There was a new look for the men of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in this week’s concert. Normally the gents appear in tails, dress shirt and white bow tie, but tonight it was open-necked black shirts and jackets. Time will tell whether that’s a permanent change or something just for tonight. I only mention it because the monochrome outfits contrasted dramatically with the bursts of colour that characterised this programme’s music.

Timothy Orpen, John Wilson and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra
© Jessica Cowley

Maybe that’s thanks to guest conductor John Wilson. He’s famous for the seriousness with which he treats movie scores of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and there was cinematic breadth and sweeping emotion in his take on Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. I confess that this is a work I’ve struggled to love: for one reason or another it never quite fitted any previous time I’ve heard it, and the individual components of the music seemed to block my view of the big picture.

Not tonight. Wilson galvanised the RSNO to give of their very best, pointing up the Technicolor sparkle of the orchestration without getting in the way of the overall sweep. He boldly pulled back the orchestra so as to give the saxophone solo the maximum spotlight in the first movement, but all the other solos were expertly integrated into the texture and, for the first two movements, the overall tone was of quiet confidence rather than theatrical swagger. In the final movement, however, the Dies irae theme was allowed to grow through a bizarrely macabre merry sparkle into a terrific final peroration and an exciting ending that built up a mighty head of steam. Listening to this performance I always felt like I knew where I was, and I mean that as a bigger compliment than it sounds. 

Copland’s Clarinet Concerto falls more squarely into two very different halves which feel like the equivalent of moving from sunset on the prairies into the bustle of a Broadway night. Wilson balanced the two halves expertly, with super playing from the RSNO strings, while allowing principal clarinettist Timothy Orpen to glitter, shimmer and twirl in the solo limelight. Orpen is an enormously gifted player. His cadenza, in particular, seemed to let the clarinet speak the language of its natural voice with lyrical, long-breathed gorgeousness. He’s a very active stage presence, though, unlike Wilson, who is remarkably undemonstrative. Orpen moves and bobs as he plays, drawing circles in the air with his clarinet in a way that caught the acoustic of the Usher Hall rather awkwardly. Hearing him gyrate through the solo line gave it a strangely stereoscopic effect, as though somebody was manipulating two stereo channels while listening through headphones.

Very odd, but that’s quite possibly unique to me and where I was sitting. There was no manipulation required for the colourful theatrics of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture. The lyrical lilt of the central section balanced the swagger, sparkle and pizzazz in the outer sections, and there’s no denying that the sight of seven percussionists bopping along to a rumba is a marvellously uplifting one.