What to do if you are born with a passion to conduct? Nineteen year old Ross Gunning took a bold leap, rallied his talented friends and colleagues round and founded a new orchestra in 2012, the Glasgow Philharmonia full of young players aged 16 to 25. Rising through the percussion ranks from the National Children’s Orchestra of Scotland, the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and the National Youth Orchestra, Gunning has just finished his second year of the conducting course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He is already making significant waves on the Glasgow music scene, as he regularly takes the baton for several city groups of young players and was conductor for the unveiling ceremony of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games medals.

Ross Gunning © Alex Murphy
Ross Gunning
© Alex Murphy

Following a few days of intensive rehearsals, it was going to be very interesting to hear these young players tackle an ambitious programme of Bernstein, Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. Bernstein’s Candide Overture is a whirlwind helter-skelter of a piece, stuffed full of infectious tunes which change just when you are starting to enjoy them.   It is an exciting listen with different quirky rhythms and time signatures and its fast pace a showcase for these musicians who thrillingly tackled the piece head on. Gunning kept it very tight, with attention to the smallest detail down to the tricky links between the tunes where players trade single phrases at cracking pace across the orchestra. The flute player earned a deserved bow at the end of a piece that is always over all too soon.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor was written in 1947-48, just before the composer was denunciated in the Zhdanov decree; it was not performed until 1955.   The work is scored for an orchestra without trumpets or trombones, but with a single tuba which makes for striking sounds throughout as Shostakovich chooses a succession of unlikely groupings of instruments to create remarkable effects. The soloist was Daniel Rainey, making a welcome return to the RCS platform. After tuning up, he stood completely still for a several seconds to allow Bernstein’s fun to fully dissipate and a more serious mood to develop for what was an intense performance. The opening nocturne built up from darkness in the lower strings, with Rainey playing the soaring legato solo with a beautiful tone, building to a climax before drifting off into silence. The second scherzo movement was livelier, with deliciously spiky playing from the woodwind, angular notes tumbling from Rainey’s violin which hardly stopped at all. This was a challenging movement for the conductor and orchestra too, demanding very tight control to keep it all together, and there were some exhilarating moments. A serious and haunting Passacaglia was linked by a teriffic extended cadenza into the final burlesque ending. Throughout this piece, Gunning always allowed single instruments accompanying the soloist to shine through. Rainey was never less than thrilling, magnetic to watch, and really got to grips with the serious and challenging music. Smiles finally came at the end as he returned to play an encore of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, beautiful in its simplicity.

 In this anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War the choice of Vaughan Williams A London Symphony, dedicated to composer George Butterworth who died at the Somme, was apt. It is a work book-ended by the flowing Thames and takes us on a journey through the city’s hustle and bustle, through the quieter Bloomsbury and on to the noisier Strand. The final movement develops into a march from an opening cry of anguish. Gunning brought colour and contrast into this reading, even in unexpected places like really bringing out the counter-melody to the march in the final movement. Generally this was a very decent performance, with thrilling brass, woodwind and percussion. This orchestra was a little light on string numbers, meaning that the front desks were working very hard throughout the evening and this showed through in this symphony with its requirement for the trademark Vaughan Williams full string sound. As the harp played the Westminster chimes and the Thames flowed off into silence, this was a very decent performance, well received by the crowd.

Gunning explained that the orchestra has a hidden aim of fundraising, and previous concerts have raised enough money to provide a clean well and water source for a village in Malawi:  the 'Ross Gunning borehole' replaces what was a muddy and dirty water source. A driven and charismatic individual, it will be exciting to see what he does next. More immediately, he conducted a lively encore of John Logan’s St Andrew's Reels to send us out with a spring in our step.

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