Christopher Lambton joins the troublemakers at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra schools proms
For its latest Schools Proms, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has taken the normally passive pastime of listening to a concert and transformed it into an interactive experience. Pieces of music are no longer simply played through from the beginning to the end, but are interrupted by carefully choreographed chants, rhymes and shouts, all designed to propel the music forward.
There is a clear debt to computer culture, but instead of "click here to continue" the audience has to shout "Yeeha!" loud enough to persuade the orchestra to continue its energetic performance of Copland's riotous music for Billy the Kid.
From Stravinsky's Firebird, Khashchei's demonic dance is put on hold with an interminable shimmering chord, while the audience learns to chant an appropriate spell: "We're all in trouble now ... turn the monsters into slime!" The success of such devices depends on how well they are executed. The RSNO has a charismatic and resourceful animateur in Paul Rissmann; his meticulous planning combines with infectious good humour to make the formula work. To speak over a live orchestra needs a thorough knowledge of the score and a compliant conductor, in this case the young Scot Garry Walker, who can hold dynamics and tempi in check.
Rissmann's account of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, spoken against a live performance of the music by Dukas, was impressive for a sense of timing and fluency that did not even remotely diminish the impact of the music.
Troublemakers is the theme for this year's Schools Proms, which have two further performances in Glasgow (both on June 20). The title comes from an eponymous piece of music, especially written by the English composer Rachel Leach, which Rissmann and members of the RSNO have used as the basis of workshops in chools across Scotland, preparing pupils for their starring roles in a vast interactive performance.
Against the backdrop of Leach's rich music, Rissmann divides the audience into two, half shouting "trou-" and the other half "-ble", before everyone shouts "makers". Even with advance preparation, it is a big task to get more than 1,000 small voices to speak so precisely in time.
Then everyone whines like a police car before a pulsing shout of "oh! oh! oh! oh!". It sounds rather ridiculous when you describe it, and as a piece of music it probably is, but as a demonstration of how to encourage wild enthusiasm in the context of orchestral music, its success is undeniable.
Most of the audience had with them a metallic percussion instrument. Rissmann's original touch was to have each of these instruments played just once but at different pre-arranged times over the course of a minute in the middle of Troublemakers. This produced an almost magical effect as a diffuse tinkling sound drifted around the auditorium, depending on where different school groups were seated.
In the music for Billy the Kid (a true troublemaker) the attempt to bring Billy to justice is portrayed as a battle between sections of the orchestra, with the "heavy mob" pitted against "vicious violins and violas". Identification was helped by the musicians wearing T-shirts of different colours according to their instrument (blue for strings, yellow for brass, and so on). What seems like a quirky little trumpet tune is stripped of its extra notes to show how it is based on "Old MacDonald Had a Farm".
Other troublemakers in the programme include Grieg's Peer Gynt, the only bit of music played straight, and Danny Elfman's robust theme tune for The Simpsons, which had the entire audience humming along effortlessly to a surprisingly complex melody - such is the power of television.