RSNO Nicola Benedetti Plays Simpson, Usher Hall, Review

Rating (out of 5)
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Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Mark Simpson, Violin Concerto (Scottish Premiere); Shostakovich, Symphony No 5.
David Afkham (conductor), Nicola Benedetti (violin).
Running time

There was hardly a seat unoccupied in the Usher Hall, for Nicola Benedetti is deservedly a great attraction. That she was to be playing the solo part in an unknown concerto - in its first performance in Scotland - didn't seem to matter. The audience trusted her choice - and they weren't wrong.

Mark Simpson's Violin Concerto was partly commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and others in association with the London Symphony Orchestra who were the first to give its first performance in 2021. This was at their London's St Luke's, for many years a roofless parish church casualty of the Second World War and where my late husband was its Parish Clerk, but now restored for music.

Matthias Van Der Swaagh had both composer Mark Simpson and conductor David Afkham as his guests at the pre concert talk. Unusually, we were told, this was to be a two works evening instead of the usual overture, concerto and symphony. But both were masterpieces, one a Scottish premiere and the other a favourite.

Mark Simpson was working on his Violin Concerto when the covid pandemic struck. This gave him more time and the Concerto grew and grew into its five movements. He described how we were to hear the stillness that the pandemic caused, the pent-up energy that could not be released, more stillness and a final movement starting with a memorably simple melody before its exploding climax. And for whom was it composed? A special friend, Nicola Benedetti, who was the BBC Young Musician of 2004 when she was 16 - who handed over the baton for the same award to clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson, also 16, in 2006.

It is always a pleasure to watch Nicola Benedetti play, and the Violin Concerto kept her busy. I found it a remarkably appealing piece of music, wanting to be optimistic but not able to be so until its final stages. If I had any negative comment it was the dramatic momentary sharp shrill snaps, three or four of them, which I found disconcerting.  Mark Simpson came on stage to take his applause and hugs with Nicola Bendetti.

We had not seen David Afkham conduct the RSNO before. For many years he has been in charge of the Spanish National Orchestra. It was for him to lead Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. As he had told us earlier, Shostakovich was in trouble with Stalin and shelved his planned Fourth Symphony (which emerged later). The Fifth proved a success perhaps because there was no obvious single interpretation; it could be understood in different ways. We heard its underlying gloom of Russia just prior to the Second World War and how it finished with what could be adulation of Stalin or, for Shostakovich, an irreparable tragedy.

It was a remarkably satisfying concert and the programmers are to be congratulated. 

Event: Friday 22nd March 2024 at 7.30pm