New RSNO season promises “riot of repertoire”

Sift through the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s new 2019-20 season brochure, launched last week, and every page points to a running theme: that something very exciting is happening regarding the chemistry between the players and their music director of one year’s standing, Thomas Søndergård.

Thomas Søndergård  PIC: Nikolaj Lund
Thomas Søndergård  PIC: Nikolaj Lund
Thomas Søndergård PIC: Nikolaj Lund

The photography is brilliantly bonkers – mocked-up shots of players hanging upside down or airborne, defying gravity in a lift. Images of the playmaker himself, Søndergård, reflect the cool precision of his directorship and are accompanied by quotes from the five-star reviews from his first season in charge.

Søndergård’s second season is a riot of repertoire, themes, soloists and the promise of more magic from an orchestra that hasn’t sounded so fired up since the days of Neeme Järvi, or Sir Alexander Gibson.

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Rather than simply continue Søndergård’s unfolding Mahler symphonic cycle in isolation, three of Mahler’s greatest works – the First and Fourth Symphonies and symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde – have been woven into a broader theme, the Golden Age of Vienna, which pairs each with one of Richard Strauss’ tone poems.

October’s season opener of Mahler’s First Symphony and Strauss’ Don Juan also includes Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs, with the incomparable Scots mezzo soprano Karen Cargill in the solo spotlight. Such context is important for Søndergård in presenting Mahler, but so is having the right instrument to hand. “As a conductor, I’m conscious not to programme it too often, but when I do, I prefer to do it with my regular orchestra as that’s where I find a special voice,” he explains.

Another theme emerging later in the season is “Beethoven Revolution,” a package of concerts celebrating the 250th anniversary in 2020 of Beethoven’s birth by programming his music alongside that of other composers whose music had a revolutionary impact. Søndergård will conduct one of these, a pairing of Beethoven and Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms), and the others will feature the RSNO’s principal guest conductor Elim Chan (with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique), RSNO leader/director Sharon Roffman, and Sir Roger Norrington, who puts Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony head-to-head with Debussy.

Popular composers – Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Brahms, and Verdi’s showstopper Requiem as a season finale – give stability to the major Glasgow and Edinburgh seasons, but look carefully and you’ll note the odd unexpected gem.

There’s a Vaughan Williams world premiere – the recently rediscovered choral work, The Future – rounding off a programme that also includes his most popular work, The Lark Ascending. Seldom heard orchestral music by the Romantic organist-composer Max Reger is set alongside Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony under the baton of Neeme Järvi.

Among the star artists appearing with the orchestra are Scots pianist and newly appointed RSNO artist-in-residence Steven Osborne, working with Søndergård for the first time in Mozart’s final Piano Concerto K595, and perennial crowd-puller Nicola Benedetti in Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 2. Actor Alan Cumming makes his RSNO debut narrating a new concert version of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, created by former Scottish Opera music director John Mauceri, who conducts.

Film music buffs will be delighted to learn that the RSNO at the Movies series continues, not just with such regulars as The Snowman and a John Williams celebration, but with an exclusive tribute to Danny Elfman, best known perhaps as composer of the theme tune to The Simpsons. That concert in November, also conducted by Mauceri, features the UK premiere of Elfmann’s Violin Concerto Eleven, Eleven with soloist Sandy Cameron.

Which brings us to what the RSNO is up to right now. This week marks the orchestra’s first US tour with Søndergård, performing concerts in Arizona and California, included in which are performances of the Elfman concerto, alongside symphonies by Sibelius and Prokofiev, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (with the outstanding pianist Olga Kern), and the American premiere of film composer Paul Chihara’s A Matter of Honour, a “musical memory” of the childhood years he spent as a Japanese-American incarcerated in an American internment camp during the Second World War.

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It’s important for the orchestra to be visible abroad, says Søndergård. “Not only does it show the world what we can do, but it raises the orchestra to a high state of alert. It sharpens our focus.” For a band already riding on a feverish high, the sky’s the limit for a great new season ahead.

Ken Walton will be travelling with the RSNO this week and reporting on the US Tour for The Scotsman. Details of the RSNO’s 2019-20 Season are available on