It is a very French programme for the RSNO Friday night concert: three French composers – Delibes, Bizet and Saint-Saëns – and a French encore. It is also a very special evening because the conductor is Neeme Järvi. As principal conductor of the SNO way back in 1984 he helped to make them an orchestra of international reputation. Now, as conductor laureate of the orchestra he is making a rare and welcome return. Järvi walks slowly and is somewhat stiffer in his movement now he is 82, but is clearly still very much in charge of the orchestra. The Usher Hall audience give a warm welcome to an old friend.
The programme begins with a selection from Delibes’ ballet music for Sylvia. Delibes was a contemporary of Bizet and composed this ballet music in 1876 soon after Bizet’s Carmen which is to follow. The ballet’s setting is taken from Greek mythology and the music represents many mythological figures, such as the goddess Diana, Eros and Bacchus. The music illustrates them delightfully and gives good opportunities for the RSNO players as soloists and as an ensemble.
Originally, the English soprano was meant to be the guest tonight, but as she was ill, we get a very fine replacement in Scottish mezzo Catriona Morison, who has shot to international stardom since winning the Cardiff Singer of the World title two years ago. She makes a striking entrance in a long red dress, perfect for the selection she has chosen from Bizet’s Carmen. These were the Habanera, the Card Trio and the Seguidilla. She sings them beautifully with perfect French diction but in a very restrained concert manner, almost as if this were a lieder recital. It may have been that Catriona, who is a very fine opera singer and actress, didn’t want to be too vulgar in her interpretation on the concert platform, but the result was a little underwhelming.
The work after the interval is the rarely performed Symphony No. 3 by Saint-Saëns, known as ‘The Organ Symphony’ as it uses an organ in its later movements. Tonight the mighty Usher Hall organ is played by Michael Bawtree, the well known Edinburgh organ player. The symphony was originally commissioned by the Philharmonic Society in London and was premiered there in 1886 with the composer as the conductor. Saint-Saëns had himself been an organ player, so for him it was natural to include an organ part in the symphony. Apparently, he was disappointed by the quality of the organ in St James’ Hall at the premiere, but I think he would have been happy tonight with the Usher Hall’s recently refurbished organ. It dominates behind the choir stalls in the hall and tonight, under Bawtree’s expert playing, it sounds mighty. It is well complemented by the full RSNO players, including a big brass section. The two movement symphony sounds splendid.
Järvi takes his personal bow and rewards us with an encore, a waltz from Delibes’ Coppelia, before finally leading the orchestra off the stage. At 82, Järvi may not be back again too often in Scotland, but tonight he reminds us he is a great conductor and one who is very important in the history of Scotland’s national orchestra.