RSNO / New

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

AS it decamped from its regular Saturday night home in the West of Scotland to Sunday at the City Halls, while Glasgow Royal Concert Hall has a wash and brush-up, Scotland’s national orchestra already had a busy weekend planned.

This programme was not an especially long one, but it did contain a lot of interest, and a great deal of music, and the RSNO was rewarded with a very full house at the Usher Hall on Friday.

The star attraction was saxophonist Jess Gillam, the BBC Young Musician finalist and Radio 3 broadcaster, who is not yet 25. She closed the first half of the concert with two works, the 1934 concerto by Alexander Glazunov that was one of the first written for her instrument, and Darius Milhaud’s even more colourful Scaramouche from three years later that is effectively a brief concerto itself, and which has given her the theme tune to her radio show, This Classical Life, in its Brazilian samba last movement.

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The Glazunov, which uses only the strings of the orchestra, is comparatively leisurely by comparison, although it perks up considerably in the closing Allegro. Milhaud’s piece began life as incidental music for a theatre production and brims with character, especially in its central section, where a small cohort of brass and winds provide an accompaniment that is every bit as rhythmically fascinating as the Latin American dance that follows.

Gillam’s was not the only RSNO debut, however, with New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New on the podium for the first time. Principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, she has made much of her career in the United States, where she is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. A dynamo on stage, she treated us to a full-blooded account of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, which was wittily preceded by a snippet of the score of Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre. While the Gershwin features old-fashioned car-horns in the percussion section, the Ligeti required three of those players to play a dozen of them, with hands and feet, in a deft, fun opening fanfare.

As if all that wasn’t diverting enough, the conductor brought the same athletic enthusiasm to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition after the interval, in a performance accompanied by live action painting by artist James Mayhew. A bonus rather than a distraction from the popular score, with which first trumpet Christopher Hart capped a busy night as a featured soloist, Mayhew took a very literal approach to re-creating the images that had inspired the composition. His matching of putting colour on black and white boards to the musical narrative was a virtuoso turn in itself.