An orchestral night to remember

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A review of the BBC SSO by William Crossan

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra brought its week’s residency in
Campbeltown to a splendid conclusion on Thursday last, playing to a packed
Victoria Hall.

The cleverly-constructed programme, based around the concept
of pictures in music, began with one of the most popular pieces in the classical repertoire, Sibelius’s ‘Finlandia.’

From the sonorous opening chords in the brass and lower strings, evoking the dark, brooding forests of the composer’s homeland, it was clear that the audience was in for a treat.

Conductor Rory Macdonald paced this piece just right and made the hymn-like central section positively sing.

Helen Grime’s ‘Snow’ was more challenging, as modern music can be, yet here, too, Macdonald’s clear direction helped the audience get to the heart of a difficult piece.

Its long, mid-register, melodic line overlaid with sharp, staccato notes from woodwind and pizzicato strings, depicting brilliantly the brittle cold of a snowy, winter landscape.

Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes,’ a suite of entr’actes from his opera ‘Peter
Grimes,’ required every section of the orchestra to rise to the occasion and rise they did, with quality playing in every department.

In ‘Dawn’ the lower brass provided a sombre bass line suggestive of the sea’s swell, against which tinkling arpeggios from flutes, piccolo and violins hinted at sunlight sparkling on water.

The melodic bustle of ‘Sunday Morning’ and the gentle chorale of ‘Moonlight’ led to the thunderous tympani and roaring brass of ‘Storm’.

This was music full of images that an audience living by the sea could readily bring to mind.

The finest music of the evening was undoubtedly found in the second-half
opener, Sibelius’s tone poem, ‘The Bard.’

In this short, deceptively simple piece, the harp held the music together and defined its mood, its plangent, descending chords soaring above a simple, six-note theme on the violas, beautifully played.

This rarely-performed masterpiece ended with glorious, restrained ensemble playing from the brass, building to a powerful coda. A somewhat melancholic piece, but rich in orchestral colour, this was a rare treat.

Mussorgsky’s great orchestral warhorse ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ brought the night to a magnificent climax and the audience to its feet.

Orchestrated by Ravel, this was originally a piano work, depicting ten pictures from an exhibition of sketches and water colours by a friend of the composer.

Linked by the ‘Promenade’ theme which opens the piece (great, crisp trumpet playing here) the subjects of the pictures could be vividly imagined.

Every orchestra section shone in this piece, but the woodwind deserve
particular praise, along with the percussion, who worked their socks off in a
grand and glorious finale that almost blew the roof off the Victoria Hall.

It was a wonderful concert by one of the country’s finest orchestras at the top of its form, under the baton of an outstanding young conductor, all held together with warmth and humour by the genial Jamie MacDougall, this was a night that Campbeltown will long remember.

Conductor Rory MacDonald’s arms are a blur in full flow during rehearsal. 25_c40BBCSSO06_Rory_MacDonald