Writer Elspeth critiques the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s debut performance, with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as the centrepiece.
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) returned to the stage for their 2022-2023 season opening concert. Their diverse programme was rife with revolution, featuring Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring as its centrepiece.
Conducted by Thomas Søndergård, the concert began with Stravinsky’s ‘Fireworks’, a lesser-known composition written as a tribute to the great Rimsky Korsakov. “Short and sweet”; the person behind me commented audibly as the piece ended after only four minutes. Perhaps the second part of this cliché overlooks that ‘Fireworks’ started the evening with a bang, reminiscent of its namesake, providing a brief introduction to Stravinsky and what was to come in the second half of the concert.
This was followed by Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto Op. 15, performed by American violinist Stefan Jackiw. The piece premiered in 1940 in the United States, where Britten lived for three years after fleeing WWII, fearing the repercussions of being homosexual and a pacifist. War, uncertainty, and fear of the unknown are all evident in the agitated rhythm and dissonant harmonies: the piece never quite settles. Although each section individually has a tonal melody, when played together and with the soloist, the overlapping tones never quite resolve.
The technicality of the piece leaves little room for tonal quality, requiring difficult pizzicato with both the right and left hand, double stops, harmonics, exposed cadenzas, you name it. For the most part, Jackiw held his own against these technicalities. Only at some moments (in all likelihood due to the everchanging Glasgow weather and the temperamentality of wooden instruments), the harmonics did not quite soar over the orchestration. It sounded almost as if there was too much sound and not enough resonance in the violin to accommodate Britten’s notation. However, by the final movement, both Jackiw and the orchestra seemed to hit their stride. Jackiw nailed run after difficult run, effortlessly hitting some of the highest notes available on the violin time and again.
After the tension of the previous movements, the last five minutes of the piece provided some, albeit limited, solace. Building towards a resolution, the harmonies between the orchestra and the soloist would settle for a beat…but then the soloist would go up a half step, disrupting the tonality once again. The concerto ended, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”. The tension hung in the air for several seconds after the last note faded. Jackiw hugged Søndergård to thunderous (and very well deserved) applause. It was, overall, a very impressive and engaging performance.
As quietly as Britten’s concerto ended, the penultimate piece began bombastically, so much so that the audience collectively jumped as the military drums and piercing whistles unexpectedly began. ‘The Riot Act’ was a world premiere by Glasgow-based composer David Fennessy. The lyrics, sung by tenor Mark Le Brocq, were taken from the 1714 Riot Act which granted authorities special powers to enforce punishment and disperse assembled crowds. These were used against striking workers in Glasgow at the so-called Battle of George Square in 1919.
The music itself was not especially pretty; rather, loud and abrasive. That said, the restriction of freedom and abuse of power are not pretty subjects. Fennessy had the orchestra playing the role of the crowd, while Le Brocq acted as the Sheriff singing the Riot Act to the assembled masses, before being overwhelmed and chased away by the might of the orchestra.
The concert concluded with the titular piece, The Rite of Spring, which on its premiere in 1913, caused a riot in the theatre (hence why ‘Riot Act’ was a fitting addition to the programme). In typical Stravinsky fashion, the piece feels unstable, with constantly changing time signatures, jolting accents, and dissonant harmonies. Despite Stravinsky’s score, Søndergård looked confident in leading the orchestra through the many potential pitfalls that The Rite of Spring has to offer. Bassoonist David Hubbard handled the pressure of delivering the famous, haunting opening notes superbly. My one critique would be Part 1: IV, Spring Rounds, where the slow part felt almost too slow. There was a lot of space between the notes, so much so that the underlying pulse of the piece was nearly lost. However, the slower speed did have a powerful effect as the full orchestra built back up, and the rhythm re-engaged.
Overall, the artists (the orchestra, soloists, conductor, and composer) should be applauded for their spectacular performances. In particular, the percussion section, and its timpanists, Paul Philbert and Tom Hunter, were flawless. If the opening night was any indication of the level of performance for the upcoming season, I would highly recommend attending any and all future performances.