By: Jonathan Minnick
If you are like me when it comes to certain orchestras, such as the one we have the pleasure of hearing on April 6, you may ask yourself: How does something earn the title of “royal”? Of course, this question is never really that simple to answer, but we all know that being royal carries a great deal of importance. Not very many institutions are granted royal patronage, but you might be surprised by the variety. If you have ever flown into or around Amsterdam, you may be familiar with the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The Netherlands are also home to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, which is one of the world’s leading orchestras today. As explained to me by a very kind Dutch woman, the “royal” designation is reserved for only the best that the Netherlands has to offer. This is, of course, quite a standard to live up to. Many orchestras throughout Great Britain receive the patronage of the Queen, but few bear the royal title. For Glasgow’s Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO), being “royal” means they are the premier national orchestra in Scotland, as declared by Her Majesty The Queen. The Queen became the Patron of the RSNO in 1977 and the orchestra officially changed its name shortly thereafter, but one must wonder how this orchestra earned this national importance.
Arts patronage has a long history that reaches as far back as the medieval and Renaissance periods, when nobles or monarchs would sponsor artistic endeavors that they found particularly prestigious, or that reflected their political or social interests. A few recognizable beneficiaries of the patronage system include Michelangelo, William Shakespeare, Franz Joseph Haydn and Leonardo da Vinci. Of course, there are many others, even outside the arts, and much like these luminaries, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra did not receive the Queen’s patronage by accident. Even though the RSNO has only held the royal title for a few decades, the orchestra has a tremendous history that earned it the patronage it has today. Until 1904, The RSNO was the home of composer Gustav Holst, who played the all-important second trombone for several years. George Szell, the conductor who arguably brought the Cleveland Orchestra to international acclaim, was appointed to principal conductor in 1936 and held the role for three seasons. Today, the rich traditions of the RSNO are carried forward by the recently appointed Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård, who has a long-standing connection with all things royal. Søndergård began his education as a percussionist and timpanist at the Royal Danish Academy of Music before winning the timpani job with the Royal Danish Orchestra in 1992.
Royalty does not end there, however. Being royal also means that the people whom you spotlight in your performances must also live up to the standards of HM The Queen; Olga Kern certainly fits the bill. Kern’s career as a pianist blossomed from a family of musicians who have direct ties to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, which is rather useful to know, given that with this concert we get to hear Kern perform Rachmaninoff’s gorgeous Variations on a Theme by Paganini. Rachmaninoff seems to figure prominently her life, as Kern has even been Grammy-nominated for her 2007 recording of Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations. However, Olga Kern’s royalty looks a bit different from the others on this concert, as her distinction is exceptionally American. Kern was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which recognizes Americans who “embody the spirit of America in their salute to tolerance, brotherhood, diversity and patriotism.” She is joined by a chorus of American royalty, such as Rosa Parks, Buzz Aldrin, Coretta Scott King and Sandra Day O’Connor.
So, what does it mean to be royal? Being royal is a big deal, and it does not come easily. However, this eight-time Emmy–nominated orchestra and two-time winner of the Diapason d’Or de l’année for symphonic music has shown throughout its existence that it deserves this distinction. It faced numerous challenges along the way, some that may seem insurmountable to even the most stable institutions: being interrupted by two World Wars, the burning of its performance hall in 1962 and financial troubles during the worldwide Depression. But through all of that, the RSNO persevered and continues to produce the best orchestral performances that Scotland has to offer. Tonight, we will hear for ourselves how that rich history has shaped the RSNO of today and experience something the Queen herself deemed worthy of her patronage.
The Royal Scottish National Orchestra performs at the Mondavi Center on April 6 with Thomas Søndergård, music director, and special guest Olga Kern, piano.
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Jonathan Minnick is a third-year musicology Ph.D. student at UC Davis. Minnick graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in trombone performance from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016. At UNC, he performed in many ensembles across the campus while also focusing on musicological studies, leading to an honors thesis exploring Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. This thesis explores the Alpine Symphony in terms of its historical origins, cultural influences, symphonic characteristics, and extensive tone painting. His current research encompasses film soundtracks of the mid-20th century, examining the relationship between sound and setting, particularly in science fiction movies.
His article, “Cyborgs and Cybernetics: Electroacoustic Characterization and Ecology in Forbidden Planet (1956),” will be published in the Jahrbuch des Zentrums für Populäre Kultur und Musik in 2019. Presentation formats of this paper were presented at both the regional AMS NorCal meeting in April 2018 and at AMS/SMT San Antonio in November 2018. Minnick is also the co-editor, along with D. Kern Holoman, of the digital second edition of the Catalogue of the Works of Hector Berlioz, which can be found at California Digital Library.
Minnick continues to be an avid trombonist and performs regularly in the greater Sacramento region with jazz ensembles, symphonies, and pit orchestras, as well as performing full-time with the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. Minnick is the president of the Graduate Student Association.