EIF 2013: City Noir (Royal Scottish National Orchestra) Review

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Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Peter Oundjian (conductor), Pinchas Zuckerman (violin), Tod Machover (commissioned composer)
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After rustling with anticipation, an excitedly packed-out Usher Hall suddenly exploded with elation to welcome, with the warmest possible pride, Scotland’s very own Royal Scottish National Orchestra, as its players processed onto their home-ground stage. Sponsored by Arup, this was one of only two performances to be given by the RSNO at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival and we were in for a truly city-focused evening.

The highlight – and a focal point for the entire Festival – was the world premiere performance of “Festival City,” a musical portrait of Edinburgh and its Festival, commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and its recently appointed Principal Conductor, Peter Oundjian. The work was composed by Tod Machover, who spoke about his piece at a lecture that afternoon given together with Oundjian, the orchestra and the EIF’s Artistic Director Sir Jonathan Mills. The eleven-minute composition received a rapturously patriotic reception and any recordings will surely be welcomed by the now desperately hopeful public demand. The people of Edinburgh contributed to the performance by sending to Machover their recordings of sounds of the city. This assisted Machover, who created a collage of sounds. It was an emotionally charged collage. The grandeur and magnificence of the city were admirably portrayed, while bustling traffic sounds swirled on top of a mighty bagpipe-like drone. First there was a sense of celebration, honour and splendour in the music; which then, towards the centre of the piece, symbolically depicted the centre of the city in all its green tranquillity with thinning texture, soaring pitch and twittering birdsong. Following this we heard sounds from the Festival, as mini-quotations of popular Festival repertoire became the subject of the final section’s collage. Angular rhythms, suggesting angular architecture, decorated clambering cascades of peals upon peals of bells. We heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, among musical impressions of sights and sounds of the city.

Peter Oundjian was filled with every kind of positive emotion as he whipped up excitement in his emotionally charged orchestra. He connected closely with Pinches Zuckerman, soloist in Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto, who played with intense musicality, assured wisdom and a magical sense of spontaneity. This was accompanied by a particularly polished dynamic control from the orchestra, who responded to Oundjian’s baton like magic whizzing out of a wand. Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino charmed with its romance and thrilled with its vigour. Rouse’s The Infernal Machine intrigued with its whirling perpetuum mobile, coloured by crisply oscillating percussion. Finally we were treated to City Noir - a three-movement symphonic poem written by John Adams in 1940. This whimsically lyrical, jazz-injected journey took us on a dreamscape tour, with cinematically vivid musical imagery, of the city of Los Angeles.