Maestoso Glasgow

To the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday evening, to hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 (soloist Nikolai Lugansky), and Shostakovich Symphony No 8.  I’m not a huge fan of Soviet music, but isn’t it strange how you can attend a concert of music you love with high expectations and be disappointed, and then again attend a programme you had not thought simpatico, and be moved?  Such was the case on Saturday, partly I have no doubt because of the phenomenal musicianship of a virtuoso pianist and, it has to be said, a virtuoso orchestra.  Glasgow is blessed with an abundance of top quality orchestras, but the RSNO is surely the jewel in the crown.

These two composers have very different characters; Prokofiev, urbane, sophisticated, melodic; and Shostakovich, introverted, sardonic, tortured, sometimes striving after a mode of expression almost beyond the capacity of music itself.  What is to be made of the last movement of the fifth symphony?  Is it, frankly, sarcastic?  Sometimes I listen to Shostakovich and think, this is what music would sound like, if it were being composed by the inmate of a lunatic asylum.  I suppose that is essentially what it is.

I had some acquaintance with Shostakovich 8 from a CD but I can’t say I’d reached any conclusion about what the symphony “means”.  Saturday’s performance was a revelation.  I hadn’t realised the extent to which it is a show piece for the orchestra.  Almost all the principal players, from the piccolo to the cor anglais, have extended and important solos.  They were all played beautifully, but what really struck me on Saturday was the power, the depth of tone, and the sheer committed conviction of the string playing.  It is extraordinary to me that you can stroll up to the top of Buchanan Street on a Saturday evening, walk into a hall, and hear musical performance of such quality.  I’m still not sure what Shostakovich 8 is all about.  It was composed in 1943 and it certainly has martial qualities.  But what of its serene ending?  Is it serene?  Is it merely holding bated breath?  At any rate the audience held its collective breath and you could have heard a pin drop.

Which brings me to the crux of this blog.  This is not really meant to be a crit of a classical concert.  It’s more a crit of various aspects of Glasgow.  In all the myriad facets of community life in a big city, there has to be a generally accepted convention as to modes of behaviour.  In the concert hall this sense of how to behave becomes refined to an extent that some people would regard as rather precious.  So the musicians wear attire of the nineteenth century, the house lights dim and the assistant leader of the orchestra stands as a cue to the principal oboe to sound an A.  The orchestra tune.  The leader of the orchestra enters to applause.  Now any latecomers will have to wait at least to the end of the first movement.   Now the soloist and conductor arrive.  Prior to the upbeat, there are moments of complete silence.  We have entered a sound world.  Each member of the audience has become part of the performance.  A cough, an aside, an electronic device, will become part of the soundscape.  The contribution of the audience to the performance lies in its attentiveness.

Flashback an hour and I was walking from the Clyde up a thronging Buchanan Street.  I could tell from a vague sense of anarchy and a heavy police presence that there must have been trouble at the Scottish Cup Final.  This indeed was the case.  A late goal – the collective police heart must have sunk – and a pitch invasion.  Rangers v Hibs – the old sectarian divide, and Glasgow v Edinburgh, a double whammy.  I saw the behaviour of the fans was described in the Sunday papers as “exuberant”.

Well it’s not exuberant.  It’s criminal.  It’s the violent and disruptive behaviour of people who don’t know how to control their emotions.  Over the moon – sick as a parrot – it’s all too much.  A plague on both their houses.

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