THE CHARM offensive in the United States of America by Scotland’s national orchestra produced a standing ovation at its first concert in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Monday, March 13 at the end of a stirring account of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
With the bulk of the audience in Au-Rene Theater in the Broward Centre for the Arts on their feet for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the completion of the published programme was neither the beginning nor the end of the story, however.
In the hall, conductor Peter Oundjian thanked audience for its appreciation, noting that it was the first visit to the USA by the RSNO in 35 years, and adding: “You get to hear a lot of orchestras down here in Florida, but not many who do this . . .”
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With that he turned back to the audience to direct the musicians in their customary touring encore of an arrangement of Eightsome Reels, during which further clapping along is expected of the audience and outbreaks of dancing would certainly be tolerated.
It was the last winning detail of a concert that already had plenty of persuasive content, particularly the soloist on the tour, Nicola Benedetti. She is playing both the Bruch and Brahms violin concertos on these eight dates, and her show-stopping performance of the first movement cadenza in the latter provides a first-half opportunity for spontaneous applause.
With Borodin’s Prince Igor as the concert-opener, this programme of late 19th Century orchestral melodies might look a safe conservative choice, but the work the RSNO is doing in America is extending in new directions well beyond the concert halls.
The travel to the orchestra’s base in West Palm Beach involved two long flights and a lengthy lay-over at Newark, New Jersey before coach connections to the hotel, but while most of the musicians had a free day on Sunday before the rehearsal and concert on Monday, associate orchestra leader and Artistic Director of Learning and Engagement William Chandler was taking others to the University of Miami to work with the Florida State Youth Orchestra.
Chandler’s orchestral career began in Florida, where he spent a season before moving to the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and he has been rekindling those connections in preparation for this tour as part of a new strategy to connect the RSNO with the communities it visits overseas as well as at home. He and the Florida youth orchestra’s conductor Huifang Chen played together in the Florida Philharmonic under the baton of British Conductor James Judd, who is the founder and artistic director of the Miami Music Project, the US state’s version of the El Sistema tuition initiative in Venezuela, which became Big Noise in Raploch, Stirling and Glasgow’s Govanhill in Scotland.
Chandler and his colleagues workshopped Finlandia by Sibelius with the young players on Sunday as the first of a series of masterclasses in towns and cities across the state that are happening alongside the concerts.
He says: “There are twenty members of the orchestra who also teach music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland so I asked the players if they would become involved in education work scheduled alongside the concerts and everyone said yes. They were all happier to do that than lie on the beach.”
The link with the Conservatoire is much deeper than just a useful skill set. Chandler and the other musicians are being ambassadors for that institution as well as their own orchestra, with the young Americans and their parents eagerly collecting literature about a performing arts college that was recently named in the top three in the world. The possibility of studying in Scotland – where fees are about half the cost of tuition charges in American colleges – is an attractive option for young Florida players. That interest may well have accounted for some of the younger faces among the audience of well-off retired couples at Monday night’s concert.
“On this tour we are trying a model of working that is a bit different,” says Chandler, “and now there is talk of specifically education-focused tours abroad.”
RSNO chief executive Krishna Thiagarajan is driving this expansion of touring as an important part of the orchestra’s long term strategy and a further visit to America as well as a return trip to China are already at an advanced planning stage.
“Our Spanish tour earlier this year was very successful, with good venues and wonderful audiences,” he says.
“Touring is an artistic and a business proposition. It has to stand on its own legs financially, but the artistic benefit is outstanding, with the chance to play programmes together more than five times in a row. The pressure cooker of a tour creates a stronger ensemble for Scottish audiences.”
He also sees a renewed presence in the USA, where he was working before coming to Scotland, as a new source of support for the orchestra. Fiona McLeod of the organisation’s sponsorship development team has been working to establish a new “friends” network, with its own board and bank account, in America. After today’s [Wednesday] matinee concert of the alternate programme with Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune and Beethoven’s Fifth alongside Benedetti’s Bruch in West Palm Beach, there will be a reception hosted by the British Consul General in Miami, career diplomat David Prodger. The RSNO’s American charm offensive will be nationwide, but the sort of citizens who have winter, or year-round, residences in the Sunshine State are a sensible first target for that operation.
Donald Trump’s Mar e Lago winter White House sits among many similar properties in Palm Beach, and a few of those neighbours are less than happy about the increased security measures they have to endure as a result of his election to the presidency. The Port of Palm Beach was on high alert at the start of this week with a drill that simulated an attack on the industrial sector of the waterfront including a hypothetical hostage situation.
The RSNO was in another part of the State at that time, however, preparing for the Fort Lauderdale concert, which took place in a theatre with a remarkably fine acoustic that also welcomes Miami’s opera and ballet companies and touring broadway shows as well as Bob Dylan, Sting and Alanis Morrisette.
The only missing guest on Monday night was Nicola Benedetti’s father, the businessman having mislaid his passport before he was supposed to be joining a family trip with Scotland’s violin ambassador. Although distressed by that unfortunate turn of events on her transatlantic journey, there was, of course, no public evidence of that in her contribution to what is already proving to be a successful ¬– and enjoyable – tour for all those involved.