Søndergård’s Guide to the Orchestra

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Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall 

Saturday 24 November


To celebrate the Year of Young People, the RSNO performed a programme of  treats for what their celebrated conductor Thomas  Søndergård called “the young at heart”. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is known to all classical musically minded families in its narrated version as entertaining but a wee bit didactic. But here we were given the original concert version and Britten’s brilliant orchestration of Purcell’s sea shanty theme an interpretation that was as scintillating as it was instructive. The full-bodied opening statement was followed by each section of the orchestra in turn playing variations on the theme to show off their timbre and range, before the whole was re-built with the finale’s great fugue. But that only describes the form. What the RSNO and their conductor gave us was Britten’s playful catalogue of the almost infinite number of possible textural combinations between percussion, timpani, woodwind,brass and strings, played with terrific clarity. It was like being given a grown up version of what was written for the young, without any loss of the fun it has engendered since its first performance in 1946.

“Open the Eastern Windows” by Michael Cryne, winner of the RSNO’s 17:18 Hub New Work commission is unlikely to enjoy such longevity. On first hearing at least, his composition had no apparent form or discernible logic. With nothing for the mind to latch on to during ten minutes of agreeable sounds apparently proceeding solely via shifts in volume and tonalities, its première was a disappointment.  And then on came two grand pianos which were nestled together like pieces of a jig-saw, and twins Christina and Michelle Naughton to play Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos. The youthful and glamorous pair played the work with brilliance and enthusiasm, bringing out the exoticism and lyricism of the three contrasting movements, while the orchestra’s pleasure in performing this entertaining work with such sensitive interpreters of its shifting moods, was apparent.

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Another première brought a complete contrast of mood in “Ghost Songs”, a specially commissioned work for the year of Young People, from Gary Carpenter. The RSNO’s Junior Chorus gave a wonderful account of his sensitive settings of four poems by Scots poet Marion Angus, R L Stevenson’s “On Some Ghostly Companions at a Spa” and the folk ballad “The Wee Wee Man”. The composer exploited the quality of the children’s singing – not only their remarkable musicianship and beautiful sound – but also their nimble articulation and willingness to engage with the mysterious, spooky, amusing verses they were singing. This new composition will get many an outing over the years to come because its composer matched his forces and materials to express the qualities of the texts, and in so doing created a memorable musical experience for audiences of any age.

Last but by no means least, the final treat on this evening of treats was Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.  Originally written only for a private concert, the composer tried to get it banned from public performance, fearing, rightly, that its popularity would eclipse, for all time, his more serious efforts. The evident pleasure the Naughton sisters showed, during their energetic commitment to every nuance of the score, more than doubled the fun for the audience. The required chamber-sized ensemble played every creature with serious wit and flair, and the double bass soloist in The Elephant and cello in The Swan were superb. For the RSNO and their conductor it must have been a treat to fill a programme with works they hoped would have their audience leaving the concert hall smiling; and it worked. One caveat: an afternoon rather than evening concert would have brought many more youngsters to hear, and be inspired by, their contemporaries in the RSNO Junior Chorus.

Mary Thomson

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