Storming Start to RSNO Season with Flute Concerto Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Rouse, Rimsky-Korsakov: Katherine Bryan (flute), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 03.10.2014 (SRT)

Wagner:  Overture, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Rouse: Flute Concerto (Scottish premiere)
Rimsky-Korsakov:  Scheherazade

The RSNO’s new season got off to a storming start with their grandly ebullient Meistersinger overture, all gleaming brass and capacious strings.  Not only was the playing extrovert but, impressively for Oundjian, I really enjoyed the sense of the long line that ran through the music, as if nobody had taken a breath between the opening C major chord and the appearance of Walther and Eva’s love music.  Scheherazade, too, sounded like a concerto for orchestra with every sectional principal getting their moment in the sun.  Maya Iwabuchi played the violin solos with great flair, but she was joined in the style stakes by, especially, David Hubbard’s bassoon playing and the clarinet of Stefan Harg.  When I listened to his recent recording of the work, I complained that Oundjian manipulated the tempo for the sea music in the first movement.  It bothered me again tonight, which makes me think it must be an interpretative decision rather than getting carried away in the moment.  Still, there was less overall that bugged me and, on the whole, I thought the playing more stylish and the shaping more sophisticated than with his Toronto recording.

More interesting still, though, was the Scottish premiere of Christopher Rouse’s flute concerto.  The first two weeks of this season sees the orchestral principals playing concerto solos, and tonight principal flute, Katherine Bryan, played the concerto written for her teacher at the Julliard School.  Rouse wrote his concerto in 1993 and was very moved by the contemporary story of the murder of James Bulger.  He, therefore, wrote the central movement as an Elegy for the boy.  The concerto is then bookended by two Amhrán (song) movements heavily influenced by Celtic music and two prickly faster movements surround the central Elegy.  There are some truly glorious sections of melody on offer here.  Those Celtic outer movements flow with soulful beauty and a wonderful tune that should confound anyone who criticises all contemporary music for its dissonance.  The central Elegy features a theme so richly Romantic that it would be at home in any Howard Shore film score, but the surrounding music contains elements of danger and anger, as befits the movement’s theme, and the solo flute plumbs quasi-Mahlerian depths of emotion at times, setting apart the concerto’s heart from the more airy outer movements.

For all that, it remains an uneven work.  The juxtaposition between the mood of the slow, melodic sections and the sparky faster ones is so strong as to make the music seem almost schizophrenic, and those big moments of melody appear after little or no preparation, then disappear as quickly with little consequence.  Still, I’m glad I heard it and will certainly listen out for it again.  Bryan is clearly entirely convinced by the work and she plays it with superb dedication, be it in the gorgeously expressive moments or the (pretty stunning) virtuoso work of the second and fourth movements.  I particularly liked the moment in the Scherzo where the solo flute plays a dazzlingly brilliant passage alongside the three orchestral flutes, as if the four of them are chuckling at their own joke.  Well done to everyone involved.


Simon Thompson

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