As the four year rolling anniversary of the Great War approached the commemoration of Armistice Day, so the number of civic and artistic events reached a crescendo of remembrance. This specially themed concert, in conjunction with Poppy Scotland, also marked the 175th anniversary of the RSNO Chorus, yet despite sparkling Prokofiev, heroic Tchaikovsky and deeply lush Poulenc, the lingering memory was the impressive sound of over 80 Glasgow schoolboys singing their hearts out.

Thomas Søndergård © Martin Bubandt
Thomas Søndergård
© Martin Bubandt

Written in 1918, Prokofiev’s short Symphony no. 1 “Classical” was a joyous opener, the players having enormous fun with the playful dynamics as Thomas Søndergård used fingertip control to achieve a light, airy performance. The sheer enjoyment was infectious, Søndergård fine-tuning things on the move, allowing the bassoons through in the opening Allegro and taking the strings on a journey from the stately Larghetto to the sweeping Gavotte. The eight woodwind players responded as a block, sharply pointing up the detail throughout, the trilling flutes adding texture to the scampering Finale, Søndergård smiling widely at his players.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor is well known and a lively showcase work. Pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk gave a thoughtful interpretation, taking the famous opening at a very steady pace building into a muscular solo, fingers rippling the whole length of the keyboard. For all the plentiful heroics in this work, it was the quieter moments that surprised as Gavrylyuk and Søndergård painted delicate pictures like the soft brass and piano passages and dreamily sweet oboe solo in the first movement, woodwind sinuously weaving round the piano in the second before two cellos and the piano took up the theme. Gavrylyuk’s solos were a study in contrasts, feathery and delicate one moment, stormily thundering the next as soloist and orchestra brought this most memorable concerto to a thrilling finish.

Glasgow Cambiata is a recently created choir formed by Frikki Walker made up of RSNO Junior Chorus of Changed Voices together with boys from five Glasgow schools. Their ages range from 11 to 18, so in 1914 many of them would have been signing up, really bringing home to the audience the remembrance of lost youth. The boys sang three songs from All Those Men Who Marched Away, a recent work by Ken Johnston with words by Jim Maxwell, arranged for orchestra by Paul Campbell. The songs were all simple verse and chorus format, Home Before Christmas a lilting waltz until Christmas came and Stille Nacht of the Christmas Truce threaded its way into the music. Kitchener’s Army began full of swagger and bravado, the music turning solemn with a string quartet and harp at the end, reflecting the many who died. Memorial brought us up to the present with unison singing, breaking into harmony with a bell and wistful hints of a distant brass band. The boys, each smartly turned out in black trousers and shirt with a poppy, sang everything from memory (three pages of words in the programme) with stunningly crystal clear diction. Volunteer choristers as they would have been volunteer soldiers; this was the first time most had sung anything with an orchestra. The sound had that raw timbre of adolescent boys getting to grips with their new deeper voices, a heart-breaking authenticity and a memorable poignant reminder as we look back 100 years.

Reflecting on 175 years, the last work was a showcase for the RSNO Chorus in Poulenc’s Gloria, written in 1961 after the loss of a friend in a car accident turned the composer towards the Church. There is no solemn Mass here though as Poulenc's Gloria is full of fun, syncopated rhythms and completely unexpected turns with moments of harmony so gorgeous it feels almost inappropriate in religious context. The composer was referencing Gozzoli’s frescos where angels stick their tongues out and devout Benedictine monks let off steam with a game of football. It is a work requiring punchy delivery from both choir and orchestra, and Søndergård’s precise conducting delivered a lively performance from both, Elin Rombo’s soprano providing beautiful moments and together with the chorus, an ethereal and peaceful Amen.

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