sat 03/12/2022

Kim, RSNO, Stockhammer, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review - bold programming survives a replacement | reviews, news & interviews

Kim, RSNO, Stockhammer, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review - bold programming survives a replacement

Kim, RSNO, Stockhammer, Usher Hall, Edinburgh review - bold programming survives a replacement

Fascinating sequence culminates in heartrending Brahms from a young master

Sunwook Kim: an exquisite sense of suspended animationMarco Borggreve

What happens in an orchestra when your designated conductor for three gigs at the end of the week phones in with Covid on Monday morning? By Monday afternoon, when he was writing his introduction to the programme notes for this concert, Alistair Mackie, chief executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, still didn’t know. He didn’t know who would conduct or even if the repertoire would change.

By Wednesday we knew that the American conductor Jonathan Stockhammer (pictured below by Marco Borggreve) would be replacing the indisposed Finn Eva Ollikainen. With the first concert on Thursday in Perth, it must have been a tense couple of days for the little-credited RSNO assistant conductor Kellen Gray, tasked with keeping the show on the road until Stockhammer could pack his shiny shoes and get to Glasgow.

We know this little story, sadly familiar in these pandemic days, thanks to the unusual candour of the chief exec, allied to Ollikainen’s heartfelt Facebook post (“I can't tell how much my heart is bleeding that I couldn't be there for this beautiful programme. I was looking so much forward to visiting Scotland for the first time in my life”), and a witty welcome speech delivered from the middle of the orchestra by associate principal oboe Peter Dykes, in which he gave due credit not only to Gray but also those members of the orchestra sporting Movember moustaches. Jonathan StockhammerTo address the Usher Hall, even at a socially distanced half capacity, when about to play the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, is no easy task, but it is an innovation worth continuing. If we are to imagine how concerts might one day come back to full-bloodied life, then fluent communication between stage and auditorium is an essential ingredient. I had expected the repertoire to change: the second piece was Metacosmos by the Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (pictured below by Kristinn Ingvarsson). Given that Ollikainen is artistic director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, this looked like a very personal choice, but in the event Stockhammer took the entire programme in his stride, stipulating that there should be no applause between the Lohengrin Prelude and Metacosmos.

The Wagner was beautifully done, beginning almost imperceptibly and building carefully to its radiant climax. The audience obeyed instructions and allowed a silent transition to the equally hushed beginning of Metacosmos, a piece that the composer likens to the “speculative metaphor of falling into a black hole.” Given that a black hole is one of the most violent and unforgiving entities in the universe, and that the orchestra included several extra gongs and bass drums, we might have expected a noisy and turbulent interstellar excursion, but the overall atmosphere was subdued, with diffuse wandering strings and distant rumblings from the percussion only occasionally giving way to a rhapsodic outbursts of serene melody. It brought to mind the densely constructed and genre-breaking scores that are composed for the video gaming industry. Anna ThorvaldsdottirA slightly unfocussed account of Sibelius’ Tapiola took us to the interval. Admittedly this is a brooding, mysterious homage to the “Northland’s dusky forests”, with little in the way of a narrative, but the exquisite care and attention Stockhammer applied to the first two pieces was rather lacking here.

Placing Brahms’ First Piano Concerto after the interval was a wise move – let’s hope it’s one that will be repeated, and not just for the big meaty concertos either. For this performance the RSNO was joined by Sunwook Kim, who won the Leeds Piano Competition at the age of 18 in 2006. This concerto is often characterised as a titanic battle between soloist and orchestra, each competing to growl the loudest at the bottom end of the register, and that is certainly true in the opening Maestoso. With occasional pauses for introspection – some lovely woodwind passages – both Kim and the conductor drove their instruments hard, and when finally the pianist gets the upper hand and steals the orchestra’s big tune, there was a palpable whiff of triumph.

But it was Kim’s extraordinary Adagio that sticks in the memory. For a start, it was very slow, Kim putting on the brakes at his very first entry, but he then accentuated the slowness with carefully judged rubato, holding back the first note of each phrase by a hairsbreadth. The effect, especially in the many solo passages, was an exquisite sense of suspended animation, an almost improvisatory quality that brought to mind the Goldberg Variations at their most melancholic. If this makes it sound self-indulgent, maybe it was, but it was quite the most beautiful playing I have heard in a long time.

After a rumbustious finale, Kim offered us a Brahms intermezzo as an encore, but it was the peerless Adagio that I took home in my heart.

Stockhammer took the entire programme in his stride, stipulating no applause between the 'Lohengrin' Prelude and 'Metacosmos'

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Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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