Music review: RSNO & SNJO: West Side Story, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

This was a concert of surprises, connections and revelations, writes David Kettle

RSNO & SNJO: West Side Story, Usher Hall, Edinburgh *****

What’s an orchestra for? It seems a question behind a lot of the RSNO’s recent work. And part of its answer seems to be collaborating, joining forces with other accomplished groups, exploring a wide range of musical genres, and reaching an equally broad audience as a result. The latest collaboration was a case in point: a blisteringly good concert shared with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, in which both bands got to strut their stuff separately, as well as joining together to form a stage-filling mega-group.

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It was a wildly entertaining evening of classical, jazz and the indefinable landscape in between – from Ellington to Bernard Herrmann (in truth a bit of an outlier here), and of course Bernstein (with two servings of music from West Side Story). And it drew a rewardingly mixed, appreciative (and big) audience.

THE RSNO & SNJO in action PIC: Derek ClarkTHE RSNO & SNJO in action PIC: Derek Clark
THE RSNO & SNJO in action PIC: Derek Clark

But it also pointed up fascinating differences in music making. The SNJO were formidably tight, leaderless save for Alyn Cosker’s brilliantly imaginative drumming, with an uncanny blend but thoroughly personal contributions too – all brought firmly to the fore in Ellington’s opening Black and Tan Fantasy. After Florian Ross’s clever medley of tunes from West Side Story, SNJO leader Tommy Smith’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue exploded the piece into fragments and returned it to its jazz roots – frankly, it was probably twice as long as it ought to have been, but it was unfailingly inventive and entertaining, pulled off brilliantly by fiery pianist Makoto Ozone and the SNJO players. And it had sensitive, thoroughly idiomatic support from the RSNO as a massive backing band, ably cued and shaped by nimble, insightful conductor Bertie Baigent.

There was a more traditional orchestral set-up after the interval for Baigent’s vivid, strongly characterised Vertigo music by Herrmann, plus Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, played with just the same vigour and enthusiasm. It was a concert of surprises, connections and revelations – music for the heart, mind and feet. More, please.