“You learn an instrument, then if you are lucky, you get to join an orchestra where you begin to fully explore music, but this only becomes truly meaningful if you can perform to an audience.” Fighting words from conductor Thomas Søndergård ahead of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Welcome back! concert in Perth Concert Hall, the first time a live audience has heard an orchestra perform indoors in Scotland since March 2020. Limited to 2m distancing, temperature checked and electronically registered, we outnumbered the 40 performers on stage by perhaps a factor of three, at best. Tentative beginnings, but it’s fair to say that the players were as excited to perform to a real audience again as we were to be there. Conditioned by months of streamed performances, the heady exhilaration of hearing musicians in the same room again was a powerful reminder of what we had been missing.

Thomas Søndergård
© Sally Jubb

The RSNO sensibly chose a programme of light and joyous music beginning with Ibert’s Divertissement which burst out from the platform. Lightly scored, the six mischievously vibrant sections are taken from incidental music composed for the French farce The Italian Straw Hat. Søndergård took the introduction at a pulse-quickening pace, the players taking off like delighted children let out of school early on a sunny afternoon.  A quick pause as a flute created dappled light calm on a funeral Cortège before a drumroll and snatches of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March allowed the craziness back in, the strings all a-scurry. Cellos and double basses in rich sombre unison conjured eerie shadows on a nocturnal walk, a rippling piano adding nervy atmosphere. Søndergård made the Valse really swing, teasingly holding it back then releasing the whirl as the trombone added parody to the growing chaos. In the Parade we could almost hear the crunch of polished boots on gravel as strings set up a rhythmic march with lively military contribution from trumpet and piccolo. A graphic hiatus on the piano set the madcap Finale off at breakneck speed, the players only pausing to take breath for a cheekily muted trumpet. It’s fifteen minutes of pure fun, for I am sure the player with the police whistle must have had a speeding ticket in his hand with Søndergård’s name on it.

RSNO principal Adrian Wilson took the solo spot in Jean Françaix delightful oboe concerto L’Horloge de flore. Composed in a continuous sweep of seven movements, each one is based on the time of day certain plants flower. Lightly scored for two horns, pairs of woodwind and strings, the music sounded dreamy and gentle, Søndergård allowing space for each section to emerge. Wilson’s oboe started with a simple plaintive tune, its long softly-played phrases demanding considerable breath control. Cupid’s Dart flowers early, the dawn strings in soft perpetual motion as the violas wove a tapestry with Wilson’s beautiful tones, the French harmonies proving an ethereal touch. A quirky dance characterised by oboe and clarinet exchanging phrases provided an almost jazzy interlude, indeed at several times in this piece, one felt the clarinet should have been out in front with the oboe. I loved the birdsong with flutes and pizzicato cello, but it was Wilson’s fluid expressive tone and Søndergård’s careful balancing of his players which made this special.

Commissioned by the BBC's Third Programme in 1947, Poulenc’s Sinfonietta is a light witty work, lively and playful. Søndergård brought out the changing light and shade in the opening Allegro, his graceful gestures mirroring gorgeously sumptuous harmonies. The percussive attack by the strings brought home the things we had been missing as streaming cannot reproduce the immediacy of the experience such as bows viscerally digging in. A playful Vivace contrasted with the sleepy Andante. The Finale, marked Très vite et très gai was light and airy, brisk energetic passages contrasting well with quieter, introspective moments from the harp, but Søndergård finally allowed the sound to swell out gloriously.

Although the viability of such a reduced audience and the considerable extra costs of making the venue Covid-secure are huge challenges, it was a genuine thrill to hear an orchestra again. Forty players is not quite half-strength, but I had forgotten just how loud and dynamic the sound can be. We are a long way from the big pieces, never mind choral works, but this was a wonderful first step back for everyone.