Contrary to popular belief, flags are not waved every night through the BBC Proms season. It took one patriotic soul to go it alone on Tuesday and hold a Scottish flag proudly aloft to herald the arrival of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for the first of its visits south of the border this year to the Proms.
Under its new Scottish chief conductor, Donald Runnicles, the BBCSSO has found a fresh confidence in its playing. It will never be in the world’s first division of orchestras – a lack of fine quality in overall tone and ensemble betrays it – but at least it rallied to its mission with a shot of Braveheart courage.
This was an ambitious pair of concerts. Tuesday’s all-English programme opened with a rarity: John Foulds’s Dynamic Triptych for piano and orchestra, energetically played by Ashley Wass, immediately threw out splashes of colour that set the concert off to a bold start. Foulds, active in the Roaring Twenties, wrote with popular flair and it is good to hear his music back at the Proms. A calm centre to the evening was provided by two Vaughan Williams favourites: the Serenade to Music, with 16 young solo singers from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama giving a good account of themselves; and violinist Nicola Benedetti soaring sweetly in The Lark Ascending. Then Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 aimed to seal the concert with imperial grandeur – sometimes, but not always, successfully.
In his stunning Proms performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung a couple of years ago Runnicles showed how he can rise to the biggest challenges of the classical repertoire. The two symphonies on this visit – Tuesday’s Elgar and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, the sole work in Wednesday’s Prom – were tackled in a similar heroic spirit. Wherever sheer guts were required, Runnicles and his players were not lacking. The finale of the Elgar went with swashbuckling zeal and the Mahler, an all-embracing symphony of nature and life, set out with animal spirits to spare. Elsewhere, though, a lack of subtlety in the blend and balance of the orchestra reduced high ambitions to moderate levels of achievement. It is to be hoped that in future this partnership will bring dividends. Then more than one Scottish flag may be see flying.