Ken Walton: RSNO’s US tour showcases healthy ambition

While Scotland has struggled to shake off the late snows of winter this week, the RSNO has been basking in the red hot desert sun of Arizona and California during a ten-day concert tour with musical director Thomas Søndergård.

Film composer Paul Chihara takes a bow after his specially commissioned A Matter of Honour, for narrator and orchestra, was performed by veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu and the RSNO at Soka University in Orange County, California.
Film composer Paul Chihara takes a bow after his specially commissioned A Matter of Honour, for narrator and orchestra, was performed by veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu and the RSNO at Soka University in Orange County, California.

What began with a relatively easeful couple of days in Tucson, and an opening concert at the University of Arizona’s Centennial Hall featuring a sensational performance from violinist Sandy Cameron (see Tuesday’s online review), has now accelerated to a daily dose of coach travel (eight hours of endless desert from Arizona, over the Colorado River, into California on Tuesday) and nightly performances.

Concerts in the “snowflake” retirement haven of Palm Desert, in acoustics as dry as the desert sand, and then in the tastefully opulent Performing Arts Auditorium of Orange County’s Soka University, with superior acoustic design by Yasuhisa Toyota (the man responsible for ensuring Edinburgh’s forthcoming new concert hall sounds its best), offered contrasting treatments of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony.

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In the latter hall, warmed by its more generous resonance, pianist Olga Kern’s powerhouse partnership with the RSNO hit boiling point in the Rachmaninov, Søndergård’s tight hold of the orchestral fireworks throwing out multicoloured hues that set the performance ablaze. His Prokofiev, depending less on the edge-of-the-seat bravado employed in Palm Desert to counter the dryness, had a more solid warmth that reached to its innermost soul.

Pianist Olga Kern has a powerhouse partnership with the RSNO

Soku University – one of Japan’s “super global universities” – provided an apposite venue for the second performance (the first was at the Usher Hall a few weeks ago) of the specially-commissioned A Matter of Honour by 81-year-old film composer Paul Chihara. As a four-year-old living in wartime USA, Chihara was incarcerated in a “relocation camp” for Japanese families living in America at the time. This eclectically-styled work for narrator and orchestra, similar in concept and sentiment to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and Schoenberg’s A Survivor in Warsaw, and using an assortment of quotes alluding to prejudices then and reconciliation now, is unashamedly personal and nostalgic.

As a backdrop to the texts, pointedly delivered by veteran actor Clyde Kusatsu, Chihara indulges in a world of ghostly reminiscences – flashes of Japanese enka, popular American patriotic songs and big band classics of the time –that merge in a kind of Ivesian mist. There’s a cinematic fluidity to the music, even a catoonesque spontaneity, calling on screaming razzmatazz one minute, ethereal impressionism the next, but always an air of honesty that was strangely and powerfully captivating.

Not all the tour activity has been in the concert hall. On Thursday a number of satellite initiatives related to and involving members of the orchestra emerged, not least the exciting news that the dazzling Sandy Cameron’s new recording with the RSNO on Sony of Elfman’s Violin Concerto Eleven, Eleven is now on general release. It coincided with her second tour performance in the 1,600-seater Soraya Hall in Northridge, a spacious venue filled to capacity as a result of the cult following Elfman enjoys in his home territory.

Despite the obvious derivative influences on this concerto, from John Adams to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, it was Cameron’s alluring performance style, a supercharged energy coursing through every part of her body, from whiplash bow strokes to mesmerising balletic footwork, that held it together and drew instant whoops and cheers.

Cameron will be in Scotland in November to perform Eleven, Eleven as part of the RSNO season, in a programme dedicated exclusively to Elfman’s music, and conducted on that occasion by former Scottish Opera maestro John Mauceri.

Away from the nightly concert activity, four of the orchestra’s key principals – leader Maya Iwabuchi, flautist Katherine Bryan, trombonist Dávur Magnussen and tuba player John Whitener – spent much of Thursday in downtown Los Angeles, presenting masterclasses to conservatoire students at the city’s Colburn School, part of a three-way partnership involving those highly talented pupils, the RSNO and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where most of the players teach.

Associations like this help the orchestra build relationships that further its aspirations to make America a more regular tour destination, which is a strategic ambition of the RSNO. But it also provided a fascinating insight into how deeply these RSNO players think about and apply their own musicianship – the power of relying on instinct (Magnussen), the importance of sound projection and taking a risk (Bryan), or the importance of recognising the trajectory and destination of the musical phrase (Iwabuchi) – and how perceptive and self-assured that musicianship is.

Travelling with an orchestra offers a window into its fascinating dynamics. This tour has shown the RSNO as a whole to be in rude health. It finishes in Davis, near Sacramento, tonight.