After six staggeringly successful years as Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève is moving on to a fresh opportunity, and a fresh challenge, with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra—but not before he delivers a final, celebratory season of programming with the RSNO.
Maybe it is a measure of his success that this year's programme roll-out leaves the statistics to one side; we are familiar by now with the figures, and besides, the experience of a full hall, with all the attendant warmth of atmosphere that comes with it, reminds us of what we've known all along. Ultimately, quality is unmeasurable—but people know it when they see it and hear it; and what's more, people like it and want more. And as an increasingly icy funding regime starts to bite, it is worth remembering that a successful orchestra is an economic multiplier. People who attend concerts visit restaurants and bars, they use transport; people who might attend feel better disposed to their environment.
Behind the scenes, Chief Executive Simon Woods has matched Denève’s passionate drive and commitment. He will already have left when the new season commences, but he has delivered two coups in the closing months of his tenure. First of all, in securing the services of Peter Oundjian to succeed Denève as Music Director from 2012 onwards, he has found a musical personality with some striking continuities with Denève’s. Like Denève, Oundjian enjoys an openly communicative relationship with his audience; like Denève he is not afraid to have tough conversations with his musicians in rehearsal should the need arise; and like Denève he has transformed the fortunes of his orchestra (the Toronto Symphony) through a blend of uncompromisingly high standards and enterprising programming.
Woods' other coup bears directly on the shape of the new season, which has the theme 'Auld Alliance' at its heart. The emphasis (can’t you guess?) is on Scottish and French repertoire, with all of Debussy’s major orchestral scores prominently featured in advance of a marquee recording with Chandos, due to be released in mid-2012. La Mer opens the season, in a concert that also includes the same composer's Marche ecossaise, Bruch's Scottish Fantasy (featuring soloist Nicola Benedetti), and a new work, La parfum d’Aphrodite, by the young French composer Fabien Waksman (Dundee, 29 September; Edinburgh 30 September; Glasgow 1 October). Images is coupled with Rakhmaninov's third piano concerto, Nikolai Lugansky taking the solo role (Edinburgh 7 October, Glasgow 8 October).
Most enticingly, Printemps and Jeux are coupled with the two Shostakovich piano concertos, with Stephen Osborne at the keyboard and John Gracie on trumpet (Edinburgh 2 December; Glasgow 3 December). L'après-midi d'un Faune follows in Denève’s penultimate concert, along with Barber's violin concerto (James Ehnes, who performed Prokofiev's first violin concerto in Denève's very first concert with the RSNO, making a sentimental return), and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (Edinburgh 4 May 2012; Glasgow 5 May).
So the scene is set for an exploration of French romantic and post-romantic repertoire, with a particular curiosity about works with Scottish themes; and a corresponding glimpse of some of the music being composed in Scotland in the same period. Among the featured works are the Pelleas & Melisande suite of William Wallace (the Liszt-inspired opthalmist, not the freedom fighter), which is improbably coupled with Strauss’s Don Juan, and Elgar's violin concerto—a performance that brings together Sir Andrew Davis and Tasmin Little for a live reprise of their award-winning recording (Edinburgh 3 February, Glasgow 4 February). Lisa Milne joins conductor Fabien Gabel for Canteloube's much loved Songs of the Auvergne, alongside Berlioz' Rob Roy overture and Franck's symphony in D minor (Perth 23 February, Edinburgh 24 February, Glasgow 25 February).
Other notable guests include, for the moment, Peter Oundjian, who includes Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie's Benedictus in a programme that also features the rarely-heard Martinu symphony no.6, Fantasies Symphoniques and Mozart's Requiem (Edinburgh 28 October, Glasgow 29 October). There is a welcome return, too, for Sir Roger Norrington. His programme includes the suite from Rameau's Boreades—some tasty stuff in that, let me tell you—alongside Haydn’s 85th symphony and Brahms’ second (Perth 12 January, Edinburgh 13 January, Glasgow 14 January).
The naked classics series continues its mission to open the classical experience to new audiences. This year, Paul Rissmann presents three works: Sibelius' fifth symphony (Edinburgh 18 November; Glasgow 19 November, with Christian Cluxen conducting); Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet (Glasgow 16 February; Edinburgh 17 February, with Stéphane Denève); and Mendelssohn’s 3rd symphony, the 'Scottish' (Dundee 26 April; Edinburgh 27 April; Glasgow 28 April. Word of an Aberdeen date will follow (or presumably precede). Adrian Prabava conducts).
This year's chamber series includes some attractive programming. These Sunday afternoon concerts take place in the pleasant surroundings of Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios, and Glasgow's St Mary’s Cathedral respectively. Dvorak's delightful serenade for wind, cello and double bass is coupled with Mozart’s wind octet and Jonathan Dove's Figures in the Garden (Edinburgh 11 September; Glasgow 18 September, 2.30pm). Schönberg's Verklarte Nacht meets Beethoven’s septet (Edinburgh 11 March, Glasgow 18 March), and long after the main season has concluded, there’s a feast of Italian baroque concerti (Corelli’s Christmas Concerto and Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza included), played on gut strings with period bows (Edinburgh 10 June; Glasgow 17 June).
And finally… Denève’s last concert with the RSNO for the time being comes around on May 11 for Edinburgh, and the following evening for Glasgow. The auld alliance brings us James Macmillan's Britannia and Ravel's Daphnis & Chloe, chaperoned by Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. All in all, then, a season that shows no overt signs of pinched budgets, but there is a subtle conservatism in the programming—no overt spectaculars to match the current season's Leningrad Symphony or last season’s Mahler 6, and not a great deal of 20th century music. I guess many Denève fans will have been nursing their fantasy fairwells: I've seen Berlioz' Grande Messe Des Morts mentioned, for instance. Personally, I'd have liked to see him tackle Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. Still, mustn't grumble.
Photo: Stéphane Denève