Tag Archives: RSNO

RSNO / MacMillan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Handel’s Messiah was one of my gateways into music as a child and I still find something in every performance, but it would be no bad thing if Sir James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio muscled in on its territory. In this work, which received its Scottish premiere from the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, conducted by the composer himself, MacMillan has made a work of comparable majesty, with the additional virtues for affordable performance of requiring 50 per cent fewer soloists and being half as long.

Without question one of the Scots composer’s most significant works, in a catalogue not short of those, its arrival was complicated by the vicissitudes of the pandemic, which closed down venues and occasioned a ban on choral singing. It is to be hoped that its more gradual and less trumpeted arrival leads to growing status with performers and public, because it is a quite remarkable piece.

The architecture of the oratorio is in itself a thing of beauty, a palindromic structure to each of the two parts (designed to incorporate an interval) which mirror one another in their individual sections.

Four instrumental “Sinfonias” frame the piece and immediately adjacent to them are liturgical choruses, with words (and one melody) from a number of Catholic sources. The soprano and baritone soloists have arias in both halves, setting the poetry of Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton, and in the centre of each part are two “Tableau” which use both chorus and soloists, the first using Matthew Chapter 2 to tell the story of the Nativity, the second setting the opening of John’s Gospel.

The composer has chosen his texts with great skill, placing due weight on the darker side of the Christmas story in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt, echoed in the dark tone of the Donne and Southwell sonnets. But there are also moments of lightness, in the opening and closing Sinfonias, for example, which clearly allude to the tinsel and Tinseltown sides of the “Holiday season.”

It is hard not to smile too at the repetitions MacMillan gives the choir to sing, ramming the continued currency of the story of Christ’s birth home in the Latin “Hodie” at the start of the Vespers setting at the end of Part 1, mirrored by “In the beginning” at the start of the Gospel chorus in Part 2.

These reflections and parallel musical allusions make for a work that is full of interest every step of the way, sometimes operatic, but with moments of intensely personal devotion. Some of the most obvious antecedents are in works by Britten, and the Milton setting – superbly sung by Roderick Williams – is the most Britten-esque MacMillan has ever sounded, but mainly it all sounds like MacMillan himself. Moments recall the drama of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie or Ines de Castro, others the quietude of the Seven Last Words or Strathclyde Motets.

Williams was paired with Rhian Lois, well-known to Glasgow audiences for her Musetta and Gretel with Scottish Opera, who was equally versatile in her full-voiced contribution. The work put in by the chorus, under their director Stephen Doughty was immense; this is far from an easy score and the choir gave MacMillan a magnificently expressive performance, as careful with unison singing on a single note (as in the last of the verses from St John) to some bold leaps in pitch.

The instrumental score is no less colourful, although MacMillan often uses the resources at his disposal with notable restraint before demanding full commitment and virtuosity. And while there were fine solo contributions from players across the platform, this was a season highlight for the whole orchestra as well as its excellent chorus.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Sir James MacMillan from rehearsal, courtesy RSNO

RSNO / Brossé

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

AS the RSNO establishes itself as one of the go-to orchestras for film soundtrack recording, with its home next door to Glasgow’s big hall now kitted out as a state-of-the-art studio, it is only fitting that it celebrated the 70th birthday of a local lad who has built a spectacularly successful career writing movie scores.

Doubtless the business of meeting tight deadlines and budgets for Netflix often seems a long way from the glamour of showbusiness, so here was also a chance to bask in the glitter of celebrity as well as honouring Scotland’s Patrick Doyle. This was no surprise bash for the composer, however, whose part in the proceedings stretched far beyond the music.

The two presenters of the evening, Richard E Grant and Peter Capaldi, both have personal connections with Doyle: he scored Grant’s 2005 directorial debut, Wah-Wah, while Capaldi’s memories of him dated from the later years of last century. Those reminiscences were coupled with Doyle’s in a script that had the composer’s own fingerprints all over it, although the funniest moments, with Grant’s ripe language and Capaldi’s self-deprecatory references to his own starry career, were of the actors’ own devising.

Those famous friends were counterbalanced – in an evening that managed to stay just on the right side of cheesiness  – with the presence of his family, from the onstage singing roles of his daughters Abigail and Nuala, to the sometimes equally vocal contributions of members of the extended Doyle clan in the auditorium. The star vocalist was Mairi MacInnes, with Gairm Na h-Oidhche from the 2018 remake of Whisky Galore!, but the Doyle sisters’ contributions from Mike Newell’s Into the West and Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express were not far behind. The latter also featured a solo turn from RSNO cellist Betsy Taylor, while guest first violin Hannah Perowne had the spotlight in Corarsik, Doyle’s evocation of the Argyll landscape, written as a gift for Emma Thompson, scriptwriter and star of the 1995 film of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility.

With traditional musician Fraser Fifield adding his skills to the RSNO winds and Lorne MacDougall being a highly adaptable piper to cope with the modulations in Doyle’s concert music, his compositions were most rewarding when the orchestration was at its fullest. Doyle’s scores are evocative, but little of this music was dramatically exciting – even the most recent piece, written for the coronation of King Charles, is a very sedate march.

It seems highly probable that, after Celtic Connections marked Doyle’s 65thbirthday and the RSNO threw him a party this year, the composer might look favourably on further celebrations. This one having dealt with the box office hits in his career, it would be interesting to hear a programme of his music curated by more objective ears.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Patrick Doyle with the RSNO by Martin Shields

RSNO / Bihlmaier

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Like This Midnight Hour, which the RSNO played in March under Elim Chan, composer Anna Clyne’s Stride, co-commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is a cracking concert opener.

The pianist Steven Osborne has said – and demonstrated – that Beethoven pre-figured jazz piano in his late sonatas and Stride, although its musical material draws on an earlier one, the famous No 8 “Pathetique”, bolsters the argument by having the string basses emulate the walking left hand of the piano style in the title.

The work began a programme that ended with Dvorak’s Symphony No 8, given a performance of crystalline clarity under German conductor Anja Bihlmaier, making her debut with the orchestra. There was a lightness of touch to her approach to the music that paralleled her precision, so that the opening movement was a dance through the Bohemian countryside that brought to mind the Viennese Strausses, even before the third movement waltz.

It and the Allegro finale have tunes that are up with the composer’s best, and Bihlmaier was clear exactly when a little more oomph was needed, noticeably reining back the RSNO brass after the fanfare opening of the latter. Perhaps a little more leeway might have been allowed to the players in the joyous conclusion, but that’s a marginal call.

The conductor – elegantly clad in a sharply-cut teal tails suit – was also a most attentive partner to soloist Nelson Goerner in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, the magnificent highlight of a fine evening. His first chord, so deliberately softly struck, set the tone for a considered reappraisal of the work that eschewed all the flashy showmanship it often comes with.

While no less virtuosic, Goerner played the piece as if the ink was still wet on the page, rather than as the old war horse it can be, and Bihlmaier was always sensitive to his interpretation. Soloist and conductor maintained a brisk Moderato in the opening movement and RSNO first flute Katherine Bryan and principal clarinet Timothy Orpen were measured duet partners in the big tune of the slow movement. The yearning cadences of the music were never in danger of mawkishness.

Bihlmaier’s guidance of the transition into the finale was masterful and there was a real feel of common cause across the platform all the way to the final bar. It may also have been one of the quieter Rach 2s many of us had heard, and was none the worse for that.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There are few classical violinists whose arrival on the platform occasions the sort of popstar reception that greeted Ray Chen on Saturday evening. The Taiwanese-Australian appeared gratified but not much surprised.

With a reputation built via YouTube and social media, partnerships with Sony Electronics, games companies and fashion houses, a Decca recording deal and his own app that makes instrumental practice a community endeavour online, the RSNO’s guest soloist also has an impeccable coiffeur to match his international fame.

In January the orchestra tours Europe with him and a programme including the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a virtuoso work played and recorded by Jascha Heifetz. Chen plays a Strad once owned by Heifetz and it was another work from the 20th century virtuoso’s 1950s fame on stage and in the studio, the Sibelius Violin Concerto, that he performed in this week’s concerts in the RSNO season.

Although the soloist’s first flashy cadenza comes half-way through the long opening movement, the main fireworks in the Sibelius come later, particularly in the devilish dance of the final movement. Chen, however, was chewing the scenery from the start as he stared down the fingerboard: his facial expressions and athletic eyebrows almost outdid his lightning-speed playing.

The 34-year-old has impressive technique, but his opening gambit was not really what Sibelius wrote in terms of dynamic and timbre. And when we arrived at the closing Allegro over 20 minutes later, Chen’s phrasing of the opening bars there might most kindly be described as idiosyncratic. The fast music always looked intense and exciting, but the best of Chen’s playing came in the slow second movement with a much lighter touch at the start and real delicacy in the final bars, all bolstered by a richness of tone from the RSNO strings.

Without the spotlight on their young guest-star, the orchestra had a superb evening. The opening work was the Scottish premiere of Finnish composer Lotta Wennakoski’s Om fotspar och ljus (Of Footprints and Light), a brilliantly orchestrated piece that is part of a series of commissions by the Helsinki Philharmonic. Its origins are an interesting slice of Finnish musical heritage, but heard on its own purely musical terms it was a fascinating ten minutes or so, demanding an array of operations from the percussion section and extended noise-generating techniques from strings and winds.

Swells of sound appeared from the orchestral sections in turn but it was the tiny details, on harp and in the basses and brass, that constantly caught the ear – and the closing bars from the front desk fiddles were quite magical.

Conductor Thomas Sondergard was as particular in the details of Dvorak’s Symphony No 6, which followed the interval. This is the work in which the composer first fully integrates Czech folk melodies into a sumptuously-orchestrated symphony, and it built his reputation across Europe. If it is sometimes overshadowed by the composer’s later works, Sondergard made an eloquent case for its equal status with a lightness of touch, a wide range of dynamic variation, and that meticulous attention to every nuance of the scoring. The rhythm of the Scherzo, a specific Slavonic dance meter, was a joyful delight and the Finale built to a spirited climax that was as fulfilling as it was pin-sharp and exactly as stipulated.

Keith Bruce

RSNO / Poska

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

As well as soloist Rachel Barton Pine and guest conductor Kristiina Poska (already well known across Scotland through her work with the SCO), the other star of this programme was the first clarinet – not the RSNO’s principal player Timothy Orpen on this occasion, but Yann Ghiro, on loan from the BBC SSO.

The sotto voce opening of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, played with great sensitivity by Ghiro, was just the first of a series of solos across the evening, and it set the tone for what was a superb performance of the work in which its quietest moments were the most exquisite. Too often performed in an expansive, Hollywood soundtrack style, this ballet suite is much subtler than that and Poska was meticulous in her approach, as if applying rigorous early music practice to this mid-20th century masterpiece.

Her strict-time left hand baton is a distinctive tool in her armoury, and that precision was reflected in the response of the orchestra, with principal trombone Davur Juul Magnussen’s entry later in the work also beautifully measured.

By contrast, Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No2 is often clearly redolent of the Golden Age of Hollywood and film scores at their most appealing and decorative – and quite “old school” for the era of its composition (early 1950s). Under a quartet of an hour long, it is not a big work, and much of the interest in it is due to the difficult tale of how it has come down to us now. Barton Pine’s championing of the work has included partnership with the RSNO on a new recording, and she ceded the limelight in much of this performance, while quietly dispatching the most virtuosic elements. At points it was the brass underscore that proved the most compelling ingredient, and Ghiro popped up again to contribute tellingly to the closing bars.

Arguably more memorable of the soloist’s contribution to the evening was her encore – inspired by her participation in a traditional music session after the previous night’s Edinburgh concert – of Mark O’Connor’s Caprice No 1, a glorious mash-up of Bach and Appalachian fiddle.

The RSNO’s guest first clarinet was in the spotlight once more for the improvisatory beginning of the First Symphony of Sibelius, a brooding solo that is actually statement of a theme that recurs throughout the work. This was more or less home turf for the Estonian conductor, and her precision was again crucial. The front desks had their feature moments but it was the rhythmic pulse of the low strings that was most impressive.

There is something cinematic about the symphony’s slow second movement, but from the swing of the Scherzo through the rich orchestration of the Finale to the distinctive ending, it becomes a crash course in the unique compositional language that Sibelius enthusiasts love in his later works.

The RSNO, of course, has a distinguished history in the performance of Sibelius, from nearly a century ago and through the era of conductor Sir Alexander Gibson. In Kristiina Poska the orchestra has found another fine partner for his music.

Keith Bruce

Picture of Rachel Barton Pine at Usher Hall, Edinburgh by Leighanne Evelyn

Songs of Wars I Have Seen

New Auditorium, RSNO Centre, Glasgow 

You just wonder which came first: the RSNO and Dunedin Consort dreaming up their intriguing initiative to work together creating a subsidiary partnership series within the former’s main season; or whether such hybrid works as Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen – which integrates period instruments with modern – sparked the idea of this slightly madcap collaboration in the first place.

Either way, Saturday’s mongrel presentation in the more intimate RSNO nerve-centre, the New Auditorium, within Glasgow Royal Concert Hall provided both a sense of respite within the RSNO’s heavy duty symphonic output, and an evangelical platform for the excellent Dunedin players (strings and continuo) to showcase their stylistic versatility to a more diverse audience.

The work, itself, was thoroughly refreshing – a 19-strong mixed ensemble piece based on spoken extracts (read variously by the musicians themselves) from Gertrude Stein’s Wartime Diaries, contained within a living room stage-set of assorted lamps and tables, and brightly illuminated by Goebbels’ eccentric score. The displacement of the musicians – early music contingent to the fore, the more raucous wind, brass and percussion behind them – emphasised the music’s stylistic elasticity.

It’s a musical solution Stein’s arbitrary reflections welcome, her thoughts ranging from the most mundane aspects of wartime (the replacement of sugar with honey) to its frightening realism and futility, either in the here-and-now or in the context of history repeating itself. 

In responding to the latter, Goebbels incorporates actual music from the troublesome 17th century by Matthew Locke, which is where the most striking juxtapositions in this performance occurred. Such magical, silken moments from the Dunedin Consort were like historical parentheses, misty cameos imbued with a ghostly intensity.

These were especially effective within the overall context of Goebbels’ wider musical adventure, which shifted restively in character. The idiomatic mutability of this performance was its defining strength, very much a high-end cabaret concoction of funky modernism, smokey jazz, even spacey electronics. Conductor Ellie Slorach’s sizzlingly taut direction ensured that every minute counted. 

And for all that Stein’s words often seemed to matter less at times than their musical response, the overall impact was quite compelling and strangely moving. 

Ken Walton

RSNO / Søndergård

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It’s a bold new RSNO season that kicks off with a Keats-inspired tone poem by a female composer born at the tail end of the Victorian era who most people today will not have heard of. Dorothy Howell lived from 1898 to 1980, impressed Sir Henry Wood, had her music premiered, aged 21, in his London Proms earning her the epithet of “English Strauss”, before concentrating more on teaching from her late 20s onwards.

Worth hearing? Absolutely! For in Lamia, Howell demonstrates a sweeping tidal wave of inspiration that transforms Keats’ narrative poem into a swirling musical fantasy, its influences ranging from Debussy and Richard Strauss to the prevailing Englishness of Elgar and inklings of Wagner, even with prophetic hints of modernist thought. 

Yet, as this romantically-charged RSNO performance under music director Thomas Søndergård illustrated, Howell’s imaginative orchestral colourings and solid grasp of structuring were both authoritative and visionary, laced with evocative pictorial detail. 

In a period where tokenism is in danger of throwing second rate music at us for its own sake, here was a truly deserving example of fruitful musical archeology. As with the rest of Saturday’s programme, Lamia will be heading to Salzburg next week where the RSNO is undertaking a 3-day concert residency. 

Also on that trip will be feisty French pianist Lisa de la Salle, whose performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 on Saturday explored a more vigorous option to this familiar work. Steely dynamism informed the pianist’s opening gambit, her assertive touch commanding and demanding, yet never once losing sight of the music’s lyrical essence. 

The slow movement, leisurely in the extreme, unfolded in long, languid phrases, though never without purpose, while the finale was a breathless and dazzling romp to the finish line. If the last few bars took Søndergård and the RSNO momentarily by surprise, they were otherwise magnificent in aligning with de la Salle’s vivid mindset.

A stirring concert ended with Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, a work this conductor and the RSNO have successfully recorded together, and which certainly sounded like a trusty old friend. A journey in which the composer centrally casts himself as the hero was, as it should be, gloriously indulgent without slipping into self-mockery. Søndergård struck the perfect balance, the hero’s proud emergence, his exhortations of love, his adversaries and battles, and ultimately his repose and fulfilment expressed in a flood of emotional conflict. 

So this new season launched on a musical high; but why have the audience suddenly started bringing multiple food and drink into the auditorium? One group near me tucked into slices of cake. Behind, someone with ice in their plastic cup provided offstage percussion. Is it only a matter of time before the buckets of popcorn and fizzy drinks join in?

Ken Walton

EIF: Child of Our Time / Davis

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

While the bulk of Sunday’s Usher Hall audience will have known what to expect with Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, fewer will have been familiar with his Concerto for Orchestra. This pairing constituted an intriguing snapshot into the 20th century English composer’s complex, personalised sound world, delivered consummately under the seasoned baton of Sir Andrew Davis.

The former, a stirring 1940s wartime response to human violence and oppression, ranks among the composer’s few instantly-accessible pieces, notable for its thrilling climactic use of Black American Spirituals, their spine-tingling harmonies and tearful pathos. 

The Concerto, however, is later Tippett – commissioned for, and premiered at, the 1963 Edinburgh Festival – the language by then more testing and austere, the milder dissonant complexion of Child of Our Time consigned to the past. Yet, as these engaging performances illustrated, a commonality persists – an elusive, mystical personality arising from complex objectivity. In other words, a consistent and recognisable musical voice.

Davis knew instinctively how to extract that personality from the RSNO in the orchestral opener, serving up exactly what it says on the tin, a concerto for orchestra, in which no-one gets an easy ride. It played out like a quick-fire conversational theatre piece, multi-layered characterisations ricocheting off each other with unceasing changeability. It featured delicious solos for flute, cello, even timpani, and sparky ensemble cameos – a parping tuba paired with piano, for instance – but also a concealed lyrical thread that formed a cohesive backbone to this fascinating, iridescent work.

That same unyielding determination fed through A Child of Our Time, Davis calmly in charge, but generating, through judicious pacing, an organic sense of the epic. The Festival Chorus took their lead accordingly, solid as a rock, openly expressive – especially in the unison singing – but sensitive, too, in shaping the big picture. Within the solo quartet, Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s soprano was an exuberant foil to Dame Sarah Connolly’s burnished mezzo, tenor Russell Thomas and bass Michael Mofidian equally generous as a pairing. As a complete team they were resplendent. Once again the RSNO were faultless. 

The outright winner, of course, was Tippett, so often maligned and misunderstood – not unreasonably in certain cases – but reconfirmed here as a legitimate and unique voice in what was a turbulent, sometimes unfriendly, 20th century musical landscape.

Ken Walton


Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Its own EIF concert is another significant step in deserved recognition of the quality of the choir Christopher Bell founded, and which passed its quarter century anniversary during the strictures of the pandemic.

The early evening performance of two gems of the choral repertoire was preceded by a show-and-tell, a demonstration by Bell of some of the music education techniques employed by NYCOS, derived from the work of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, with choir members – and early arrivals at the Usher Hall – willing guinea pigs.

It would have been more interesting to see the charismatic conductor work his magic on a different crowd, truth to tell. Many of those there at 4pm for the pre-show were already invested in the NYCOS project, perhaps with family among the many young people whose lives it has changed. This lot were a little too good at the singing games and rhythm clapping to pass for rookie seven-year-olds being introduced to the Kodaly method for the first time, only to find themselves being able to read music fluently a few years later.

The proof of that came in the concert an hour later. The main work was the Requiem composed by Maurice Duruflé during the Second World War, a work of devotional intensity that calls for singing of muscular power as well as great tenderness. On the platform with NYCOS was the RSNO and two local soloists, Cardiff Singer of the World 2017, mezzo  Catriona Morison, who had featured in The Magic Flute the previous evening, and baritone Paul Grant, whose recent career has included a run of roles at La Scala, Milan.

He had pivotal moments in the Offertory and the Libera Me, his role parallel to mighty crescendos by the choir, while Morison had the Pie Jesu, Duruflé following the lead of Fauré in that section of his Requiem. Teaming her voice with the low strings and featuring a fine solo from principal cello Pei-Jee Ng, it is one of the gentlest sections of the mass setting, only surpassed by the choir’s In paradisum at the end – surely one of the loveliest evocations of heaven in all music.

With a full-strength RSNO on stage, this choir was never in any danger of being swamped but nor did the ensemble sound ever seem forced. The balance between the pure toned sopranos and wordless accompanying chorus in the Lux aeterna was another memorable moment.

Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the concert, was sung by the most recent addition to the NYCOS stable of choirs, its Chamber Choir, in its debut recital at last year’s Lammermuir Festival. Setting the words of eccentric 18th century poet Christopher Smart to very inventive contemporary music in 1943, here was the bigger choir tackling the version orchestrated by Imogen Holst for an Aldeburgh Festival nearly a decade later.

The ear-catching words – “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry” began soprano soloist Emily Kemp – were on the supertitles, but the immaculate diction of NYCOS made then unnecessary. Holst’s arrangement, which retains the organ alongside a small orchestra of 32 strings with crucial wind soloists, made the piece, although very different, an ideal partner for the Requiem.

That finding of God in Smart’s pet was followed by alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith and tenor Euan McDonald seeing divinity in a mouse and flowers, before bass Joshua McCullough spelled things out in the text’s child-like alphabetical way. It is a great work for NYCOS to have made its own, the building-blocks of the poet’s faith echoing the lessons in musicianship we’d mimicked earlier.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Catriona Morison by Andrew Low

EIF: Buddha Passion

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Where Bach’s Passions narrate the Christian path to salvation – symbolised by the crucifixion and resurrection – Tan Dun’s Buddha Passion follows the young prince’s path to Nirvana and its foundation in compassion. If one were to draw any musical comparisons, it might be the mutual simplicity of Dun’s Chinese chants versus the Lutheran chorales used by Bach to provide the popular commentary, the voice of the people.

Either way, Dun’s epic conception was a powerful vehicle for the opening of Nicola Benedetti’s debut Edinburgh Festival programme as artistic director, a Scottish premiere performance conducted by the composer and employing the visual theatre of two choruses (the Edinburgh Festival and RSNO Youth Choruses), an exotic mix of solo performance traditions, and the powerhouse of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Dun has proclaimed this piece essentially a concert opera, a quality intrinsic in the literally thousands of murals in China’s historic Mogul Caves – many of them depicting musicians – that inspired its composition. As such, we witness beyond its purely musical strength a sense of animation, physical interaction and sensuous colourings. 

Its Edinburgh performance recorded maximum impact through the palpable engagement of its constituents. Dun drew from the adult chorus and its ethnic chants the most opulent of unisons, the singers equally happy to throw inhibitions aside when their role converted to primal laughter or dramatic gesture and exhortation. The youth chorus topped this with singing of pure and lustrous resilience.

With such a diverse team of solo performers, the key characterisations never failed to surprise, extending from the sparkling precision of soprano Louise Kwong and mezzo-soprano Samantha Chong, and cool-headed Western-style persuasiveness of tenor Chen Chen and baritone Sun Li, to the challenging unorthodoxy of Pipa player and dancer Chen Yining enacting a truly mesmerising choreography, indigenous singer Tan Weiwei, and the extraordinary subterranean vocal reverberations and harmonic overtones created by Mongolian throat singer (and morin khuur player) Batubagen.

Combined with the luxuriant orchestral score – a sound world constantly bouncing between Puccini, mystical avant-garde and unadulterated 20th Century Fox that proved easy meat for the RSNO – Dun presented us with an initially soft-centred, but ultimately profound performance. If spectacle, scale and originality are key to a successful EIF opener, this did the trick.

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Slorach / Keita

SWG3, Glasgow

For a second year, Scotland’s national orchestra added a concert as part of Scottish Refugee Week to its summer calendar, this one quoting Emily Dickinson in its hopeful title ‘. . .a thing with feathers’ and featuring Senegalese kora virtuoso Seckou Keita.

One of the world’s leading players of the West African lute/harp, his last visit to Scotland was in the company of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. He recently released an album, African Rhapsodies, recorded with the BBC Concert Orchestra and conductor Mark Heron, on which his new compositions have been arranged by Italian composer and bass player Davide Mantovani. A chamber orchestra-sized RSNO played four of them midway through a year of concerts of this new music in the UK and France, where the Orchestra National de Bretagne has taken up the work.

It is not to diminish those arrangements to say that they were well within the scope of the players of the RSNO – they were doubtless designed to present few challenges to professional musicians. What those we heard demonstrated was a remarkable diversity, highly appropriate to the event.

The strings-and-horns opening mimicked Germanic orchestral repertoire, while the string writing that followed recalled the work of Irishman Micheal O Suilleabhain. The conductor here was Ellie Slorach, who will also be in charge of the RSNO’s mouth-watering collaboration with Dunedin Consort on the music of Heiner Goebbels in October. If there were some initial problems of balance in this post-industrial space – brass, and even winds, over-loud – she quickly sorted them out.

Keita’s dedication to his grandfather, the second piece, featured some fine bass clarinet from Duncan Swindells, while the third dispensed with the strings altogether, a pealing-bells figure on the kora answered by brass and winds – a cadenza and ensemble structure that continued until its end.

The set concluded on a real high with Keita’s celebration of Sufi Saint Amadou Bamba, on which his lightning-fingered instrumental playing was paired with his rich baritone vocals and a fine trumpet obligato by RSNO principal Chris Hart.

In an evening that was as much “gig” as “concert” the support act was the equally-inspiring Joyous Choir from Maryhill Integration Network, under the direction of Clare Findon. After the difficulties of the pandemic, Glasgow’s international women’s chorus is on a roll to celebrate its 10th anniversary, with two more appearances this week, in Edinburgh at the Scottish Parliament and outdoors at Glasgow’s West End Festival.

Many of these voices were heard in the community chorus of Scottish Opera’s terrific production of Candide last August, and their own programme covers the globe as rapidly with songs of Native American, Turkish and Zulu origin in quick succession, mixing part-singing, unison, and solo-and-chorus as each demands. A showstopper is their reading of Italian liberation song Bella Ciao with a verse in Farsi.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Leighanne Evelyn Photography

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 

There are other works of epic scale to end a season on a high, but Verdi’s Requiem is one of a kind – and this performance made the very most of all its theatrical ingredients. Considering that there had been a last-minute change to 50% of its featured soloists – soprano Gabriela Scherer replacing an indisposed Emily Magee and Peter Auty in for Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim – that was a particular tribute to the front-stage line-up and to conductor Thomas Sondergard, always in masterful control of all those ingredients. 

That quartet of soloists, completed by rich-toned Georgian bass George Andguladze and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, in magnificent voice and an authoritative stage presence, met the challenges of their solo spots with aplomb, but more crucially combined in duet, trio and quartet for some lovely, often unaccompanied, singing. This was a blend of voices that was not planned and can have had little rehearsal, but it worked. 

Behind them, the RSNO was on magnificent form for a score that allows so many sections to shine, notably Katherine Bryan’s flutes and David Hubbard’s bassoons among the winds, the trumpets on and off stage, and the trombones in the Sanctus. The muted first violins brought a lovely haunting quality to the Offertorio Quartet and percussionists Simon Lowden and John Poulter added precision mighty beats to the Requiem’s big hit, the repeated Dies irae. 

That chorus sounded immense, as well it might with 190 voices in the choir stalls. RSNO Chorus Director Stephen Doughty, completing his first season in charge of the choir, had drafted in additions from the East Lothian-based Garleton Singers, which he also directs, and some young voices from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The result was a huge machine that never really had to move into overdrive to fill the hall with sound. 

Not that there was any use of cruise control either. This was a finely calibrated, if enormous, instrument, just as impressive when singing very quietly indeed, and Doughty and Sondergard deployed and split its sections very carefully to precisely measured effect. 

That sort of detail is what a performance of this work is all about, as Verdi separates the few moments when everyone on the platform is employed with all sorts of combinations of instrumental scoring and vocal colours. Of course, the text often sounds nothing at all like “Church Latin” because it is being sung in the manner of the opera house, but it is curious how a section like the Lacrymosa at the end of the Dies irae can sound simultaneously like a hymn as well as an entire dramatic scene. 

Being able to keep both those inspirations in mind as well as evident to the audience is the challenge of Verdi’s Requiem, and one that this vast cast of musicians all met to a gold standard. 

Keith Bruce 

Portrait of Jennifer Johnston by RT Dunphy

RSNO / Widmann

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

If you’ve ever rubbed a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass and actually managed to make it sing, you’ll know the kind of sound a glass harmonica makes. The actual instrument, invented in 1761, and far more elaborate with its horizontal tapering sequence of revolving glass bowls, enjoyed limited success. Mozart was moved to write for it, as were Beethoven, Donizetti and Richard Strauss among others. Of its more curious history, one German town actually banned it for ruining people’s health, also for disturbing the peace.

That’s hard to imagine, given the inoffensive output this RSNO audience witnessed from the instrument’s spotlight inclusion, played by Christa Schönfeldinger, in Saturday’s mainly Mozart programme. We watched inquisitively as two stage hands carried it on stage, a glistening cylindrical glass sculpture atop a wooden DIY-style frame with pedals to power the revolutions. 

To all intents and purposes Schönfeldinger looked like she was running up curtains on a Singer sewing machine, or operating some weird sonic-powered barbecue from a Star Trek episode. The sound – a soft ringing blandness – would not have been out of place underscoring the latter. In Mozart’s Adagio in C for glass harmonica its blurred tunefulness cut a cross between a seraphic ice cream van and a ghostly fairground organ.

In its own way, it was delightful, and very likely for most of us a once-in-a-lifetime experience. More interesting, perhaps, was the use of this obscure apparatus as the stimulus for Jörg Widmann’s Armonica, essentially a concerto for glass harmonica. That said, it could never, even with the mild amplification, summon up sufficient power to cut through a symphony orchestra. 

All credit, then, to Widmann’s judicious scoring, which uses the instrument’s tonal essence as the springboard for a mounting sequence of waves. The sound world is mainly percussive, exotic and impressionistic, the reediness of a solo accordion (Djordje Gajic) providing roughage to the glass harmonica’s liquidity. 

Widmann himself was on the rostrum for the entire programme, and, as well as investing his own work with absorbing potency, fed an endless stream of reenergising thoughts into Mozart’s final two  Symphonies – No 40 in G minor and the enthralling “Jupiter”, No 41 – which bookended the programme.

His physical approach was gestural, as economical and deliberate as a US traffic cop, picking out moments that really mattered or required a shift in emphasis or pace, while leaving the RSNO to work its own magic where the coast was clear and straightforward. The result was invigorating, at times intoxicating. The innermost details of the G minor symphony were given extraordinary relevance touched by light rhetorical eccentricity; the gravitas of the “Jupiter” was countered by enough sparkle and vivd clarity – even allowing for a few tired moments – to loosen the rigour of its muscular construction. 

Ken Walton

Hebrides Ensemble

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

We’re getting used to the mayhem associated with the mad music of Jörg Widmann, through his associations with Scottish Orchestras (he’s back this week with the RSNO) and in his multiple personae as composer, conductor and clarinettist. It was in the first of these roles that he made his mark again over the weekend, when his 5-movement Octet featured in a thoroughly pleasant afternoon recital by the Hebrides Ensemble.

The event was part of the RSNO’s new partnership activity with smaller Scottish ensembles, which in Glasgow’s music calendar has added a occasional new Sunday treat. This one, consisting of eight mixed instrumentalists matching the requirements of Schubert’s famous Octet, offered a programme that dressed old works in new attire.

It should have opened with Cassandra Miller’s About Bach, but with the Hebrides’ artistic director and cellist William Conway unfortunately indisposed, that risk wasn’t taken. Though inevitably disappointing – appetites were whetted for the Canadian-born composer’s music several weeks ago when Lawrence’s Power and the SCO gave a compelling account of her new viola concerto “I cannot love without trembling” – the resulting programme, albeit shortened, had a satisfyingly purposeful flow to it.

The theme remained intact, opening with Mozart’s re-tailored couplet for string quartet of his own Andante (from the Symphony No 8, KV48) and one of the five Bach Fugues transcribed as K405. They made perfect bedfellows, bringing one genius mind into direct touch with another.

That eased the passage into Tom David Wilson’s Three Schuberts, a reimagining of short selected works by the earlier composer in which Wilson takes tasteful liberties, using the full mixed octet resources to apply hyperactive twists and modernist techniques. Thus the impish eccentricities of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No 3; the supercharged sound world of Erlkönig, its adapted instrumentation lending it the same melodramatic OTT-ness of a Midsomer Murders soundtrack;  and the quivering spookiness of Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) from the song cycle Die Winterreise.

All roads led to the grand finale, Widmann’s Octet, which took the art of reimagining to its furthest extremes. We had the benefit of replacement cellist Christian Elliott, who had performed it with Widmann himself, to prepare our ears for the zaniness to come. Clear references to Schubert were few and far between, including the famous octet whose scoring configuration it replicates.  

Nonetheless, a fearless performance was all that was needed to take Widmann’s wile and wit in the nature of its intentions. Tingling Stravinsky-like chords and timbres lit up the Intrada; the Menuetto, a scherzo (joke) in its literal sense, played mischief at every turn; the extended loveliness of the Lied Ohne Worte took us deep into the weirdly oscillating world of microtones; while the Intermezzo and Finale steered a manic course from full-on riot and surreal intensity to resolution. 

Very Widmann, but as for Schubert……….?

Ken Walton 

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

With two weeks of the RSNO’s season to go – and Jorg Widmann’s way with Mozart and the RSNO Chorus taking on Verdi’s dramatic Requiem still to come – this “All-Star Gala” was nonetheless a pinnacle of the orchestra’s year, coming immediately after its European tour. The presence of a trio of popular names as soloists – violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor – guaranteed a packed auditorium, including many for whom it was probably an unusual way to spend a Saturday night.

For those who had bought their first concert ticket, Scotland’s national orchestra laid on a terrific value-for-money programme – as fine an advert for classical concert-going as any seasoned fan of the music might hope for.

The programme culminated in Brahms’ First Symphony, the conclusion of a cycle of the Brahms symphonies RSNO Music Director Thomas Sondergard has conducted since the beginning of the year. Coming after recent performances and recordings of the works by chamber orchestras, Sondergard has made the case for big Brahms, and the Symphony No1, which was so long coming in the composer’s life, is arguably the work most suited to this approach, with its large slow statements at the start of the first and final movements.

The weight of those passages was beautifully contrasted with moments like the dialogue between leader Maya Iwabuchi’s solo violin and the oboe of Adrian Wilson in the slow movement. He was a star of this immaculately-calibrated reading, with other wind principals, including flautist Katherine Bryan (marking her 20th birthday in the post) and guest first horn Olivia Gandee, also on top form.

The Beethoven-like ending to the symphony was an interesting counterpoint to the younger, lighter Beethoven to be heard before the interval. Although this clever programme made more use of them, those star soloists were primarily contracted to play his “Triple Concerto” for piano trio and orchestra, composed in 1804.

It is a delightful work, the breezy conversation between the front-line voices rather disguising the fact that Kanneh-Mason was playing the more virtuosic part, with Benedetti riding shotgun and Grosvenor’s piano in a supporting role. The work has a lovely structure, particularly in the way the Largo second movement speeds up to segue into the dance of the finale. With the RSNO strings on sparkling form, this was smile-inducing stuff, and there were plenty of grins on the platform – and of course there was an encore lollipop, Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of the Londonderry Air.

The concert had begun with a showcase for the RSNO Youth Chorus, under its director Patrick Barrett, with each of the soloists providing accompaniment in turn. This was the real bonus treat for those new faces in the audience: three works composed in the past decade and performed by the coming generation, proving that “classical” music is in the peak of condition in the modern age.

The longest piece of the three was Russell Hepplewhite’s The Death of Robin Hood, a captivating narrative for young voices, setting a Eugene Field poem, with opportunities for solo voices as well as ensemble singing. It was performed with superb expression and clarity and followed on beautifully from a work the choir had learned for COP 26 in Glasgow, Errollyn Wallen’s specially-composed Inherit the World, with Grosvenor at the piano. It concluded the season’s valuable “Scotch Snaps” strand of performances of contemporary music.

The late addition to the concert brought together Benedetti and the Youth Chorus for American composer Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps. With the violinist supplying the work’s clever revision of early music continuo, this reworking of a 19th century shape-note hymn would be demanding fare for a professional choir of any age, but these young singers rose to its dynamic and tonal challenges with astonishing poise.

Keith Bruce

Picture, from Usher Hall performance, by Sally Jubb

EIF 2023

As the first Edinburgh Festival programme from new director Nicola Benedetti is announced, KEITH BRUCE delves into the musical treats in store

The question new Edinburgh International Festival director Nicola Benedetti poses on the front of her first programme brochure derives from the recently-republished last book Reverend Martin Luther King wrote before his death. However, she also describes “Where do we go from here?” as a challenge to the Festival itself as it moves on from the celebration of its 75th anniversary last year.

Sharing the platform at the media briefing launching this year’s event with Creative Director Roy Luxford and Head of Music Andrew Moore was a clear indication of continuity, and her stated intention of making the most of the talent the virtuoso violinist and passionate music education advocate found in place in the organisation. Significantly she has not taken on Fergus Linehan’s role of Chief Executive, now filled by Linehan’s Executive Director, Francesca Hegyi.

And there is much about that brochure, and the shape of the programming, that will be familiar to regular Festival attenders, no doubt reflecting the fact that many of the building blocks of the 2023 programme were already in place when Benedetti was appointed. What is very different is the way the events are listed, not by genre or venue, but in sections that continue her engagement with the philosophy of Dr King: Community over Chaos, Hope in the Face of Adversity, and A Perspective That’s Not One’s Own.

That makes perusal of the print a different experience, but not radically so, and it is clear that the new director’s pathways to engagement with the work of the artists invited to this year’s Festival have followed the programme, rather than shaped it.

What’s there to see and hear – the actual meat of this year’s event – will please a great many people, and perhaps even fans of the most hotly debated element of any recent Edinburgh Festival. Opera magazine speculated in the editorial of its May issue that there would be “no major staged opera for the first time in decades” and those precise words are probably strictly true. However, there will be many for whom the UK premiere of a Barry Kosky-directed Berliner Ensemble production of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera in the Festival Theatre is more than just the next best thing, and Theatre of Sound’s retelling of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle as a contemporary two-hander with the Hebrides Ensemble at the Church Hill Theatre in the Festival’s final week looks most intriguing.

Concert performances of opera, a regular highlight of recent Edinburgh programmes, maintain their high standard. It is perhaps surprising that Wagner’s Tannhauser will have its first ever performance at the Festival in the Usher Hall on August 25, with American tenor Clay Hilley in the title role as local hero Sir Donald Runnicles conducts Deutsche Oper Berlin.

A fortnight earlier, Maxim Emelyanychev conducts the orchestra to which he has just committed a further five years of his career in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Andrew Moore introduced this as the first of a series of concert performances of Mozart operas by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with its ebullient Principal Conductor. The same orchestra undertook the same project under the baton of Charles Mackerras in the 1990s – although The Magic Flute was not part of that series.

It was also in the last decade of the 20th century that Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra first wowed Edinburgh audiences and that team provides the first of this Festival’s orchestral residencies. Beginning with an evening of music presented in a transformed Usher Hall with beanbags replacing the stalls seating, the orchestra also plays Bartok and Kodaly with Sir Andras Schiff and the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s National Girls Choir. Benedetti is involved as presenter of the first of the orchestra’s concerts, and also joins the BBC SSO and Ryan Wigglesworth on stage on the Festival’s first Sunday for a concert of new music that poses the question on the brochure cover. The young singers of NYCoS have their own concert, with the RSNO, at the Usher Hall on August 13, preceded by a demonstration of the Kodaly music teaching method that is pivotal to its success.

If those events clearly reflect the new director’s commitment to access and education, her use of the EIF’s home, The Hub, below the castle at the top of the Royal Mile, is another crucial ingredient. She intends The Hub to be the Festival’s “Green Room” but open to everyone and “a microcosm of the whole Festival” and it has events programmed most nights, most of them music and often drawing in performers who have bigger gigs in other venues.

They include players from the London Symphony Orchestra, which is 2023’s second resident orchestra, playing Rachmaninov and Shostakovich under Gianandrea Noseda and Szymanowski and Brahms with Sir Simon Rattle before turning its attention to Messiaen’s epic Turangalila-Symphonie, prefaced by a programme of French music that inspired it, with Benedetti again wearing her presenting hat.

The final residency is of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela with conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare, prefaced by a concert by some of the musicians at The Hub. The Usher Hall also sees two concerts by the Oslo Philharmonic with conductor Klaus Makela and its programme begins with Tan Dun conducting the RSNO and the Festival Chorus in his own Buddha Passion and closes with Karina Canellakis conducting the BBC SSO and the Festival Chorus in Rachmaninov’s The Bells. Outside of the concert hall there will be free music-making in Princes Street Gardens at the start of the Festival and in Charlotte Square at its end, details of which will come in June.

With a full programme of chamber music at the Queen’s Hall as usual, a dance and theatre programme full of top flight international artists and companies also includes works of particular musical interest, specifically a new revival of choreographer Pina Bausch’s work using Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in Edinburgh in 1978, and Deborah Warner’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s Phaedra.

More information at eif.co.uk, with online public booking opening on May 3, and in-person booking at the Hub available now.

RSNO / Bringuier

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Here was Tchaikovsky that even Pierre Boulez – famously antipathetic to the works of the Russian composer – might have had time for. And the music was in the hands of another French conductor, Lionel Bringuier.

Bringuier stepped in at short notice last week to replace Norwegian Tabita Berglund for the RSNO’s scheduled programme, with American rising star Randall Goosby playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, followed by the Sixth – and last – Symphony, the “Pathetique”. This is music that it is too easy to wallow in, but the shared approach of Bringuier and Goosby, working together for the first time, was always crisp and precise, whether that was in the dynamic shifts in the opening movement of the symphony or in the impressively fast and clear solo line of the concerto’s “vivacissimo” Finale.

Goosby, just 27 and still completing his studies at Juilliard, is an astonishing player, with a clarity of tone and technical ability that impresses from the start. Perhaps his first movement cadenza was easier to admire than to warm to, but the distance from the emotional excesses players can bring to the work was always refreshing, as was his constant engagement with the orchestra and attention to Bringuier’s direction.

That meant the concerto was of a piece with the symphony, giving the audience – although there were more empty seats than might have been expected for this programme – an opportunity to assess the acoustic effect of the recent refurbishment of the hall. Not only are the new seats more comfortable, it does seem that there is better projection of the sound from the stage, although some of that impression may well be down to the approach of these musicians in particular.

The third movement of the Pathetique is Tchaikovsky at his very best, and every note was immaculately realised in this interpretation, as was the transition to the sombre last movement which so often tricks unwary listeners into premature applause. Its low register sonority also sounded enhanced by the venue’s makeover.

We will probably never know what Berglund would have made of her 20th century countryman David Monrad Johansen’s Pan, which opened the concert, but Bringuier deserves plaudits for sticking with the advertised programme. Although it becomes dramatic enough, and – as anyone might have guessed from the title – featured fine solo playing from principal flute Katherine Bryan, it is an unremarkable work, far outshone by the music that followed.

Keith Bruce

SCO’s half-century and other seasons

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s jubilee caps a promising orchestral programme for the year to come, writes Keith Bruce

In the run-up to its 50th anniversary, the SCO is understandably cock-a-hoop to be able to preface its new season announcement with the news that Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev has extended his contract with the orchestra to 2028.

As the young Russian’s reputation continues to grow globally, and his dizzying schedule takes him to the most prestigious concert halls and opera houses, he has clearly established an important mutually-supportive relationship with the Edinburgh-based ensemble. In the coming season that is as diverse as ever, opening with a seven date Scottish tour of Beethoven’s “Eroica” and a new work by the orchestra’s Associate Composer, Jay Capperauld.

Emelyanychev’s SCO season ends with Mendelssohn’s Elijah, which he, the orchestra and the SCO Chorus will perform in this summer’s newly-announced BBC Proms season.

The RSNO also kicks off with Beethoven, with Lise de la Salle the soloist for the Third Piano Concerto, when Music Director Thomas Sondergard also conducts Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Sondergard’s season ends with Berlioz’s Grande Messe and also features two concerts including piano concertos by Saint-Saens with the season’s Artist in Residence Simon Trpceski, and an evening of French music with Scots mezzo Catriona Morison the soloist.

At the BBC SSO, Chief Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth continues to make an individual mark, opening with a concert that includes his own Piano Concerto with Steven Osborne the soloist, alongside Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with soprano Sally Matthews. He also focuses on Elgar, with the Symphony No 1 and Dai Miyata playing the Cello Concerto, and continues his exploration of Stravinsky’s ballet music with Orpheus and The Fairy’s Kiss, with Principal Guest Conductor Ilan Volkov adding Petrushka in January 2024.

Wigglesworth also conducts the Verdi Requiem next March as the SSO continues its association with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and there is much for lovers of choral music to enjoy elsewhere as well.

The RSNO Chorus is celebrating its 180th anniversary in style, including a “Come and Sing” Verdi Requiem in January and Jeanette Sorrell conducting the annual New Year Messiah following an end-of-November concert of Sir James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio, conducted by the composer. As well as that Berlioz Grande Messe, it also features in a John Wilson-conducted concert of Ireland, Elgar and Holst – and the RSNO Youth Chorus has an equally busy concert year.

The SCO Chorus can boast a MacMillan premiere with his Burns-setting Composed in August, and Capperauld gives them another first performance with his setting of Niall Campbell’s The Night Watch. It also sings Bach’s B Minor Mass, under conductor Richard Egarr, and Schubert’s Mass in A-flat.

Mezzo Karen Cargill joins the SSO and conductor Alpesh Chauhan for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and is the soloist for a Scottish Chamber Orchestra programme celebrating the Auld Alliance with France. The SCO’s big birthday line-up of soloists also includes percussionist Colin Currie directing an evening of Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe and Arvo Part, Steven Osborne playing Ravel and Pekka Kuusisto returning for three concerts, one in partnership with Emelyanychev.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti, whose first programme as director of Edinburgh International Festival is unveiled on Monday, plays the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the SCO at the end of the year and gives the much-delayed Scottish premiere of Mark Simpson’s concerto written for her with the RSNO next March.

Full details of all the seasons at sco.org.uk, rsno.org.uk and bbc.co.uk/bbcsso

RSNO / Sondergard

Perth Concert Hall

Where is the best place in Scotland to hear an all-Brahms concert by the national symphony orchestra? With Glasgow Royal Concert Hall out of commission, the intriguing choice for the RSNO’s “Festival of Brahms” was between the venerable vast Usher Hall in Edinburgh, the refurbished Glasgow City Halls, or the opening night of the run at Perth Concert Hall.

With the sort of attendance it deserves to see all the time, the newer venue turned out to be a sound choice. Although this was often full-fat Brahms, conductor Thomas Sondergard wringing some old-school emotional grandeur from the score of Symphonies 2 and 3, the acoustic of the house was never overwhelmed by the presence of 50 string players on the stage.

Rather, in fact, the physical relationship of the audience to the players seemed to play a part in the way Sondergard went about the job of making sure that every detail of Brahms music was heard – orchestral writing that was more radical than he is often credited – while still allowing Brahms-lovers to soak in the warm bath of his Romantic melodies.

The first movement of the Second Symphony, which was played after the interval, is one of the finest sound-pictures of a pastoral idyll, and it was sumptuous here, Sondergard finding the occasional darkness in what is some of the composer’s brightest music. There was a slight raggedness at the start of the Adagio, which may be why first cello Betsy Taylor looked a little surprised when the conductor brought her section to its feet at the end, but they and all the strings were generally on their mettle across the whole evening, ready to dig in for those big sweeping moments, but never missing the precision the music requires.

Guest first horn Alexander Boukikov was also singled out for a bow, and deservedly so. His fine solo moments sat alongside excellent work from all five horn players, rhythmically as well as harmonically.

The Festival of Brahms began, of course, with the Academic Festival Overture, the composer’s acknowledgement of his Honorary Doctorate that has become one of his best-known works, and here serving as the template for Sondergard’s approach to balance, between the sections of the orchestra and finding both muscle and finesse. Although you would have to like Brahms a great deal to find out, it might have been interesting to hear how he modulated his forces in the very different environments of the other halls.

The conductor’s methodology was even more apparent in Symphony No 3, in the very deliberate pacing of the second movement, the dynamic gear shifts at the start of the finale and the work’s very measured finish. Chamber orchestras have perhaps made the running in Brahms symphony cycles in recent times, but Sondergard made the case for the composer remaining core repertoire for big bands.

Keith Bruce

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

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