Despite what the name might suggest, you don’t have to be in love to enjoy the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Valentine’s concert. That’s the name they always give to their mid-February concert but, in reality, it’s an accessible programme that’s good for newcomers, whether or not they’re on a date. It has been a regular fixture in the RSNO calendar for as long as I’ve been going to hear them, and it’s something welcome to look forward to.

Elim Chan © Willeke Machiels
Elim Chan
© Willeke Machiels

Also, it’s always conducted by the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor, which gives another welcome opportunity to hear Elim Chan. The “pocket rocket”, as one audience member named her to me, is a diminutive presence on the platform, but she's a dynamo when it comes to making music. She positively fizzes on the podium, with clear gestures that the musicians respond to with delicacy, and this allows her to lead hair’s-breadth responses from the orchestra which lead to some beautifully shaded playing.

That was definitely true in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, where the string chords of the introduction were so carefully controlled that they felt like stabs of pain. The love music was shaped with beautifully sensitive expressivity, and the fight scenes were clipped and exciting. You could say the same about the Prokofiev selections, too, from the poleaxing tutti dissonances of the opening Montagues and Capulets, through to the delicate trippings of the young Juliet or the tenderness of their parting scene. Every phrase seemed carefully thought through, individually justified, so that each nuance shone through with delicate precision. Granted, Prokofiev’s score gives ample opportunity for such kaleidoscopic displays, and the orchestra rose to every one, be it the molten cellos in Friar Laurence’s music, or the solo flute in the parting scene, through to the solo saxophone, played with such individualistic character. The climax came, as it should, in the keening strings and horns of the tomb scene, before the final chord, a solo piccolo over the strings, which seemed to attain a strange feeling of inevitability.

That orchestral colour was every bit as apparent in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, be it in the enveloping strings of the opening or the gorgeously played clarinet and horn solos. Lukás Vondrácek’s solo contribution was a little patchy, though, and for important sections of the first movement he seemed to be so caught up in his keyboard as to be out of step with the rest of the orchestra, barely seeming to communicate with them at all. That fixed itself for the slow movement, however, where both piano and orchestra seemed finally to gel, with some beautifully dreamy tone in the outer sections.

****1