The final concert of the RSNO’s 2010-11 Usher Hall season was a journey from John Adams’ reflection on the tragedy of 11th September 2001 to Beethoven’s joyful statement of brotherhood in his Symphony No. 9.

John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to mark the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This performance came, by coincidence, in the same week as the shooting of Osama Bin-Laden, which may have added to the effect for some. The composer describes it as a ‘memory space,’ rather than a requiem or memorial in the traditional sense. This description seemed very accurate, as the music does not threaten to become the principal focus of the moment; that prerogative is left to the memories it invokes. The forces, consisting of large orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and cassette tape recording, created an ethereal and yet roomy sound into which every possible poignancy was gently moulded by Denève. The recording, consisting of city sounds, snippets of obituaries and initially a boy repeating the word “Missing” was a touching juxtaposition to the on-stage performers, as was the solo trumpet, at the back of the dress circle, playing phrases from Ives’ Unanswered Question.

Adams comments that he hopes this piece will not be restricted to the event that led to its creation, but that it will instead be a more general comment on the changing state of human souls; from living to dead, and from normality to bereavement. Despite the recorded and sung references to specific people lost in the 9/11 tragedy, this music is unobtrusive enough to allow it to fit any number of memories. There were a couple of slightly hesitant entries from the choirs, but overall Denève carved the 25-minute piece into a very well-shaped whole, which was warmly appreciated by the audience.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its message of universal brotherhood, could not have been a stronger opposite to Transmigration. Denève certainly did not hang around with it – the entire performance took less than an hour (normally closer to 70 minutes). The pace was particularly quick in the first movement, which was punchy and powerful. Some fine timpani playing drove the scherzo vigorously onwards, and excellent control of the pianissimo strings created a very lively sound. In the slow movement, the slightly quicker tempo and good string phrasing highlighted the lyricism of the music.

The joy of the fourth movement, often referred to as a ‘symphony within a symphony,’ was clear. The growth of the principal ‘Ode to Joy’ tune, from lower strings to full orchestra, was brilliantly executed by Denève. The long phrasing in the strings led to a marvellous resolution in the tutti statement of the theme. The entry of the baritone (Tómas Tómasson) was commanding and characterful, especially when interacting with the excellent RSNO Chorus, who sang very well throughout. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers and tenor Charles Castronovo were largely very good, but occasionally struggled to project above the large orchestra. Sabina Cvilak (soprano) gave a solid performance, particularly impressive in the quiet adagios, where her control in the higher registers was excellent. The orchestral playing included some very good performances, especially in the lower strings and brass. The flutes and oboes struggled to project on a few occasions; this is not a problem I have heard in the Usher Hall before, though for this concert the woodwinds were nestled quite closely behind the cellos and violas. This took very little from the performance, however. Denève’s quick tempo gave good contrast to the adagios late in the piece. The 3/4 maestoso was superbly coordinated – this is a passage in which ensemble is very frequently poor, especially in percussion sections. The attention to detail throughout the performance was excellent, however. The maestoso was played with pinpoint accuracy, leading to an extremely brisk prestissimo which somehow seemed to gather further pace in charging towards the conclusion.

This was an electrifying performance that fully deserved the roar of appreciation it received. The RSNO’s 2010-11 season has seen some wonderful contrasts, bringing new music to the public ear alongside much-loved classics. The ‘Ten out of Ten’ series in particular, of which Transmigration was a part, was very successful. Of the ten pieces chosen by Denève as being likely to enter mainstream repertoire, several will do so, and the Orchestra should take great credit for this.