Music reviews: RSNO: The Music of Harry Potter | SCO & Paul Lewis: Sibelius

There’s an audience out there for film music, and they’re not your traditional symphony orchestra punters. Here was a hall full of unfamiliar faces, many in family units, engaged in the RSNO’s selection of music from the Harry Potter films.

Paul Lewis
Paul Lewis

RSNO: The Music of Harry Potter, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall ***

SCO & Paul Lewis: Sibelius, City Halls, Glasgow ****

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When conductor and presenter Richard Kaufmann asked, “How many of you have been to an RSNO concert before?” only very few responded. The marketing potential was self-evident. But could they really be converted to Shostakovich, Wagner or Vaughan Williams?

Actually they already have, if you accept that the music of John Williams – the first of four composers successively associated with the Potter films – is a stylistic mash-up of so many of history’s greatest composers. From the Prisoner of Azkaban alone, Williams conjures up the acid bite of Shostakovich in Witches, Wands and Wizards; the pastoral oboe solo in Bridge to the Past, answered by a deliciously dense wash of strings, could so easily have been pinched from Vaughan Williams’ desk drawer; and the riotous insanity of Knight Bus – minus Lenny Henry’s crazy voiceover – darts between screaming Varèse and high speed Bernstein.

What really came over was a sense that the art of successful film composing lies not so much in creative originality as cinematic craftsmanship and a canny instinct for context. Williams’ regal Quidditch music resembles a multiplex pseudo-Walton brass fanfare. Patrick Doyle’s score for the Goblet of Fire is less frenetic, driven by easy-going pastiche.

A compendium of these and later series contributors – the world music influences in Nicholas Hooper’s Order of the Phoenix and sinister undertones in Alexandre Desplat’s Deathly Hallows – featured in the closing Harry Potter Symphonic Suite. It wasn’t an easy ride for the RSNO. Williams’ music, in particular, makes uncompromising demands on the players, more noticeable in a live face-on context. Kaufmann’s cool and calculated direction mostly allowed the magic to flow.Friday’s SCO programme was more for the regular classical crowd, possibly even enticing RSNO followers who felt that Beethoven and Sibelius were more their bag, if the healthy attendance was anything to go by. But it wasn’t without its own serving of razzmatazz. At the helm was SCO conductor emeritus Joseph Swensen, whose infectious energy (like his current beard) knows no bounds.

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture burst into life with, appropriately for the tragic hero of Collin’s (not Shakespeare’s) play, a brutalising warlike resolve. That same volcanic purpose continued in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No2, with pianist Paul Lewis, usually defined by his intense intellectualism, in uncharacteristically risk-taking form. A concerto so often dismissed as youthfully superficial suddenly had a hardened edge, exciting, adventurous and rhythmically exuberant and eccentric in the finale.

To couple Sibelius’ final two symphonies as a second- half package was to sum up both the inward and visionary polarities of Sibelius’ creative psyche. In the Sixth, Swensen matched restraint with purity of resolve; in the Seventh, seething optimism with cathartic resignation. An expanded SCO mustered the visceral intensity he asked of it. - Ken Walton