RSNO and Anna-Maria Helsing show music by Richard Thompson and Florence Price deserves to be heard more

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Thompson, Florence Price, Dvořák: Sharon Roffman (violinist), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Anna-Maria Helsing (conductor), Livestream from the RSNO Centre, Glasgow, 29.1.2021. (GT)

Anna-Maria Helsing (conductor) and RSNO

Richard Thompson – Suite from The Mask in the Mirror (world premiere)

Dvořák – Romance for Violin, Op.11; Symphony No.8 in G major, Op.88

Florence Price – Violin Concerto No.2

One of the reasons for regret at these streamed concerts is that the theme of works by women composers and also black composers richly merit a live audience. In this concert, a distinct American theme reigns by picking up from Dvořák’s famous New World Symphony in their last concert. Richard Thompson was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, he studied at Edinburgh University, and later at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Thompson is now based in San Diego where he teaches music. His chamber opera The Mask in the Mirror was written in 2012 and is based on the letters between the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the novelist Alice Ruth Moore in the nineteenth century. The libretto narrates their initially secret engagement, marriage, and eventual estrangement, and Dunbar’s tragic death at the age of 34 years. Dunbar became the most celebrated writer of colour in the United States, and race and discrimination are central to the narrative of Thompson’s stage work. This suite was orchestrated only in 2018, and this performance is its first. The Suite is in two parts, both from Act I, Scene two – Paul’s Response, and Scene five – Alice with her mother. Thompson uses jazz syncopations together with his traditional classical style producing a colourful score. This performance is part of the Scotch Snaps series which is supported by the Ellerman Foundation. In the opening section, the mood is rather sad, with a cello solo by Aleksei Kiseliov voicing Paul, accompanied by alluring woodwind expression, yet restrained by a tentative mood in portraying the challenging dialogue between the poet and the novelist. In the second part, the mood is brighter, with some fine writing for the flute especially, which together with bassoon, oboe, and the bass clarinet, portray the different voices and emotions of Alice and her mother. This is an interesting piece, and we should hear more from this composer.

Sharon Roffman (violin)

Violinist Sharon Roffman shares the principal leadership with Maya Iwabuchi, and it is a considerable benefit to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra that we have this exceptionally talented musician here in Glasgow. In her pre-concert interview, she told of her early memories of the Dvořák Romance for Violin calling it beautiful, and having a rich velvety tone, yet strangely reminding her of a certain Batman theme tune by switching from the minor to major and hinting at alternating between darkness and light. With the charming idea expressed by the oboe of Adrian Wilson, Roffman picked it up on solo violin gracefully and abundantly expressing the late romanticism of this beautiful piece with the orchestra matching her virtuosity and colourfully embracing the contrasting moods of tension against all the lightness and beauty. As Roffman said ‘it is up to the listener to decide how it ends in lightness or darkness’.

The Second Violin Concerto by Florence Price was discovered only in 2009 and reveals a gem of twentieth-century American music written by a composer who faced two obstacles in her career, as she wrote to Serge Koussevitzky: one being a woman, and second, being a person of colour. Regrettably, he never responded. The grand opening is overtly cinematic, with its big theme, colourfully aided by the celeste, and the entry of the solo violin is engaging, late romantic, rhapsodically written, with rich flowing melodies, propelled by dotted rhythms. There is an intriguing brief cadenza against bright woodwind accompaniment with lots of attractive passages in an exciting, yet often reflective piece and producing an attractive upbeat ending. The concerto reminds one of the works of Samuel Barber and Erich Wolfgang Korngold with its rich melodic structure and breezy main idea.

In Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony, the rather sombre opening movement Allegro con brio, was distinguished by some gorgeous woodwind playing, especially the main theme of birdsong from Katherine Bryan on the flute, picked up by the woodwind group. The Finnish conductor Anna-Maria Helsing showed she has great technique and control, using eyes to engage with her musicians. She generated great drama in the swirlingly romantic harmonies, with so much wonderfully colourful writing for the orchestra. In the Adagio, the dark Slavic harmonies were marvellously performed by the woodwind, especially the song-like theme of the two clarinets played by Timothy Orpen and Rebecca Whitener with the opposing moods evinced well by Helsing, bringing out the gypsy harmonies, juxtaposing them against all that Slavic melancholy. The Allegro grazioso was distinguished by some playfulness from the wind sections, and a marvellously shaped folk waltz, before the stunningly executed trio section. In the finale, Allegro ma non troppo the set of variations from the main opening idea were performed luminously, and with magnificently fluid intonation from the world-class Bryan on flute, before the lead-up to the climax with the trumpets gloriously clear in triumphant culmination. Overall, there was some terrific playing from the orchestra, and the pieces from the first half remain in one’s memory, hopefully we will be able to hear more from Richard Thompson and Florence Price in seasons to come.

Gregor Tassie

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