wed 28/02/2024

NYO, Volkov, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

NYO, Volkov, RFH

NYO, Volkov, RFH

Blistering enthusiasm from young players with some crazy and fantastical music

Young cellists of the National Youth Orchestra earlier this year Both images © 2015 Jason Alden

Considering the possibilities, we got off lightly when the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, always fearless in the face of the outrageous, performed Percy Grainger’s “music for an imaginary ballet”, The Warriors. The orchestra could have contained 30 pianists seated at 19 pianos, a prescription once followed when Grainger, the Australian wild boy of music, conducted it in concert in Chicago. In fact, we had just three of each.

We could also have had the ballet staged. In which case, following Grainger’s imaginings, the already bursting Festival Hall stage would be wriggling with what he called “a sort of Valhalla gathering of childishly overbearing and arrogant savage men and women of all ages arm in arm in united show of gay and innocent pride and animal spirits, fierce and exultant”. Frankly, I have enough trouble with overbearing crowds out on the London streets.

Young ladies attacked their percussion with the vim of St Trinian’s girls in the stinks labEven if the NYO had unlimited funds, Ilan Volkov, conductor of its Easter concerts, would have showed wisdom sticking to the minimum. At 18 minutes the longest single span Grainger composed, The Warriors is childish, overbearing and exultant enough just in its wandering jubilant notes. Ferocity doesn’t come into it: Grainger might have been writing during the early years of the First World War, but his warriors only romp and picnic in a score piquantly drenched with mass attacks from tuned and tingling percussion.

It was great to see this year’s NYO intake diving so wholeheartedly into this  thumb-twiddling crazy monster, rarely performed. Young ladies attacked their percussion with the vim of St Trinian’s girls in the stinks lab. A phalanx of brass at the back of the stalls blithely chipped in, following their own tempo, rhythm and key. It’s a pity the Festival Hall organ couldn’t join the party – the only element missing, I thought, in the work’s climactic rumpus. All good fun, this; though for top-flight Grainger we had to wait for the polyphonic swirls of the concert’s encore, Green Bushes – most exuberant of his folk-song spin-offs and arrangements, the area where this maverick musician truly showed genius.

NYO at the RFH

The story behind the NYO’s next piece, Unsuk Chin’s newly commissioned Mannequin, wasn’t imaginary at all. It was E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fantastical tale The Sandman. Chin trod here on ground previously visited in music by the ballet Coppélia and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, subject of the Powell-Pressburger team’s most gnarled and cluttered film. Nothing was cluttered here. Always precise in her sonic effects, Chin served up the story’s elements – the child Nathanael, the sinister Sandman, the automaton Olympia, the theft of children’s eyes – in crisp swift-changing sounds of character and wit that constantly sprung surprises.

Here were three serpentine tubas wriggling along on the ocean floor; heavy-breathing trombones; hyperactive strings; and always bursts of eccentric percussion, including a fishing reel, four pop bottles, and a thunder sheet big enough to frighten King Kong. A score like this would test the stamina of any fully mature and professional orchestra, yet to these 13-18 year-olds and their 15 year-old leader, after two weeks’ rehearsals, it seemed like a stroll in the park. Amazing.

The concert finally turned toward cornerstone repertoire with the fantastical tales embedded in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. This wasn’t a performance, it’s true, marked by much Hungarian colour in the rhythms or shading of phrases. At odd moments, too, the NYO’s sheer weight of numbers seemed a handicap: co-ordination of entries left and right weren’t always spot on. But the performance still bounced along with a piles of spirit. Night scenes glowed in the moonlight, unified and eerie; woodwinds danced perkily in the “Game of Pairs” movement; desolation seeped from the Elegy before the helter-skelter finale. This was a concert where everyone – players, conductor, audience, loving parents – came out smiling.

It was great to see this year’s NYO intake diving so wholeheartedly into this thumb-twiddling crazy monster


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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