Thoughts on the RSNO’s 2016-17 season

First published in The Herald on 16 March, 2016

It’s birthday season, take two. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was officially established in 1891: that’s when the Clydeside shipowner James Allan fronted £20,000 to set up a new national orchestra in Glasgow. Strictly speaking the birthing process wasn’t quite so clear-cut — it would take another two years for the Scottish Orchestra to stage its inaugural concert series, another six decades for the orchestra to become full time and multiple venue and name changes along the way. The orchestra’s ad-hoc formation dates back decades earlier to an amassed performance of the Messiah at City Halls in 1844 — but no matter. The 2016-17 season is the second part of a two-year celebration marking the RSNO’s official 125th anniversary, and there’s some neat thematic programming to match.

Prokofiev was born in 1891, as was Verdi’s Requiem, and both feature in the season. The anniversary is an excuse to invite back some old friends, too, like the Russian pianist Nikolai Lagansky who has been performing with the RSNO since 1996 — he debuted as a slip of a thing in his early 20s. He marks that two decade relationship with a residency including three Prokofiev piano concertos.

The ferociously spirited Estonian conductor Neemi Jarvi was at the helm of the orchestra from 1984-1988 and fostered a coruscating house style in big Russian repertoire — he once earned the orchestra a standing ovation at the Berlin Philharmonie for a Tchaikovsky Five that, reported The Herald’s Michael Tumelty, “whipped into an experience of quite extraordinary intensity”. For those of us too young to remember first-hand, the swathes of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Dvorak and Scriabin that Jarvi recorded with the orchestra give a pretty scintillating clue. Jarvi turns 80 this year and conducts Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony to celebrate.

What emerges fairly quickly when flicking through the new season brochure is just how densely packed it is with symphonic blockbusters. Music director Peter Oundjian conducts Rachmaninov Two, Mahler Three, Tchaikovsky Four, Brahms Four, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Thomas Sondergard — the orchestra’s terrific principal guest conductor — conducts Beethoven One and Seven, Brahms Three, Sibelius Five. John Storgards takes on Mahler One; Andrew Litton covers Stravinsky’s Firebird and Ravel’s Mother Goose, and elsewhere in the season we get Verdi’s Requiem, Rachmaninov Three, Shostakovich Five and Tchaikovsky Six for good measure. The list goes on like a 101 survey of core romantic repertoire.

Same goes for concertos. Start with the violinists: Nicola Benedetti plays Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Janine Janson plays Sibelius, Nikolaj Znaider plays Prokofiev Two. Astute RSNO regulars might have noticed an absence of Beethoven piano concertos in recent seasons — that’s because we’re getting all five of them in 2017-18. Jonathan Biss plays the First, Ingrid Fliter the Second, Alice Sara Ott the Third, Lars Vogt the Forth, Paul Lewis the mighty Fifth. Not a bad roll-call. Jonathan Biss also plays a new concerto by Sally Beamish, and of course there’s that Lugansky trio of Prokofiev concertos. There are some fine singers, too: Sondergard conducts two of Mahler’s great orchestral song cycles with Roderick Williams in Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Jennifer Johnston in Rückert-Lieder, while Scottish mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill is soloist in Mahler’s Third Symphony to close the season.

The bulk of box-office big-hitters points to a few things. Partly it’s is an anniversary blowout: “we wanted to put in the blockbusters because these are the pieces the audience loves, the pieces the orchestra loves playing, the pieces Peter loves conducting,”says RSNO executive producer Manus Carey. But there’s also a safety to the programming that indicates a response to the times. “We’ve received a three percent budget cut,” says Krishna Thiagarajan, RSNO chief executive. “We’re looking for programme strands that carry their weight. Our strength is in the Philharmonic Series — I mean the traditional core symphonic area. We are the national orchestra, and technically speaking that’s the repertoire we’re supposed to do. It’s part of our remit to expose the largest section of Scotland’s audience to our concerts.”

What he seems to be implying is that under his watch we’ll see more by way of big sellers, less by way of any adventurous programming. The orchestra’s fledging contemporary music ensemble Alchemy appears to be absent from next season, and when asked about it Thiagarajan’s response is tactful. “There is a possibility it will continue… there’s also a possibility it will be reevaluated. Areas that are musician-led will always exist, but whether they exist in the current format with a revenue goal associated — that has to be looked into very carefully.”

“We are reallocating some of our resources to strengthen programmes that will bring in earned money,” he admits: essentially, the safe bets. “If you need to spend money on marketing a certain programme, if you’re programming things that aren’t gaining public support, then that’s a budget that could be spent elsewhere.”

What is proving a significant boost to RSNO spirits is its new home. The rehearsal space and small concert venue opened last year and has already done excellent things for levels of clarity and detail in the orchestra’s sound. What’s more, the facility has allowed for the addition of lunchtime concerts, schools concerts and more recordings, meaning that over the upcoming year the orchestra will feature on a dozen or so CDs. “We are willing and open for business,” Thiagarajan says brightly. (He’s a self-declared recordings fanatic: during the interview he rummages through his bag to show me a rare 1963 recording he recently bought from German eBay of Claudio Arrau playing Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with the SNO under Alexander Gibson at Kelvin Hall. I can attest that the playing is intensely thrilling — but that’s a story for another day.)

There remains a conspicuous question mark over Oundjian’s contract with the orchestra, which currently extends no further than 2017. Thiagarajan refuses to be drawn on the matter — “I generally don’t comment on contracts, but Peter is our conductor through next season and we’re planning some dates with him in 2018.”

One thing Oundjian will doing with the RSNO next season is touring: Spain in January 2017, Florida in March 2017. Further ahead there are plans for the orchestra to visit China and Germany and more USA dates for 2019 and 2021. Incidentally, the RSNO hasn’t been to the States since the 1980s but Thiagarajan — who before joining the RSNO held management posts at various American orchestras — is keen to tap into that market. “There are five million Scots in Scotland,” he reasons, “11 million Scots in the United States. We want to be their orchestra, too.” Western diaspora, take note.

RSNO 2016-17 season headlines
– 2016:17 is part two of the two-part 125th anniversary celebration
– There’s a focus on the symphonic works of Mahler, Rachmaninov and Sibelius
– Five pianists play the five piano concertos by Beethoven
– Nikolai Lugansky concludes his Prokofiev piano concerto cycle
– Katherine Bryan plays a new Flute Concerto by Martin Suckling
– The RSNO Chorus joins the orchestra to premiere a new Gerald Barry RSNO co-commission called Humiliated and Insulted, based on a story by Dostoyevsky
– There are three Artists in Focus: pianists Jonathan Biss and Nikolai Lugansky and cellist/composer Giovanni Sollima
– The orchestra tours to Spain with Peter Oundjian and Ingrid Fliter and to Florida with Peter Oundjian and Nicola Benedetti
– Neeme Jarvi conducts Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony to celebrate his 80th birthday