elicits in the orchestral introduction – a little airless, without sufficient delineation between the key themes.
Grosvenor asserts himself immediately, and from that martial first statement fluid melodies gush like water from a spring, always driven yet thoughtfully crafted. Immaculate finger work colours Chopin’s filigree ornamentation, adding to the enthralling intensity of the performance. Chan even finds moments of illuminating magic in the deceptively workaday scoring of the Romance, and its stormy eruptions remain tempered by a persuasive gentleness. The closing Rondo is a collaborative triumph for pianist and orchestra.
The zest missing from the opening of the Chopin is there in spades in the organic starkness of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Chan summons its demons with fiery intent, once again the pounding elementalism of Stravinsky rearing its head in the opening Intrada. She plays mischievously with the gossamer scurrying of the Capriccio offset by its central terrorising surge, and in the final Passacaglia, Toccata and Corale matches logic and abandon in a thrilling journey from fidgety, elephantine basses to the skirmishing conflagration of the final bars.
Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk
RSNO Centre, Glasgow
Bracketing its season with Nicola Benedetti playing Szymanowski Violin Concertos and with Chris Gough’s piece to mark the anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz in the middle, the RSNO has kept faith with the Polksa Scotland strand it had planned for its season, regardless of the pandemic.
This concert shows why that initiative was so necessary, as participants Lena Zeliszewska and Tom Dunn explain. The Polish violinist may have helped plan this programme, but much of the music in it was as new to her as the rest of the players. In the case of the Szymanowski Sonata she performs with Graeme McNaught, that seems particularly surprising. Although the concertos were a rite of passage for herself and fellow students in Poznan, the much earlier Sonata, written shortly after the composer who would become director of Warsaw’s conservatoire was a student there, was not.
That seems especially strange when the central slow movement, marked “tranquillo et dolce”, is such an expressive exercise for the violinist, while it is the pianist that has a great many notes to play. Zeliszewska and McNaught capture the dramatic intensity of the work from the start with the zeal of musicians on a journey of discovery, while the finale hints at the violin fireworks to come in the concertos.
McNaught also partners orchestra principal Adrian Wilson in Lutoslawski’s Epitaph, a work the oboist knows intimately, having played it as a younger chap in the BBC Young Musician contest. From the later years of the Polish composer’s long career, Wilson is fascinating on its history, and again the music for the piano is often just as interesting as the soloist’s line.
The recital is bracketed by quartets, beginning with another work from a young man, the precocious Benjamin Britten’s Phantasy Quartet, teaming Wilson with Zeliszewska, Dunn, and cellist Arthur Boutillier. This too is an expressive oboe feature, but the strings-only section really stands out in this performance, with the sense that they are really pushing the soloist on – not that Wilson needs any shoving.
But it is the string quartet that ends the programme, the fourth of Grazyna Bacewicz, that is the work to relish discovering here. There is surely a more complex story to its neglect than simple sexism, Bacewicz being something of a trailblazer for women composers in Poland. Rather there is the skill with which she navigated the political situation under Stalin. While being the first female office-bearer in the state-recognised Polish Composers’ Union may have helped her adventurous music to be played at home, it may not have benefitted perceptions in the West.
The other difficulty, although actually this quartet’s glorious strength, is that it is very difficult to classify stylistically. Joined by Robin Wilson on violin, these string players give a terrific account of it, with an enveloping central Andante and boisterous, fun final Allegro giocoso.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
For all that it looked unusual on paper, the RSNO’s digital season offering this week makes profound sense as a programme in performance. As precursors to Schumann’s Second Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine and Brahms’s orchestral arrangements of six Schubert songs also showed refreshingly original thinking on the part of German/Ghanaian conductor Kevin John Edusei.
The conductor of the Munich Symphony Orchestra is one of three RSNO debuts onstage, but his appearance has long been expected. When he jumped in to deputise at concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 2019 and the BBC SSO at the start of 2020, senior RSNO figures were at Glasgow City Hall for the concerts. As director of the Chineke! Orchestra at the BBC Proms, on tour and on disc, his profile in the UK is already high and an appointment somewhere cannot be far away.
The other two new faces are singers Susanna Hurrell and Felix Kemp, the baritone a late substitute for Marcus Farnsworth. They are placed among the players for the Schubert songs, a somewhat random selection from the catalogues of both their composer and their arranger, with texts by Goethe, Schiller and Sir Walter Scott among them. The latter, Ellen’s second song from The Lady of the Lake, is the highlight for the soprano, with delicious accompaniment from the horns and bassoons, although Hurrell makes a particularly beguiling impression with the earlier Geheimes (A Secret) by Goethe.
Kemp has a very fine voice, with excellent dynamic control across his range. Baritone songs open and close the set, and he clearly relishes the operatic possibilities of Schiller’s Gruppe aus dem Tartarus.
The featured soloist in the opening Mahler is associate principal trumpet Jason Lewis, in a curiosity from the composer’s catalogue that began life as part of a lost score of incidental music for the stage, before being repurposed, and then dropped, as the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony.
Although not written for a small orchestra – this is Mahler after all – it sounds very compact in Edusei’s hands, the conductor coaxing a very measured sound, with immaculate balance, in his first music with the orchestra. It sets a template, not just for the Schubert/Brahms, but especially for the Schumann. As well as having an Adagio built on a four-note figure as heart-rending as anything in the canon and first movement cadences that could only be Schumann, the Second Symphony requires some very brisk playing indeed, the scampering runs in the strings for the Scherzo prefigured in that opening movement and more lightning finger-work from the violins in the varied pace of the Finale.
With bold tempi and clear communication, Edusei brings a precision-tooled and full-blooded reading of the work from his new friends at the RSNO.
Available via the RSNO website to July 30.
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
In her debut with the RSNO, Polish conductor Marta Gardolińska begins on home territory. She recalls, in her spoken introduction, the very folksongs her grandmother once sang to her, which Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski incorporates into his Little Suite (Mała Suita) for orchestra.
As a starter then – indeed as the single indigenous work in a programme filed under the RSNO’s Polska Scotland tag – this delightful Lutoslawski gem from the 1950s finds the emergent conductor, orchestra and music wholly at one. It’s a fine induction for the earnestly fastidious Gardolińska, whose associateship in recent years with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has not gone unnoticed.
She brings a springlike freshness to Lutoslawski’s occasionally skittish suite, drawing infinite mood and colour from his limitless manipulation of the folk material. Those delicate lyrical strands, variously offset by Stravinskian rhythmic warfare or belligerent or woozy hints of jazz, forever stay refreshed by the persistent polytonal harmonies that spread an even spiciness throughout and give this music its exotic transparency.
The contrasting heft of Dvorak’s Symphony No 7, much more elemental in concept to the instant popularity of the Eighth and Ninth, isn’t so initially comfortable in Gardolińska’s hands. There’s a cumbersome stolidity that weighs down the initial outward journey, which lacks the inevitability pushing onwards and upwards to that first gloriously resolute legato melody. Too much maestoso; not enough allegro, perhaps.
It’s not long, though, before the cogs begin to align, and by the close of the opening movement there’s a sense we’re going places, even if the subdued calm of the final bars crave greater amplitude.
Gardolińska’s leisurely amble through the slow movement recalls the folkish hues of the Lutoslawski, with shapely intertwined soloing from all corners of the orchestra. The scherzo sensibly plays itself, and in the finale, the ignited, inexorable passion is more the force of nature it should have been in the very opening bars.
It’s interesting to see the chemistry between Gardolińska and the RSNO grow as the symphony progresses, even though this is a recorded performance. That alone sends a message that she’ll be very welcome back.
Available to view at www.rsno.org.uk
RSNO Centre, Glasgow
This showcase for the RSNO’s principal cello Aleksei Kiseliov – in the no less significant company of pianist Alasdair Beatson – is as superb an example of online chamber music in this time-of-the-virus as you will find anywhere. Even the slightly cheesy title that it has been given seems fitting by its end.
As Kiseliov makes clear in the first of his wonderfully lucid and well-expressed spoken additions to the film, it is a carefully considered product of this era. The two musicians had the luxury of proper rehearsal time together to prepare in the venue where they would perform, but the performance itself is presented “as live” with no edits at all. The camera-work is unfussy but brings the listener closer to the players, while the sound, captured by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast, is very much of a live event, the microphones not too close to the instruments and the ambient acoustic very much part of the experience.
The programme itself is quite brilliantly constructed and thought through, the story it tells being one of the cello and its virtuosi and the composers who knew them and wrote for them.
Mozart must not have had a particularly close cellist associate, because there is nothing from him for the cello soloist, but Beethoven made up for that with his 12 variations on one of Papageno’s songs from The Magic Flute, Ein Madchen ober Weibchen, for cello and piano. This is the young Beethoven at his lighter, show-off, best (even on the minor-key variations), although arguably it is the piano that has the more sparkling music.
The composer’s Cello Sonata No 5, from 17 years later, is a work of challenging complexity by comparison. Its dedicatee, and Beethoven’s sometime patron, Countess Anna Marie von Erdody, must have been a very fine pianist to partner Schuppanzigh Quartet cellist Joseph Linke for its first performance. Kiseliov and Beatson are an exemplary partnership here, the skipping phrases in the central Adagio answering the piano with perfect poise, and the transition into the Allegro finale simply glorious.
Following that with Richard Strauss’s Cello Sonata in F from 1883 is inspired on many levels, even if the work was entirely new to Kiseliov. The 19-year-old Strauss is audibly still under the influence of Beethoven – as well as Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn – but there are also pre-echoes of his tone poems and the solos for cello in those orchestral works. And in the operatic “singing material” for the instrument that Kiseliov identifies in his introduction, there is a clear link with the work that opens the programme.
The Sonata was written for Strauss’s friend, the Czech cellist Hanus Wihan, then working in Munich, who was also a chum of Antonin Dvorak and dedicatee of his 1894 Cello Concerto, a cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire for the instrument. The short piece sometimes played as an encore to that work, Dvorak’s Waldesruhe, brings this recital to a close. It is the ideal conclusion to the concert’s narrative, and an excellent excuse to hear it in the piano and cello arrangement, with both Beatson and Kiseliov taking the opportunity to fully explore its lyrical charm.
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk
Although on the face of it unlikely in the current circumstances, it is conceivable that Scotland’s national orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra synchronised online presentations so that, just a week after reuniting a full orchestra in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the RSNO chose to broadcast a chamber recital that was filmed six months ago on the same weekend that the SCO fielded its full band in Perth, under the baton of Joseph Swensen.
Or it may simply have been a coincidence that the bigger outfit seemed to be trying on the clothes the chamber orchestra has been wearing so successfully at the same time as it donned its grandest gear. Either way, this recital was very much in the fashion of the bulk of the SCO’s online offerings, and arguably slightly mis-sold in the suggestion that pianist Paul Lewis is more central to the programme than he is.
Nonetheless, this is a value-for-money concert, with three substantial pieces, two of them showcasing recently appointed principal clarinet Timothy Orpen, the third with Lewis as soloist, and a splendid miniature for principal oboe Adrian Wilson.
The latter is a world premiere and part of the orchestra’s Scotch Snaps strand. Composed by Michael J Murray, one of the Ayrshire composers mentored by Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst, it is an imagination of the interior musical world of a “silent disco” busker who is a presence in Glasgow City Centre. A highly original work, as beguiling as it is unusual, Wilson’s fluid articulation certainly seemed to suggest that is was a rewarding challenge to play. The interesting question was what had prompted the composer to make the oboe his instrument of choice?
Aaron Schorr is at the piano for the first work of the programme, Mozart’s Kegelstatt-Trio, with Tom Dunn completing the line-up. The focus is certainly on the clarinet, with the similar range of the viola in a supporting role, but the stringed instrument is buried in the sound-mix here.
The balance for Weber’s clarinet quintet is also less than ideal. Movements of this work are hugely popular clarinet party-pieces and Orpen plays beautifully, with lovely rounded tone and perfect phrasing, but the string quartet is too quiet, especially in string-led moments like the opening of the second movement Fantasia. Put that to one side, however, and the playful dynamics of the ensemble in the Menuetto, when the combination of instruments is at its most theatrical, is a delight.
Paul Lewis precedes his performance of a chamber version (two violins, viola, cello and bass) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No12 K414 with what amounts to a caution against over-rehearsing with players of this calibre, and there is certainly a sense of the RSNO quintet – and indeed Lewis himself – being very relaxed and “at home”.
Lewis is superb, from the opening bars that sound so akin to the 40th Symphony, and particularly in the hymn-like central Andante. Although the balance is better (this piece was filmed and recorded a month after the others, with the BBC’s Andrew Trinick producing), one might still wish for a little more presence from the strings.
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk
RSNO: Søndergård & Benedetti
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
The story of Poland is a volatile one. So it is inevitable, even in the very first programme of an intermittent Polska Scotland mini-series which runs through the RSNO’s new digital summer season, that some of its music should reflect that historic turmoil.
The opening concert, which now sees the orchestra relocated to the de-seated stalls area of the main Glasgow Royal Concert Hall auditorium, enabling the deployment of a larger contingent of socially-distanced players, is a welcome sight and sound. Moreover, it paves the way for more expansive programming.
In this case it is music by Mieczysław Weinberg, Karol Szymanowski and Andrzej Panufnik, a strange but intriguing mix of style and influence (musical and political). In charge is RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 (she returns for the second concert at the end of the series), the piece that secured her the career-launching 2004 BBC Young Musician prize.
That was 17 years ago, and it’s a more musically mature Benedetti who garners every ounce of lyrical passion and glistening heat this time round. There is also a wonderful air of composure in her performance, no better illustrated than the floating, timeless initial entry that instantly becalms the orchestra’s restless introduction.
Thereafter, the journey is one of mercurial fascination, expansive eloquence, crisp virtuosity and melting, poetic beauty. Søndergård exerts his own authority where the opportunity presents itself, from rip-roaring orchestral climaxes to the breathiest of moments, where time stands still. But this is triumph of partnership, no better illustrated than in the ethereal melting away of the final bars.
The east-west tug-of-war affecting Poland in the 20th century sent artists in various directions. For Weinberg, after fleeing the Nazis in Poland, the ultimate draw was Moscow, encouraged there by Shostakovich whom he admired greatly. There’s no mistaking the latter’s influence, nor Weinberg’s Jewish heritage, in the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, which opens this programme.
From its growling lugubrious opening there is a lingering shadow of nostalgia, even where Weinberg opens the floodgates and unleashes the full orchestral might. That hint of suppressed rapture permeates this mostly trenchant RSNO performance, with only a suggestion of nervousness from the exposed violins in their opening bars.
For Panufnik, the escape route from Soviet-run Poland led west, defecting to the UK in 1954 and leading a successful life as a conductor and composer up to his death in 1991. His Symphony No 3, Sinfonia Sacra, was written in 1963 to mark 1000 years of christianity in Poland. The RSNO gave the Polish premiere in Warsaw in 1968.
Based on the earliest-known Polish hymn, the Bogurodzica plainsong, there are two parts to the symphony: Three Visions and Hymn. With the RSNO brass standing aloft like heraldic warriors, their impact here possesses a thrilling undercurrent of menace. Søndergård plays on that, but equally on its haunting mysticism, at its most sublime in the quiet strings of the second Vision. He also shapes the drama in this powerful symphony with unstinting, ultimately overwhelming intent.
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk
Perth Concert Hall
One of the great advantages for a pianist teaming up with key wind principals from a single orchestra to form the required ensemble for Mozart’s and Beethoven’s only Quintets for Piano and Winds is its diminishing of the risk factors regarding coordination.
For pianist Susan Tomes, therefore, spearheading this pairing of works for the last of Perth Concert Hall’s engaging week-long Easter Lunchtime Concert Series, the integration here with her RSNO friends is akin to a joining of two minds rather than five. The unified, easeful enjoyment of these performances translate as such.
What didn’t happen as planned was Friday’s associated BBC Radio 3 broadcast, given that the BBC turned over its entire radio network to coverage of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, so the concert’s only current availability is via the film version purchasable via the Concert Hall’s website.
It, too, has its unplanned moments, such as the false start to the opening of the Beethoven: a strangely unedited moment (uncorrected at the time of writing), but at the same time offering a touchingly human moment that could easily have happened in any live context. Such are the vagaries of these uncharted times.
That aside, these are both exceptional works that are a joy to experience anytime in any way, and when the essence of chamber music is adhered to – no place for egos here – the music truly sings. Not even in the Beethoven, who places more soloistic emphasis on the piano than Mozart, does Tomes feel any need to play the prima donna. She is, and always has been, a naturally sensitive chamber musician.
Her interaction with the RSNO players – Adrian Wilson (oboe), Timothy Orpen (clarinet), David Hubbard (bassoon) and Christopher Gough (horn) – is both generous and empathetic; their familiarity with each other in return gives a natural homogeneity and precision to the complementary wind unit.
Nonetheless, the real joy of these performances are those moments where self-expression shines through – a penetrating horn melody perhaps, the surprisingly bullish emergence of the bassoon, or of course the many opportunities for the piano to capitalise on concerto-like opportunities.
It’s in the slow movements where the most melting musical moments arise. The lyrical warmth of Mozart’s central Larghetto and Beethoven’s Andante cantabile find Tomes and her colleagues at their most spontaneously and most comfortably expressive. The outer movements vary in consistency.
Should a slight hesitancy of attack in Mozart’s opening Largo – Allegro moderato concern us? Only when the initial mist clears to reveal a crisper, more vital team spirit. And are the solo piano openings to both the Mozart and Beethoven finales deliberately understated? Again, the instant shifts of gear as the winds enter in each case leave you wondering.
But there’s no escaping the unique brilliance of these hybrid works, the fascinating sound world they explore, and the powerful affection and instinctive musicality elicited in these genuinely inspired performances.
Available to watch via www.horsecross.co.uk
Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
In different times than these, the 80th anniversary of Scotland’s worst aerial bombing carnage in the Second World War might have been marked by the inclusion of RSNO Principal Horn Chris Gough’s new work remembering the Clydebank Blitz in a live concert by the orchestra.
Instead the premiere of the work, commissioned by West Dunbartonshire Council’s Culture Committee, is on the orchestra’s YouTube channel, the filmed performance in Glasgow, conducted by Tyne-sider Jonathan Bloxham, prefaced by ten minutes of documentary written and directed by Tony McKee and narrated by Liam Stewart.
The collage of film, still images and sound that McKee has provided gives a hugely informative and powerfully compact context to Gough’s music, which then elides into the performance by way of some pastiche black and white “newsreel” of the orchestra in rehearsal.
The piece does not attempt to soundtrack the destruction of Clydebank itself, using an interlude of air-raid sirens and the over-head rumble of heavy bombers (with accompanying video) as an interlude between its two movements. The opening, The Steady Grind of Wartime Life, carries its own echoes of those sirens alongside the mechanical beat of pizzicato strings and muted brass.
Following that interlude (The Blitz Comes to Clydeside), the picture of Desolation begins with a plangent cor anglais, underscored by bass clarinet. The wind section theme, derived from a folk song, On the Banks of the Clyde, which the composer sourced in the Vaughan Williams online archive, is then taken up by the strings, and then brass, becoming a hymn of resilience.
As the work concludes, the names of all 528 who died in the bombing of March 13 and 14 1941 scroll up the screen, the range of ages, from primary school children to pensioners, and the many members of the same families all too evident.
There’s a lot else to notice here: the orchestra’s commitment to new music in its Scotch Snaps strand; the simultaneous link with the digital season’s Polska Scotland theme that the Clydebuilt Polish Navy destroyer ORP Piorun was back at the John Brown yard for repairs and helped repel the Luftwaffe.
In different times than these, much of this might have passed in the brief flourish of, at best, two concert hall performances for an audience of a couple of thousand. There is some reason to be grateful that the fine work of Gough, his RSNO colleagues and their associates is accessible to many more in its online incarnation.
RSNO Centre, Glasgow
Let us hope that the RSNO is re-energised by the move into the larger space of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and the opportunity to perform with larger forces in its recently-announced new digital season, because there is a slight sense of fatigue in this final concert of the current one.
That is no fault of guest soloist Nicky Spence, who brings expressive commitment and an enthusiastic musicality to Britten’s Les Illuminations. These nine Rimbaud settings may have been written for, and dedicated to, a soprano, Sophie Wyss, but that was surely as much because of the restrictions of the time (1940) and the emotions behind both the verse and Britten’s music sound more powerful in the tenor voice. The specific dedication of the seventh of them, the bold and assertive Being Beauteous, to Peter Pears, meant that the composer himself was being neither coy nor particularly careful.
The Scottish Ensemble made a go-to recording of the work with Toby Spence (no relation) and there is a coherence to that group’s string sound – with all the percussive effects and imitation of other instruments in this score – that is often missing here. The current necessity for social distancing might be some explanation for that, except that string players in general, and RSNO ones in particular, have noted some benefit in sitting at individual desks.
The Britten is preceded by George Walker’s roughly contemporary Lyric for Strings. While there is no argument that the compositions of the first African American to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize are ripe for rediscovery, his reputation might be better enhanced by tackling meatier fare than this early imitation of Barber’s Adagio, lovely though it is.
Thomas Sondergard’s Beethoven Five, which concluded the programme, is neither fish nor fowl – but then a hybrid of historically-informed practice and contemporary brio is what most orchestras and conductors aim for with the work these days. So we have natural trumpets and modern horns, and string playing that is brisk but not quite crisp enough in the first movement.
The conductor may be keeping his powder dry, but there is also an odd imbalance in the sound – uncharacteristic of engineer Phil Hobbs – which continues in the Andante, with the wind soloists, although all on fine form, rather too far up in the mix.
When more muscle comes into the performance in the Finale, that difficulty disappears, as does the lack of rhythmic rigour. The sprint to the tape, at least, whets the appetite for the orchestra’s return in April.
It is a measure of the confident way that Scotland’s national orchestra has dealt with the restrictions imposed on its work by the coronavirus pandemic – and coped with many enforced changes of plan along the way – that it is able to launch a new season in upbeat and positive style.
The headline news is the extension of the contract of Music Director Thomas Sondergard to the autumn of 2024. The further three years of commitment to the RSNO come as the Danish conductor is preparing to make his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic on Saturday, stepping into the shoes of Sir Donald Runnicles to direct a programme of Prokofiev, Sibelius and Kurt Weill.
For Sondergard, the important analogy is that he has found the same warmth and eagerness to work in the German capital that he encountered in his first dealings with the RSNO. He also suggests that the work the Scottish orchestra has made available to a global audience with its online programme during the health emergency has enhanced reputations far beyond its home audience, which is likely to prove crucial if touring proves problematic in the future.
That optimistic tone is echoed by chief executive Alistair Mackie, whose pre-COVID enthusiasm to develop the orchestra’s online work has necessarily moved to the top of the agenda over the past year. “It is true that we have made progress,” says Mackie. “We have learned a lot from our first Digital Season, and, as many of our audiences will know, we often had to move quickly and adapt to travel and working conditions that changed with very little notice. I want to thank our audiences for the support they have shown us during this time.”
The new season will begin on Friday April 16 when Sondergard conducts a concert in the strand of Polish music announced nearly a year ago, including the Violin Concerto No 1 by Karol Szymanowski with Nicola Benedetti as soloist. Benedetti also closes the season on Friday June 11, when she plays Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto, working with the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, Elim Chan.
Says Sondergard: “It is incredible to think that little over a year ago myself and the full RSNO Orchestra were touring Europe with Nicola Benedetti, performing in sold-out venues, and experiencing standing ovations night after night. We could not have imagined the experiences of the past year were waiting just around the corner.
“The past year has been difficult for all of us, and sadly tragic for so many people. Music is our way of expressing and sharing our moments of grief and frustration, but also the moments of happiness and hope that help get us through these extraordinary times.”
Up until now, the behind-closed-doors concerts have been filmed in the orchestra’s rehearsal space in the RSNO Centre, but the new programme will be recorded in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall next door following its successful use for the online incarnation of the Celtic Connections festival last month.
The move enables compliance with social distancing guidelines for up to 75 musicians on the extended stage, when fewer than 60 could be playing together in the RSNO Centre, making areas of repertoire possible once more. The two concerts Chan conducts in June will include the Concertos for Orchestra by Bela Bartok and Witold Lutoslawski, the latter partnered by Chopin’s Piano Concerto No1 played by Benjamin Grosvenor, recreating the line-up on last year’s prize-winning recording of the work.
Lutoslawski also features in the May 14 debut of Polish conductor Marta Gardolinska with the orchestra, when his Mala suita prefaces Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, and in a chamber music concert a fortnight later, when principal oboe Adrian Wilson is soloist in his Epitaph for Oboe and Piano and Lena Zeliszewska plays Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata in D Minor.
The season also salvages more of the “Scotch Snaps” planned for the 20/21 live concerts – short pieces by contemporary Scottish composers, with works by Michael Murray, Craig Armstrong and Christopher Duncan. The first of these is included in a chamber music concert featuring pianist Paul Lewis, who featured in the RSNO’s recent all-Grieg concert conducted by Ed Gardner, and the Armstrong precedes Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, played by orchestra leader Maya Iwabuchi and conducted by Angus Webster.
Principal cello Aleksei Kiseliov is joined by pianist Alasdair Beatson for a programme of chamber music by Beethoven, Strauss and Dvorak on May 7 and conductor Kevin John Edusei is on the podium on May 21 for Schumann’s Second Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine and soprano Susanna Hurrell and baritone Marcus Farnsworth singing Schubert as arranged by Brahms.
An individual subscription to the new season is £85, with a household subscription priced at £150. Individual concerts are prices at £10 and £20 and there is a concessionary rate of £27 for all nine concerts, or £3 each, available to full-time students, those under 26 and people with disabilities or who are unemployed.
Download the season brochure and book tickets at rsno.org.uk
RSNO Centre, Glasgow
Imagine this RSNO digital concert as a priceless painting encased in a tasteful picture frame that enhances, but never overwhelms, the masterpiece within. The latter is Edvard Grieg’s timelessly popular Piano Concerto in A minor; the outer casement consists of the two orchestral suites formed from the incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What’s not to like?
Throw in the presence of British conductor Edward Gardner, whose current position as chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic gives him a direct link to the composer (Grieg filled that post from 1880-82) and a feel for the Norwegian spirit that courses through this music. And Paul Lewis, of course, a pianist with an intoxicating ability to temper rigorous intellectual capacity with alluring simplicity and affection. The entire combination, along with an RSNO in the suavest of shape, is as near perfection as you’d hope.
Neatly filmed and produced, and with unpretentiously informative spoken links from tubist John Whitener, violist Katherine Wren, and Gardner and Lewis themselves, this is also a medium which the RSNO is now well on top of. We’d all like to be back in a live situation, but there’s no denying the new skills that have been learnt through desperate measures, slickly on display here.
Gardner’s shaping of the two suites is masterly, poetically restrained, but engrained with a crystalline folkish dynamic that brings every fresh detail and sighing nuance to the fore. He opens with Peer Gynt Suite No 2, arrestingly dramatic to begin with, but then a subsequent cocktail of vying charms, from the heavily pastiched Arabian Dance (its opening flute duo weirdly reminiscent of Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme tune to 1970s TV sitcom Some Mother’s Do Have Em!), to the sassy Peer Gynt’s Homecoming and calming simplicity of Solveig’s Song.
The more popular numbers – Morning Mood, Ase’s Death, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King – follow the concerto in Suite No 1, again lovingly shaped, the emphasis on richness of tone and unmannered suppleness. The shimmer of muted strings in Ase’s Death is sublime.
At the heart of this programme, though, is the clean-cut, effortless precision of Lewis’ concerto performance. He stops well short of proclaiming total detachment, allowing Grieg’s immortal themes to flow naturally from his disciplined fingers, avoiding temptation to sentimentalise, and knitting together the entire edifice – which too often invites misplaced overindulgence – in a riveting display of explosive control.
Gardner supports without intrusion, but always with something to add to the mix, a counter-emphasis here, a loving whisper there. It’s that time of the year when the RSNO traditionally offers a St Valentine’s concert. Be sure and make a date with this one!
Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk