Before the world had heard of Covid-19, Alastair Mackie, the canny Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, had been capturing some of its Glasgow concerts as a digital stream, putting the orchestra ahead of the learning curve that arts organisations must now follow. Over the summer, different financial strategies to streamed classical content have emerged, from ‘donations encouraged’ to ‘paid-for’ content. The RSNO has boldly chosen the latter, announcing its first digital season of ten concerts, filmed in safe conditions and released on performance nights. For the audience, the experience is naturally very different, but every player who spoke during this event mentioned how delighted they were to be back together making music once again.

Thomas Søndergård conducts the RSNO
© Royal Scottish National Orchestra

In Black History Month, the programme focussed on the extraordinary tale of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Bologne, a mixed-race son of a French plantation owner and his Senegalese slave, was a top violinist and conductor, tutor to Marie Antoinette in Versailles, but also an elite swordsman who fought for the Republic as Colonel in Europe’s first black regiment, the Légion Saint-Georges. Bologne’s range of compositions includes  14 violin concertos, of which the Violin Concerto in A major featured here, but as conductor of Le Concert de La Loge Olympique he commissioned Haydn’s six Paris Symphonies, leading the first performance of Haydn’s Symphony no. 82, “The Bear”. Completing the thread is Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, the initial dedication removed when Napoleon declared himself Emperor of France. 

With socially-distanced players spreading right across the entire floor of their smart new auditorium and orchestral home in Glasgow, Thomas Søndergård drew a stylish and animated performance of the Haydn.  Exuberant passages with natural trumpet and hard-stick timpani embellishments contrasted sharply with the softer and nuanced quieter moments underpinned by a two manual harpsichord with delicate woodwind colouring from flute, bassoons and oboes. The contrasts made for an exciting listen, from the broadening of the final bars of the Allegretto through the stately Menuet and Trio to the infectiously folksy Vivace taken at a fast lick, the whole work was a joyful tonic.

Thomas Søndergård and the RSNO
© Royal Scottish National Orchestra

RSNO leader Maya Iwabuchi and soloist for Bologne’s Violin Concerto worked with Richard Payne to piece together this performing edition from the original 1777 version. The string players with harpsichord produced a refined opening, but the central Adagio brought out the piece’s more sensitive side, Iwabuchi’s lyrically expressive playing backed by a deliciously warm string sound and the gentlest of resolutions. Søndergård kept a brusque momentum in the bright Allegro to finish, Iwabuchi’s animated playing making her violin really sing. Bologne was sometimes referred to as “the Black Mozart” but his race held him back. Remaining single, as interracial marriage was not allowed in France, his Adagio was perhaps a glimpse into an underlying sorrow.         

Søndergård's Eroica was packed full of energy from its explosive beginning, cellos leaning into the theme, but the contrasts were well marked with elegant expressive woodwinds, the music turning on a shimmering sixpence before bursting forth. The physically distant double basses at the start of the funeral march seemed a little muted although the climaxes were thrilling with the rasp of natural trumpets and the horns on splendid form. Sparks flew in the Scherzo with biting strings and lively woodwind, Søndergård directing with a light touch, taking us into the exciting final Allegro almost without pause. One of the advantages of a streamed concert is the player’s view of the conductor, Søndergård very watchable as he used every inch of his podium, toes dangerously over the edges at times, giving precise direction and urging the players on.

Leader Maya Iwabuchi explained that socially distant performances are a challenge for the players more used to an intimate set-up but now stranded 2m apart from their desk partners, many metres from different sections. This and the harsh gym-hall lighting made conveyance of warmth difficult. It’s a small niggle, because this was a memorable performance and a positive start to the digital season.

This performance was reviewed from the RSNO's video stream