Over the last fortnight I’ve attended six concerts in the Usher Hall as part of the Edinburgh Festival.
On August 14th, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada played Estacio’s Moontides (UK premiere), Copland’s Appalachian Spring, and Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony. Wonderful. What a relief that experiencing a contemporary work should not be like a dental extraction. The Estacio was harmonic and evocative, in a North American idiom not unlike that of the Copland. And if RVW 3 is redolent of pastoral England, perhaps it is an England as remembered by an ambulance driver in the Royal Medical Corps, in Flanders. Hearing RVW in concert is a profoundly spiritual experience, made even more haunting by the effect of the offstage bugle and wordless mezzo-soprano. Then the NYOC stunned everybody not by playing two encores, but by singing them. And what an excellent SATB choir they turned out to be. They sang a cappella – the only sound other than the human voice was the combined percussive thunder of a more than a hundred feet stamping on the stage and more than a hundred right hands slapping the ribcage, in a stirring Québécois anthem. They thoroughly deserved the unreserved whoops of the man on my right, who happened admittedly to be from Toronto, and on the orchestra’s teaching staff.
On August 16th, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra under Vasily Petrenko played Strauss’ Don Juan, then to be joined by soprano Lise Davidsen to sing Strauss’s Vier Lieder Opus 27, and Wiegenlied, Op 41 No 1. Ms Davidsen was a statuesque figure of some presence, whose huge voice had no difficulty in filling the Usher Hall even above the orchestral tutti, with great beauty and no strain. She never sang louder than lovely. She sang two encores – I know not what – the first a gypsy song and the second a ballad not unlike Shenandoah. Prior to each encore she and Maestro Petrenko had a brief tête-à-tête, and on the second occasion the conductor asked the audience in mime if they wished to hear more. There was an amusing piece of faux-Diva dumb crambo when Ms Davidsen raised an ironic eyebrow.
Then the orchestra played Prokofiev 6. There is a sustained and very haunting melody for oboe which occurs in its first movement, and then recurs towards the end of the symphony. It is very affecting. As with so much Soviet music, all is not as it appears. There is a tragic irony in that Prokofiev should have died in 1953, on the very same day as Stalin.
The following day, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra played Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, Opus 5, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. This was not quite as billed, because (I understand), the CBSO’s charismatic conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is with child. So Ludovic Morlot stood in, and the cellist was the young BBC musician of the year (2016) Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The Stravinsky is a recently rediscovered early work and you can hear anticipations therein of the great ballet scores, especially the Firebird. In the Elgar, Sheku Kanneh-Mason was magnificent. What a musical gift he has. His was an intimate rendition, not at all reminiscent of the great Jacqueline du Pré, but entirely his own. It was a privilege to hear him play. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus joined the CBSO for the Ravel. Their wordless contribution was powerful and sonorous.
On August 20th the Colburn Orchestra (a music college in LA) played Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx, the Barber Violin Concerto (soloist Simone Porter) and the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances. Another wonderful orchestra. They were conducted by Stéphane Denѐve. Denѐve conducted the RSNO between 2005 and 2012 and he got a very warm welcome back from the audience. He was delighted to be back in the Usher Hall. “Good evening… bon soir! Ah!”
Then on August 23rd came the final of the Eurovision Young Musicians 2018 (as opposed to the Eurovision Song Contest – though anchor-man Petroc Trelawny was amused to point out that the latter had in fact been held in the Usher in 1972, the winner on that occasion being Luxembourg. This concert was televised here and across Europe so there was quite an air of excitement in the hall. There were six finalists, a cellist, two violinists, a bassist, saxophonist, and a pianist, each given a twelve minute slot. All were amazing. In terms of virtuosity and solidity of technique, perhaps the pianist and one of the violinists had an edge, but I was most taken by the bass player, a young man from the Czech Republic who came out wearing a kilt (he got a tremendous ovation) and proceeded to play his own composition. It sounded to me a little like Dvořák. I thought he had something. He spoke to people. The pianist, a Russian with a phenomenal technique, won.
And on August 24th the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop played the Stravinsky Firebird Suite (1919), the Gershwin Concerto in F (soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet), and Schumann 2. What a Rolls Royce Orchestra.
About an hour before the concert’s start, I happened to be just outside the door of the Sheraton Hotel across the road from the Usher, waiting for the rain to go off, and who should also be waiting next to me, but Marin Alsop. I said to her, “You’ve got a concert to conduct. At least I know I won’t be late.” She was very charming. Since she had been on the judging panel for Eurovision on the previous night, I couldn’t help but opine that the bassist should have won. Everyone’s a critic. But at the end of the day, I remarked, music is not a competition. Fancy telling one of the great conductors of the world what music is, or is not. I really ought to get a grip.