Scotland 9th and 10th November 2018 – RSNO. I came to hear Poulenc’s Gloria, I left with a sense of poignancy and deep joy – a strange combination.
On paper the programme was a little mysterious until, at a pre-concert conversation between Gregory Batsleer (Chorus Director) and Thomas Sondergard (Music Director) we learned that the Prokofiev had had its premiere in 1918, this was the only weekend they could secure the services of Alexander Gravylyuk; the second half pieces spoke for themselves. It was the 175th anniversary of the Royal Chorus of Scotland so they had to be featured – the printed concert programme was suitably designed and will make a handsome souvenir of the occasion.
I think I’ve said this before, that I feel I should know Prokofiev, but once again, I listened to his 1st Symphony (the Classical) for the first time this weekend. He’d set out to bring Haydn and Mozart into the 20th century and he certainly achieved that – but with overtones of what was to follow in his later music. The orchestra played it with spirit and delight and it was met with a warm reception.
I’ve seen Alexander Gavrylyuk perform before but his publicity photo suggests a less mature person than the one who scurries on to (and off) the stage and I don’t mean that in an ageist way. He plays with enormous maturity, skill and confidence – seen from the back he reminds me of a demonic organ player rather than a pianist. The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 starts with a bang – and he certainly gave it some welly on the concert grand – it echoed around the hall and it was a joy to hear. I would have been disappointed if he’d continued to play with such gusto, but he didn’t; he played delicately, precisely, with beautiful articulation (you could pick out every note of the runs and ‘fiddly’ bits) and when he needed to (towards the end of the final movement) he and Thomas communicated constantly to maintain the correct tempi and brought the piece to a wonderful conclusion. The orchestra were brilliant in keeping up with him, both in speed, precision and dynamics, loud but never drowning him out, and deathly quiet when he needed to rise above them. A wonderful performance deserving of the sustained applause (he seemed anxious to get off stage after each of his perfunctory bows to the audience). The mischievous grin in that publicity photo was obvious then – he was just delighted to be doing what he was doing. What a joy! While he gave encores in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, the encore in Glasgow was brilliant – Horowitz’s variations on Mendelssohn’s Wedding March.
Gregory Batsleer introduced the second half. The Glasgow Cambiata is made up of boys/young men between the ages of 11 and 18 (the same age range as those who’d fought in the Great War), unauditioned who come together to sing. The pieces – three of them by Ken Johnston and Jim Maxwell – songs about soldiers going to war – the words at times were optimistic and positive – Home before Christmas, Kitchener’s Army and All Those Men Who Marched Away. The tunes were upbeat, the voices excellent (and all sung without scores or songsheets in front of them) and the diction was perfect, so I had no need to reference the words printed in the programme. Perhaps it was the introduction from Gregory Batsleer or perhaps it was because I could hear every word sung that I had tears dribbling down my face throughout these pieces in Edinburgh (I was not the only one to do so in my row either). The (naïve) optimism of the words was tragic to hear, knowing what we now know about this awful conflict (I want to say stupid conflict but that would belittle the losses that were suffered). I’m sure there were very proud family members in the audiences watching their sons perform so wonderfully, and once again there was sustained applause for the chorus, Frikki Walker (conductor of the Cambiata) and orchestra who seemed happy to be ‘just’ the accompaniment to these songs. At the Glasgow concert, the members of Cambiata joined the audience for the rest of the performance, and it was great to see the attention they gave to the players and singers on stage – applauding enthusiastically and I can only hope that this experience will open them up to wonderful music making for the rest of their lives.
The last piece – Poulenc’s Gloria – had a personal link to the last – it was a piece I sang in my first choral concert as a 14 year old, and I remember the excitement of standing on a stage (the Brangwyn Hall) looking out at a sea of ‘grown ups’ who were waiting to hear our performance. I hoped that some of the boys/young men in the chorus had experienced that excitement as well.
As they had filed off, row by row to one side of the stage, the RSNO Chorus filed on from the other side and took their places, almost seamlessly – a polished piece of choreography. The soloist Elin Rombo had sung in the Dialogues du Carmelites with Thomas Sondergard when performed in Gothenburg a few years ago and he’d been anxious to secure her services for the Gloria. What a wonderful decision.
As a youngster, I’d assumed any religious piece was centuries old, so was surprised to learn when I sang it again a few years ago that it was so modern and of course my older self can hear the modern-ness of it. It is an incredible piece to sing (the alto line is just gorgeous) and the rhythms, particularly those in the opening movement, are particularly tricky. The chorus coped and the overall sound was excellent – great male voices, and strong altos (yes, I notice those more often) and there was not a really weak moment. Elin Rombo’s high notes came out of nowhere – they were effortless and stunning, particularly at the end, the tenderness with which she soared over the orchestra and chorus means I’ll be checking out cast lists for operas for her name. The orchestra once again were in fine form, coming into their own for the orchestral interludes, settling into their role underpinning the voices where needed.
The programme wasn’t full of whiz, bang, wallop pieces that got you to the edge of your seat, but I sat upright throughout, mesmerised by soloists, choruses and players throughout. An excellent pair of concerts and now I want to persuade my choir to perform Poulenc all over again!