Royal Scottish National Orchestra remembers last visit to US

The closing concert of the 1982 US tour at Carnegie Hall in New York Image copyright RSNO
Image caption The closing concert of the 1982 US tour at Carnegie Hall in New York

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) is embarking on its first tour of the US in 35 years.

The orchestra, together with music director Peter Oundjian and star violinist Nicola Benedetti, will perform throughout the state of Florida over the 10 days from Monday.

RSNO tours US for first time in 35 years

Memories of the Scottish National Orchestra's 1982 tour of North America

By David Inglis, RSNO Bass

Image copyright RSNO

When the orchestra departed for Philadelphia via Shannon Airport in Ireland and New York on 19 October 1982, my first son Jonathan was just eight months old.

A few weeks ago he celebrated his 35th birthday. Johnny is now married and has two daughters of his own.

How quickly time passes.

Image copyright RSNO
Image caption John Gracie and David Munden - SNO trumpets in Toronto 1982

I remember the orchestra's percussionist Alan Stark's outrage at Shannon Airport when it was revealed that a pint of draught Guinness cost the princely sum of 99p.

The '82 tour (I was also on the 1975 US tour) was exactly three weeks long, more than the forthcoming Florida tour.

Jonathan was noticeably older when he and Moira came to meet me at Glasgow Airport on my return.

I see from the schedule that there were 16 concerts. Wow! It's a wonder that any of my family recognised me when I got back.

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Image caption Pianist Claudio Arrau at the closing concert in New York

From Philadelphia we travelled by coach (three coaches required to transport the whole orchestra) to Worcester near Boston, then on to Long Island, Worcester again (different hall), then Amherst.

We flew to Chicago where E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was showing at the cinemas.

I decided to go to see one of the Rocky films, and remember the audience getting very excited at the shooting scenes while a young mother sitting somewhere behind me was breastfeeding her small baby.

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Image caption SNO conductor Alexander Gibson and Claudio Arrau take a bow in the closing concert

The orchestra management were quite nervous about us leaving the hotel in Chicago on the free day there but I think most of us managed to get to the Hancock Center and Sears Tower.

We later heard that there had been a shoot-out at a pub close to the hotel.

From Chicago we flew to Columbia in South Carolina.

Programmes for the tour, which was conducted by our music director at the time, Sir Alexander Gibson, mainly included Sibelius' Symphonies Two and Five, and Mahler's Symphony No 4.

A mock rendition of the opening of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, with its sleigh bell intro, was provided by SNO Bass player Jim Hamilton nearly every day on the 3rd coach, using empty beer cans shaken rhythmically inside a black bin bag.

There was no lack of entertainment on the 3rd coach.

Britten, Richard Strauss, Elgar, Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms were also represented; the latter's first Piano Concerto being played by one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, the distinguished Claudio Arrau.

Image copyright RSNO
Image caption Martin Gibson, the SNO timpanist, at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto in 1982

Scottish soprano Margaret Marshall was the soloist in the last movement of Mahler 4.

More concerts followed in Radford Virginia and Knoxville Tennessee.

On 31 October we flew to Ottawa via Pittsburgh.

After a concert and free day there, we were bussed to the New Massey Hall in Toronto.

Concert 12 was in Hartford, Connecticut followed by Wilmington, Delaware (2 concerts).

It was amazing that we had any energy left for the last (and probably the most important) concerts in Washington DC (Kennedy Center) and New York (Carnegie Hall).

I'm sure I wouldn't have the energy to do a tour like that again.

It certainly was quite an experience though.

I still can't listen to Mahler 4 without imagining the sound of empty lager cans and a bus full of lustily singing musicians.

Scottish National Orchestra's North America Tour 1975

By Raymond M Williamson

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Image caption The 1975 USA Tour preparing for take-off

The orchestra gave its first North American tour in November 1975 to mark the 25th anniversary of the transformation of the Scottish Orchestra to the Scottish National Orchestra.

It was a great undertaking with 17 concerts given over three weeks in different cities from Ottawa in the north to Danville, Kentucky, in the south - finishing up with concerts in New York and Washington.

I was on the board of the orchestra back in 1975 and had the pleasure of travelling with them.

All the concerts were conducted by Alexander Gibson with soloists John Lill, Michael D Davis and Keith Pearson - the latter two being respectively leader and principal clarinet.

The repertoire was extensive (14 different works) including one world premiere (Iain Hamilton's Aurora ) and two other substantial contemporary works by Scottish composers - Hamilton's Violin Concerto and Musgrave's Clarinet Concerto.

Overwhelming performance

The concert halls were generally much larger than is usual in Europe, having capacities from 3,000 to 6,000.

Sam Borwho, who had recently retired as leader, travelled with us to sit out front and assist Alex Gibson with advice on balance issues during rehearsals.

The highlight concert for me was the penultimate one in Carnegie Hall, which had the premiere performance of Aurora in the presence of its composer and concluded with Elgar's Enigma Variations.

It was quite the most overwhelming performance of the piece I have heard in more than 60 years of concert-going, with the final bars reinforced by the optional organ part.

It was the memory of that performance which many years later fired my determination that the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall should have an organ, which I am delighted to say it now has.


That Carnegie Hall concert was also notable for a number of the audience deciding that Highland Dress or rather their perception of Highland Dress was appropriate.

Most of them looked as though they had strayed from a production of Brigadoon.

In Washington we were invited to a reception at the British Embassy where Sir Robert Mayer, then aged 95, was staying as a guest of the Ambassador.

Sir Robert spent most of his life and wealth promoting music for young people until his death at the great age of 105.

It was a thrill to meet and speak to someone who at the age of 11 had met Brahms and played one of his piano works for him.

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