IT was the week following a triumphant concert that closed the Usher Hall’s Sunday afternoon orchestral concert season in June, with a packed performance of Holst’s Planets suite teamed with footage from the NASA Space Center, that Edinburgh City Council announced a restructuring of its support for the arts that included a reduction in its grant to both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

In fact the recently appointed new chief executive of the orchestra, Alistair Mackie, had learned of the decision a few weeks previously, in just his second week in the job, from an email he read immediately after his first meeting with the orchestra’s board of directors. The former trumpet player’s honeymoon period in charge of one of Scotland’s national companies had been very brief indeed.

At the time his response to the £40,000 cut by Edinburgh was muted, but it masked a concern that the council’s decision was sending out entirely the wrong signals to the world.

“What’s interesting to me is how Scotland defines itself in the future," he says. "With Brexit and the question of independence, we need creative people to come here and work. We need to be a magnet. If we are going to grow, we need to be a country that values the creative industries.

“I cannot see the sense in the council of our capital city withdrawing funding from two of our flagship organisations. The Festival and the RSNO send a message out that Scotland is a creative place to come and live and work. The returns for what is a very small investment are enormous and I feel that Edinburgh council scored an own goal by cutting back support for those organisations.

“We keep an office in Edinburgh, and we do the same number of concerts in our season in Edinburgh as in Glasgow. We will continue to invest in Edinburgh with as much activity as we can, but I question the symbolism of the city withdrawing from the Festival as well as the RSNO.”

Now in his early 50s, Mackie is the first person in charge of our national orchestra to be a product of the music education system in contemporary Scotland, even if he made his career 400 miles away, with regular sojourns much further afield than that. As he himself points out, this Ayrshire lad’s return to run the orchestra is oddly parallel to that of Fife’s star classical trumpeter, John Wallace, to be principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, overseeing its transition to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“John was principal trumpet at the Philharmonia and I followed him there. He was principal at the London Sinfonietta, I followed him there. He left Scotland when he was 18 and came back when he was 52: I’ve taken exactly the same path. When I got this job he sent me an email saying: ‘You’re coming back to a very different country.’ I think he was right, and in a very positive way.

“I have been coming back regularly because I have family here, but I moved away from Scotland when I was 18 and I have watched from a distance how Scotland has developed as a country. I was excited about coming back, not just for the opportunities of this job and the cultural life, but because Scotland seems more positively energised than I remember it.

“I used to think when I was growing up that our picture of ourselves was sometimes defined by anti-English sentiment, and I think that now Scots are much more positive about expressing who we are and what we can be for ourselves. I don’t sense the same kind of rage against the South as I did and maybe that’s because I went to school when Thatcher was in power. There’s a much more positive expression of self-identity.”

Born in Ardrossan to parents who taught music and physics in secondary schools in Ayrshire, Mackie lived in Troon and West Kilbride until he went to St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh as an 11 year old. He spent two years there before becoming one of the first intake to the new music school in the West of Scotland at Douglas Academy.

“I was one of the original 11 kids who started at Douglas Academy in 1979; this year is the 40th anniversary of that project. I am huge believer in that model of education of encouraging talent without any financial implication.

"When I found myself appointed chairman of the Philharmonia, the chairman of the London Philharmonic Orchestra was Stewart McIlwham who was one of that original 11. Jamie MacDougall, Mary Ann Kennedy [both singers and broadcasters], the principal oboe of the Ulster Orchestra, and Justine Watts who leads the Scottish Ballet Orchestra, were all among those original 11 kids. I wouldn’t have pursued the career I have done if I hadn’t had that start.”

From there Mackie went to Surrey University. “My aspiration was to have a life as a performing musician but I wanted a degree. Surrey advertised a degree in music and physics but when I got there I found it was sound engineering rather than pure physics, and I wasn’t interested in sound engineering. And the truth is that I failed to get into the Royal College of Music twice, as an undergraduate and then as a postgraduate. When I was made an Honorary Fellow of the College two years ago which was very meaningful, because one of my great pleasures has been teaching there for 12 years or so.”

That RCM rejection is a bit of a Mackie family joke as both his wife Maggie, a clarinettist who is herself a head teacher of music at a school near the family home in Surrey, studied there and his 21-year-old daughter, a bassoonist, has been student president of the college.

Mackie met Maggie, inevitably, through music, but it was her father who provided the connection from the reeds to the brass section.

“He had lost an arm when he was 12 years old, and when he got to retirement and wanted to learn an instrument he was convinced by my trumpet teacher that he could learn to play the trumpet with one arm. He took up the instrument in his fifties and joined the Dumbartonshire Wind Ensemble and I met my wife Maggie through that - she was a clarinet player in the band.”

After graduation Mackie first found employment working as a lay clerk at Guildford Cathedral, and then played trumpet with an orchestra in Paris before starting to trial with British orchestras when he and Maggie were planning to be married.

As a freelance trumpet player he worked with Glyndebourne Touring Opera and the London Mozart Players and on West End shows before the Philharmonia offered him a permanent position in his late 20s. Mackie found himself on tours to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been round the world and I am huge fan of the way the Philharmonia plays its music; I really connected with that. I was in the orchestra nearly ten years and had no aspiration to be involved with the council of management, but then there was a bit of a crisis and I was elected and within three months found myself the chair of the board.

“The Philharmonia is self-governing and owned by the player group, so the chair has to be drawn from that group. I served two terms, six years, and at that point I was thrilled to have done it but I was very happy to go back to being a player. But there then came a point where the Philharmonia was losing its managing director, who was retiring after 29 years, and I was persuaded to return as chair to oversee the transition to a new managing director.”

That process did not go as smoothly as hoped and Mackie was further persuaded to take up the reins as interim managing director.

“I did that for seven months and was again happy to be going back to playing but a seed had been sown. When I saw the things I had begun come to fruition it was very satisfying. I didn’t really think management was a creative job until I did it, then stepped away from it and thought about the experience.

“I found out about the job with the RSNO completely accidentally when I was looking for something else online, and becoming chief executive of an orchestra was never a driving ambition, but I’m fantastically excited about being here now.

“When I was growing up this was the home team. My parents' first date was a concert by this orchestra of the Faure Requiem. My mother brought me to a concert of the Planets when I was maybe nine or ten years old. As I was growing up one of my heroes was John Gracie, who was principal trumpet. But I have only played with the orchestra twice. As an 18 year old I did an education tour to Oban and Mull, and in 2015 I was guest principal trumpet at a BBC Prom, doing Bruckner 7.”

He has found a group of musicians performing at the very highest level, he says, with the concerts at the end of last season revealing the RSNO at the very top of its game.

“Doing Beethoven 5 unconducted? If I had been here when that decision was made, I would have pushed back against that. There are so many things in the first movement that can go wrong, and this orchestra had not played without a conductor in living memory. But the results were extraordinary, exceptional musicianship and chamber music playing on a large scale. That contributed to the wonderful Mahler 6 with Thomas that followed it. I knew the orchestra was good, but it is better than I had expected. There is a genuine chemistry with conductor Thomas Sondergard. When he stands in front of the orchestra it is an exciting thing to hear.”

One of the attributes Mackie brings back to Scotland is an appreciation of how that experience can be shared more widely through new technology.

“If Scotland has a desire to be international, and arts organisations have a role as cultural ambassadors, digital platforms are where Scottish arts need to step up and do better. The

Philharmonia has 78,000 subscribers on its YouTube channel and 20m views a year on that one platform alone. The LSO is broadly the same. Among the Scottish arts organisations the one that is doing best is Scottish Ballet with 12,000 subscribers, the SCO has 400, RSNO about 800, and Scottish Opera about 1000. Edinburgh Festival and the five national companies combined have fewer than 20,000 subscribers.

Touring has to be built alongside that and I’d love to see the Scottish Government, alongside touring, supporting digital. We need to increase out reach and get our good work to more people.”

The RSNO’s new season of concerts has just begun; Thomas Sondergard conducts Shostakovich’s Symphony No.9 and Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with soloist Vadym Kholodenko, at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Friday and Saturday. [October 11 & 12]