The programme Stéphane Denève had chosen to open his final season in charge of the RSNO illustrated the year's major theme more effectively than any press launch, that being the musical links between France and Scotland. So it was that they began with Debussy's Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire. Well, almost. Actually, things kicked off with Meggernie Castle, said popular theme. It was not, however, played by the RSNO, but rather by three members of the National Youth Pipe Band of Scotland: Craig Muirhead, Scott Wood and Iain Crawford. Standing at the top of a colourfully lit organ gallery, they certainly looked very fine. They sounded very fine too, if you like the bagpipes. I fear, though, even when played this well the tone of the instrument is not one I care for. Still, it was interesting to hear the original tune before we then heard it from the fine flute of Katherine Bryan. But in the hands of Denève and the orchestra, the winds especially, I much preferred it.
Debussy was followed by Bruch, but still with a distinctly Scottish flavour in the form of his Scottish Fantasy. The soloist was that favourite of local audiences Nicola Benedetti. Despite her regular appearances here, I think this is actually the first time I've heard her live, as other things keep arising that get in the way of the concerts. She played beautifully and was equally at home in both the slower passages and the work's more exciting moments. Beneath her Denève and the orchestra provided sensitive accompaniment. Yet, as a soloist, I didn't find she had quite the individuality or flair that marks out my favourite performers.
For me the highlight of the evening came after the interval with more French music, this time Fabien Waksman's Le parfum d'Aphrodite. He first worked with the orchestra a few years ago, composing a short piece for a concert I didn't hear, and was promptly invited back. With good reason, it seems. If he was intimidated by having to compose a piece to go before that concert war horse La Mer, it did not show, either in the music or in his jokey response, as relayed by Denève, that he might compose a piece entitled The Beach. The result, inspired by the story of Aphrodite's birth from the sea, was both beautiful and compelling, with Waksman making fine use of orchestral colour, especially in various well judged percussion effects. This was music that was extremely evocative, calling to mind a hot southern European sea, doubtless aided by the sauna-like and not very September temperature in the Usher Hall. It more than passed my key test for any new composition, namely that I would very much like to hear it again. Hopefully a recording will be forthcoming.
So fine was the Waksman that it slightly spoilt La Mer for me. I'm never the biggest fan of the piece, mainly because I don't find it very evocative of the sea and this always makes it slightly frustrating to listen to; I suspect if it was called something else I'd like it much more. That problem was underscored by following a piece which did so. Neither Denève's persuasive way with French music, nor the fine playing of the orchestra won me round, until the very end when he whipped them up into a thrilling finale sufficient to temporarily wash away such doubts.