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.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Edinburgh Festival residency was one of diminishing returns. Or to put it another way, what began with the invigorating and enlightening razzmatazz of Tuesday’s beanbag presentations, and continued with Wednesday’s energised Hungarian collaboration with the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls Choir, veered dangerously towards gimmickry for the orchestra’s valedictory appearance on Thursday.
It’s the BFO’s trademark to throw surprise and mischief into its performances, ideas that its reforming maestro Iván Fischer believes will “take the musicians closer to their audience”. While the placing of a split horn section raised either side to the rear made complete musical sense at the start of Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, where pairs of horns correspond antiphonally, the decision to bring each section successively to its feet in the closing moments of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, Duke Ellington-style, took us dangerously into naff territory.
It also seemed strangely at odds with the tenor of the German Romantic repertoire that dominated the evening. Der Freischütz survived unharmed, the horns back among the regular ranks once the point of their segregation was made, and Fischer pushing the momentum on to satisfy the rugged, grumbling rhetoric of Weber’s score.
Nor was there anything to necessarily rock the boat in the same composer’’s famous Violin Concerto, other than the somewhat mutable whims of the young Swedish-born soloist Daniel Lozakovich. There was no lack of technical assurance in his performance and moments where he beautifully extended the lyrical lines to sublime ends, but this was frequently undermined by rhythmic seizures that would suddenly thrust the tempo into overdrive, unnaturally so, surprising even Fischer and his orchestra in the process.
Nonetheless there were clear calls for an encore, Lozakovich obliging with the mesmerising acrobatics of Nathan Milstein’s Paganiniana – variations on the theme of Paganini’s most famous Caprice – and a steely virtuosity he had hitherto concealed.
Between the Weber and Mendelssohn, the BFO again reverted to emblematic unorthodoxy, discarding their instruments to form a choir and deliver a creditable rendition of Fanny Mendelssohn’s a cappella choral setting “Schnell Flihen Die Schatten Der Nicht”, the fourth song from her Gartenlieder. It was sweet and sentimental, reflected Fischer’s belief that “all instrumentalists benefit from singing”, and revealed in Felix Mendelssohn’s sibling a comparable compositional expertise. Nonetheless, it bore only a token presence.
There was nothing superfluous about the “Scottish” Symphony, Fischer powering it forward incessantly, but not without regard for its opening sobriety, the sun-filled nonchalance of the Scherzo, the Adagio’s tender expansiveness, and the heroic denouement of the finale. It may have seemed rough in places, a lack of refinement in collective woodwind contributions, but there was plenty fire and soul, and a self-belief clearly communicated by the inspirational Fischer to his receptive players, never more palpable than in the rip-roaring Dvorak encore.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra is not the only orchestra in the world to recognise that survival requires significant change. The key, of course, is how orchestras change. Some flirt with educational projects, others with the general staidness of traditional symphonic presentation, while others tinker in order to address funding whims. But few take the bull completely by the horns, rip up the rule book and think way out the box, as the BFO has done for decades under the radical leadership of its conductor Iván Fischer. A demo, effectively, on what it’s all about opened their residency at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Only the arthritic will have baulked at the beanbags littering the Usher Hall stalls, which turned out to be the best seats in the house for the purpose of Tuesday’s two related concerts. If there was a main gig, it was the later one, a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No 8 in which we beanbaggers could choose a position amidst or around the orchestra. It was itself scattered with Fischer standing centrally to conduct and compere simultaneously.
This approach, he said, is as much for the audience’s benefit as the players’. And sure enough, as observers we sensed immediately the electricity that sparked between sections or vying soloists, while the players, shooting winks and glances at some of us, seemed to revel in the closer contact. Near the start, Fischer stopped and sought our feedback. Faster or slower? Broody or brio? What do you reckon? He then proceeded to illustrate the consequences of the options. In his hands, interpretation is an open book, changeable at a whim.
Ultimately this Dvorak 8 was fascinating because it wasn’t a straight performance. There were several stops en route, Fischer asking the clarinets to think again about their melancholic response to a blissful statement by the flutes. “Imagine you are miserable street beggars,” he suggested. They duly obliged. If this was a snapshot of the orchestra’s regular demeanour, it must be fun to be a concertgoer in Budapest.
Importantly it was not a gimmick. Having seen the BFO rehearse and perform in other locations – recently in Mahler at the Royal Festival Hall – there is no question that the spontaneity of the preparation process feeds powerfully into the moment of delivery. While this presentation resembled something between an open rehearsal and a masterclass, it had a serious purpose, which was to say to us that we are all intrinsic to the concert experience.
For the earlier event, A Model For The Future, Fischer took centre stage with Festival Director Nicola Benedetti to discuss the wider policies of his orchestra, and his long-held belief that reform is critical in ensuring the long-term survival of the species. His own model has been that exposed by Pierre Boulez, which is to regard the orchestra as a pool of musicians who can either appear en masse or in various smaller contingents that reflect their particular enthusiasm.
Cue a bristling early music troupe, complete with sparkling recorder player, joined by a choir populated by others from the orchestra, which performed Monteverdi madrigals with stylish elan. Other integral ensembles took their turn: a steamy Argentine tango ensemble, a gritty Klezmer ensemble and a red hot traditional trio ramping up the momentum to a final of Romanian folk dance
Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen’s recent RSNO debut nearly didn’t happen, but she’s anticipating a smoother return to Scotland this week with her Iceland orchestra. KEN WALTON reports
These days, fortunes can turn on a sixpence. Last November, Finnish conductor Eva Ollikainen suddenly had to cancel her planned debut with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra when her son developed symptoms of Covid. “I was on the train to the airport when I checked the test results. They were positive. I had no option but to turn round and go home,” she recalls.
As luck would have it, the following week found the RSNO facing yet another last-minute cancellation, this time by its principal guest conductor Elim Chan. Ollikainen was now free and able to travel. “You’d never have known it was anything but planned,” wrote VoxCarnyx’s Keith Bruce in his enthusiastic appraisal of the hastily rescheduled debut. “It was great fun. I was so glad they asked me,” was the 41-year-old conductor’s own cheery verdict.
This weekend, she makes a welcome return to Scotland with her own orchestra, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, as part of its current UK tour. They’ll perform music by Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Anna Thorvaldsdottir on Sunday at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, with guest soloist Sir Stephen Hough in a repeat of the work he played only two months ago with the BBC SSO, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2.
Ollikainen succeeded Yan Pascal Tortelier to become the ISO’s first female chief conductor in 2020, only months after her predecessor had presided over the orchestra’s last Edinburgh visit. With Covid raging it wasn’t the best time to cement a new creative relationship, but Ollikainen reckons it had its positive spin-offs. “It made us a very tight team instantly. Circumstances were what they were, and we had to be super-flexible and super-fast in response.”
“One of the pros in being such a small country, and with us being Iceland’s only full-time professional orchestra, is that we negotiated directly with the government on what we were allowed to do at any given time, and with great success,” she says. “While the rest of society was only allowed to meet 20 people at a time, we could divide the stage in such a manner that brought 60 musicians together at a time. These groups of 20, three different sections, didn’t actually meet each other backstage. It was the same for the audience. We managed to have more audience than was actually allowed and we did everything very quickly.”
Other than that, she insists, getting to know the players and their ways has just been “really quite ordinary work”. “All orchestras undergo different moments of their development, but basically concentrate on the same things. We’re talking about sound quality, ensemble playing, about how much we dare, in the heat of a concert, leave space for certain emotion or how low we dare go with a dynamic. Some things are carefully rehearsed, but live performance still needs to have a fresh feeling to it.”
These are, of course, the issues that exemplify the chemistry of an orchestra and its conductor, and it’s a balance that will surely play a part in defining the success of Sunday’s Edinburgh programme, which pits the familiar sounds of two Russian warhorses (the Tchaikovsky is his well-worn Fifth Symphony) against the fresh Icelandic modernism of Thorvaldsdottir, the orchestra’s composer-in-residence, whose music RSNO regulars may just recognise.
Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos – a work written for the New York Philharmonic in 2018, which the composer herself likens to “a speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole” – was programmed as part of Ollikainen’s cancelled November RSNO debut. Rather than ditch it, her last-minute replacement, the versatile American conductor Jonathan Stockhammer, chose to go ahead, revealing a restless soundscape characterised by mystical turbulence.
“Anna has written a lot, not just for us alone, but as co-commissions which we are a fundamental part of – keen to be among the first to perform her music,” Ollikainen explains. “She has also started a composition academy for young composers, like a workshop where young Icelandic composers can show her their scores, get advice, and eventually have them played and recorded for archive by the orchestra. Next season, we’re having a big ‘Anna’ festival.”
Ollikainen is not the first Finn to exert her influence on the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Back in the 1990s, prior to his triumphant reign at the BBC SSO, Osmo Vänskä made his indelible mark as chief conductor. I asked her why Finland seems to breed so many top-ranking conductors. “There’s essentially one answer to that, Jorma Panula,” she responds, referring to her own teacher, the legend synonymous with single-handedly creating a world-leading conducting course at the Sibelius Academy that also spawned the likes of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sakari Oramo, Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Susanna Mälkki.
“Central to his method is an an understanding that what really matters in conducting is the personality,” Ollikainen believes. “He doesn’t try to castrate people’s personalities, but encourages them to be themselves, to believe in their own musical ideas. He’s very successful in helping you find you own path.”
With her contract now extended to 2026, does Ollikainen ever envisage the kind of legacy she’d eventually like to leave behind? “I can’t change, and don’t want to change, the personality of the orchestra. Every conductor has to realise, even if staying over a long period of say 17 years, that that is still going to be a drop in the ocean as far as history goes. You can leave something, a little bit, and the tree will have grown a little bit in one direction. Someone else will come along and make their own small changes. It’s an organic process.”
One area that does exercise Ollikainen’s thoughts, especially as a woman operating at the top of a once entirely male-dominated profession, is the need to focus on diversity, particularly in the repertoire she hopes to explore. “When I studied music history at the Sibelius Academy, if you even just spoke about female composers, Hildegard von Bingen was mentioned, then the next stop was Kaija Saariaho. That’s a gap of 800 years. There’s a great chunk of knowledge we need to fill.”
She adds a word of caution, however. “That has to be done sensibly, not as a panic reaction. The most important thing is that we have equal opportunities for composers today.”
Eva Ollikainen conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Sunday 23 April, 3pm. Full details at www.usherhall.co.uk
Whatever the full house in Edinburgh’s big hall came for on Friday evening, they surely got it in spades. It may have ended at a very respectable half past nine in the evening, but the music began at 6pm, with the RSNO providing a showcase for young musicians from St Mary’s Music School as it marks its 50th birthday.
The pre-concert concert stole a march on the symphony orchestra by having an opening just as sonically bold as the Ligeti we would hear an hour-and-a-half later, as sixth former Carlo Massimo let loose the might of the Usher Hall organ on Olivier Messiaen.
That was a precursor to a varied bill of chamber music that included a senior string quartet playing a movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, but shone in the duos. Those nearing the end of their studies at the school gave us Rautavarra (violinist Anias Kroeger and pianist Alexander Kwon) and Sorensen (fiddler Hester Parkin and Kirsty Grant on accordion), but the star turn was a Tchaikovsky Nocturne by first year cellist Paul Oggier and his attentive S3 piano partner Michelle Huang.
The RSNO’s opening salvo was the Prelude and Intermezzo from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, a rather grand title for the madcap fun of three members of the percussion section employing hands and feet to parp a dozen old-school bulb horns for a fanfare that, apparently, parodies Monteverdi.
It was a skilled, if bonkers, start, and the best joke was that it preceded Gershwin’s An American in Paris which famously features the same “instrument” to soundtrack the bustling traffic of the city.
There are fewer car horns required for that work, but they are as crucial as the trumpets, trombones and tuba in the overall sound of the work. This was an evening in which the brass section shone throughout the programme, first trumpet Chris Hart the most obvious soloist, but tuba player John Whitener, and trombonist Davur Juul Magnussen, doubling on euphonium, not far behind.
Making her debut as conductor, New Zealander Gemma New, whose grandmother was once an RSNO violinist, was the other crucial ingredient in the vibrancy of the music. A musician who clearly delights in the power and majesty of the symphony orchestra – and especially one garnished with extra instruments like saxophones – she drew superb work from everyone on stage.
Also making her RSNO debut was the night’s soloist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, and a dynamic duo the two certainly were on Gillam’s pair of pieces. Those came from the 1930s, in an exclusively 20thcentury programme: Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Strings and Milhaud’s Scaramouche, which has given Gillam the theme music for her award-winning Radio 3 show, This Classical Life.
The sax may have been in its early years as a soloist in classical music, but both are splendid virtuoso pieces, the Milhaud arguably having the edge in its application of the possibilities of the instrument.
Colourful though Gillam and her music were, there was even more to come in this busy night. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a popular work in any of its incarnations and the RSNO enhanced the Ravel orchestration with actual picture-making by artist James Mayhew.
If there was a suspicion that all this might become a bit much, all credit goes to conductor, musicians and to Mayhew, who made the whole thing work so well. The work was as varied, big and bold as it can be, and the artistic skill with which it was illustrated, in time with the score, was quite remarkable.
Using the titles from Viktor Hartmann’s works that the composer deployed in tribute to his friend, Mayhew created ten swift, literal, images of as much vibrancy and colour as the music. It was a multi-media triumph every bit as old-school as those car horns.
The only scheduled speaking from the stage on Friday night was at the start of the concert, when leader Maya Iwabuchi invited her former violin pupil and now featured young composer, Lisa Robertson, to introduce her premiering work, am fior-eun.
However, music director Thomas Søndergård could plainly not let the evening end without thanking the audience for turning out in such numbers and bringing such vocal enthusiasm. This was an Usher Hall filled to the rafters as the Edinburgh Festival would be delighted to see it, proving that the Celtic Connections festival at the other end of the M8 has no monopoly on January ticket sales.
If the music-lovers came out for the promise of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, they brought ears receptive enough to greet new music with cheers of appreciation.
Robertson’s piece may be briefer than the 19th century works that followed, but it is on no lesser scale. Selected from the harvest of the RSNO’s Composer Hub project, it glories in the opportunity to compose for a full orchestra with a score that swooped across the available talent onstage like the eagles near Robertson’s West Highland home that it depicts.
Here was music that not only realised every word of the composer’s eloquent statement of her intention, but was audibly made in collaboration with those now playing it, extended techniques from strings, winds and percussion included. That’s not to say that others will not want to play it – such a colourful depiction of the Scottish landscape is sure to find further performances – but that these musicians set the bar for those who follow them very high indeed.
It was also a perfect appetiser for what Søndergård and soloist Francesco Piemontesi had in store. In the way of current programme typography style shared by the RSNO and the BBC Scottish, there was an adjective on the cover of this weekend’s booklet: “Majestic”. It was no idle boast, because this was a concert that was all about making a big impression, as Lisa Robertson certainly had.
Piemontesi is a pianist who can tailor his performance to every occasion, and this was him giving it large. In collaboration with the conductor we heard Beethoven in all his majesty, and full of drama.
Did Søndergård overstate the transition into the Finale? Perhaps. But could he have asked the strings to push even more in the slow movement? Possibly also true. Certainly, there was no risk of the soloist being overwhelmed by the orchestra – Piemontesi was on fire from the first bar to the last.
The Brahms was just as epic, Søndergård drawing a clear distinction between how a full-sized symphony orchestra should play this music and more modest “period” interpretations, using bold fluctuations in tempo without sacrificing any precision. There may have been swifter Brahms symphonies, but few as rich.
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.
For the second of its Edinburgh Festival appearances this year, the Czech Philharmonic, under its St Petersburg-born music director Semyon Bychkov, turned its attention to a single, monumental symphonic statement, the gnarled psychological discourse that is Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.
This is the orchestra that once delivered the original premiere in 1908 under Gustav Mahler’s baton. He did so despite concern over its “less than first rate” capabilities. No such worries for Bychkov, whose tight-knit control over the modern Czech Phil on Sunday presented the 80-minute symphony in colourful, manic and ultimately propulsive light.
His eye was firmly set on the endpoint, a triumphant finale still bearing the savage twists that pervaded and unhinged (for the right reasons) the previous four movements, yet through which sufficient dazzling positivity emerged to shake off Mahler’s palpable doubts and demons. This was a cathartic moment, heroic Wagner-like grandiosity mixed with equal measures of Straussian opulence and intimacy, yet the sniper fire of acid modernism constantly threatening to sour that optimism. Here, the orchestra reached blazing heights, the final moments gloriously exuberant and exhaustive.
If the performance lacked anything to that point, it was the potential for greater derring-do. Any risk seemed to be all Mahler’s, orchestral colourings that verge on extreme surrealism, a harmonic battle field that pits minor and major as almost irreconcilable warring factors. Yet, while Bychkov chose to contain much of the wilder moments, his justification came in the controlled, explosive impact of the finale.
Nor did he underplay the most distinguishing features of this work: the dark, disturbing freneticism underpinning the opening movement, the spellbinding virtuosity of the first Nachtmusik (remember the 1980s’ Castrol GTX advert?), the sardonic eccentricity of the central Scherzo, that moment of limpid reverie, the second Nachtmusik, characterised by the mandolin and guitar.
This was never a Mahler 7 that centred its intentions on simply raising the roof. Instead, it was a performance of real substance, relevance, potency and intelligence, offering one of many viewpoints this ambiguous symphony is capable of inspiring.
If you haven’t heard the revelatory recordings of Stravinsky’s trio of famous Ballet Russes scores issued some years ago by the exceptional Le Siécles orchestra, performed on the same type of early 20th century French instruments these groundbreaking Parisian creations were first heard on, they are readily available. If you missed the real thing – a simply sensational Festival performance on Tuesday of The Rite of Spring under the orchestra’s founder and conductor François-Xavier Roth – you missed an absolute treat.
It was, without exaggeration, a knock-out. Where successive exponents have found virtue enough in The Rite’s unnerving, sidestepping rhythmic propulsion, the mystical primitivism of its Russian folksong derivations, or the cataclysmic violence of its harmonic friction, Roth not only brought these together in an electrifying display of utter completeness, but did so with intense, penetrating forensic insight.
The unrefined pungency of the period instruments, and the matching expertise of the players, added a further blood-curdling distinctiveness to the eviscerating frenzy of the performance, strengthened by Roth’s insistence on pinpoint precision and clarity of line. Every parameter had unquestioning purpose, the earth-shattering extremes of dynamic, even the prolonged dramatic silences during which the entire Usher Hall seemed to draw a collective breath. The final sign-off, like a killer blow, sent this audience into instant delirium.
It was an inspired piece of programming to precede this particular Stravinsky with Lili Boulanger’s Faust et Hélène, written the same year as the infamous succès de scandale of The Rite of Spring. It was also a reminder that the early death of Lili (younger sister of the influential Nadia, also a composer) in 1918 robbed French 20th century music of a hugely promising voice.
For Boulanger’s cantata, written at only 20 as a successful bid to become the first female winner of the much-coveted Prix de Rome, is a cauldron of rich and fertile musical ideas thrown around with seething impatience but ultimate theatrical assurance. It features three characters – Faust (the resplendent and impassioned tenor Julien Behr), Hélène (the softer, mellow-voiced Véronique Gens), and Mephistopheles (baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou) – and a musical language in the process of freeing itself from dominant influences, not least Wagner and Debussy.
Roth acknowledged its impetuousness in a busy, fiery, directional performance. But inevitably this occasion will long be remembered for A Rite of Spring that completely blew us away.
I wonder what the BBC Radio 3 audience made of the opening of the Dunedin Consort’s Queen’s Hall concert on Tuesday? The loose-limbed Toccata in D minor by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger may not have immediately registered with listeners only, but for those of us there, actually watching Elizabeth Kenny spin the arpeggiations from her theorbo, the overall experience was one of eloquence and restful appreciation.
Which sums up the overriding essence of this Dunedin Consort programme, devised by the starring tenor Nicholas Mulroy. It centred on that pivotal 17th century period in European music when the Renaissance gave way to the early Baroque, offering a sequence of representational songs punctuated by instrumental respite.
Even with relatively supercharged moments from Monteverdi – the invigorating ritornelli that elicited the sweet virtuoso duelling between voice and violins in Più Lieto Il Guardo – or in the exuberant instrumental Trio Sonata in C by Buxtehude, there was a stylish refinement that tempered the spirit of the delivery. It was late morning; no need to get too excited.
And it was all about good taste. Mulroy, who is now Dunedin’s associate director, explored shifting emotions with tempered insight. Where Monteverdi’s Salve Regina and Schütz’s O Misericordissime Jesu were filled with deep and thoughtful reverence, the former’s Et E Pur Dunque Vero was a radiant contrast to the gorgeous exoticism of his Nigra Sum.
The group’s actual director, John Butt, kept a generous low profile on continuo, butting in, as it were, with a frisky solo harpsichord Capriccio by Frescobaldi. But the most dramatised music was left till last, Barbara Strozzi’s Lagrime Mie constituting a miniaturised cantata whose narrative course and deep sentiments found Mulroy in his fullest flow. It ended like a bookend to Kenny’s opening solo: soft, ruminative, sublime. Was I the only one tempted to tip-toe out?
In any typical year for the Edinburgh International Festival, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana would hardly be considered a genuine heavyweight opener to the Usher Hall orchestral series. Even for this historic 75th anniversary event, and in its more immediate relevance as the back-to-life adrenalin shot after two years of pandemic suppression, it is a cantata more generally regarded as a populist blast – to some extent the German composer’s one-hit wonder – offering more quick-hit than deep-rooted resonance.
It avoided that pitfall on two counts. This high-octane programme opened with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, affording a psychedelic wonderland of orchestra colouring, moments of seething harmonic adventure, and yes, its own brand of unadulterated thrill. The Orff, itself, had as its messenger the ravishing combination of the BBC SSO, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, NYCOS National Girls Choir and a glorious trio of soloists under Sir Donald Runnicles’ magisterial baton. No absence of emotional impact, then, but justified by its general excellence.
The Pines of Rome – a lustrous sequence of responses to Roman life set against the binding metaphor of the ancient trees that dominate its landscape, and one of the Italian composer’s trilogy of Rome-inspired works – is a stirring creation, its sound world reeking of Mediterranean warmth, historical mystery and sun-filled optimism.
As such, it was right up Runnicles’ street. He inspired a swashbuckling performance, red hot from the offset, a kaleidoscopic feast that explored every level of aural titillation from quietly succulent to feverishly terrifying. No more so than in the final moments, a seemingly limitless crescendo in which the gradual addition of rearguard offstage brass (spread liberally behind the dress circle audience) and the thundering might of the organ drove the decibel level to delirious heights.
This was adequate preparation for the primal force that is Carmina Burana. For so many of us, more used to the deliberately modest stage forces preferred in the recent exit-from-Covid months, it was a glorious sensation – the massed vision of the orchestra and choirs made all the more electrifying by the vivid combination of red-shirted NYCOS choir and black-clad adult choir and orchestra.
The singing was just as exhilarating, the wholesome precision of the Festival Chorus offset by the pristine projection of the youngsters, especially in such famously fervent numbers as Tempus est iocundum. Not every moment held perfectly together, with some panic-rushing by the men near the start and moments of under-projection from the women, but the sheer vocal ebullience that spilled out from the stage, and from the resplendent SSO, was mesmerising.
Then there was the tastiest icing on the cake from three perfectly-matched soloists, the soprano Meechot Marrero, tenor Sunnyboy Dladla and baritone Thomas Lehman, whose theatrical antics brought a lascivious edge to what were already riveting musical presentations. Marrero and Lehman hammed up the Cours d’Amours no end, flirting mercilessly in the process. Dladla, too, realised the dramatic potential in his caricature Roasted Swan showpiece.
It was exactly what the doctor ordered, intoxicating escapism to wash away the prevailing gloom and welcome joy, mindless or not, back into our lives.
Violinist-turned-conductor András Keller tells KEN WALTON about the Hungarian orchestra he has reshaped and renamed.
There’s a force of nature winding its way north this week and due to descend on Edinburgh at the weekend. It’s not a much-needed summer heatwave. Prepare instead for Concerto Budapest. According to at least one review of its first ever UK tour, this relatively unknown orchestra is hot stuff. “Virtuosity was turned to emotional ends,” wrote the Times critic of last Monday’s tour opener in London’s Cadogan Hall, which has subsequently progressed to Guildford, Basingstoke, Birmingham and Manchester.
It’s a solid, powerful and popular programme that conductor András Keller and his 80-strong band will repeat in their final concert at the Usher Hall this Sunday, amply framed by Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Mozart’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A, K488, and soloist Angela Hewitt, in the middle. But the questions many may be asking are: who exactly are Concerto Budapest; and isn’t Keller that eponymous lead violinist of the Keller Quartet?
The answer to the latter question is yes. After a successful career as a concert violinist and founder of his own string quartet, Keller turned to conducting with the opportunity in 2007 to become artistic director and chief conductor of what was then the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, now destined to become, under his leadership, Concerto Budapest.
Why the name change? It was, says Keller, an essential rebirth brought about by the need to resist artistically damaging commercial pressure. Two years after he joined the orchestra, its former sponsor, Hungarian Telekom, withdrew its support. “They changed their image and began supporting more popular musical styles than classical music,” he explains. “The ensemble was on the verge of collapse, followed by a long period of existential uncertainty – the musicians worked for ten months without pay. Both they and I made enormous sacrifices for our survival.”
Eventually the government stepped in and took over the funding and Keller set about rebuilding the orchestra. “The ensemble wasn’t in particularly good shape, going downhill. I simply started to relearn with them the entire repertoire: in the first two years, Haydn’s symphonies and Mozart’s piano concertos; then we moved on to Beethoven. I am convinced that all symphony orchestras must stand on the foundation of the Classical period. You can only build on that.”
And built on that it has. Well-respected for its refreshed vision of the classics, but armed also with equal recognition for its all-round mastery of the wider repertoire, not least its close championing of the music of Hungary’s foremost contemporary composer György Kurtág, Concerto Budapest is beginning to make waves around the world. The current UK tour follows previously successful visits to East Asia and France.
For Keller, his mission hasn’t just been about repertoire. During his 15 years with the orchestra his prime focus – as you’d expect from a player steeped in the rarefied intimacy of the string quartet world – has been on developing a distinctive sound. “One of my goals is that instrumental music should sound like a single human voice through the many hearts and one unified soul of our musicians. If an eighty-member orchestra can play with one heart and one soul, it will be an extraordinary ‘transfiguration’ of music.”
Transfiguration is a term readily applicable to the two big orchestral works in Sunday’s programme, even one so familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth. “The very fact that it’s maybe the best-known of all compositions ever written makes it an even greater challenge for each and every one of us. It gets at us. I sincerely hope that our performance will contribute something valuable to the piece’s history.”
As for the Bartók, who better than a spunky team of Hungarians to tell it as it is, to put this colossal 20th century figure in pertinent historical context. Every time we play Bartók’s Concerto it is undoubtedly a tremendous musical feast for me,” says Keller. “I regard Bartók as Beethoven’s successor, and the Concerto and its ideal are an equal to Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, as it articulates similar ideas regarding man and the world.
“Let me quote Bartók himself on this: ‘My main idea, which dominates me entirely, is the brotherhood of man over and above all conflicts… This is why I am open to influence by any fresh and healthy outside sources, be they Slovak, Romanian, Arabic or other’.”
To have had Angela Hewitt as soloist in the Mozart – Edinburgh audiences know her refined, articulate style well – has, for Keller, been a mutually creative experience. “I particularly enjoy working with soloists with whom I don’t need to have lengthy discussions on the essence of the piece, where we can organically tune into each other and enrich one another in the performance. Angela is one of these artists.”
As one who once exclusively inhabited the performance arena, what was it that drove Keller to pick up the baton instead of the bow? “Most probably, such thoughts had been ripening in me subconsciously for quite some time,” he recalls.
“As a musician, I felt that I wanted to experience a wider spectrum of music than string quartets, which are wonderful in themselves, but I had always been deeply interested in the symphonic repertoire too. Since I had acted as a soloist, a chamber musician and the concertmaster of various great symphony orchestras, this change had a well-grounded personal musical history.”
While he still performs with his Keller Quartet, conducting is now number one preference for the 61-year-old. “To be frank, or rather I feel that in a certain sense, it is easier to lead a symphony orchestra than a string quartet. One thing is for sure: my past in chamber music greatly influenced my notions of the performance style of a symphony orchestra.”
Scots, should they venture to the Usher Hall on Sunday, can test for themselves how well he has succeeded.
András Keller conducts Concerto Budapest as part of the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics series on 12 June at 3pm. Details at www.usherhall.co.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