We live in a magnificent world in which it is our natural assumption that we may freely congregate in order to celebrate the wonder and magic of man's creativity on evenings such as this.

The events last night in Paris are a vivid reminder that mankind is also capable of acts of horrifying atrocity. The music we play stands in contrast to such inhumane violence and reminds of the heights to which we can all rise together. We would like to dedicate tonight's performance to the victims of last night's tragedy.

I would ask that following the Webern Langsamer Satz , a love song to all humankind, that we remain silent, contemplate, and hold any applause. From that moment on let us experience defiantly and whole-heartedly the beauty and joy of great music while we celebrate the idea that good will always prevail over evil.

Katherine Wren on Discover Day: Prokofiev

ProkofievWhen I was asked last year if I was interested in delivering one of the RSNO's new Discover Days on Prokofiev, I immediately jumped at the chance. I've been giving pre-concert talks for a few seasons now and I love the opportunity that that gives me to meet our audience and to share my love of music. It would be a real pleasure to spend a whole day looking at one of the most enigmatic and talented composers of the 20th century.

Prokofiev is a fascinating character. Highly intelligent (a whiz at chess, apparently!), he wasn't always the most patient man. Many found him aloof, even arrogant. Ploughing through archive material online, this comes across for me even in his appearance.  Matisse captures his latent energy perfectly in this sketch.

Prokofiev’s energy comes across in his performances, too. There’s a wonderful recording online of him playing his 3rd Piano Concerto in 1932, which became something of a signature piece for him: he was a superb pianist as well as composer. The melodies are shaped with a beautiful rubato and yet there is a potent energy driving the music forward. You can listen to it here:

One thing that I am very much looking forward to on the Discover Days is discussing Romeo and Juliet (and, in Edinburgh, Cinderella) with Scottish Ballet's conductor, Richard Honner. I played Romeo with Scottish Ballet and Richard back in the late 90s before I joined the RSNO and I know he shares my love of this music. We met a few weeks ago to swap ideas. I won't spoil the day by telling you what we talked about, but I will tell you how much I enjoyed my tour of Scottish Ballet's premises at Tramway – a far cry from West Princes Street, where the company was based in my time.

That brings me neatly onto the subject of our venue for the Discover Day in Glasgow: the RSNO’s New Home! Actually, I hardly know it myself yet – we've only been there for a week, but I can tell you that it is incredible! We are so fortunate to have it built for us.

So what are you waiting for? The chance to explore some wonderful music with me, to share the passion of Romeo and Juliet and to be one of the first people to see inside the RSNO's New Home. I’ll see you there on 7th November!

A view from inside the bear suit

I am a viola player in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra so what on earth am I doing on a cold March morning, standing on the very blustery Beach Boulevard in Aberdeen, dressed head to toe in a big furry bear suit?!

Well, six other RSNO musicians and I are in Aberdeen to present our under 5s chamber music concerts to over 400 nursery and primary school children at the Beach Ballroom as part of the Learning Through the Arts Festival organised by Aberdeen Arts.

These concerts were first devised five years ago for one of the orchestra’s Out and About weeks – a unique week in our year where we take up residency in a particular area of Scotland (usually one that we don’t visit as much as we’d like to) and try to reach out to as much of the community as we can.  Quite often we find ourselves in small groups which is exactly how this group was born.

The group is made up of a flute, violin, clarinet, bassoon, double bass and percussion although part of its success lies in its flexibility – we can swap instruments in and out – a French horn instead of a clarinet, or a cello instead of a bassoon for instance, giving the audience a broad representation of instruments of the orchestra.  We play orchestral music ‘reduced’ to suit the instrumentation of the group.

This particular show is a Teddy Bears Picnic and I am the presenter – Big Bear.  The rest of the band are musical bears except for the double bass player who is an elephant and has lost their way and quite literally bumped into a sleuth of bears on their way to a picnic.  Children love three things: silliness, stories and songs and I try to incorporate all of these which is why I am dressed like this for a start!  I read the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears accompanied by the incredible music of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (trust me, it really works) and I get chased by bees during Vaughan Williams' The Wasps Overture.  Then I sweat a thousand calories dancing to The Sailors Hornpipe, encouraging the children to do the same.  It's silly, it's fun but it exposes these impressionable minds to some of the most fantastic music ever written and to sounds they have probably never heard before.

I've been thinking a lot about connections recently.  As musicians, connecting with people is essentially what we do.  In the concert halls across Scotland, week after week, people are touched by our music – that very raw emotion within us that no one can see is exposed by that music and we make that connection without uttering a single word.  It doesn't necessarily have to be an uplifting experience but it definitely enriches our soul.

It saddened me to learn the other day that there are children in Scotland who arrive at school unable to recognise even their own name – no one has made that primal connection with them that we all so desperately need to thrive in this world.  I'm not saying that our concerts are going to change that but music has a profound effect on people, even at a very young age.

So, what's in it for us musicians?  Well, for me, I have a lot of creative input into this venture and it makes a big change from my day job of playing "mm, cha, cha" (which I love, don’t get me wrong!).  It's a challenge figuring how to make the shows engaging but informative at the same time.  We play without conductor so the band have the challenge of staying together by themselves – a good way of sharpening one's aural and visual tools.  But, most of all, I think we have fun too – who wouldn't in a hall full of 3- and 4-year-olds, completely free of any inhibitions, having a really good time, and being as cute as only they can be?

As I see over 3000 nursery children visiting the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow this week to hear the full RSNO perform its Teddy Bears Easter Picnic, I really hope that this groups builds on its success so far. Music is so important at every stage of our development but none more so than in those early years.  All I can say is "watch this space!"

2015:16 Season Launch Event

RSNO 2015:16 Season Launch

“Do you really want to know?” This was RSNO Principal Double Bass Ana Cordova’s response to Classic FM’s Anne-Marie Minhall when she asked what drew her to her instrument. Anne-Marie was in conversation with Ana, Music Director Peter Oundjian, and Principal Oboe Adrian Wilson as part of the RSNO 2015:16 Season launch at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Wednesday. It was very exciting to be among over 200 RSNO subscribers invited to find out what we can expect from the RSNO’s 125th Anniversary celebrations.

We really did want to know, so Ana went on to explain that in school she was hyperactive and her doctors sent her to obligatory after school ‘activity’ classes. During this time she tried the piano and trumpet with little success before her mother suggested learning violin. Naturally, she rebelled and chose double bass instead. She found she loved it and the rest is history.

Watching Ana perform Gaspar Cassadó’s Requiebros, loosely translated as ‘a chat up line’, was truly mesmerizing. Having never heard the double bass performed as a solo instrument before, I was fascinated to see Ana make an instrument, normally praised for its low, powerful rumblings, sound playful, intricate and coy. She introduced the piece by saying, “I hope this gives you a little taste of the spicy flavour to the Spanish way of life.” She certainly did.

It is the opportunity to get a little closer to RSNO musicians that make these events so special and Principal Oboe Adrian Wilson had an equally interesting story to tell about how he came to his instrument:

“I started playing recorder at school. My recorder teacher told me he could see me playing the oboe. I had no idea what an oboe was but he got me one. He told me ‘I can’t teach you but I think you should try to play it.’ The strange thing is, he died a week later and I often wonder what would have been if he had never mentioned it. I might still not know what an oboe is.”

And thank goodness he does. Adrian played the Sonata for Piano and Oboe by Francis Poulenc dedicated to the memory of his great friend Serge Prokofiev. He captured Poulenc’s grieving process beautifully from the affectionate memory of friendship, to anger at its loss, before quiet acceptance.

And that was just the music! The rest of the evening was made up of short speeches made by Acting Chief Executive, Kenneth Osborne, and RSNO Executive Producer Manus Carey. I was very interested to hear Manus explain his motives for programming the 2015:16 Season; the first of a two-season 125th anniversary celebration. It will be a programme to celebrate the RSNO’s rich heritage, and to take the RSNO forward as they move into their new home.

Of particular note, was the announcement that former Music Directors Stéphane Denève, Alexander Lazarev will return to the RSNO with a programme from their respective home countries, France and Russia. Two concerts I will be sure not to miss!

Excitement over the potential of the new home was clear throughout the evening with Peter Oundjian imaging what the RSNO will do with the new space and Manus giving us a sneak peek into some of the initiatives that will be run there. I look forward to attending the ‘Under the skin of’ initiatives which will be an opportunity to learn more about the composers Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky in a more intimate setting.

However, perhaps the most inspiring thing I took away from the evening was realising how important our subscribers, donors and partners are to us. I came to better understand that without them our work wouldn’t continue. The RSNO is much more than the musicians sitting on the stage; it is a community of people who love music. What an evening!

Sitting in the balcony with an RSNO legend

There is electricity in the rehearsal hall today (Thursday). The atmosphere is positively charged with such energy, such emotion. And the focal point, the man wielding this power, is the legendary conductor Neeme Järvi.

As Conductor Laureate, Neeme has a gloriously rich past with the RSNO. Principal Conductor for 5 years from 1984 to 1988, and a regular guest conductor ever since, he holds a special place in the hearts of the RSNO's musicians and audiences alike, and that fact is inescapable in the rehearsal hall. I am not alone in the balcony today; joining me are donors, RCS conducting students, interns...Everyone is eager to see the master at work.

I've had the privilege of seeing Neeme conduct on many occasions, but this is the first time I've sat in on one of his rehearsals. I've often wondered what rehearsals with Neeme would be like, and it's just as I had imagined, only better! He always commands such powerful performances on stage with his inimitable, almost minimal, style of conducting; the slightest gesture of a hand, a finger, a shoulder, a look, the raise of an eyebrow.

Sat on the conductor's stool, his voice is gentle and calm as he direct the musicians through Shostakovich's Fifth. From the power and immense wall of sound in the opening movement to the whispering tremolando accompanying the softest of clarinet and flute figures in the Largo, the sound is immediately, unmistakably Järvi. Perhaps not surprisingly given their history of working together, but they have also spent the last couple of days recording together.

Neeme arrived on Sunday and was straight into an evening recording session with the Orchestra which continued on Monday and Tuesday; no less than fifteen works by Julius Fučik were committed to disc for Chandos.  Now, today, work begins for this weekend's concerts.  It is a schedule that would tire most mere mortals, but at 77 years young, Neeme is showing no signs of slowing down...And thank goodness for that, or we would be denied some truly wonderful performances.

Until the next time...


Neeme Järvi will conduct the RSNO in a programme of Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No3 with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and Shostakovich's Symphony No5 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Friday 20 February 2015, then at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday 21 February 2015. Tickets can be bought online at 

Sitting in the balcony thinking about love...

Today (Tue 10 Feb) I'm sitting in the balcony thinking about love...or rather, the relationship between love and music!

One of my favourite Shakespeare quotes is from Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick says to no-one in particular: "Is it not strange that sheeps' guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?"  And I quite agree...Strings on musical instruments are not generally made from sheeps' guts these days, but there is simply something about music that can speak straight to the soul. There is certain music which can pull on your heart-strings before your ears really have the chance to listen to it, and this rehearsal that I'm currently enjoying is packed full of it.

This week, the Orchestra is going to be performing some wonderfully passionate music in our special Valentine's concert, Latin Passion. But there's very little slushy romantic sentimentalism here; instead this concert is packed with pulsing, swaying rhythms of Chabrier's Habañera, fiery passion in De Falla's El sombrero de tres picos...It's such an inspiring programme!

This concert is not just featuring classical music though. This year we're also having a foray into the world of love themes from the movies: John Williams' soaring Love Theme from Superman, Morricone's heart-breaking theme Gabriel's Oboe from The Mission (featuring our wonderful new Principal Oboe, Adrian Wilson), and Barry's timeless Theme from Out of Africa.

Our conductor this week is our fabulous French-Canadian Assistant Conductor Jean-Claude Picard. Jean-Claude has been with the Orchestra since June 2013 and his rapport with the musicians is clear to see.  I caught up with Jean-Claude after the rehearsal:

"We just had our first rehearsal this morning for this weekend's concerts and it's quite obvious to me and the musicians that this programme is very seductive. I can't wait to share the passion of the music with our audiences in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow!"

Our soloist this week is harpist Xavier de Maistre. He'll be performing Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, a piece more commonly associated with the guitar, but the arrangement for harp is quite something. We came across a video of him performing it with Kristjan Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris, so here it is as a little something to whet your appetite... (

The RSNO's Latin Passion concert will take place in Dundee's Caird Hall on Thursday 12 February, The Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Friday 13 February and the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday 14 February. Tickets are still available for all performances, priced from just £12.50.  Visit to book.

Until the next time...


The faces behind the Enigma...

Elgar's Enigma Variations are well known for being dedicated to, as he put it, "my friends pictured within".  Each characterful variation is packed full of personality, and whilst the music can give a vivid portrayal of a person's nature, I've often found myself wondering what Elgar's friends actually looked like.  Well, wonder no more!  Thanks to our wonderful friends at The Elgar Birthplace Museum, we now know have pictures of each of them, in all their Victorian glory.

Variation I (L'istesso tempo) C.A.E.

C. Alice Elgar - Elgar's wife.

C. Alice Elgar.

Variation II (Allegro) H.D.S-P.
Hew David Steuart-Powell - a well-known amateur pianist and a great player of chamber music.

Hew David Steuart-Powell

Variation III (Allegretto) R.B.T.
Richard Baxter Townshend, Oxford don and author of the "Tenderfoot" series of books.

Richard Baxter Townshend

Variation IV (Allegro di molto) W.M.B.
William Meath Baker, squire of Hasfield, Gloucestershire.

William Meath Baker

Variation V (Moderato) R.P.A.
Richard Penrose Arnold, the son of the poet Matthew Arnold, and himself an amateur pianist.

Richard Penrose Arnold

Variation VI (Andantino) Ysobel

Isabel Fitton, a viola pupil of Elgar's.

Isabel FittonVariation VII (Presto) Troyte

Arthur Troyte Griffith, an architect and an "incompetent pianist"! Variation VIII (Allegretto) W.N.
Winifred Norbury, a easy-going friend Elgar's.Variation IX (Adagio) Nimrod
Augustus J. Jaeger - Elgar's close friend and music editor for his publisher, Novello & Co.Variation X (Intermezzo: Allegretto) Dorabella

Dora Penny, a friend whose stutter is depicted by the woodwinds.Variation XI (Allegro di molto) G.R.S.
George Robertson Sinclair, the energetic organist of Hereford Cathedral, with his bulldog, Dan (a well-known character) whose falling down a riverbank inspired this variation.Variation XII (Andante) B.G.N.

Basil G. Nevinson, a well known cellist. In later years, Nevinson would become the inspiration for Elgar's Cello Concerto.Variation XIII (Romanza: Moderato)  * * * 

Lady Mary Lygon, eldest daughter of the late 6th Earl Beauchamp, a personal friend of Alice and Edward Elgar's. She also promoted the Madresfield Music Festivals and was a keen supporter of Elgar's music.Variation XIV (Finale: Allegro Presto) E.D.U.

Edward Elgar!So there we have it, a face to put to the name... or should that be a face to put to the variation!  I know I'll certainly enjoy thinking of these pictures at our Elgar's Enigma concerts this weekend. You can hear the RSNO perform Elgar's Enigma Variations, conducted by Rory Macdonald, on Friday 7 November in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and on Saturday 8 November at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Both concerts start at 7.30pm.Some tickets are still available should you not have yours yet - just click here to book!Until the next time...CatAll images courtesy of The Elgar Birthplace Museum in Lower Broadheath, Worcester.

Arthur Troyte Griffith

Winifred Norbury

Augustus J. Jaeger

Dora Penny

George Robertson Sinclair and Dan the bulldog

Basil G. Nevinson

Lady Mary Lygon

Edward Elgar

Sitting in the balcony with old friends.

Today I'm back in my favourite seat in Henry Wood Hall; up in the balcony listening to the first rehearsal of the week. As poppies start appearing on lapels across the land, the RSNO will be performing a very special programme to commemorate Remembrance Day in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

This week's concerts are conducted by Rory Macdonald – a young Scot who is establishing a great career conducting in the likes of Covent Garden, Vienna Konzerthaus, Sydney Opera House and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Earlier this week he spoke to Kate Molleson of The Herald:

"There's a special kind of nervousness that applies to performing at home. How can there not be? I'll have friends, family, my old music teachers in the audience. They'll all be remembering me as a wee boy."

And he was right, in a way. When Rory arrived last week for an RSNO chorus rehearsal with Sally Beamish (for the Scottish Premiere of her new work Equal Voices), I realised we were seeing each other for the first time in about 14 or 15 years. You see, Rory and I played in West of Scotland Schools Symphony Orchestra (WSSSO) together between 1996 and 1998, under the baton of William Conway. But I wouldn't say I remember him as a "wee boy". Even back then, I realised that Rory was an immensely talented individual. When we first met, I was in 3rd year at school sitting in the second violins; he was in 5th year – the leader of the Orchestra, and an incredible violinist. (Incidentally, it turned out that his then desk partner, Martin Suckling, would go on to great things too. His compositions have been performed by orchestras such as the LSO, BBC SSO, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, London Sinfonietta, Scottish Ensemble and Hebrides Ensemble and he is currently the Composer in Association with our colleagues at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.)

I mention my time at WSSSO not simply because it's how I knew Rory back in the day, but because in our second year at WSSSO –Rory still leading, me now in the ranks of the first violins – we performed Elgar's Enigma Variations, one of the pieces he will be conducting with the RSNO this week.  I still have very fond memories of the residential week of rehearsals in Castle Toward and the performances that followed so this is why, when I saw Rory's name on the Season planning documents alongside the Enigma Variations, I just knew within myself that this week's concerts were going to be great.

I had to just stop writing there. The orchestra had just got to that amazing bit where the last note from the eighth variation leads into the ninth... Nimrod. I just had to stop and listen. My heart is thumping and I don't mind admitting that my eyes are welling up. Wow.

Right, where was I? Ah yes, the concerts. Elgar's Enigma Variations are simply stunning. And I'm not just talking about Nimrod. My personal favourite is actually the twelfth – B.G.N. The soaring cello line is so intense; hesitant in places, insistent in others. It has an inherent sadness, and yet, so beautiful...

It's little wonder that this piece, alongside his Cello Concerto which Aleksei Kiseliov performed so wonderfully a couple of weeks ago, is considered one of Elgar's best compositions and is a firm favourite amongst British Orchestras and audiences alike.

You can hear Elgar's Enigma Variations, conducted by Rory Macdonald, on Friday 7 November in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh and on Saturday 8 November at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Both concerts start at 7.30pm.
If you haven't got your tickets yet, please visit

Until the next time...


Sitting in the balcony with Elgar

Sitting in the balcony with Elgar

Listening to a professional orchestra rehearse is a privilege that not very many people get to experience, but every so often I like to take some time away from my desk in the RSNO's office and nip up to the balcony of the Henry Wood Hall to sit and listen to the Orchestra as they prepare for the coming weekend's concerts.  Having studied music myself, it is an experience that is not wholly unfamiliar, but the way that this band works with Peter Oundjian is simply mesmerising and my trips up to the balcony serve as a perfect reminder of why I do the job I do - spreading the word about the wonderful music that the RSNO produces each week in concert halls across Scotland.

These first couple of weeks of our new Season are ever so slightly different this year as our first couple of soloists are not being flown in from the international touring circuit, instead the spotlight is shining within our own ranks. Last week we had the truly stunning 5-star performances from our Principal Flautist Kathryn Bryan who played to audiences in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow as we opened our 2014:15 Season.

This week is the turn of our Principal Cellist, Aleksei Kiseliov, who joined the Orchestra in September 2011, and he will be playing Elgar's immensely popular Cello Concerto.

I got in touch with the wonderful people at Elgar's Birthplace Museum and Visitor Centre, who were very kind in giving us access to some incredibly interesting information and resources relating to the various works by Elgar that the Orchestra will be performing throughout the Season. On my trip up to the balcony on Wednesday I felt like I'd been joined by a bit of history; whilst Aleksei was playing I had in my hand the facsimile of the piano score of the Cello Concerto, written in Elgar's own hand for his young friend, Alice Stuart Wortley (see below).

I've always loved following scores whilst listening to music, but there really is something about seeing the original handwritten version of a theme... makes the music more real somehow, more alive.

Another quite extraordinary thing is to hear the music whilst looking at photographs of not only of Elgar with the gent who gave the premiere of the Cello Concerto, but also of the very house in which it was composed. That kind of insight into Elgar's surroundings just adds another dimension to the music.

Brinkwells Cottage, in Fittleworth, Sussex, where Elgar wrote his Cello Concerto.

Edward Elgar with Felix Salmond (left) who gave the premiere of his Cello Concerto.

Shortly after the above photo was taken, Elgar wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin (one of the dedicatees of the concerto) to report on how it was coming along:

"Felix Salmond has been down here & we have put the finishing touches to your cello concerto & it will be produced at a London Symph. Orch. Concert before Christmas. Date to be fixed but I will let you hear it the earliest."

I'm also pleased to report that Wednesday's rehearsal with Aleksei and the RSNO went much better than the one the gentlemen above had before the Cello Concerto's premiere.  As Elgar's wife Alice noted in her diary on the 27th October 2019:

"E. & A. & C. to Queen's Hall for rehearsal at 12.30 or rather before - absolutely inadequate at that - That Coates went on rehearsing Secy. remonstrated, no use, at last just before one, he stopped & the men like Angels stayed till 1.30 - A. wanted E. to withdraw, but he did not for Felix S.’s sake - Indifferent performance of course in consequence E. had a tremendous reception & ovation -"

On the subject of tremendous receptions and ovations, I have no doubt that you'll be part of one soon should you be lucky enough to have secured a ticket for one of this weekend's concerts!

If you don't have a ticket yet, there are only a few still available, so hurry! Book online at

Until the next time...

The photos, manuscripts and transcripts included in this blog were kindly provided courtesy of The Elgar Birthplace MuseumThe photos, manuscripts and transcripts included in this blog were kindly provided courtesy of The Elgar Birthplace Museum.

An Adventure with Messiaen - by Ian Taft

Rehearsing Turangalîla with the RSNO

“Are you OK with volume?” says John Poulter. “I can get you some earplugs if you want.”

“No, I'm fine thanks,” I grin back at him. My head might be ringing by the end of the day but I've been looking forward to this for a long time and I want the full-on experience.

I'm sitting at the end of the percussion platform at the back of a Henry Wood Hall packed almost from wall to wall by an augmented RSNO, and the full rehearsals for Messiaen's glorious Turangalîla-Symphonie are about to begin. Directly in front of me are the tubular bells which John will be playing; to his left is the tam-tam and eight other percussionists distributed in an arc away from us, charged variously with splash, suspended, china and crash cymbals, wood blocks, maracas, triangle, tambourine, snare, tom-tom and bass drums. Actually, this is quite a modest array of percussion compared with those demanded by many more contemporary works. Now, I love percussion and the textures and emphasis it can bring to a piece (unlike in rock music, orchestral percussion is mostly not about anchoring rhythm but is part of the acoustic palette) but I do feel that too often today's composers just overdo it and throw the kitchen sink at a composition to no particular advantage. All those battering, clattering tom-toms and clanging gongs and brake-drums can be sotedious and clichéd. Less really is more in most cases and for my money, Shostakovich did it all so much better…

…and so it is with Messiaen. It's notable that each player in the section only has one or maybe two instruments to play because, at times, those rhythms get pretty complex: each tap of a block or splash of a cymbal has an integral part in Turangalîla'ssound-world and the timing has to be perfect. Tenth member and section principal Simon Lowdon is down at the front of the orchestra with a vibraphone. For this performance all the “keyboards” are clustered around the podium, so the piano and Ondes Martenot (of which more later) are behind the conductor and grouped in front of him are vibraphone, keyed glockenspiel and celesta. I haven't seen this set-up before, but it makes good sense in terms of Messiaen's aim to emulate the sounds of a Gamelan orchestra, and should help the more delicate sounds to project more clearly into the audience.

If I sit forward in my seat I have a good view of those players and the podium, on which conductor Thomas Søndergård has just arrived. He greets the players and without much ado calls out “5th movement” and we are off into the dancing rhythms of “Joie du sang des étoiles.”

Joy of the blood of the stars! How can you not love a title like that? This fifth movement forms a kind of “end of part one” to the piece and for its six or seven minutes never ceases its dancing, whirling motion, concluding with an overwhelming, swelling crescendo only eclipsed at the very end of the work. As the musicians work through the movement at some length, it's evident just how much precision and control is needed, and Thomas' rehearsal technique is an model of efficiency as he highlights the most difficult areas, breaks down complex rhythms into bite-size chunks and addresses points of balance. There are just so many notes in this work and the density of some of the scoring is such that it's easy to see how passages could descend into chaos without impeccable control. It's plain to see how much the orchestra appreciate his clear, no-fuss approach: taxing to play as this music undoubtedly is, there's clearly a lot of enjoyment here, though I think the biggest grin must be the one on Maestro Søndergård's face as he directs these great torrents of sound.

Having started in the middle of the work, the rehearsal continues with the opening movements: the Introduction with its bustling, aggressive string entry and the growling, foreboding brass (what Messiaen called the “Statue-theme”) leading on to a plaintive little woodwind phrase (the “Flower-theme”) which also recurs throughout the work; and the second movement, “Chant d'Amour 1”, which heralds the swooping “Love-Theme” introduced by the sweet tones of the Ondes Martenot. Here the piano also makes its voice heard in no uncertain terms. I've listened to this music on recordings many times but seeing it performed live really makes you aware just what an insanepart this is for piano and why it needs a virtuoso player: pianist Markus Bellheim is certainly up to that challenge and he gets a hearty stamping of feet from the orchestra after he executes at blinding speed the descending passage at the end of movement 2 which covers the whole length of the keyboard from top to bottom.

It's break time and I manage to have a brief chat with the Ondes Martenot player, the charming Jacques Tchamkerten. He says that he plays this work maybe three or four times a year at most and by day he's an academic at the Geneva Conservatoire; “you cannot live just by playing the Ondes Martenot.” I tell him I'm fascinated by the instrument and remark on its ability to sound like a human voice. “Yes,” he replies, “and for a while it was popular among composers. But some who wrote much music for voice didn't like it. Poulenc, for example, hated the instrument.”

ow can you HhhhhhHbbbbnnnn

So what is it exactly? Most people have heard of the Theremin and that has been used in film scores and by performers like Led Zeppelin and Bill Bailey. You can buy Theremin kits online fairly cheaply and play one yourself. The “Onde”, though, is a bit of a rarity and is always the focus of attention when it appears on stage. Invented in 1928 by musician Maurice Martenot, its name translates as “Martenot Waves” and you could think of it as the very first synthesizer. It uses an electronic oscillator to produce a pure tone (remember those sound experiments in the Physics class at school?) and some other circuits to allow the pitch to be varied continuously over a wide range. In addition the sound can be fed through three different speakers – a plain one, one with resonating strings in front and one with a small gong, which creates a more metallic tone. With the wide frequency range you can have a high, clear, human sounding voice or at the bottom end, earth-shaking bass notes, both used in Turangalîla . Get hold of the recent Hyperion CD of this work, play it on a good sound system and you’ll be startled to hear the “Onde” chugging away mightily in the first movement.

But what for me makes the instrument so interesting is how it is played. It has a scaled-down keyboard (though about 6 octaves' worth) and you can just play notes, with the added feature that the whole keyboard can move freely in its mounting, and you can get vibrato effects if you wobble your fingers while holding down keys. The other mode of playing – I've heard this called the ruban(ribbon) – is based on a tensioned steel wire with a mounted ring in which you place your index finger. By moving the ring back and forth along a strip – with note positions marked – at the front of the keyboard, you create continuous slide, or glissando, effects, and these are what Messiaen uses very prominently in Turangalîla. And given that this is an amplified instrument, it has no difficulty soaring over the work's huge forces when it needs to.

When I go back upstairs to the rehearsal hall, I'm amused to see the “Onde”’s curiosity value is well in evidence as M. Tchamkerten and his instrument are surrounded by a wee gaggle of players, though I do manage to get a close look for a few moments before the rehearsal restarts. This looks like one of the original instruments, lovely old wood and Bakelite switches. I know there are not many of these left but I have heard that a new model is being produced. This has been prompted by, among others, Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead who's used the instrument in some of their songs. I would love to play with one but it's way out of my price range, I fear.

So it's back to work, and before the lunch break we come to the eighth movement,  “Développement de l'amour.” This, says Thomas, is the most difficult and complex section in the whole work. I can see what he means as they begin to work on the movement's energetic passages which seem surge forwards then to pull back in rapid succession, at intervals bursting into great flowerings of the love-theme. This movement above all, is where Messiaen celebrates physical love, and there's certainly a sense of, ahem, release when the orchestra's finally allowed to reach the immense, extended climax near the end of the movement.

And so it goes, into the afternoon session, with more of that eighth movement followed by pointed explorations of the other movements. Although this is the full rehearsal day, on the previous day there have been sectional rehearsals to attend to fine detail by percussion, brass, winds and strings. Today, on occasion Thomas asks a section to play a passage on their own where, for example, their part is particularly important in the rhythmic structure and it's fascinating to hear these bits out of the context of the whole ensemble. This reminds me of a previous rehearsal when John asked me “Doesn't it take away the magic to see how all this is done?” Well no, actually. Not only does it help me – a music lover without any musical training – to get a sense of how a piece fits together, but it doesn't diminish the real magic which is how does a composer think this stuff up – and then achieve the sound in the orchestra? Now that's magic – as the man said.

Postscript – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Saturday.

So what of the performance? The feeling at the end of Thursday's rehearsal had been overwhelmingly positive and reports from the Edinburghconcert had been good. I've loved this piece from the first time I heard it – a BBC Proms broadcast in 1982 – and this is just my fourth live Turangalîla. Partner Elizabeth has been joking all week that she needs to tie me down or I'll float away; it's fair to say anticipation is high on Saturday evening.

Violist Katherine Wren gives an excellent pre-concert talk and there's a nice coincidence: it turns out her first live experience of the symphony was the same as mine – a concert by the Hallé in Manchester in 1989. We can't remember who the conductor was, but I promise to look out the programme and let her know.

The audience tonight is not large – it's a sad fact that Glasgowaudiences are still scared away by the unfamiliar – but it's a respectable enough showing. I can see someone in the front row of the stalls with a score in his lap. Oh yes, we're ready.

…and we’re away. I'm so absorbed that it's the fifth movement almost before I know it, my heart's pounding and every impulse in me wants to cheer. But no; save it. The long, gentle sixth movement is a welcome chill-out after all that excitement. Love's well and truly developed in the ecstatic eighth, and the curious, intense little ostinato of the ninth builds up the tension again before the last lap. We have seen few conductors who simply radiate pleasure in their work quite like Thomas Søndergård: he's conducted throughout with passion and precision, but mostly with a huge, happy grin that's infectious all the way from stage to circle. He launches the Finale at a hell of a lick; it definitely wasn't this fast at the rehearsal! There are moments the orchestra seems to be hanging on for dear life, but magnificently, they manage it. The very last chord in the score is marked “très long” and Thomas doesn't disappoint: the crescendo is indeed very long and overwhelming.

A moment of almost shocked silence, then the first clap. I shout; so does Elizabeth. Over the next few minutes we all make, I think, a worthy amount of noise in reward for what's just been given to us. It's all over and we're shattered, though I nip round to the choir stalls to have a few words with John down below. As we get our coats to leave the hall, there is another cluster of folk at the front of the stage looking at the Ondes Martenot. The ten gallant percussionists are having a group photo taken. What a great night. Bravissimi tutti, Thomas and all the performers: we'll remember this one for a long time. And if you weren't there, too bad: you have NO idea what you missed.

Ian Taft is a valued member of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's Chair Patron Programme, supporting our Associate Principal Percussionist, John Poulter. Please click here to find out more about the RSNO's Chair Patron Programme.