Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Empire Theatre, Eden Court, 30 MAY 2009
IF IT WAS Eden Court’s intention to bow out of orchestral concerts in style, then Saturday evening’s event was a huge success. It has been an unbalanced season, with three of the eight concerts waiting until May, a month when audiences are traditionally lower as the longer evenings arrive and music lovers anticipate the summer festivals.
Add to that the mutterings in the bars and galleries of Eden Court as the regulars digest the news that next season has been reduced to only three concerts and the omens are not good for an enjoyable evening.
But enough of the negative. The fact remains that a blockbuster programme, a star soloist and the debut in Inverness by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, one of London’s best, will bring out the public in their droves and have them hanging off the top shelf in the Empire Theatre. And let’s leave to others at another time the question of how to solve the dilemma that, even with a sell-out audience, the money raised from ticket sales is exhausted well before the interval.
One of the usually enjoyable features of Eden Court orchestral evenings is the pre-concert talk, this time with Thomas Prag chatting with the effusive and entertaining American conductor, Andrew Litton. What a bonus it is when the man with the stick is such a good communicator. He even dedicated the symphony to a young girl in the front row who was going to hear it for the first time. That is a memory she will cherish.
He had won over his audience before a note had been played with reminiscences of his days with various orchestras, including some hazy memories of touring with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (in case you are reading this Mr Litton, my last memory of you was one summer evening twenty odd years ago relishing the merchandise from the fish and chip van on Ullapool pier).
In Inverness, Gerald Finzi is a bit like a number 44 bus. You wait years for one to arrive, then two come at once. Last concert we all enjoyed the Clarinet Concerto, and now the delightful Eclogue. It was a work that was never performed in public during Finzi’s lifetime, although he composed it in the 1920s. An eclogue is a term that goes back to the ancient Latin poet, Virgil, and is a poetic conversation between shepherds.
Finzi’s version is a delightful pastoral interplay between piano and strings, possibly planned as the andante for a piano concerto. For this performance Andrew Litton directed the strings of the Royal Philharmonic from the piano and immediately displayed the great rapport he has developed with these fine musicians. A very gentle, but enthralling way to open the concert before the fireworks of Tchaikovsky to come.
Then it was time to welcome the reason for the packed auditorium. The was a palpable hush of expectancy as Scots violin star Nicola Benedetti made her third appearance on the Eden Court stage. Her entry was full of confidence and poise, bearing what has become her pride and joy, the Earl Spencer Stradivarius. Elegance personified, she appeared to have been poured into a stunning figure-hugging satin gown in a hue of what fashionistas call Ocean Dusk (to the likes of you and me, that’s brown).
To say that the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto had a dodgy beginning back in 1878 would be an understatement. It was rushed onto the page, fully orchestrated in about three weeks as a favour to Yosef Kotek, who declared it unplayable, as did the dedicatee Leopold Auer. It had its first performance in Vienna played by Adolf Brodsky and conducted by Hans Richter. It was insufficiently rehearsed, incompetently accompanied and crucified by the critics. Thank goodness critics and reviewers can get it wrong!
The concerto fairly teems with melodies, so many that the gorgeous opening tune from the orchestra never returns. But by then it was full-on Nicola, with attack and authority wringing every emotion out of every line. No matter what challenges Tchaikovsky threw down Benedetti had the answer with the Royal Philharmonic supporting and following in her wake.
So much feeling and energy did she impel into the cadenza that it seemed almost violent at moments, only to metamorphose into the sweetest pianissimos. It was no wonder that she received as much applause at the break as most soloists get at the end of a concerto, as this was a mature, reasoned and impassioned delivery.
There was no rest for Benedetti in the andante with all its demands for expression, and then without a break, Maestro Litton charged into the final rondo like Concorde launching from the runway, as first the soloist then the orchestra seemed to take command, whereas in truth the whole thing was pure Nicola Benedetti at her most magnificent.
I was left with but two questions. Firstly, was this really the same Nicola Benedetti as first played here just over five years ago with the Scottish Ensemble in the days before she was catapulted into the stratosphere? And secondly, what happened to her flowers? Surely Eden Court could have found enough bawbees in the petty cash to present Nicola with a well-deserved bouquet.
The chat over the ice creams was mainly about the magnificence of both Nicola Benedetti and the Royal Philharmonic, which seems a good enough way to take peoples’ minds off next season, as that discussion came only in second place. Then it was back into the Empire Theatre for Andrew Litton’s showpiece, Tchaikovsky again, but this time his Fifth Symphony, summed up in the apology for programme notes as “balletic and soulful”.
There are many similarities between the Violin Concerto and the Fifth Symphony, most notably Tchaikovsky’s gift of memorable melodies and how to orchestrate them to the maximum effect. Litton, conducting without a score, had the measure of every nuance, keeping the excellent orchestra at his fingertips, and gripping the audience’s attention right through to those three final triumphant chords. The young girl could not fail to have been impressed.
© James Munro, 2009