The Royal Scottish National Orchestra opened their 2017-18 season tonight in confident style with a star on the violin and a score that is still the 20th-century’s biggest musical bombshell. This is Peter Oundjian’s final season as Music Director, and he has planned his season concerts around some big orchestral showpieces: starting tonight with The Rite of Spring, later concerts include Bruckner 8, Mahler 9 and Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. In a programme interview, when asked about his repertoire choices he said, “I’ve chosen a wide variety of some of the world’s greatest masterpieces” (let’s say I’ve heard more incisive artistic comments!) and that doing the Rite with the RSNO was like “driving your favourite car down your favourite mountain road”. 

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

It may have been a labour of love, but it took a while for the passion to arrive. For most of Part 1, I thought I was hearing the politest Rite of Spring I’d ever witnessed. Everything was clear and clean – alluring, even – with lucid textures and gurgling low winds. But who goes to The Rite for winsome beauty? The Augurs felt positively mannerly, and I felt like I was watching the whole thing through a gauze texture that was designed to soften the edges. Where was the primal savagery, the red mist? Happily, Oundjian finally let the RSNO off the leash with the Spring Rounds (who knew that Wagner tubas could sound so primal?!), and the second part was much more successful, with the sinuous wind textures of the opening – “Polar night”, as Stravinsky dubbed it – and some animalistic thrashings at the Glorification of the Chosen One.  The Evocation of the Ancestors seemed to creep up on us from a distance, and if the final Sacrificial Dance began in a slightly heavy-footed manner, then the final pages sped up thrillingly and picked up energy in the process, with clipped precision from those still shocking chords which fly in from nowhere.

The orchestra have played (and recorded) Elgar’s Violin Concerto several times over the last decade, and they make a marvellous sound for the composer’s broad melodies, with a rich nobilmente sound and a good sense of rum-ti-tum in the big moments. Nicola Benedetti is a regular collaborator of theirs, and brings with her much bigger ticket sales. I’m pretty sure this is a new work for her, though, and you could tell in the slightly tentative way she shaped some of the phrases. No complaints about her first entry, which seemed to be finishing the orchestra's sentence, and there was a singing quality to the first movement’s rhapsodic central section, as well as to the lovely Andante. Much of the faster playing sounded a little raw, however, particularly in the finale, where upward runs seemed to peter out rather than climax, and even parts of the slow movement felt a little overwrought, even melodramatic. Her finest moment came in that eternally strange accompanied cadenza, with playing of introverted, silken beauty and an accompaniment that seemed to hover in from afar, judged just right. Time and experience will tell whether this is really her sort of work, and everyone has a right to make a tentative beginning, so I’ll wait and see before passing too much judgement.

What a lovely gesture to begin with Gavin Higgins’ Velocity, though. This was six minutes of colour, energy and sparkle, which won me over with its bright-eyed, John-Adams-inflected tintinnabulations, and its quieter central section which seemed to be heading for the outer atmosphere. It worked mainly though rhythm and contrast rather than melody, but it felt like a bright wave of greeting at the start of a new season.