Tonight’s RSNO concert has a very unusual programme which is very jazz influenced. It begins with Thomas Adès Dances from Powder Her Face. This is a suite from the twenty-four year old Adès’ first opera, based on the scandalous life of the Duchess of Argyll. It is a great fun work, with lots of blues and jazz influences reflecting her colourful life, and it’s clear that the orchestra, under conductor Thomas Søndergård, really enjoy playing this unusual work.
The second work tonight brings some familiar tunes to our ears from Porgy and Bess. This twenty-three minute symphonic suite, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, features many of the themes from Gershwin’s famous opera. It highlights Summertime; I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; Oh, I Can’t Sit Down; It Ain’t Necessarily So; and ends as the opera did with O Lawd, I’m on My Way. Again, although a favourite in the operatic repertoire, it is very much blues and jazz influenced.
Finally, Nicola Benedetti, fresh from her tour of China with the orchestra, gives the Scottish premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s violin concerto in D. This is a very long (fifty minutes) and very challenging work. Benedetti gave it its world premiere in 2015 in London, and tonight she shows us that she loves to be challenged, with a superb fluent performance.
Marsalis is best known as a jazz musician and composer, and even though tonight’s work is meant to be part of the classical repertoire, it is very jazz influenced, its in four movements headed Rhapsody, Rondo Burlesque, Blues, and Hootenanny. In these movements Marsalis deploys every instrument of the orchestra plus some wider participation by the players, including foot tapping, clapping and shouting: they seem to enjoy this unusual exercise. But above all, Benedetti is supreme in this very tough and very long work, using the whole range of the violin and is in perfect harmony with the orchestra. She finishes with a coup de théâtre, slowly leaving the stage playing the last whimsical, ethereal melody of the work.
The big audience in the Usher Hall erupt with great applause and Benedetti has several recalls. She takes to the microphone not to announce an encore, but to say she has invited many school students from Midlothian schools to attend for free. Their council has recently decided that music tuition should no longer be part of the school curriculum, and she appeals to us all to take up the fight for music education. Certainly, the students attending tonight would have been pleasantly surprised that classical music concerts can swing with the best!