RSNO Season Culminates with Beethoven and Adams’ 9/11 Commemoration

Adams, Beethoven: Sabina Cvilak (sop), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo), Charles Castronovo (tenor), Tómas Tómasson (bar), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 05.05.2010 (SRT)

John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9

The timing, of course, was coincidental – orchestral programmes are decided years in advance – but hearing Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, his commemoration of the victims of 9/11, in the same week as the death of Osama Bin Laden, could not but heighten its emotional poignancy.  The images of that dreadful day have been seared into the minds of all of us, and Bin Laden’s death has brought them back to the front of our memories as news broadcasts repeatedly revisit the scenes of Ground Zero nearly 10 years ago.

Adams’ work is not a requiem or a memorial but, in his own words, a “memory space”, using a large orchestra, full chorus and a recording consisting of New York sounds and words remembering the victims.  Adams’ stroke of genius was to set not a poem or a reconstruction of the event but to use the words of those victims’ families whose lives were cruelly touched on that day.  Many of the words come from posters put up around Ground Zero (“Missing: Manuel Damotta”) or from obituaries in the New York Times (“He was the apple of my father’s eye”).  The city sounds give way to a boy’s voice repeating the single word “Missing” and as the orchestra and chorus gently steal in we heard Adams’ trademark tintinnabulations and rhythmic ostinatos, but here they underpin an atmosphere of poignancy and weightiness, especially as an off-stage trumpet intones a phrase from Ives’ Unanswered Question.  A series of horrible shudders in the strings accompanies the sound of footsteps (rescuers?) going up stairs, leading to pulsations of rage that seemed to flow from the orchestra in waves; and the final moments, chilling, spine-tingling in their obscure tonality, seemed at last to offer an escape and a glimpse of something beyond.  This was an experience of uncanny power, anchored by a revived RSNO Chorus who sang with remarkable clarity of diction and impeccable conviction.

Denève conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with his foot on the accelerator for most of the time: the whole performance came in at under an hour.  He has clearly been listening to the period practitioners and it’s an approach that brings mixed results.  The speed of the first movement meant that some of the faster runs for strings sounded cloudy, but the movement crackled with electricity throughout, culminating in a great final unison.  The Scherzo abounded with demonic energy, veritably scurrying towards its close, and the Trio flowed without losing the sense of pace.  Even the Adagio moved at a nippier than usual pace, though without losing its cantabile aspect.  The finale was a fitting culmination, the Ode to Joy theme building convincingly up to the entry of the singers, and the Turkish section bustled along beautifully, though the subsequent fugue was the orchestra’s finest moment of the evening.  Denève’s quick tempi meant that, when he broadened out dramatically for the Seid umschlungen section, the effect of the slower passages was all the more powerful and the chorus responded well to the challenge.  The quartet of soloists was a little underwhelming, however: Tómas Tómasson’s gravelly baritone didn’t have the power to pin you to your seat during his opening address and Charles Castronovo failed to make a decisive impact in the Turkish section.  Likewise I struggled to hear Catherine Wyn-Rogers, though the bright, clear soprano of Sabina Cvilak crowned the quartet beautifully.  When it all came together for the final few minutes Denève showed that he could pull out all the stops when necessary and that the result was worth the wait.

The RSNO have one more Naked Classics concert left in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, but this evening’s concert marks the official end of the their 2010-11 season.  It has seen some first rate music-making, confirming their place towards the forefront of the UK’s music scene, and the orchestra have not allowed their standards to slip during their transition in leadership.  The season’s intelligent programming has been crowned by their Ten out of 10 series of contemporary works, of which tonight was the final instalment.  Next season sees Michael Elliott taking his position as their Chief Executive and Stéphane Denève’s final season as music director.  The orchestra is embarking on interesting new times and we’ll see Denève go out with a bang in 2011-12.  For full details of their new season go to

Simon Thompson