City of Culture

A weekend in Glasgow is always a walk down Memory Lane.  The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played The City Halls, Candleriggs, on Friday night – a hallowed venue, beside the fruit market in the Merchant City.  Chopin played here.  And Dickens gave one of his famous public recitations.  After the disaster of the fire that destroyed the St Andrews Hall, and after the purgatory of an orphaned Scottish National Orchestra playing the mud-bespattered Gaiety Theatre in Argyll Street, in competition with the pile drivers forging the M8, the SNO under Sir Alexander Gibson found a home in Candleriggs, and this is the era I remember each time I come here.

The SCO opened with Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, a showpiece for every instrument in the orchestra, opening with a mesmerising duet for cello and harp, with subsequent solo contributions from viola, violin, and bass.  Everybody in the SCO is a virtuoso.  Then Bertrand Chamayou played the Ravel Piano Concerto in G.   Another virtuoso display, with, between the jazzy outer movements, such sadness and poignancy in the sustained Adagio assai, reiterated by the cor anglais.  Then Beethoven 4.  The orchestra seized us by the throat.  Debussy said that Beethoven was a wonderful composer whose music was spoiled by aggression.

The RSNO is currently touring the United States, but fortunately the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland played the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday.  That is apt, considering the new partnership the NYOS and the RSNO have forged, and it was also fitting that the NYOS should have been conducted by the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor Elim Chan.  Steven Osborne played Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.  I’m sure it was an experience the members of the NYOS will never forget.  In this most technically demanding of all concerti, Osborne gave it everything.  That he should have been able to return to the platform and play the D major Prelude Opus 23 No. 4, with infinite delicacy and tenderness, was astonishing.

After the interval, the NYOS played Andrea Tarrodi’s Liguria, and then the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  Composed in 1874, what a modernistic and demonic piece it is.  There was great sonority from the brass ensemble, and some wonderfully intricate wind playing.  I was particularly struck by the saxophonist in Il vecchio castello.  What a talent.

Meanwhile, the RSNO were playing the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts near Sacramento.  Sibelius, Rachmaninov, and Prokofiev, in a programme I heard in Glasgow a few weeks ago.  A treat for the good folks of Sacramento.  With the RSNO away, I suppose in the Royal Concert Hall on Saturday night we had a foretaste of how the RSNO might be in twenty years’ time.  When I heard the NYOS last year they played Copland 3 and I was struck then by the extraordinary strength, depth, and sonority of the strings.  On Saturday the string sections were notably smaller, and it crossed my mind that maybe the depth of available talent had similarly grown smaller.  Nicola Benedetti, who is patron of the NYOS junior orchestra, is a tireless champion for free music tuition in schools.  Is it fanciful to imagine that the erosion of such free tuition has so quickly produced an adverse effect?  Thanks to such free tuition, I was playing Mussorksy’s Pictures in a Glasgow youth orchestra around the time the pile drivers were knocking hell out of the Gaiety.  I think it was far easier at that time, compared with now, for somebody from a modest background to find a path into music.  But the gap between rich and poor has never been so stark in my lifetime.  You only need to take a short walk from Waterstones Sauchiehall Street to the concert hall at the top of Buchanan Street to see, in every doorway, people clinging to the margins of existence.

It seems to me that if we pass by the derelict on our way towards the ivory tower of classical music, the refined pursuit of the alumni of private schools, if music becomes divorced from real life, then music will die.  Every time (nearly every time) I hear a piece of contemporary music, I wonder if it isn’t dead already.

But I mustn’t be pessimistic.  To hear the NYOS, and to hear the whoops of appreciation from their young friends in the audience, gives me hope.  So long as they remember to switch off their devices.

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