New RSNO chief Krishna Thiagarajan’s positive outlook

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The RSNO’s new chief exectutive wants to put the orchestra back in the international spotlight

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, which opens its new concert season this weekend with Mahler’s mighty “Resurrection” Symphony, has reached a pivital moment in its history. That could be said of any orchestra that is either about to move to a new home, or has just welcomed a new chief executive to reshape its future. But for the RSNO, both these things are happening at the same time, making this is a period of immense significance.

I see Glasgow as a city of production: one in which music, theatre, dance and opera are created and sent out all over Scotland

Dr Krishna Thiagarajan

The man who will see it all through is incoming chief executive, German-born Dr Krishna Thiagarajan, a former concert pianist who forsook the concert platform several years ago to forge a new and successful career as an orchestral administrator, most recently as executive director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York.

I meet him in what’s left of his old office at the RSNO’s Glasgow west-end HQ, the soon-to-be-vacated Henry Wood Hall. The orchestra has already relocated to its comprehensive new facilities adjacent to its principal performing venue, the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Those in administration will follow shortly.

“It’s going to be so much fun,” says the soft-spoken Thiagarajan. “It has everything we need: an adaptable space that is a rehearsal venue, a recording studio and a 600-seat chamber music hall. It will allow us to think more flexibly.”

The RSNO has plans to develop a whole new range of initiatives, including a chamber music series featuring constituent members of the orchestra, a family concert series, the fascinating Composer Hub project that will give five young composers (soon to be announced) an opportunity to develop their diverse styles and skills in a sustained direct collaboration with RSNO musicians, and there are plans too, says Thiagarajan, to develop the orchestra’s own recording label.

But what is really important, he believes, is that this city centre move will put the RSNO right at the heart of the Glasgow community it serves. “As an incomer who is fresh in town, I see Glasgow as a city of production: one in which music, theatre, dance and opera are created and sent out all over Scotland. We’re going to be a central part of that cultural neighbourhood, just around the corner from the Royal Conservatoire, the Theatre Royal and Scottish Opera. We’ll also be getting out more and making a bit of noise.”

The new chief executive’s plans in that area go much further than the surrounding city centre streets. I’m drawn to a list of exotic world destinations scribbled on his office whiteboard. “Only two things on that board are correct; everything else is to throw you off,” he jests, when it becomes apparent they are a wish list for future orchestra tours. One of them is the United States, a destination last visited by the RSNO way back in in 1987.

“I would like to see the RSNO have a greater global presence,” Thiagarajan reveals. “And one of the markets we should definitely look at is America. Just think, there are 5 million Scots in Scotland and 11 million Scots in the US. You’d be amazed at the level of exposure the orchestra already has on the US airwaves: not just the regular broadcasting of historic recordings, but also current ones.”

The same goes for continental Europe, he says. “I spent the first 20 years of my life in Germany where, if you tuned into WDR3 in Köln, you were guaranteed to hear an RSNO recording played within a week. The perception I have always had as an outsider listening in, is that it is one of the greatest orchestras in Europe. That’s the aspiration and the reality we’re working with. I want us to be strong at home, but I also want us to be viewed as the number one orchestra that comes out of Scotland.”

Thiagarajan has sought political support and believes it will be forthcoming. But how realistic is it to pursue such expensive dreams as India, the Middle East, Japan, European summer festivals and the US, when, as he puts it, “we are in a very restricted environment these days in terms of travel”?

“It’s no secret that I was hired to strengthen the RSNO internationally as well as at home,” he explains. “Orchestral touring is not an easy market. But we have to look into it, and we have to prepare it carefully. Just because things get hard doesn’t mean you stop doing them. Withdrawing from it is not an option.”

So, exciting days ahead for the RSNO? The revitalised management has plans to push it in more thanone new direction.