Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève

Macmillan: Britannia; Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche; Ravel: Daphnis et Chloë

11 May 2012 5 stars

James Ehnes

So Scotland bids adieu to Stéphane Denève. After seven years of lighting up Scottish concert life, he bowed out in a blaze of glory, fêted by politicians, diplomats, business leaders, fellow artists, and the loyal audience that he has built during his tenure. Notably, last week and this, his programming was focused solidly in the core repertoire of the modern symphony orchestra, enabling him to showcase the standard of excellence that he and his ensemble has achieved.

The facts and figures – most baldly, the surge in ticket sales over the last three years in particular – speak for themselves. What is more difficult to evaluate is the psychological impact Denève’s tenure has had. Having accustomed audiences to a hitherto-unseen standard of excellence, has the traditional British utilitarianism, with the added local flavour of Calvinism, been permanently supplanted by a more cosmopolitan acceptance for the place of demanding and rewarding artistic endeavour in a healthy culture and economy?

That’s a lot to ask of one man, and there is an understandable undertow of anxiety about the future now that he has moved on. However, he could hardly be said to be leaving things as he found them. There is a concrete legacy in the string of excellent appointments over the last couple of years, most prominently in the shape of the massively authoritative joint concertmaster James Clark and his equally excellent colleague Maya Iwabuchi, and of course Denève’s successor Peter Oundjian. Although the latter is in many respects as different as could be, he possesses the same driving passion, and he is also tremendously articulate. The little chats with the audience that Denève made into a trademark – made into a stand-up comedy act at times – is something that Oundjian will perpetuate in his own way.

Usually he will say ‘good evening’ before the concert begins, and talk briefly about the programme and what to expect. Tonight he preceded each work with some commentary, reminding us first of all about the season’s running ‘auld alliance’ theme. The Scottish element was contributed by James Macmillan’s Britannia, a remarkable tour-de-force of brilliant orchestral writing and compositional imagination. Actually, a striking element of the evening’s programming was a running thread of onomatopoeia, with Macmillan evoking a variety of aural images from urban and rural Britain and rather cleverly layering these to create a temporal texture that gave a sense of historical depth or perspective.

The presence of Strauss in the programme, Denève explained, was to make the connection with his new appointment with the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. After announcing that Macmillan was composing a new work for the new orchestra (to be premiered at the end of 2013), he concluded his remarks in fluent German. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The performance of Till itself was full of the zest and shimmering brilliance that is so characteristic of the young Strauss with his pungent brass writing to the fore, directed with imagination and flair.

Immediately after the interval, the RSNO’s chairman Brian Lang took the stage with Mrs Denève, who was there to be thanked and fêted. Joining her on stage, her husband turned out for the second half in a full-dress kilt and, in a final address reached the point where the overwhelming emotions of the occasion rendered him speechless.

For Daphnis and Chloë, the same surtitle arrangement that we saw during Debussy’s Jeux earlier in the season was there to guide us through the narrative. In the same thought that had struck during the previous night’s Ruins of Athens, with a full orchestra and chorus, where on earth do they put the stage action? In this full-scale form (Denève had conducted the suite in his opening concert seven years previously) it is a strange work. Full of the most sumptuous and skilful orchestral writing, packed with utterly gorgeous vignettes, yet the mythic, magical setting imbues the work with a fey quality, the chorus providing a glowing pastel backwash that is shapeless as chiffon.  

Even that was part of the plan: something not too serious to complement an evening of celebration, joy and bonhomie. At the end Denève received a rapturous standing ovation as the audience paid their respects.

By Peter Cudmore



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