‘This is why I’m involved with the RSNO!’ This is the reaction of my neighbour in the grand circle at the end of a sizzling performance of Mahler’s First Symphony at the Usher Hall tonight. My “neighbour” was Sue Bruce, former CEO of Edinburgh Council, who is now Chair of the Board of the RSNO, and of course she is right.
The audience erupt in applause at the end of the Mahler and everyone agrees it has been a great opening concert to the
RSNO season. It is a special occasion in another way as it is the 50th birthday of conductor and music director Thomas Søndergård. He makes a nice introductory speech about age and maturity and quotes Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier on youth. At the end soprano Karen Cargill leads the Usher Hall in a rendition of Happy Birthday.
The concert has a flavour of late nineteenth century Vienna about it, as two of the composers, Berg and Mahler, came
from Vienna around that period. Writer Robert Thicknesse does a very interesting introduction in the programme notes to Vienna at that time. It was towards the end of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, but still a city of great wealth and
producing great art and music.
The opening work tonight is Don Juan by Richard Strauss, who although German, was influenced by Vienna and indeed based his Don Juan work on an Austrian interpretation by Nikolaus Lenau which was more sympathetic than Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Written when he was only 24 it quickly became a favourite of audiences and orchestras, opening with a great fanfare and followed by sparkling passages showing off the ardour of Don Juan followed by fateful sounds of the death of the Don. It is an exciting opening work.
This is followed by Seven Early Songs by Alban Berg. Now, Berg is often thought of as a difficult composer since he later adopted atonal and 12 tone musical forms, However, these early songs are very melodic and are beautifully sung by one of Scotland’s leading mezzo-sopranos, Karen Cargill. Her rich creamy tone blends perfectly with the sensitive accompaniment of the RSNO. However, no surtitles are available and the lights of the Usher Hall are too dim to read the translations in the programme during the performance, creating a major problem in understanding what the songs
were about. The songs are therefore beautiful but without too much meaning. The Edinburgh Festival uses surtitles regularly at the Usher Hall and other venues. Surely it is time we used them in all situations where there is a non-English text?
After the interval is the wonderful First Symphony by Mahler, written in Vienna in 1889 when Mahler was only 24.
It established his reputation as a leader in the new music of the period. From the distinctive opening note which spreads
through the orchestra to the quotations from Mahler’s other works and the use of all the instruments of the orchestra in
its progress through the symphony, it is a distinctive delight.
It also allows many of the musicians of the RSNO to show their skills and Thomas Søndergård to show his total control
of the orchestra. The RSNO are in great form for the coming season.