Peter Oundjian’s Debut as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Music Director Designate

Rouse, Greig, Brahms: Stephen Hough (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 15.04.2011 (SRT)

Christopher Rouse: Rapture

Grieg: Piano Concerto

Brahms: Symphony No. 3


This concert saw both a significant farewell and an important hello.  The goodbye first: this was the last concert for Simon Woods, the RSNO’s Chief Executive, who is about to leave for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  More obvious, though not necessarily more important, is the hello: this is the first concert to be conducted by Peter Oundjian since it was announced that he will take over as RSNO Music Director in September 2012 from Stéphane Denève who is heading for Stuttgart.

This was the first time I had heard Oundjian and it was a good programme with which to make his debut as Music Director Designate, one contemporary work together with two core classics.  His reading of Rouse’s Rapture was secure and controlled as it steadily unfolded.  The work develops as an almost continuous crescendo, somewhat like Nielsen’s Helios, though less overtly descriptive.  It builds to a full orchestral blaze at the end, though I was more won over by the quieter beginning which featured some outstanding instrumental solos, especially from the flute and trumpet.  It’s an optimistic work in a very American mould, though I’m not sure the title fits its mood.

It’s difficult to go wrong with Grieg’s concerto when you are joined with a soloist of the calibre of Stephen Hough.  This most versatile and respected of soloists gave us a full blooded, muscular reading of the concerto which embraced the large scale of the work.  The fistfuls of notes in the cadenza were breathtaking and of a truly architectural scale, but Hough never relies on cheap showmanship to make his point: instead it is his thoughtfulness and sensitivity to the music’s emotional flow that make an impact.  For me the finest moment in the work, perhaps in the whole evening, came towards the end of the beautiful slow movement when orchestra and soloist finally come together on the main theme: Hough and Oundjian here created a beautiful synthesis, cementing the very essence of partnership that should be at the heart of every concerto performance.

Like the current music director, Oundjian talked to his audience to introduce the performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony, and he dwelt on the architectural structure of the work, something Brahms is famous for.  His reading of the symphony was satisfying and clear: pacing of the outer movement was mostly sharp, though he wasn’t afraid to broaden out for the key moments in the development.  The central movements, in contrast, were spacious and lyrical, the orchestra creating a gorgeous sound for the famous Poco allegretto.  However, I couldn’t help but feel that there should have been more to it than this.  Oundjian gave us a totally secure, four-square reading of Brahms 3 that would be difficult to argue or find fault with, but it didn’t catch fire and left me feeling a little cold.  The Hungarian Dance which he played as an encore contained more spontaneity, vigour and life than the whole symphony.

It’s unfair to judge based on only one performance but my own first impression is that the RSNO’s future is in safe hands, though conductor and orchestra haven’t yet found their groove.  I look forward to seeing how Oundjian develops the chemistry and sparkle that any great music director will have with his orchestra.  The omens are good but there is more to be done.


Simon Thompson