For obvious reasons, the Edinburgh International Festival doesn’t have any international orchestras this year. Of the British orchestras that are performing, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is the closest they have to a house band: they’re performing three concerts and three opera performances, giving the orchestra more coverage in one EIF year than they’d normally expect to receive in several.

Elim Chan conducts the RSNO at the Edinburgh International Festival
© Ryan Buchanan

That’s good news, though. The RSNO is playing brilliantly at the moment, and part of the reason for that is their strong creative team. Thomas Søndergård gains most of the credit as their music director, though principal guest conductor Elim Chan deserves just as much. She has grown so popular that her concerts have become almost a subset within the season. This performance marked her EIF debut, and it showed off all the elements of her relationship with the orchestra that have made her such a hit.

For one thing, she’s a vigorous, assertive presence on the podium. That was really evident in the RSNO's performance of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 in C major, with its muscular tuttis and heroic sound world. This was by no means a historically informed performance: all the instruments were modern except the timpani, and the strings played with plenty of vibrato. However, the musicians were spaced out on stage and from what I could see, there were just 24 string players, which is pretty small for most symphony orchestras. 

That, however, is why I was puzzled that the whole thing was so loud! Calculating balance must be next to impossible in the EIF’s purpose-built pavilions, but the Beethoven felt noticeably louder than the other items on the programme. I wondered whether somebody had been tinkering with the tent’s sound system because it sounded so out of character as to be slightly wearing by the end. However, it suited Chan’s vision of the work, which accentuated the drama and had only the gentle strings of the slow movement to act as an opportunity to relax.

Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte was much more soft-focused. I don’t remember hearing any of Shaw’s work before, but I found this a really exhilarating listen. The effect she gets with the sound is almost like a string orchestra that has been put through a synthesizer. Warm chords welcome you into the work, but then they seem to fracture and disassemble, like paint dripping off a heavily daubed canvas. The music repeatedly melts and re-forms, like viscous liquid flowing into a series of different molds, finishing on a solo cello picking over the bones of a lonely melody in a way that was strangely affecting. Entr’acte felt like having my ears opened to a new way of listening that seemed to help me see inside the music. It was beautifully played and enormously refreshing.

So, too, was superstar soloist Sol Gabetta, whose playing in Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor had an elegant sweep, like the swish of a Second Empire ball gown. She conjured an extraordinarily beautiful tone from her cello, particularly in the lower registers, balancing vibrant communication with chocolaty richness. The orchestral sound matched her gorgeously, particularly in the second movement – a delicate gavotte with one eyebrow raised, particularly when it was played by the upper strings. Chan shaped it like a well-paced drama, and the all-important transitions were skillfully handled. This auspicious debut confirmed Chan's status as the RSNO's not-so-secret weapon.