Music review: RSNO, Jess Gillam & James Mayhew, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Under the baton of New Zealand conductor Gemma New, the RSNO, saxophonist Jess Gillam and artist James Mayhew delivered an memorable evening of avant-garde entertainment, writes David Kettle

RSNO & Jess Gillam with James Mayhew, Usher Hall, Edinburgh *****

A splash of jazz, a slice of anarchic avant-garderie, even a generous measure of live painting – the eclectic ingredients shaken together in the potent cocktail of the RSNO’s outing under New Zealand conductor Gemma New really shouldn’t have worked. But they did, magnificently, in a concert that was as unashamedly entertaining as it was intoxicating – and genuinely moving too.

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The avant-garderie came courtesy of the intentionally ridiculous Prelude to Ligeti’s opera Le grand macabre, parped out nimbly on car horns by three RSNO percussionists, and those horns returned to portray impatient Gallic motorists in New’s gorgeously buoyant, brisk account of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with a passionate bluesy trumpet solo from Christopher Hart, full of aching pathos. It was almost enough to overshadow the contributions from star sax soloist Jess Gillam, on hand for a simmering reading of Glazunov’s serious-minded but sumptuous Saxophone Concerto, and a far more rollicking account of Milhaud’s foot-stomping Scaramouche.

Jess GillamJess Gillam
Jess Gillam

And any concerns that the live painting from artist James Mayhew might distract from New’s vivid, glowing account of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition were swiftly dispelled: in fact, painter and conductor ensured that image and sound clicked together seamlessly. Mayhew choreographed his brush strokes meaningfully to New’s vigorous performance, conjuring a grotesque, Klee-ish Gnomus, a gleefully cartoonish Hut on Fowl’s Legs, and macabre glowing skulls to haunt the Catacombs. Maybe not what you’d want to experience every time you hear Mussorgsky’s Pictures, but it was nonetheless a revelation.

And if that wasn’t enough, a pre-concert concert from senior pupils at St Mary’s Music School served as an eyebrow-raising showcase for their talents and musical insights: organist Carlo Massimo’s compelling traversal of the athletic finger- and foot-work of ‘Dieu parmi nous’ from Messiaen’s La nativité du Seigneur – just one highlight – was breathtaking. All round, an unforgettable evening.