Royal Scottish National Orchestra, RSNO Centre ★★★★☆
Small-scale, consoling, with a touch of escapism – that’s been the tone of a number of online orchestral concerts I’ve heard lately. You can see why orchestras would want to strike that tone during a lockdown, when we could all do with some soothing.
Still, it was good to hear a big-boned ambitious concert from the RSNO which was consoling only in the sense that it was perfectly “normal”, i.e. a programme one might hear in normal times. It launched off with a recent piece by 60-something British composer Errollyn Wallen that was substantial rather than a mere curtain-raiser, which the contemporary piece in an orchestral programme so often is. Titled Mighty River, it’s a piece from 2007 honouring the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, and the composer’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, who was probably a slave herself. That might have inspired an angry or stubbornly defiant piece, but Wallen never responds to a challenge in the way you’d expect. Instead she seized on the image of a river, as irresistible in its striving to reach the sea as the human urge to find freedom.
The opening was a surprise – the hymn Amazing Grace, intoned by a single horn. We heard much of that redemptive song, woven almost imperceptible with other scraps of hymns and spirituals into the music’s fabric. Around a steady, harmonically still rhythmic pulsation these tendrils of melody unfolded, like eddies in the water’s flow. Wallen very subtly evoked the sense of a river that is never in a hurry, in fact it often seemed to dawdle and digress on its course, but a sudden shift back to the opening harmony would restore a sense of purpose. As always, Wallen’s brilliantly clear orchestration and willingness to use simple, even naive, things was captivating. Did the river digress a bit too much? Possibly. But the piece was winning nonetheless.
After the uncomplicated brightness of Wallen’s piece the heavy romantic yearning of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder came as a shock, but a pleasant one. The poems by Wagner’s one-time lover Mathilde Wesendonck are frankly poor stuff, full of conventional romantic yearning for night-time and oblivion. Conductor James Lowe chose to perform the songs in the prismatic, almost fractured orchestral arrangements by German modernist Hans Werner Henze. They certainly let some air into the songs’ foetid atmosphere, but were distractingly over-elaborate.
But it didn’t matter, because Scotland’s own tremendous Wagnerian mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill was on hand. She sustained Wagner’s enormously long lines with majestic gravity, her tone as strong as steel even when it faded to a near-whisper. Here as elsewhere, Lowe, standing in for Ryan Bancroft at very short notice, paced the music very intelligently, making it both flowing and spacious.
That quality was a boon in the final piece, Dvořák’s New World Symphony, where the long-winded tunes and repetitions can easily clog the music’s flow. Lowe kept tedium at bay so well with subtle dynamic and tempo inflections you could almost believe the symphony was a real masterpiece after all.
Hallé Orchestra, online from Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester ★★★☆☆
Pity the poor orchestral manager. The government bail-outs for the arts have kept the wolf from the door, for the time being. But it’s a condition of receiving the cash that you have to continue to present work to your public. Simply hunkering down and waiting for things to return to normal isn’t an option.
But how to do that when lockdowns come and go with such alarming unpredictability? Some orchestras such as the London Symphony have taken a punt on eye-catching live events with expensive imported soloists, only to have to unpick them at the last minute. The Hallé in Manchester took what has turned out to be the wiser course: filming an entire spring season of nine concerts that will bring cheer to their audiences right up to the end of March.
We should salute their enterprise, but it must be said the third “episode” didn’t quite hit the nail on the head. You could see the aim was to craft something quietly uplifting, which would remind us of music’s power to console, and the tone was set by the venue for the event, Hallé St Peters, a beautiful deconsecrated church that is now the orchestra’s base for its community work. Carved in stone at the entrance to the hall is a poem about the mystery of music, written by Simon Armitage for the hall’s opening ceremony last year. Armitage was on hand to read the poem as a prelude to Thursday’s concert, and later on he read his poem “Evening”, which catches that bewilderment we feel at the passing of time, which seems to happen while our backs are turned.
It was touching, but I couldn’t help thinking that having brought the Poet Laureate all the way to Ancoats in the middle of a pandemic they could have made more use of him. In any case, the British poet of Ethiopian heritage Lemn Sissay would have made a better guest, as it was his poem Godsell that actually inspired the evening’s new piece. Where is the Chariot of Fire? by young black British composer Hannah Kendall took the anger and yearning for redemption in that poem and fashioned from it a taut, beautifully shaped piece, its tense sound-world shot through with tiny gleams of light from – of all things – musical boxes. It was a nicely judged image of the fragility of hope.
Alongside this was a miscellany of pieces in a completely different tone. Aaron Copland’s wonderful hymn to nocturnal urban mystery Quiet City was beautifully played, with trumpeter Gareth Small and cor anglais player Tom Davey the eloquent soloists. Even more eloquent was saxophonist Jess Gillam in the rarely heard saxophone concerto by Alexander Glazunov. By this late stage in his life, this ailing composer, now in exile from an increasingly uncongenial Soviet Union, was looking back fondly to the romantic ethos of his youth. Gillam, who really is a fine artist, made Glazunov’s beautifully crafted but not always inspired effusions seem like gold. The way she handled the transition from the reflective central section to the leaping finale was the evening’s best moment.
Less successful was the closing piece, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Its delicate nostalgia needed a lighter, more flowing touch than the one conductor Jonathan Bloxham brought to it. In all, it was an intermittently moving evening, which struggled to absorb the rogue elephant of the new piece in its midst, but couldn’t quite. That’s the flip side of commissioning a new piece. The better it is – and this was certainly a good one – the more likely it is to disrupt an orchestra’s best-laid plans. IH
Available until 14 April at halle.co.uk