DAVID Prodger, the British Consul General in Miami, knew his audience when he spoke at the reception that followed the RSNO’s second concert at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach on Wednesday. For the Scots he revealed personal taste for the music of Glasgow composer Craig Armstrong. And for the locals, who were the target listeners for Scotland’s national orchestra as it tries to build a supportive fan base in the United States, he was unafraid to talk in political language. In terms that could hardly be described as “coded” he worried about nationalist tendencies at home and abroad, specifically mentioning the upcoming elections in Holland and France, and praised the value placed on diversity inherent in the arts as much as the ascendancy of music-making globally by artists from the United Kingdom.
Whether by accident or design, his remarks followed seamlessly on from those of RSNO conductor Peter Oundjian at the end of the matinee performance. While the previous evening’s concert encore had been the touring staple of an orchestral arrangement of Scottish country dance music, Oundjian had chosen to serve Elgar’s Nimrod as the post-ovation bonus, introducing it as “something extremely British, while we are still part of Britain.”
There was ample musical justification for the choice, as another showcase for the superb string playing of this incarnation of the orchestra, evidenced in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony the previous night and again in Beethoven’s Fifth that afternoon, when the transition between the third and fourth movements had been quite distinctive and inspired and Aleksei Kiseliov’s cello section in particular had displayed a supernatural cohesion throughout the work. In addition to the ensemble strength, soloist Nicola Benedetti was at the top of her game on both the Bruch concerto she clearly loves so well and on the Brahms which we now know we can also hear her play with Ivan Fischer’s Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival in August.
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This first visit to USA in 35 years by the RSNO has been vastly different from my last exotic experience on tour with the orchestra to China, but not as I might have guessed. Although much more relaxed in terms of schedule and environment, the logistics in making it happen have not been as less complex than you might think. The change is much more in the attitude of the organisation itself to the whole process. The days when it is enough of an achievement to transport the vast party and its equipment to the venues and enable the musicians to play to their utmost ability are in the past. Carefully chosen repertoire has ensured that this time around that element has been both as straightforward as possible for a travelling symphony orchestra, and as likely to translate into healthy houses. What has distinguished this adventure has been the sharing of that top priority with the task of building for the future on every step of the way, and especially how a complicated agenda of goals has been made to work.
That Kravis Center reception had the added attraction of a performance by The Millennium String Quartet, who had travelled no more than a hundred yards from the Alexander W Dreyfoos School of the Arts next door to the concert hall. Matthew Itakkarainen, Elisabeth Schrieber, Cameren Williams and Dillon McCormick had enjoyed a master-class by the RSNO’s Bill Chandler that morning, and if their audience of well-heeled Florida residents was more intimidating than the class-mates they played in front of then, they didn’t show it. The quartet’s workshop session had rounded off just one part of the orchestra’s associate leader’s busy schedule of extra-performance activity on this tour, and it was busy enough on its own. In a packed hour and a bit, the violinist has coached another quartet – Sahana Shravan, Mikel Rollet, Anabel Tejeola and Daniel Hardwick – in elements of the background and the dynamic detail of Dvorak’s American Quartet, as well as concerto movements of Poulenc (also with Itakkarainen) and, at the start of the class, Mozart as played by 16-year-old violinist Valentina Paolucci.
Witnessing her performance, and Chandler’s enthusiastic response to it, was an enthralling justification for an early start to my musical day, and the opportunity presented by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland information pack left on accompanist Gian-Carlo Llerena’s baby Steinway did not go unnoticed. Nor did Chandler’s story – which the teenagers loved – of how he had explained the construction of one of the most famous pieces of classical music to primary age pupils by reference to the Minecraft video game.
That work was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which the young students could cross the road to hear the RSNO play a few hours later on that same day. It is not just wealthy Democrats the orchestra wants to win over during its time in Florida.