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Why is breaking up the RSNO so hard to do?

TWO weeks ago, I reviewed the weekly RSNO concert in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall:

the one entitled John Lill's 70th, and was very struck by a number of features, on top of the colossal performance by Lill of Brahms's First Piano Concerto.

During the first half, a thought came in my mind, unbidden: "We're actually seeing and hearing three RSNOs, or three faces of the RSNO, tonight." First we heard Stravinsky's short Symphonies Of Wind Instruments, for just 23 players on woodwind and brass instruments. It was played, incidentally, with extraordinary sensitivity by the musicians, especially by the brass, who performed with a discretion not usually associated with an orchestral brass section used to massive projection. This was chamber music playing of the highest order.

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And then we heard the RSNO, with slightly reduced numbers, playing as a chamber orchestra in Schubert's Fourth Symphony; and playing, moreover, with a lovely sense of style, compactness and the genuine integrity of a chamber orchestra. Finally, with the full band and all the big guns on board, we heard the Full Monty RSNO, massive in scale and sonority, and richly Romantic in texture and style.

As much as I loved the individual components of the programme, I found a special satisfaction in the variety and the diversity of the programme as an entity, which raised a question: why should we hear the whole RSNO, week in week out, only as a full unit? Why not, from time to time, break down the orchestra into sections or different-sized units, as happened two weeks ago, thus creating the opportunity to showcase those sections, broaden and vary the repertoire, and offer, at the same time, a variety of different flavours, colours and textures to the audience?

I know it happens with the string section when certain works come along, notably Vaughan Williams's Thomas Tallis Fantasia. But look how you could broaden their repertoire by giving them red meat - Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, the Eighth String Quartet in the fantastic and famous arrangement by Rudolf Barshai, which is variously haunting, harrowing and pulverising; or even a short Brandenburg Concerto, say, Number Three or Five, which would make an electric start to an evening? The band and audience would love it.

And what about the woodwinds? Don't you think band and audience would love to play and hear those lovely big fat juicy Serenades and Suites by Strauss and Mozart, which would give terrific variety.

Hang on, you might say: isn't this getting close to the chamber music series already running from the RSNO musicians? Well, if you are not careful in your planning, possibly yes.

But the point I want to emphasise here is that such a broadening of the band's configuration, activities and repertoire should happen in the main winter season, effectively throwing a spotlight on this diversity, just as it did in that fabulous Stravinsky exercise a fortnight ago, which enhanced everything else in the programme and gave a special tang to the evening.

I am, literally, just scratching at the surface here. What about the brass? What about the percussion? And what about the RSNO Chorus? Where could they all figure in such an enterprise? It's a huge subject, and I have tons to say on it. It will be back.

Of course, a chief executive might point out that he has almost 90 musicians on full-time contract, and needs to keep them all as busy as possible, so any sort of perceived fragmentation of those resources could not be on the agenda. And anyway, he might add, we are a big symphony orchestra, that is what we do and the public probably would not want that sort of change.

I would agree there is already a degree of diversity in this winter season, from MacMillan's amazing Third Piano Concerto to the War Requiem, from Turangalila to that mesmerising Stravinsky a fortnight ago. But there is a lot more out there, waiting to be hauled into service, with the enrichment all round that comes with it. Food for thought and discussion, perhaps?

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