Tag Archives: Thomas Sondergard

RSNO / Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

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.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Bruno Delepelaire

RSNO Combined Season


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

RSNO/Sondergard

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

There was no denying the enthusiasm that the players of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and its Danish music director Thomas Sondergard, brought to their first live concert in their home venue in well over a year. As the conductor said before he lifted his baton, it was his treat to hear applause from a present audience, but also an important truth that any amount of individual practice only becomes meaningful with an audience in the hall.

The RSNO had chosen a tricky weekend to return, with the rival attraction of an England v Scotland football match for Friday evening in Perth Concert Hall and the televised finale of Cardiff Singer of the World on Saturday, but they did not have a huge number of tickets to sell. Weirdly, more listeners were permitted in Perth’s smaller hall (which had already pioneered post-pandemic live chamber music) than in the extravagantly-distanced seating on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

It was a chamber-sized edition of the orchestra as well, but what a brilliantly-conceived programme of vibrant, colourful music Sondergard had chosen for them to play. On the face of it, here were three relative rarities of 20th century French composition, works by Ibert, Francaix and Poulenc; in reality we heard a glorious, compact exploration of the capabilities of an orchestra, as a collection of individual soloists, sections of similarly-played instruments, and as an entire ensemble. If a Parisian PhD student is currently working on a thesis about the supremacy of creativity in that era, Scotland’s national orchestra played the executive summary.

With just 15 strings, six winds and brass, timps, percussion and piano – every part utterly essential – Ibert’s Divertissement is a picturesque excursion that suggests a multitude of pathways (some of them very melodically familiar indeed) and pursues none of them. It is a glorious virtuosic tease of a piece, in which many individuals have engaging moments in the sun, but there are also big ensemble statements.

Principal oboe Adrian Wilson has been one of the recent stars of the RSNO’s online season, and he stepped out in front of the orchestra here for Francaix’s L’horloge de flore, a concerto in all but name, and one that shares as much of its inventive scoring with the orchestra. There was certainly sparkling solo work from Wilson, but the bassoons were also very busy and there are a number of differently-built ostinatos to indicate the workings of the clock.

The concert culminated in Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, which demonstrates both the tunefulness of the Ibert and a brilliance of rhythmic writing that draws the listener compellingly into its narrative, and  featured a lovely solo turn from first trumpet Chris Hart in its penultimate movement.

Welcome back, RSNO. Let’s have more very soon.Keith Bruce

RSNO’s New Digital Season

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

Keith Bruce