RSNO: Gomez, Sunwoo (Usher Hall:10 Nov.’17)

Yekwon Sunwoo
Photo: Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

“Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars Outstanding


I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in concert programming, often successfully juxtaposing contrasting yet somehow complementary works. Friday’s concert was to be a full blown Romantic affair in the Russian 20th century genre starting with the exquisite and rarely performed Vocalise, but, alas, illness, so common in the concert world at this time of the year, forced a programme and artist change. No Vocalise. Instead, we got Zulu, by British composer Daniel Kidane (b.1986). Quite a change.


Yet after the initial upset there was no room for disappointment. Jose Luis Gomez stood in for the indisposed Christian Macelaru at the last minute and arrived from America with a score of the symphony in his pocket. “Who doesn’t travel with Shostakovich 12?” His credentials were impressive, Assistant to Paavo Jarvi at the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 2010 winner of First Prize in the Solti Conducting Competition. Currently he is Music Director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.


Prize winning credentials were also the order of the day for piano soloist Yekwon Sunwoo, prizewinner at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and the programme change from Rach 2 to Rach 3 was in fact a welcome change from the much played second concerto to its slightly less well known, but in every other way equal sibling.


So on to the playing. Zulu was five minutes of noise. Enthusiastic brass playing, well orchestrated, good rhythm and momentum. Composer Daniel Kidane has studied at the Royal Northern, Royal College and privately at St Petersburg. The work was chosen from his participation in the RSNOs Composers’ Hub. It was a conceptual stretch to include it in the programme, but it made for a lively opening.


Next up was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor. I have seldom heard this work played so well, certainly not in the hands of a 21 year old. Sunwoo’s opening was utterly assured in its relaxed confidence, disposing of the keys with easy liquidity so that we were leaning forward in our seats to capture every nuance of interpretation. As the first movement Allegro ma non tanto developed so did Sunwoo’s attack, holding nothing back yet stopping way short of pastiche. You do not have to wear Rachmaninov on your sleeve to get the best out of of it. The RSNO accompanied him with playing that was glorious in its phrasing and intensity. The work has long solo and barely accompanied passages, not exactly cadenzas, but close. Time and again Sunwoo nursed and coaxed freshness of interpretation from this well known, much loved piece. Notwithstanding 45 minutes of bravura playing we were treated to an encore. The quiet and restful interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song from the Seasons lasted a full five minutes bringing the dramatic first half of the evening to a relaxing, introspective close. If you don’t know it, find it here on You Tube.


The second part of the evening was an assured, storming interpretation of Shostakovich’s 12th Symphony The Year 1917. Written in 1961 when Shostakovich was still not out of the political woods it is obviously a political work but without taking anything away from its inherent musicality. “Revolutionary Petrograd” started with typically haunting, bleak cellos and basses suggesting barren topographical (and political) landscapes full of desolation and foreboding before being joined by the upper strings in a more purposeful and positive timbre. Played continuously for 40 minutes the demanding work gave the whole orchestra, from expertly played woodwind soloists to stunning percussion, the opportunity to give the best possible account of themselves, which they did. The work built up though tableaux such as “Razliv” (Lenin’s revolutionary headquarters), “Aurora” (the battleship that fired the opening shots of the Bolshevik coup) and, finally the optimistically named “Dawn of Humanity” which was at least in musical terms a summation of all the themes that had gone before, and gave the orchestra the opportunity to demonstrate fluent, assured playing that whilst on occasions very loud, was never forced.


I have often said that one of the reasons live music is so exciting is the risk of failure. Here we had a last minute change of two out of the three pieces in the programme and a conductor no one had met or played under before the previous day. The result? Perhaps the most exciting and enjoyable concert I have been to this year. The RSNO continues to improve and impress




Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 10 November)

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