What a smorgasbord this concert was! Five pieces, each about as different to one another as it’s possible to get, presented back-to-back and played thrillingly. If I felt worn out by the end then how must the musicians have felt?! The programme ranged from the absurdist nihilism of Ligeti to the triumphal grandeur of Mussorgsky’s Great Gate in Pictures at an Exhibition. Let’s start with the ridiculous and move to the sublime.

James Mayhew and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Jessica Cowley

Written for twelve motor-horns, the prelude to Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre is daft as a brush, but its two minutes of “music” are tremendously fun, and I don’t remember an Usher Hall concert item where so many people, on the stage as well as in the auditorium, were all chuckling at once. And if you have tuned car horns available then you might as well double up with An American in Paris, where they provide the urban colour for Gershwin’s homesick explorer.

American in Paris is so darned attractive to listen to that it’s easy to forget just how brilliantly orchestrated it is. Hearing it played like this was a terrific reminder, with its swooning strings, glowing brass and silky woodwinds, not to mention the array of percussion that sprinkled delightful details all over the score. Principal trumpet Christopher Hart might have drawn the most attention with his gorgeously sleazy solo, but all the orchestra's solo moments sounded terrific, and conductor Gemma New made a virtue of the work’s eclecticism by letting each section sing on its own terms.

Star saxophonist Jess Gillam did a terrific job in Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto, not least because she sounded as though embedded in the orchestra, never drawing attention unduly to the solo line. She played with gorgeous legato, but only in such a way that mirrored the chocolatey richness of the string sound, and in the soft-toned loveliness of the slow central section the saxophone seemed like an extension of the orchestra. Gillam didn’t even miss a beat while a medical incident unfolded in the grand circle: the noise and the bustle didn’t for an instant put her off the gorgeous rippling of her cadenza, and the terrific flourishes of the finale had a relaxed beauty to them. The comedy kaleidoscope of Milhaud’s Scaramouche suited her brilliantly, too, and she bounced off some terrific orchestral colour in the samba finale.

Jess Gillam, Gemma New and the RSNO
© Jessica Cowley

But the most memorable part of the evening was a unique Pictures at an Exhibition where the score was accompanied by live illustrations from artist James Mayhew, projected onto a giant screen. Mayhew works with the RSNO in some of their children’s concerts, and it was a terrific idea, not to mention a miniature Gesamtkunstwerk, to get him to reinterpret each of Mussorgsky’s images while the orchestra played them. His brilliance lay in the way he would build each illustration from scratch with a superb sense of timing, so that his Gnomus painting began as a sequence of abstract triangles, only clicking into place as the dwarf when the piece neared its end. I loved his playful Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and his atmospheric Old Castle, but also the way he tapped into the work’s darker side. His Goldenberg and Schmüyle seemed darkly threatening, as did his eerie realisation of the Catacombs and quietly creepy Baba-Yaga

If there was a problem then it was that Mayhew’s illustrations were so gripping that I almost forgot to tune in to the music, which sounded bright and brilliant every time it intruded into my consciousness. Never mind. This was a unique Pictures that I won’t forget, coming as the end point of a pretty unique concert.