On Sunday 4 March the Clickimin Centre played host to the highlight (or the main one – there were so many) of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s visit to Shetland this past weekend, the Sunday Symphony.
I’m told the big games hall can seat 750 people, and there’s no doubt it was packed out. Whether the attraction was witnessing a once-in-a-generation event, or the music of two giants of 19th and 20th century composition, or the collaboration of an acknowledged master of the Shetland fiddle with the orchestra, and its collective power and variety of instruments at his disposal, or all of these together – we were in for a rare treat.
Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes were written to accompany his tragic opera Peter Grimes, a tale of violence and narrow-mindedness in a fishing village, and the unforgiving yet beautiful sea that provides its inhabitants’ living.
These interludes stand well on their own and are like tone poems of different aspects of the sea and the village. Dawn is deceptively calm, the sun rising over a gentle expanse of water; only later do you hear the underlying power of ocean waves reaching the shore.
Sunday Morning depicts the village preparing for church, whose repetitive bells have a slightly menacing insistence, while in Moonlight beams of light seem to glance off the water; at one point it’s as if a stone thrown in the pool disturbs the tranquility.
The concluding Storm is the sea in all its relentless fury of wind and wave, at times the brass section evoking the roar of a monster from the depths. Then even an apparent lull gives way to a final tsunami: perhaps the foundering of Peter Grimes’ boat, body and soul.
Chris Stout is deservedly well known locally and internationally, composing and playing with Fiddlers’ Bid and the harpist Catriona McKay, and brings ever more musical traditions into his repertoire. This, however, was his first arrangement for a symphony orchestra, not a one-off première, but a departure into a new realm: he was absent due to playing his new collaboration with Catriona, White Nights, with Symphony Nova Scotia.
After a slow and haunting traditional air on solo violin, taken up by the rest of the strings and a trumpet sounding incredibly like bagpipes, the 14 minute long Tingaholm moves into a quicker tempo which is maintained throughout, while variations on the theme are taken up by different orchestral sections and individual instruments.
The young Austrian guest conductor, David Danzmayr, describes it as “like an avalanche with more and more melodies intertwining with each other”. There is also the sense of revolving and expanding around the central motif of the Ting itself, a unity celebrating diversity.
With this formidable work, which was enthusiastically received by the capacity audience, Chris Stout has demonstrated yet more of his abundant abilities, and the commissioning of Tingaholm for this occasion by the RSNO was an opportunity amply rewarded.
The second half of the concert was devoted to another, earlier, composer of northern realms, Jean Sibelius. Well known for his nationalistic Finlandia and the Karelia Suite, his Symphony No. 1 marks an apotheosis of the romantic era of music.
The four movements are as full of intensity and contrast of both rhythm and melody as the finest work of Anton Bruckner, a romantic composer who influenced Sibelius.
Indeed at the end of the first movement, which moves from Andante ma non troppo to Allegro energico, one is left thinking: “Is that just the beginning?”
The second, swirling slow movement seems to have echoes of Russian music, and even in this Andante a storm is conjured up; the following short but powerful Scherzo has an almost demented conversation between the brass and woodwind sections. The Finale quasi una Fantasia takes up the opening theme and builds up majestically, again with changes in tempo, to an astounding climax, followed by two soft pizzicato chords.
Such a symphony must leave conductor, orchestra and attentive audience almost overwhelmed. It took a few moments for applause, vocal and from both hands and feet, to break out, and David Danzmayr had to return to the podium three times before it subsided, and even then it rose again as the musicians left the hall.
This was an evening not to be easily forgotten, and to be remembered with gratitude – for the best of reasons, and they really don’t need to be justified.
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