RSNO: Sondergard, Piemontesi (Usher Hall: 5 Oct. ’18)

Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)

“The RSNO just gets better and better”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars:Outstanding

 

The RSNO Supporters’ Hospitality Suite was packed, the dress code considerably upscale, the auditorium full, save a few seats in the very furthest reaches of The Gods. It was opening night in Edinburgh for the RSNO 2018/19 season, and the induction of long time Principal Guest Conductor, 49 year old Dane Thomas Sondergard, as Music Director, who had celebrated his birthday the previous evening with this same programme in the Caird Hall, Dundee.

 

Expectations were clearly high and were not disappointed. We experienced an evening of real musical craftsmanship, the thoroughness, depth and preparation of the music expressed though a mixture of strong technical accomplishment accompanied by restrained, contained emotion which in this age of hyperbole made it all the more effective. Not so much “Less is More”, for there was plenty, but “thoroughness is all” rather than showmanship, particularly in the Mahler, where hearts were not worn on sleeves, but beat resonantly from within.

 

As is the RSNO’s habit, we were welcomed with a few words by a member of the string section, which in my mind achieves a helpful bond between players and audience.

 

We started the evening with a warm up, Lotta Wennakoski’s aptly named Flounce, a five-minute escapade that reminded me of a fairground ride and premiered at last year’s Proms under the baton of fellow Finn Sakari Oramo. Result? Good mood all round.

 

Piano already in situ so no delay for the next piece, except for a brief address from Sondergard himself, full of Scandinavian modesty as he spoke of his pride at becoming Musical Director after those seven years as Principal Guest Conductor.

 

Our soloist on the night was Francesco Piemontesi, perhaps best known as a proponent of Mozart and so, given the Mozartian nature of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos, and also his first two symphonies, was a profoundly logical choice.

 

As in many of his concertos, in his Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major Beethoven keeps you waiting for the soloist’s entry with a long introduction. When Piemontesi came in, it was a natural segue rather than grand opening, emphasising the synergy between soloist and orchestra that marks the best played concertos. With very strong cadenzas Piemontesi brought verve and precision to the music with the band in taut and timely response. There was a collective (but just about silent) “… aah” from the audience as the familiar third movement Molto Allegro brought us to the work’s conclusion. I would describe this performance as perfect.

 

We were treated to a thoughtful, unexaggerated interpretation of the well known Schubert Impromptu in A flat major before retiring for the interval, a work I suspect many of us have played in our time, but nowhere near as well as this.

 

The Mahler Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor was the work we had all been waiting for, a seventy-minute epic. And it was. One’s heart went out to the trumpet soloist opening the work whose first note had just a trace of uncertainty in its first moments but then delivered a masterly performance throughout the work. I suspect few noticed, and none cared, I certainly didn’t. This is all part of the bargain of live music. In fact the orchestra’s playing throughout this very long, demanding work, was exemplary. Huge contrasts in dynamics, avoidance of sensationalism (“It’s not as loud as you play it on the HiFi” my wife remarked), brilliant pianissimi between timpani and basses, joyous chucking of the theme from strings to brass, the orchestra never tiring through this musical and emotional marathon.

 

The fourth movement Adagiotto. Sehr langsam more commonly known as “The Adagio from Mahler’s Fifth” or, worse, “Theme from Death In Venice” deserves a paragraph to itself. It was a textbook example of how this movement should be played. First, it is an Adagietto, which means very slowly, and it was at a very slow pace –  indeed, the slowest I have heard – that Thomas Sondergard guided his players through an incredibly exposed piece of scoring, in which bow and breath control, depending on the instrument, are stretched to their physical limits. Abbado does it all in a couple of seconds over nine minutes, Rattle in nine and a half. I reckon Sondergard took us to nearer ten. The result was an achingly poignant, again understated but utterly compelling interpretation of this famous musical sketch.

 

The RSNO just gets better and better. If tonight is an example of what is in store for us in the coming winter and spring, we are in for a series of real treats.

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 5 October)

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SCO. Mazzola, Frang. (Usher Hall: 27 Sept’18)

Vilde Frang
Photo: Marco Borggreve/Warner Classics

 

“It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

A braw Autumnal evening met me as I walked across the Meadows to the Usher Hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2018/19 Season Opening Concert. The programme contained Nielsen and Sibelius and I braced myself for an evening of bleak Scandinavian forests, folklore and darkness.

I could not have been more wrong. It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.

Of course, Robin Ticciati was not on the podium. His replacement, Maxim Emilyanychev, was not either (he comes back next week), but instead Enrique Mazzola, Artistic and Music Director of the Orchestre National d’Isle de France and Principal Guest Conductor of Deutsche Oper in Berlin returned to take up the baton. Essentially a bel canto and opera conductor, how would he cope with this Romantic and late Romantic fare? He did fine.

The more I thought about the evening’s programming the cleverer I thought it was. How many of you have heard Sibelius’s third symphony? Two and Five, of course, but this was an interesting choice. Moreover, Nielsen is known principally for his symphonies and concerti, but an overture? Cleverer still was the positioning of the star attraction, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, along with the soloist of the evening, Vilde Frang, in the second half. So often it’s a bit of a downer when the soloist goes home before the interval and the rest of the evening feels rather flat.

First off was Nielsen’s Helios Overture. Nielsen himself said that the work needed no introduction and indeed it was a predictable (none the worse for that) evocation of sunrise somewhat in the classical genre. After the pianissimo double basses, four horns braved the introduction and were just a tiny bit shaky on their damnably difficult to play instruments, so exposed. The orchestra very quickly found its feet with all sections playing confidently with some magnificent strings, wind and brass before it drew to a close as it had started, with pianissimo basses again. It was a pleasant relief to experience the audience sitting on their hands as Mazzola held up his hand to restrain applause rather longer than one might have expected. When it came, it was enthusiastic.

On to Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony in C. Who would dream of calling a Sibelius symphony “jolly”? But it was, and none the worse for that. In the first movement there was calling woodwind, responding strings, melodious horns, all at each other’s beck and call, ending with shades of the horn call of the 5th symphony. In the second we heard melodious flutes and unalloyed joy yet in the Sibelian mode. Come the third and a darker, sombre theme with nuances of Finlandia. A useful, unusual addition to one’s knowledge of this fabulous composer.

After the interval Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, written a hundred years earlier than the previous two works. Nielsen was of course a Dane, Sibelius a Finn and while Beethoven undoubtedly German his interpreter tonight was another Scandinavian, the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. Yet this was proving to be no Scandi Noir, Frang perhaps making the point by wearing a light coloured floaty dress rather than more conventional evening colours. The work has a long orchestral introduction and to be honest Frang looked a little spare as she awaited her entry, which she then executed extremely competently and was very much in charge for the rest of the performance as she drew a great deal of tone and volume out of her modern-ish 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The work is so well known there is little new for the music writer to contribute, save to say the performance was fresh, committed, with gusto, a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minute’s worth from start to finish.

Throughout the performance conductor Enrique Mazzola showed quiet authority and got everything he could and should have out of the works and the players, who responded only too happily. All done with the minimum of podium histrionics.

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 September)

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The Flyboys: A Postmodern Swing Sensation (Gilded Balloon @ Rose Theatre: 1-24th Aug: 22:30: 60 mins)

“The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

There’s been a huge rise in popularity of hybrid vintage/modern acts in recent years, with electro-swing becoming cool, and bands such as Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox selling out tours and racking up millions of hits on YouTube. Enter the Flyboys at the Fringe on the back of this trend, mixing up modern songs with a vintage 30s/40s twist.

Taking to the stage in coordinating waistcoats and spats, The Flyboys instantly ooze charm and fun as they launch into their cool rendition of Arctic Monkeys’ I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. With a swinging beat and smooth, intricate harmonies the foursome have a real likeability and set the tone for a fun evening of music with a twist. And what follows is a string of popular, up-tempo songs performed in the band’s trademark style.

These are four great singers, and while none of them possess a spine-tingling unique voice to dazzle as a soloist, the blend and balance of voices as a group is what makes each arrangement special and entertaining. And they make it look so easy and fun at the same time, beaming with smiles, busting some daring kicks and flicks, it’s amazing to witness the control and accuracy with which this group performs.

At times it verges a little too close to holiday park singing for me – with some very obvious, crowd-pleasing song choices, cheesy choreography and a few dad jokes in between ditties, but they are a really fun bunch and perform with pizzazz so such flaws seem unimportant on the great scale of what the night is. I’d certainly prefer more variety in the set list and more depth in the artistry – the group’s mash-ups in the second half of the set go some way to achieving this, and the painfully short a capella rendition of Etta James’ At Last shows that this group do have the potential to elevate themselves into a really classy band of musicians, rather than being about entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Overall, this is a good fun night with some fine singing, comedy and choreography, and even the sternest viewer will find it difficult not to indulge in at least a little toe-tapping. One to take your mum to.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 21 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Hitchcock’s The Lodger (artSpace @ St. Marks: 11 & 18 Aug: 22:15: 75 mins)

“A charming endeavour.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

If you’re a fan of silent films, Alfred Hitchcock, live music, and/or charming evenings of local talent, head down to St. Marks’ Church on Castle Terrace for this rewarding event. Instrumental group Gladstone’s Bag have returned for another year of live-scored entertainment, this time soundtracking Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 production The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog before your very eyes. The musical talent is impressive, the film is captivating, for what it is, and the artistry is a fine match and a pleasant alternative to crammed sweaty venues of the numerous Fringe acts one might find elsewhere.

There are only two performances of this live orchestration, reportedly so that each one is rehearsed to a T and the best it can be before showtime. This was apparent — the band was excellent and the instrumentation as entertaining as the film itself. The makeup of Gladstone’s Bag is a six-piece ensemble of piano, two violins, a flute, a clarinet, and a trumpet, and a theremin to boot. The pieces of music played were varied, with some classical compositions, some generic pieces from the 1920s era, and some from more recognisable composers such as Stravinsky — as explained in a helpful introduction, film music was not specifically meant for any particular film until well after The Lodger premiered, so the eclectic variety of the pieces that Gladstone’s Bag performed is reminiscent of how a 1927 screening may actually have sounded. Certain pieces held names as amusing as “Intensely Dramatic Scene”, which did the pulpy intrigue of Hitchcock’s serial killer story justice.

The film itself is very Hitchcock, and though at times it drags slightly, it is imbued for the most part with the same charm, wit, and technical skill he became famous for. As the bodies pile up and the protagonists twist and turn around each other in his signature fashion; it makes perfect sense why Alfred himself, though The Lodger was his third feature film, considered it the first “Hitchcock movie” of his career. 

Overall, this is a charming endeavour, with a pleasant setting and a moving orchestra, and a unique take on a Fringe Saturday night experience. It is not for everyone, but I am sure everyone would find something to appreciate, if not in the silent-film-era aesthetic then in Gladstone’s Bag’s gripping musical skill. See it for the film, for the orchestra, or even just to hear that theremin sing. 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 August)

 

The Bristol Suspensions: Love Aca-tually (theSpace Triplex: 13-25 Aug: 16:00: 50 mins)

“A group at the top of their game”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Th Bristol Suspensions have been making waves on the a capella circuit in recent years, and having only formed four years ago, their rise to the top league has been remarkable. In Love Aca-tually they show us why.

Under Musical Director Eleanor Leaper’s leadership, the group display a stunning range of styles, mixing and layering, with their mashups being a real highlight in seamless blending from one song to another. The intricacy of their constantly-changing arrangements is something to behold as there’s always so much going on within one song to keep interest and wow-factor. There’s a quality and depth to these arrangements that really catches the ear.

In saying that, it feels like it takes the group a few songs to really get going performance-wise, and it’s only in Power (featuring breath-taking lead vocals by Leaper herself), that they really start to perform with the swagger and panache of a group at the top of their game. It would be great to see them truly ‘bring it’ from note one, song one.

For a show themed around the film Love Actually, the setlist is somewhat surprising – featuring interpretations of songs originally by artists such as Foo Fighters and Coheed & Cambria, as well as a Reggaeton medley and a rap medley. While I applaud the diversity of musical influences used to create this show (and indeed the creative arrangements in each case), a slightly more ‘on brand’ setlist would give a greater sense of completeness and cohesion to the performance.

What’s pleasing about this group, too, is the inventiveness and risks taken with choreography to create a visual drama that matches the stunning vocals. Rarely are the singers still for long and the performance as a whole feels like a fully staged show, making best use of the thrust stage, elevating the Bristol Suspensions above groups who are content with more simple staging.

As you’d expected from a much-plaudited group, it’s hard to spot a note wrong anywhere. There are moments, though, when lead vocals are overpowered by the backing singers, so perhaps there’s a little bit more balancing to be done, but in all other respects, this is a group that can clearly do it all with a fantastic display of range and dynamism. Aca-mazing.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 13 August)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Bowjangles: Excalibow (Gilded Balloon: 1-26 Aug: 14:00: 60 mins)

“I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more multi-talented group”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Bowjangles are not your average string quartet. Indeed, they extend the well-known triple threat (performers who can sing, dance and act) to a fourth dimension by adding the musical string to their bow. (Sorry). And what’s more: they can do all four at the same time. Prepare to be amazed as these performers act out a dramatic saga while accompanying themselves (more than capably) on their instruments.

Excalibow is Bowjangles’ latest Fringe offering (marking the troupe’s 10th year together) and sees them embark on an adventure to find the magical bow Excalibow, which will enable them to become (ahem) the Lords of the Strings. Yes, the jokes and musical puns are that good throughout. It’s a fairly ridiculous story, that unfortunately come across as a rather hastily put together pastiche of fairytales, but the characters are fun and fantastical, and the ever-changing mood created by the performers and their instruments is nothing short of masterful. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more multi-talented group in all my years of reviewing.

What really makes this performance special, though, is the chemistry and personality that ooze from this awesome foursome. They appear very natural onstage together, and are clearly very well-rehearsed and comfortable in being able to deliver this slick and energetic production. Their smiles never stop beaming, so even if the thought of watching an all-singing, all-dancing string quartet brings you out in a cold sweat, you’ll no doubt find yourself swayed into at least a grin by their charm and charisma.

For me, the overall structure and narrative of the piece is where it all falls a little awry, as the action chops and changes between many locations and subplots that it all gets somewhat confused – though the fun and frolicking nature of the performance makes this relatively unimportant in terms of overall enjoyment. Particular highlights include a snippet from a well-know ABBA song, and a comedic take on a certain moment from the film Titanic.

This is a show that’s bags of fun, packed with personality and great for the whole family (bar the odd naughty word which slips out). A definite for the shortlist as a welcome break from some of the harder-hitting shows out there.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 2 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Dunedin Consort, Vivaldi’s ‘La Favorita’ (Queen’s Hall: 6 April ’18)

Dunedin Consort: Vivaldi’s La Favorita

“The very essence of live music making”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Was this going to be, if not too much of a good thing, well, just too esoteric? It was a risk, and, while the stalls were a little over half full and just a few concertgoers in the balcony, such attendance levels are not unusual at the Queen’s Hall for chamber music. With Vivaldi, take away The Four Seasons and the Gloria and what have you got? A series of mostly string concertos that all sound very similar.

 

That is the perception. Friday’s concert by Edinburgh’s own Dunedin Consort proved it wrong. A cleverly chosen selection of seven string concertos from a cache of 27 manuscript volumes of composition discovered in Northern Italy in the 1920s provided a glorious treat of baroque music that whilst not having the gravitas or structure of his German contemporary Bach was a rewarding example of the Italian Baroque, and in many ways gentler on the ear. If Bach is the master of counterpoint, then surely Vivaldi is the master of ritornello? The tutti passages are more rounded.

 

The programme was titled La Favorita and this writer’s wicked sense of humour wondered if it was sponsored by a smart Edinburgh pizza group with its blinding, wood-fired, Cinquecentos. Not so, the title would have referred to one of the star female pupils under Vivaldi’s tutelage at the Ospedale della Pietá in Venice for whom a number of these works were written, possibly the mysterious “Anna” about whom we know very little. The boys learned a trade and had to leave the orphanage when they reached the age of fifteen. The girls received a musical education, and the most talented among them stayed and became members of the Ospedale’s renowned orchestra and choir.

 

La Favorita was reincarnated in a sense in the concert by Music Director and Soloist Cecilia Bernardini, leader of the Consort, who backed by two violins, cello, bass and harpsichord led us though an assortment of musical treats that entertained from start to finish.

 

The band kicked off with “Il Corneto da Posta” (RV 363), a joyful, simple work with a highly effective interplay between soloist and cello (honourable mention to Andrew Skidmore throughout the evening) in the first movement. Each work followed the classic three movement construct that was Vivaldi’s late Baroque hallmark. The Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV156) did everything it said on the tin and was an excellent, satisfying example of the continuo genre. There followed two Violin Concertos (RVs 387 and 224) where the players brought real verve and commitment to the music that otherwise might have seemed repetitive. We were being treated to some seriously good playing by the ensemble as a whole.

 

Following the interval came three more works, the first, very much in the Venetian tradition, being played up above us in the balcony, with the exception, for logistical reasons, of the harpsichordist. Stephen Farr wittily told us that the music he was reading from his iPad was an early 18th century Venetian model. Well, I guess we were only a few days past April Fool’s day. The Violin Concerto “Il Riposo” (RV270a) was tranquil, calming, and beautiful. A further Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo (RV 128) and Violin Concerto (RV283) and a charming pizzicato encore brought the evening to a close.

 

In trying to summarise what made this evening so special, when to many a collection of unknown minor works from a late Baroque Italian composer famous only for a couple of numbers might seem at best, obscure, I have concluded that there were two drivers. Intelligent programme selection, and – here I am again extolling the joys of live music – truly excellent, committed playing on the night. The very essence of live music making. Bravo!

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 6 April)

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