Usher Hall, Edinburgh 

Keith Bruce 

five stars 

IT is cruel to add to the BBC’s woes at present, but the fact that the RSNO has become conductor John Wilson’s usual Scottish orchestra for his excursions north of the border, when once the BBC SSO had him under contract, is the broadcasting orchestra’s loss.  

The Gateshead man, who remade the great scores of Hollywood for the orchestra that bore his own name, and is now sweeping up armfuls of awards for recordings with his reconstituted Sinfonia of London, is “box office” in a way that few conductors are. 

READ MORE: Review: RSNO/Qian, RSNO Centre, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, four stars

While English composers had much of his attention while he was with the BBC Scottish, this concert saw him looking again towards America – not excepting the work that took up the whole of the second half of this programme, Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. 

The Russian composer’s last orchestral work, written in exile in the USA, may contain references to his own earlier work and show the influence of modernists alongside whom he is rarely mentioned, but in Wilson’s hands it was most redolent of the music he was hearing in his new home. 

After the quietest take on those querulous opening bars and the initial rhythmic string figure, that is immediately obvious in the composer’s use of alto saxophone for the second melodic theme – beautifully played here by Lewis Banks – which almost prefigures the post-Second World War “cool school” of West Coast jazz. 

As the work develops, the muted trumpets and trombones and combinations of winds and brass come from big band dance hall, and those sweeping strings are undeniably cinematic.  

READ MORE: SCO/Emelyanychev, Perth Concert Hall, four stars

Received wisdom says that Rachmaninov was unhappy away from his homeland, but Wilson’s way with the Symphonic Dances had more vibrancy and light than morbid gloom. 

George Gershwin apparently partied like there was no tomorrow on holiday on Cuba five years before his early death. The visit produced his Cuban Overture, which was premiered a few months later by the New York Philharmonic.  

Its pulsating ten minutes of Latin dance rhythms opened Wilson’s programme and provided work for seven percussionists, including players of maracas, guiro and claves.  

It is a rich and complex score beyond that, however, in the writing for the strings, horn and trombone sections, and with lively solos for trumpet, flute, oboe and especially clarinet, where the guest principal with the RSNO was Jean Johnson. 

She was in place because the work that followed was Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, with the staff first clarinet Timothy Orpen as soloist.  It took the RSNO many years to find a successor to John Cushing in that post, but Orpen was worth the wait.  

He has a beautifully-rounded tone across the whole range of the instrument, as distinctive in the expressive opening movement as the speedy stuff that followed the bridging cadenza – and those challenging intervals in the work’s closing bars were as sweet as a piece of cake.