IT IS strange to think that it has taken our oldest orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, precisely 115 years to alight on French shores. That is, of course, not counting a tour of Belgium for which they based themselves over the border in France. But few doubted that would all change with the advent of French music director, Stephane Denève.
The event which has immediately precipitated the debut is the Radio France Prsences Festival, a leading European contemporary music festival. The RSNO are one of just two foreign orchestras invited to perform rigorously contemporary works in a field of 15 French orchestras, only 11 months after the Scots were publicly shot down for an "intermittently shoddy" premiere of James Dillon's Via Sacra under former chief conductor, Alexander Lazarev, and a perceived "lack of commitment" to new music.
The reason, then, for this invite? Denve, passionate about contemporary music, is a highly regarded young talent in his home country, a fact not lost on his friend Ren Bosc, director of Prsences.
It is 11.30am on the day before Scotland beat France in the Six Nations Rugby. The RSNO are installed on the shell-like stage of the Olivier Messiaen Salle at the headquarters of Radio France, a rather uncompromising modernist building set on the banks of the Seine opposite the bland tower blocks of the 16th arrondisement. The nearby Eiffel Tower looms magnificently lit up in the grey of a Parisian winter.
Back inside, looking curiously fresh, there is a palpable sense of concentration in the orchestra. In the auditorium, a few technicians huddle around sound recording equipment in preparation for the concert later that day. Denve is refreshing the orchestra on their first music commission of his tenure, originally premiered last autumn: Une Lueur dans L'Age Sombre. Literally translated to Light in the Dark Age, it recounts the 'birth of light' after the Big Bang. Not that you'd need telling - its shimmering chords and sliding harmonics, reminiscent of countless sci-fi and space-documentary soundtracks, couldn't really be mistaken for anything else.
Composer Guillaume Connesson is a picture of agitation in the stalls, his hands twitching with every 'wrong' sound. "Guillaume?" says Denve, twisting round towards the auditorium after the orchestra finishes a central passage for the second time. "Non, non, it should be more smooth," says Connesson, clearly worried. A frowning second violin pokes at the music with her bow and pushes her glasses up her nose for the third assault.
Later one of the musicians says that the first time they worked on the piece, back in September, Denve handed Connesson the baton so that he could hear what the piece sounded like from the back of the Usher Hall. "Most composers really can't conduct, although many think they can," he adds, "but the sound he got out of us was quite enlightening."
Denve and his troupe attempt the passage again. It flows better, whispering away to a silvery nothingness. There are rumours that the concert tonight will be targeted by a booing array of avant-gardists, a not uncommon occurrence on the educated French music scene. Denve pauses, twists around again without lowering his arms. The orchestra don't breathe. "C'est parfait," says Connesson, smiling for the first time all morning, and the RSNO let out a collective laugh of relief.
'Parfait' it is. The RSNO would undoubtedly never admit that they are ever less than focused, but no one can deny that their performances of late have had a certain drive. With so much riding on their first French tour - not least the continued goodwill of their music director, one imagines - the RSNO sound better than ever.
"I think that with a very good conductor or series of conductors, you get on an 'up' which lasts even if you play with someone who's not so good," says long-serving RSNO double bass, Robert Mitchell. "Stephane has come in with some fresh new ideas, not least the rearrangement of the orchestra on the platform. It makes you feel part of the orchestra, as one of my friends put it. It puts us all on display, and it's nice to get away from all the Prokofiev and Shostakovich of the past 20 years and try other music. We're getting a new sound." Mitchell is keen to repeat the French experience. "Touring really gets you out of the rut," he adds.
"When you play in Scotland, you always go to the same places, you do the same things, and it can become very much like any other job. Coming away, even for a short period, gives you that bit more excitement. People want to play well. You can relax and think about the music. No need to worry about the washing machine breaking down or getting the kids to school.
"It's ridiculous that we haven't been to Paris before," says another. "We have to get out into the world. If the Scottish Executive mean what they say with all this proposed funding, they've got to be prepared to put money into getting national companies on the road abroad. It's terribly important. Otherwise what does it mean, being national? It means nothing."
A FEW SHORT hours later, the orchestra file back on to the stage in the Olivier Messiaen Salle, trussed up impeccably in black tie and tails, hair brushed. If anyone has forgotten to pack their white shirt - a not uncommon occurrence, one member of the orchestra says - they have quickly snaffled a replacement. The auditorium, with free tickets, is full - not just with Parisians old and young, but a sense of expectation. Sitting nearby are the new conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Czech Jiri Belohlavek and the pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The audience is sparkling with the great and good of the French classical music world.
The RSNO play magnificently. Denve says it will be some time before he could put on such an 'adventurous' programme in Scotland, even though there is nothing radically avant garde, from Penderecki's Stravinskian Violin Concerto (rather overlong) to MacMillan's bawdy depiction of the Brits, Britannia, which rouses the Gallic crowd with its comic bells and whistles, before bedding into what sounds like the sombre grey marshland of the British suburban soul.
But in a city where audiences are notoriously cool and cultured, the success of the Scottish visitors is no foregone conclusion. Connesson sits mute at the end of the row, awaiting his French premiere - and his avant-gardists. But his work is given an enthusiastic welcome, the promised uproar curtailed perhaps by the fact that the main dissenter, a man too amiable to constitute a 'nemesis', is sitting directly in front of the composer.
With the final chord of a blazing rendition of Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane echoing around the packed 800-seat hall, Denve finally turns to face his home crowd with what looks like a tear in his eye. The orchestra are smiling and the audience erupt. The French critics, a few days later, applaud Denve, this "plus charismatique des jeunes chefs franais" and his "professional, virtuosic" Scottish orchestra. It is a resounding success which has surely rung in all the right Gallic ears.
Denve concurs. "I spoke to Jean-Yves Thibaudet afterwards. He said it is a little bit of a triumph," Denve says. "I feel a great emotion, like this is the return of the 'Good Son'. I'm returning to my home town with my orchestra from Scotland. Paris loved the orchestra and they loved Guillaume's piece. It was a move in the right direction for all of us.
"I know how invigorating it is for the musicians. It's proof that this orchestra is ready for big things."
For forthcoming RSNO concert details see www.rsno.org.uk