Review: RNCM Symphony Orchestra


IMPORTANT: Please bear in mind that, prior to this review, I had never watched any live symphonies before, so please do not expect any high-brow musical terminology, nor any artistically divine analysis; only the cultural blunders of an orchestral virgin. Thank you.


Surrounded by a sea of pastel-coloured cardigans, I take my place in the University’s Great Hall, ready to experience the Royal Northern College of Music’s Symphony Orchestra. The RNCM are renowned for their virtuosity, but if that’s not enough, ‘legendary’ conductor, En Shao is at the helm of this musical leviathan. I think I’m in for a treat.

I say ‘think’ and ‘legendary’ rather tentatively here, as, from the outset, I really don’t know what to expect. Having studied music at GCSE level I have a fairly basic understanding and appreciation of classical music, but I’m certainly no maestro; I did the whole course without being able to read a single note. So, my anticipation at the orchestra is really more to do with me rather than them. I know that they’ll be fantastic, even though I don’t quite know in what way, but I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to live up to the high-brow standards of being in an orchestral audience, where the average age is about 55. You can hear a pin drop in the auditorium as the RNCM, primed and ready, await their master. I’m very glad I wore my knitted jumper today. It makes me blend in with the John Lewis catalogue nicely.

En Shao steps out from backstage like the prodigal son returned, greeting the audience with a friendly, familiar smile that exudes charm. The first piece, Debussy’s La Mer, works on a principle of tension and resolve (I’m already feeling the wrath of musical intellectuals on my uninformed opinion), allowing Shao to really stretch the expressive diversity of the orchestra, and this he does to great effect. I’m already taken aback by the rich, textural detail of the sound; there is, as people say, nothing quite like hearing classical music live. Prominent woodwind melodies cut through the mix like a knife to butter, whilst a rising brass section adds dread and an undercurrent of suspense. The conducting is graceful, swan-like in movement. All too soon the orchestra stops, and I quite rightly give them some applause. Big mistake. This isn’t the end of the piece, but the end of the first movement. I can feel the disdain of orchestral aficionados glare upon me, their looks almost shouting “YOU DON’T CLAP BETWEEN MOVEMENTS!”

Next up on the ‘setlist’ is a Piano Concerto in G Major by Ravel, and for this, En Shao wheels out a ‘special guest’, piano man David Gibson. Ravel’s piece is less accessible for the untrained ear than Debussy’s, opening with a string of discordant turns that transforms into a march, and then into a quieter piano-led section. These switches between beauty and seemingly off-key moments appear typical of this piece as a whole, which personally makes less enjoyable for me, despite the obvious talent of Shao et al. Gibson is extremely talented and aware of it, making appreciative head nods at his dancing fingers during playing, adding himself to the list of musicians that have odd facial expressions when at work (see Este Haim’s notorious ‘bass face’ for an example of this). Yet the second movement is extremely emotional and beautiful, reminding me of classical Hollywood in its sad, nostalgic string verses that tinge on bittersweet. Gibson leaves to applause, and I remember not to clap in between movements. I’m getting to grips with the symphonic environment, and I almost feel like I shop at Waitrose.

After the intermission, Manoj Kamps takes over conducting duties for another Debussy piece while Shao takes a break, and he does so very well, if with slightly less gusto and a more wooden nature than his predecessor. The last piece, Scraibin’s Poem of Ecstasy Op.54, sees a return of Shao and a masterful, powerful, dramatic sound. Raising his hands like a master puppeteer, he commands the orchestra assertively and precisely; not only that, he is a joy to watch, bouncing up and down along with the music, gesticulating wildly and passionately at every stressed note or emphasis in the piece. Despite my first impressions and the slight cultural snobbery, watching the RNCM has been an absolute joy. A man who I’m sat next to puts it aptly, saying it’s “a damn shame about the age, it’ll die out if no one young comes to it. The student tickets are so cheap as well.” After losing my orchestral virginity, I can strongly agree, and urge everyone to go and see a classical concert. Be transported to another time; it’s worth it.

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