Scotland’s own orchestras have been impressive throughout this 75th Edinburgh International Festival, and the trend continued on Tuesday with a thoroughly captivating Mahler’s Third Symphony courtesy of the RSNO, mezzo soprano Linda Watson, women members of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, the RSNO’s own Youth Chorus and the orchestra’s music director (soon also to become music director-elect of the Minnesota Orchestra) Thomas Søndergård.
If that proved an earth-shattering entity in itself, there was an added bonus, the world premiere of Sir James MacMillan’s For Zoe, a brief and eloquent tribute to the former RSNO principal cor anglais player, Zoe Kitson, who died earlier this year at the age of 44. In what must have been a extremely personal moment for the orchestra, MacMillan’s elegy, inevitably driven by a soulful and expansive cor anglais solo played enchantingly by current incumbent Henry Clay and enshrouded in a mist of ethereal whispering strings, served to honour its reflective intention.
It played a magical part, too, in programming our minds for the Mahler to come. In its gentle wake, and after a choreographed silence, Søndergård’s vision of the symphony emerged with persuasive patience and organic potency.
The opening movement is, itself, a monumental challenge, any underlying structural logic offset by the nervy extremes of its restless content, a seemingly incongruous series of frenetic mood swings. Yet, with the extended RSNO in thrilling form, such contradictions were the powerhouse of a thundering, directional triumph. The all-important trombone solo, cutting through the texture like an Alpine horn blasting from the highest peak, was a compelling presence, immaculately played by guest principal Simon Johnson, more normally seen in his home patch with the BBC SSO.
But there wasn’t one weak link in this line-up, its breathtaking commitment and precision furnishing Søndergård with the freedom to input insightful and energising spontaneity, not least in the sparkling allusions to nature in Part Two (the final five movements). Luxuriant ease characterised the wistfulness of the Tempo di Menuetto, like wild flowers wafting in an unpredictable breeze. Then to the “animals” of the friskier Scherzo, its rawer rustic charm offset by momentary bouts of nostalgia.
“O Mensch! Gib Acht” (O man, be careful), warns the mezzo soprano in the shadowier Nietzsche setting in the slow movement. Watson delivered this with weighing restraint, deliciously understated but not without an enriching warmth. As such, the sudden clamour of (real) church bells, the thrilling innocence of the children’s voices and the more cautionary adult chorus that embody the penultimate movement was like a brilliant sun suddenly bursting through a clouded sky.
If this performance began with a monumental philosophical statement, it ended with a truly cathartic one, Mahler’s ultimate, ecstatic expression of “the love of God”. Søndergård shaped this concluding movement with unstoppable conviction, from the soft-glowing, hymn-like sincerity of the opening to the bells-and-whistles euphoria of the final bars. Here, Mahler wallows in excess glitter and sentimentality so OTT you wonder just how much of a Hollywood hit he would have been had he lived later and felt the inclination to sell his soul to the movies. He certainly knew how to write a musical blockbuster.
RSNO music director Thomas Søndergård has been appointed as the new music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, succeeding Finnish conductor (and former BBC SSO principal conductor) Osmo Vänskä, who announced in 2018 that he would end his 19-year reign next season.
Søndergård will serve as music director designate throughout the 2022-23 season before assuming his new post in a 5-year contract that commences with the 2023-24 season. He is to continue in post at the RSNO where his current contract runs until autumn 2024. Commenting on his appointment to the 120-year-old Minneapolis-based band, he said: “My impression of the Minnesota Orchestra is that it is an ensemble with tremendous heart. There is a warmth, an openness and a cooperative spirit among the musicians that fits very well into the way that I like to make music.”
RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie offered a note of reassurance that the Danish conductor would sustain his relationship with the Glasgow-based orchestra. “It is a great privilege to work with him and we look forward to continuing to develop our programming and performances under his guidance.
“Having toured with Thomas across Europe and America we know how popular he is with audiences, which is a testament to the great connection he has with our musicians and staff. We are fortunate to work in an industry that embraces collaboration and the sharing of great talent, and I can’t wait to see what successes Thomas has in Minnesota.”
Søndergård will join the American orchestra at a key moment in its development. Ten years ago, Vänskä briefly resigned from the post amid a contractual fight between the Minnesota management and its players, siding with the latter in a bitter dispute. His action precipitated a speedy resolution and he was reinstated, thereafter leading the orchestra to Grammy-winning heights.
A statement from Minnesota’s president and CEO Michelle Miller Burns underlined her belief that Søndergård is the right man to carry that success forward. “We were deeply impressed by the connections Thomas has made and the commitment he has shown to the orchestras that he has previously led,” she said.
“He understands the many dimensions of being a music director, including the need to curate imaginative seasons for wide audiences, to bring out the best in musicians and to galvanize the community with an artistic vision. He showed really keen interest in Minnesota and the ways in which we are broadening our programming to include more diversity in composers, creators and artists. His approach is a good fit for our collaborative leadership model. He has the qualities of a great musical leader.”
Søndergård next appears with the RSNO at the Edinburgh international Festival on Tuesday 23 August conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony. In September he will lead Nicola Benedetti and the RSNO in the BBC Proms premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto. He opens the 2022-23 RSNO season with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on Fri 30 Sep (Edinburgh) and Sat 1 Oct (Glasgow). Full details at www.rsno.org.uk
The vicissitudes of Covid (specifically me catching it) meant taking the digital streaming route to the closing concert of the RSNO season, and that proved to have its compensations, if it was still a poor substitute for being present in the hall.
These revolved around the new work in the programme, Our Gilded Veins, Jay Capperauld’s concerto for the orchestra’s popular first flute, Katherine Bryan. Not only does the concert footage available online come with an introduction to the work by the composer, the performance is followed by reflections on it by the soloist – all very helpful with a brand new work.
Helpful, but not absolutely essential, because this is a very approachable piece that may well be the one to lift the young composer another few rungs up the ladder of international recognition. Only the very finest flautists will be technically equipped to play it, but all the best ones will surely want to add it to a concerto repertoire that is far from extensive.
Postponed because of the pandemic, Capperauld and Bryan have been working together on the piece for more than five years and that shows in the maturity of the writing for orchestra and soloist, and the way it is tailored to her voice. There is little that is fey and wistful in Bryan’s rich tone – she wants her instrument to be competing with the strings, brass and percussion for solo attention, and Our Gilded Veins is all about turning deficiencies and limitations into attributes.
The composer’s plan of the concerto may be that it journeys from sharp-edged fragments to ensemble unity – a percussive climax followed by a sequence of musical dawns on the lower register of the flute and then the whole orchestra – but Capperauld’s cacophony is still melodious and his resolutions far from placid, even a little bit funky.
While Our Gilded Veins is a terrific showpiece for the soloist, it is also a demanding work for the orchestra in its different rhythmic pulses and has some magnificent widescreen string and brass writing.
Once scheduled as a season-opener, the concerto came to rest in the season finale company of Beethoven’s Choral symphony, in which the RSNO Chorus were on especially strong form, most singing from memory, and the sopranos producing a united ensemble in those top notes from the start.
To my ears the four soloists – Eleanor Dennis, Stephanie Maitland, Benjamin Hulett and Bozidar Smiljanic – did not blend as well as one might like, but the bass-baritone began the Ode to Joy in superb robust style.
Conductor Thomas Sondergard had given an early indication of the crisp, sharp style of playing he wanted from the orchestra in the opening of Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, which began the orchestra’s programme, and that was especially evident in the symphony’s epic Scherzo movement.
The concert was prefaced by the RSNO’s contribution to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in a solo performance of Diu Regnare (Long to reign), a pipe tune commissioned from Stuart Liddell for the occasion and played here by Finlay MacDonald. Apparently the short piece was played a remarkable 5000 times around the world last weekend.
Concert available online until June 30: rsno.org.uk
As the RSNO launches its first full season in two years, KEN WALTON sounds out the dynamic duo behind its conception
To sit down with RSNO Music Director Thomas Søndergård and Chief Executive Alistair Mackie is to witness first hand the sharp collective minds that are shaping an exciting future for the Orchestra as it emerges from the frustrations of Covid.
Central to their shared vision is ‘trust’. ‘It’s a two-way conversation,’ says Søndergård, who values any opportunity to sit down with his players, listen to their ideas and concerns, and impart his own in return. Mackie, for his part, is fully behind that approach. ‘Every single one of us in this great organisation holds a personal responsibility for shaping its success,’ he believes. ‘Meaningful dialogue is essential in making that happen.’
Such an approach was always in Søndergård’s sights. ‘One of the things I really wanted to do differently, when moving from being Principal Guest Conductor to becoming Music Director, was actually to meet the musicians eye to eye,’ he explains. He initiated these conversations, firstly with individual principal players, but always with a long-term intention of widening that ‘to everyone involved in “the project”.’
‘That’s what happens out there in society. We started doing this here before the pandemic, but when it hit we weren’t even allowed to be in the same room. So we couldn’t continue those talks, which I find so important in terms of actually developing a dialogue about what ensemble playing is, and not just about players coming through the door in the morning, getting through the music, then going back home. The joy of playing comes from the trust that we have together.’
The real test, of course, is how such behind-the-scenes personal development translates into what audiences ultimately witness in live RSNO performances. That’s not a challenge lost on either Søndergård, a former timpanist, or Mackie, himself a former top-ranking orchestral player.
In the forthcoming Season, which marks the midpoint in Søndergård’s second three-year contract as Music Director, the emphasis, he says, will be on moulding the sound of the Orchestra, and the principal vehicle for that will be the symphonies of Brahms, all four of which will feature as a core integral series spread over the latter half of the Season.
Why this obsession with sound? ‘When I talk to the players we inevitably get round to discussing the things that are really key to the ensemble, and central to that is the quality of the collective sound,’ he explains. ‘For me, Brahms is number one for that, and it so happens that when the pandemic hit, and I realised I was not going to be doing very much conducting, it was to Brahms that I instinctively turned for in-depth study and quiet contemplation.’
Søndergård took the Third and Fourth Symphonies to his seaside home near Copenhagen, where it became clear to him that this was a composer he simply had to revisit. ‘I’d left him aside for a while, but here I was suddenly falling passionately in love with this music. I’d forgotten how beautifully he writes.’
But is there anything new he can bring to a composer that Scottish audiences have plentiful experience of, in a country whose main orchestras have tackled the symphonies from numerous interpretational angles? Views have differed over the years on the appropriate size of orchestra, the quantitative relationship between wind and string numbers, the style of playing (some conductors even prescribing no string vibrato) and such basic defining issues as tempi.
‘This will be no revolution,’ he insists. But it will be a product of serious consideration and informed preparation. ‘I want to present a broader Brahms to our audiences, not necessarily in the way I first conducted these symphonies, which was to adopt a Schumann-like approach with more flow and not so heavy a German tradition. I don’t know if it’s the grey hair, but now I actually want to sink into the music and see if there’s a reason for that luxurious tradition, that expansiveness.’
If Søndergård’s motives for programming the Brahms are as much about personal choice as about being good for the health of the Orchestra, Mackie is focused on the bigger picture and its strategic justification. ‘I see Brahms as a once-in-a-decade reset for the Orchestra, particularly as a yardstick in recalibrating the rich ensemble sound. The same can be said of Bruckner and Schumann, which also put an orchestra under the microscope in that particular way.’
Mackie is also keen to emphasise the excitement and variety of a wider 2022:23 Season where the pre-pandemic scale of performance can be resumed. ‘It’s not just about the Brahms symphonies,’ he says. ‘We open with Thomas conducting Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the world premiere of David Fennessy’s The Riot Act, which didn’t happen last year due to Covid.’
He’s also capitalising on the potential celebrity options a piece like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto presents. ‘We have an all-star team of soloists for that,’ Mackie reveals, rhyming off the dream team of violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, two of whom will perform, in the same May programme, a separate piece with the RSNO Youth Chorus.
Indeed, thinking out of the box is something Mackie believes is essential in ensuring the RSNO maintains its freshness, vitality and edge. And he’s prepared to go beyond traditional orchestral programming patterns and proprietorial grounds to do so.
It involves capitalising on the investment made last year in adapting the main rehearsal auditorium as a state-of-the-art recording facility for movie soundtracks, and reaching out to smaller, specialist music ensembles in Scotland with offers of creative collaboration, all with a view to increasing the experience, creativeness and versatility of his own players.
When the amazing, multi-talented Jörg Widmann returns in October for the first of two Season appearances, he will perform his own clarinet concerto Echo-Fragmente, postponed from last Season, and written somewhat challengingly for two orchestras: one modern; the other period-instrument Baroque.
‘The intention last year was to make it work by simply dividing the RSNO, but when reprogramming it I thought, why don’t we do this with the real thing? So we’ve brought in the Dunedin Consort to partner us,’ Mackie reveals. ‘That’s given rise to plans for a more extensive three-year partnership we’re now developing with Dunedin.’
Other new collaborations are emerging linked to the parallel season of chamber music concerts planned for the new Season, including groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble. Mackie and Søndergård are determined ‘to find a new way’ that will ultimately pay dividends for the RSNO as an artistic powerhouse and for its players.
‘In the long term, we have a vision of a really dynamic group of players, who can do film scores one day, a classical recording the next, while still maintaining top-class live performances at both symphonic and chamber level,’ says Mackie. ‘Then think of the benefits when we take all that quality into schools as part of our educational programme.’
To a great extent the RSNO’s expanding horizons were fuelled, not hampered, by the pandemic. It was well ahead of the game in initiating the online delivery of streamed performances to potentially global audiences. ‘Through Alistair’s insistence, the world now knows so much more about us,’ says Søndergård. ‘We’ve become very proactive at getting things out there, and it’s got to stay that way.’
Again, he turns back to player empowerment, mutual trust, as the fundamental driver of such ambitions, which has played its part in producing so many powerful and moving RSNO performances in recent times.
‘Often in rehearsals now, I just stop conducting. I don’t need to explain everything anymore. When we played Rachmaninov a few weeks ago I just went into the room and let them play a whole movement without me. That’s when real magic happens.’
(This article is also available in the RSNO 2022-23 Season Brochure. Full concert details for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth and Dundee available at www.rsno.org.uk )
Launching a new season brochure of familiar shape and style, but with a few special ingredients, RSNO chief executive Alistair Mackie told the orchestra’s loyal patrons last night: “It is important to recognise that, despite the challenges faced over the last two years, with the help of our supporters we have accomplished a lot.”
That means that alongside a 19-concert season, which includes eight under the baton of music director Thomas Søndergård, the RSNO continues to embrace the possibilities of digital streaming of concerts and pursuing learning and engagement goals through online means. Its other performances of film and video game music, in partnership with Children’s Classic Concerts, and involving the young musicians from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and the Sistema Big Noise music education projects are also present and correct, as are the matinee and chamber music performances in its own hall in the RSNO Centre next door to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
Søndergård has chosen to focus on the music of Johannes Brahms, which he studied closely during the pandemic lockdown. In the first months of 2023 the orchestra will perform all four of his symphonies, as well as the Academic Festival Overture. The First Symphony arrives last, at the end of May, as part of an All-Star Gala that teams Nicola Benedetti, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Benjamin Grosvenor to play Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.
That concert – tickets for which are certain to fly out of the door as soon as they go on sale – also features the last of next season’s “Scotch Snaps” performances of pieces by composers living in Scotland, with Errollyn Wallen’s Inherit the World. Subscribers can book from April 29 and general booking opens on June 6.
Another, postponed, “Scotch Snap” – David Fennessy’s Riot Act – features in Søndergård’s season-opener, alongside Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, followed the next week by the RSNO debut of harpsichordist Mahan Estafani playing the new concerto by Paul Ruders, which the orchestra co-commissioned. He is the first of a star line-up of keyboard players working with Sondergard over the season, which also includes Francesco Piemontesi playing Beethoven’s Emperor and Leif Ove Andnes with Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.
Principal guest conductor Elim Chan teams up with pianist Steven Osborne for Mozart K414 in a programme that also includes Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and with the season’s Musician in Focus, clarinettist, composer and conductor Jorg Widman, for her earlier concert at the end of October this year. That concert is also the first to feature Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort, beginning a three-year partnership between the symphony orchestra and the award-winning ensemble. In 2023 the Dunedin has two concerts in the RSNO Centre, and the Hebrides Ensemble will also appear there under the auspices of the RSNO, with the music of Widman on the bill.
The RSNO Chorus, now under new director Stephen Doughty, closes the season with Verdi’s Requiem in June 2023, and will also give the Sir Alexander and Lady Veronica Gibson Memorial Concert on Armistice weekend this year with Britten’s War Requiem, both with Sondergard on the podium.
ll programme details for the 2022-23 RSNO Season at rsno.org.uk
Read Ken Walton’s interview with Thomas Søndergård and Alistair Mackie here
To the loudly-expressed delight of the German audience, conductor Thomas Søndergård announced the surprise of a world premiere at the conclusion of the third concert in the RSNO’s European tour.
For decades, this orchestra – alongside other Scottish ensembles – has dusted off John Fahey’s arrangement of Eightsome Reels as a traditional-music flavoured encore. When they played the piece in the United States, I described it as “bulletproof”, and it will remain so. Now, however, the RSNO has a new weapon in its armoury, courtesy of principal horn Christopher Gough.
In what might be compared to the sort of upgrade Formula 1 teams introduce midway through a Grand Prix season to give them a competitive edge, Gough has re-tooled the Eightsomes, using some of the screen-scoring skills he learned on a sabbatical on the Valencia campus of Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Gough’s re-boot, with its daring changes of pace and time signature, may be trickier to clap along to, but it is a more thorough demonstration of the capabilities of a full symphony orchestra, and this arrangement looks certain to become a familiar bonus at the end of RSNO tour programmes.
It also sat particularly well at the end of this one, which was a unique sequence of music on this tour. It had begun with a more established evocation of Scotland in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and the swelling melody of the sea at Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. Requiring smaller forces than the rest of the programme, it was distinguished by the punchy wind playing Søndergård demanded, and precision trumpets.
From then on, it was an all-Rachmaninov concert, a bold stroke of programming that only seemed a little too rich because the first movement of the composer’s Second Symphony would arguably benefit from a little editing.
Before that, French soloist Lise de la Salle played the Piano Concerto No 2, with which she had wowed the orchestra’s home audience last month. In her hands it is a work designed to demonstrate the literal meaning of the name of her instrument – the pianoforte as a machine that works for delicacy as well as raw power.
The famous opening bars have been played faster than she chooses to begin the work, but few players approach the dynamics of the score so deliberately. Every note counted and her lead was reflected in the contributions of soloists within the orchestra, notably again in the winds. Like Midori earlier in the week, it was to Bach that the soloist turned for her encore, describing his music as a “prayer for peace” to match the Ukrainian ribbon she wore.
The second movement Allegro of the symphony – with the work’s best tune – swiftly rescued it from the slightly unfocused journey that the opening section becomes, and with leader Maya Iwabuchi contributing a lyrical solo, the slow third movement was followed by a thoughtful pause before Sondergard launched the party of the Finale.
It is not just onstage that this tour has had to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. Covid has meant a last-minute shuffling of responsibilities in the admin team as well, while post-Brexit regulations mean that the RSNO’s instrument trailer is hooked up to an Ireland-registered tractor unit with sub-contracted drivers. Somehow, the arrival of a brand-new encore work to energise the players and delight audiences seemed both appropriate and positively therapeutic.
Scotland’s national orchestra is blazing any number of trails on its Spring tour to Germany and Poland, and it is not betraying confidences to mention that there were those who had put huge amount of effort into making it happen who nonetheless had fingers crossed, and would have been unsurprised to see it collapse at the last minute.
At some point, however, the RSNO was bound to embark on its first excursion since the Covid pandemic and the changes made necessary by the UK’s departure from the European Union and it has succeeded in doing so at what is really the first available opportunity.
Because it is performing with two soloists, violinist Midori and pianist Lise de la Salle, that has meant more repertoire than might usually have been the case for six dates, and because musicians were still testing positive for Covid-19 up until the eve of departure, freelance players were still getting calls to ask if they were available to join the orchestra very late in the day.
Trumpeter Marcus Pope, who had been responsible for dressing his colleagues in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag a few weeks ago, is one of those now missing. His place has been taken by Cardiff-based Rob Johnston, while the unfamiliar faces in the strings include a British violinist now working in Berlin. From some angles, this is almost a barely recognisable RSNO – although in fact most of the key players are in their places.
After beginning in Coesfeld concert hall, where Midori’s Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was preceded by Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and followed by the Second Symphony of Rachmaninov, the second performance with the violinist teamed the Tchaikovsky with the quintessentially English fare of Walton’s Scapino, “a comedy overture”, and Elgar’s Symphony No 1.
As posters all over the neat Bavarian town testified, the visit to Erlangen by the Japanese-American star was a big deal, so it was gratifying for the RSNO players to see a saltire displayed by audience members in the gallery, signifying a level of appreciation for what looked like her “support band” on the publicity.
The Heinrich Lades hall is a multi-purpose venue that will also welcome the European tour of Glasgow’s Simple Minds in a few week’s time and its acoustic is not ideal for orchestral music, but the reception the packed auditorium gave to the Scots was wonderfully enthusiastic. Yes, the soloist was the star. She played the concerto with her usual consummate elegant stylishness – and she was cheered until she obliged with a Bach encore. But there was as much of an ovation for the orchestra, and they should surely have had their own encore ready to go.
The RSNO’s secret weapon here was the German member of the first violins, Ursula Heidecker Allen, who grew up in Augsburg in Bavaria and, as a veteran of many a pre-concert talk in Scotland, was an adept emcee in her native language. Rest assured that the humour in a Scottish orchestra playing mostly English music was not ignored.
And the Walton is indeed a fun work, and scored for a large ensemble, so a grand showpiece for a big orchestra on tour, while Elgar’s First Symphony may be his most singular, but in the way Thomas Søndergård shaped it there was clear evidence of the 19th century German influences on the English composer.
In a couple of week’s time, the RSNO will embark on its first overseas tour in over two years with its music director Thomas Søndergård, giving three concerts in Germany and a final one in the Polish city of Katowice. Last weekend’s home programme – music by Walton, Rachmaninov and Elgar – was something of a dress rehearsal.
Going by Saturday’s Glasgow performances, the European audiences should brace themselves for a wholly novel experience. It’s possible that Walton’s comedy overture Scapino and Elgar’s First Symphony will be completely new to them. But nor are they likely to have witnessed a Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2 so impulsive and refreshing as this was in the hands of French pianist Lise de la Salle.
She is a disarmingly powerful player. The opening solo chords came to life with timeless, volcanic immensity, thrillingly sustained as the movement proper got under way, de la Salle pummelling the bass notes to near breaking point and constantly side-stepping expectations with sudden bursts of lightning speed.
That certainly kept Søndergård and the orchestra on their toes. You could sense the crackling creative tension as they second guessed de la Salle’s next move, hitting the jackpot and finding their own illuminating new things to say, though just occasionally being taken too much by surprise. Even in the famous slow movement, which opened with dreamlike repose, de la Salle’s thoughts venture into heavenly, personalised territory. Anything less than a belt and braces finale would have disappointed. It didn’t.
Søndergård, for whom this Elgar is new territory, took an equally individual tack on the iconic English composer’s Symphony No 1. Indeed, it was decidedly un-English, and what seemed from the slowly affirming start like a probing, unpolluted exploration by the Danish conductor. There was less of the extravagant latitude, the ambling rubato, so beloved by its greatest British exponents.
Yes, that did cool some of the heart-wringing ardour, especially in the march-like opening, but in its place was an electrifying clarity that threw up new vistas and interrelationships, more the sprightly-tuned spirit of Mahler than six-cylinder Bruckner. Was the RSNO ready for this? Mostly so, as the wealth of colourful detail and the ultimate cohesiveness of the performance – the central movements pivotal as a yin and yang collective – invariably proved.
The launch pad for the entire programme was Walton’s Scapino, and as the titular allusion to the skylarking Commedia dell-Arte hero suggests, it is a bundle of mischievous fun. There was immediate razzmatazz in this performance, driven by dazzling rhythmic twists and the exuberant omnipresence of Walton’s signature smirk.
The RSNO’s forthcoming European Tour (3-9 April) will also feature Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (soloist Midori)
Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s mesmerising performance of Stravinsky’s pyrotechnic Violin Concerto in D with the RSNO last weekend will surely go down as one of the musical highlights of the year. The Moldovan-born violinist is an out-and-out entertainer who couples effortless technical wizardry with the red-hot stage charisma of a rock star.
Stravinsky’s Concerto, a gauche and febrile display of explosive neoclassicism, requires a stage entrance to match, and Kopatchinskaja’s was the whole package. Barefooted, dressed in an exotic creation, her first chord struck an unquestioning authority from which conductor Thomas Søndergård and the orchestra took a firm lead.
Even when she wasn’t playing, Kopatchinskaja’s physical presence was eye-catching and centre stage, bobbing and jiving to Stravinsky’s edgy rhythms. It was a performance that feverishly illuminated the music’s freneticism, one minute grotesque and anarchic, the next darting and artful, at times even reflective and sensual. The encore – an imagined cadenza for the Stravinsky – ended as a virtuoso duel between Kopatchinskaja and RSNO leader Sharon Roffman.
With such a tour de force completing the opening half, it was easy to forget that the evening had opened with the world premiere of Carlijn Metselaar’s Into The Living Mountain, written by the Edinburgh-based composer as winner of the RSNO 2019-20 Composer’s Hub Scheme. Based on Nan Shepherd’s eponymous book about her experiences climbing in the Cairngorms, Metselaar captures the landscape’s shifting moods – its mysteries, its beauty, its dangers and austerity – within a well-crafted, free-flowing score.
Søndergård, in a neatly-textured reading, also drew on the music’s slightly archaic charm, a nod to early 20th century modernism in the rawness of its big themes, some of which could so easily attach themselves to a Hitchcock film.
The fullest forces were reserved for the concert’s second half and the all-consuming passion of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2. If Søndergård chose to conduct this without a baton purposely to delicately handcraft it, he made his point. There was a sensuousness throughout, spaciously affirmative in the opening movement, joyous and radiant in the second, breathtakingly lyrical in the Adagio, and brilliantly conclusive in the finale.
It is a matter of small debate whether Igor Stravinsky was Diaghilev’s third choice for The Firebird for his Ballets Russes, or the fourth composer to be asked. It is also a score that shamelessly plundered the work of others, not solely folk sources and Rimsky-Korsakov, but also Scriabin and Debussy. All of that is by-the-by, however, when one of the best showcases of the range and power of a symphony orchestra is played with the precision and panache that the RSNO displayed under music director Thomas Sondergard at the climax of their season-opening programme.
If the source of the ingredients is not an issue in a work that is quintessential Stravinsky – music that established his name and precipitated his move to Paris, where it was first performed – the opportunity it presents as one of the concert hall’s most exciting prospects is undiminished. The clarity of the playing across the whole ensemble here, from leader Maya Iwabuchi to the trio of off-stage trumpets, was exemplary. Sondergard’s command of the tempo gradations and dynamic variations of the work was masterly, in a performance that was by turns both hugely moving and terrifically exciting.
Even better, it came at the end of a genius programme that progressed by delicious increments toward the symphonic ballet score. The concerto element at the end of the first half was Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, with the first cello of the Berlin Philharmonic, Bruno Delepelaire as soloist. A player of immaculate poise and fluency, he was matched by string ensemble that incorporated the elements of Baroque crispness and Romantic fluidity that the work demands.
The concert also had the luxury of two opening works, Shostakovich’s Festive Overture itself preceded by Matthew Rooke’s The Isle is Full of Noises!, a world premiere in the orchestra’s “Scotch Snaps” strand.
It is a little gem that is surely certain to be heard regularly, its folk themes predicting those in the Stravinsky later and its filmic quality close kin to to the Shostakovich that followed. The Festive Overture may have been music swiftly written for state purposes, a crowd-pleaser and perhaps Stalin appeaser, but the grand orchestration is of a piece with the whole tone of this evening – announcing the full-scale return of a mighty musical force.
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
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
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