Bell’s Whisky used to be almost synonymous with Perth, and anyone who lives in Perth and Kinross will have been touched by the generosity of A.K. Bell’s Gannochy Trust, started 75 years ago. Early projects included sewerage systems to improve the quality of the river Tay, and setting up the Gannochy Housing Estate. Nowadays, the Trust helps all sorts of projects from village hall refurbishment upwards, improving the life of not only local residents, but further afield as the Trust now has a broader focus across Scotland.

Alasdair Beatson © Giorgia Bertazzi
Alasdair Beatson
© Giorgia Bertazzi

In 2009, the Trust helped fund a ‘side-by-side’ concert, where the best players of Perth Youth Orchestra played alongside the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO). It was a groundbreaking concert, very successful, and something the Trust wanted to repeat for its 75th birthday.

Perth Youth Orchestra is 50 years old this year, and the Gannochy Trust has helped out for each of these years, enabling the orchestra to achieve its potential. Funds have allowed tours to Europe, as well as more mundane things like repairing instruments. The Trust also sponsors the regular RSNO visits to Perth, and also the Junior RSNO Chorus. In 2005, the excellent new Perth Concert Hall opened, also with sponsorship from the Gannochy Trust, and indeed, this concert was held in the Gannochy Auditorium.

The programme for the evening was packed with some crowd-pleasing tunes for this special evening of celebration. To start, Avo Pärt’s Arbos, premièred at the opening of the Concert Hall, was a short exciting fanfare using the combined brass of both orchestras and RSNO’s percussion. Big, open, slightly dissonant brass chords were accompanied by rolling timpani and tubular bells on and off the beat. It was a striking piece to set the scene.

The RSNO players were sprinkled with Perth Youth Orchestra students for Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. Written as part of a trilogy of overtures, this was full of lively rhythmic dances and quite a challenge for the young players, particularly those in the string sections who rose to the occasion admirably. From Denmark, the recently appointed RSNO assistant conductor Christian Kluxen was interesting to watch as he gave very clear and concise direction and guided the piece through the quieter middle section to a thrilling finale.

Turning the tables slightly, for the next piece, Perth Youth Orchestra was augmented by RSNO players, and were joined by three young singers for excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen. Playing well-known music means that the audience knows every note, but from the start there was no cause to worry as the young players, taking all the solos in this Bizet selection, excelled themselves with confidence in the instrumentals ‘Les Toréadors’ and ‘Prélude’. Mezzo-soprano Rowan Hellier, dressed in a bright scarlet satin dress carrying a red carnation, sang the ‘Habanera’ and ‘Seguedilla’ simply beautifully. She sang as a soloist with Perth Youth Orchestra back in 2005, and is now enjoying a busy singing career, having just made her debut with Berlin Staatsoper. Australian baritone Laurence Meikle gave us Escamillo’s famous Toréador song. A quick Intermezzo, then Hellier was joined by tenor Adrian Dwyer for a duet between Carmen and Don José, complete with off-stage brass band. A very lively ‘Danse Bohème’ finished the first half.

It was fascinating to watch the interplay between Kluxen, singers and orchestra as the young players got to grips with the new skills in accompanying voices. Singers have to breathe and are not always predictable in what they do, particularly as Bizet provides plenty of opportunity for individualism. Kluxen was very clear about what was required, and the young players stuck together through the several changes of tempo and final flourishes.

After the interval there was just one work: Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2. The second PYO ‘graduate’ of the evening, pianist Alasdair Beatson, joined the full RSNO for what was to turn out to be both a thoughtful and a thrilling interpretation of this popular work. Following a four-year crisis of confidence after the disastrous performance of his First Symphony, Rachmaninov sought professional treatment to encourage him to composition, and this concerto was the result. Beatson must know the work well, yet he approached it as if discovering something completely new from the music. From the first statement on the piano, the flowing themes are passed through the strings and back to the soloist. Beatson, perched on the front of the stool, by turns leant forwards close into the instrument, and then back, peering round the raised piano lid at the orchestra and Kluxen. The gorgeous slow movement gave way to the lively last, with the violas stealing the big tune before Beatson took it up.

This big night for Perth was popular with the sold-out audience of RSNO regulars, PYO parents and friends, and the Gannochy Trust and their guests. If ever a demonstration were needed of what can be done for young musicians through targeted support, this was it. This was a night the young players will remember and carry with them for the rest of their lives.