Celebrating 100 years of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall

One hundred years ago last Thursday, the Usher Hall opened its doors for the first time with a concert designed to showcase its assets – an introductory solo recital on the then brand new concert organ, and a main programme featuring “The Orchestra” in music designed to please a late Edwardian audience and show off the now legendary acoustics.

The Usher Hall. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
The Usher Hall. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

On Thursday, to mark the occasion, we were taken back partially to those times, with what amounted to a classical variety show featuring city organist John Kitchen, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union.

It wasn’t an exact replica of the original event – to include music by the likes of Granville-Bantock and Ole Bull would have been to make a museum piece of the evening. But in a cocktail of party pieces by the various local participants, Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 remained a triumphant orchestral finale, as did such organ solos as Bach’s epic Passacaglia and Fugue.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Initially, it was a bit like going to church. The organ – bedecked in a lustrous floral display – played as the audience entered, John Kitchen revelling in the moment with such lollipops as Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

The light’s dimmed as RSNO principal guest conductor Thomas Søndergård took to the stage, offering a brief, light-hearted speech, before powering up the RSNO in the Wagnerian maelstrom that is his Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin. Only in this case it was a scene setter for Kitchen’s nimble account of Handel’s Concerto in B flat, and a fruit-flavoured transcription of Morning from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite.

Then it was the turn of the Choral Union in Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise, which was vigorous, neat and precise under the spirited direction of Michael Bawtree, pictured.

The middle third followed in much the same way: Søndergård finding brightness and light in McCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood, Kitchen giving the Bach Passacaglia a swarthy, colourful Victorian make-over, and Bawtree and the ERCU finding fluid subtleties as well as pomp and warmth in Parry’s Blest Pair 
of Sirens.

There was no danger of the evening dragging on when, in the final part, Søndergård delivered Beethoven’s Fifth like a man possessed. Fast, furious and exciting, with just the odd dicey moment, it was in the spirit of the celebrations – unlike the birthday balloons that stubbornly refused to cascade from the ceiling.

Seen on 06.03.13