sat 15/06/2024

National Youth Orchestra, Gourlay, RFH review - non-stop jamboree at the highest level | reviews, news & interviews

National Youth Orchestra, Gourlay, RFH review - non-stop jamboree at the highest level

National Youth Orchestra, Gourlay, RFH review - non-stop jamboree at the highest level

From foyer ensembles to complete Stravinsky 'Firebird', a feast of blazing young talent

Spirit of delight: Andrew Gourlay and NYO musicians after their exhilarating performance of Stravinsky's 'The Firebird'All images by Mark Allen

What a manifesto against those in power who seem determined to knock the UK off its hard-won classical music pedestal: hundreds of young choristers and instrumentalists of two fabulous orchestras in a week-long celebration of innovative programming and presentation. Any politician attending – I’d like to think there were a few, but I doubt it - would have been fired up to devote every effort in support of British youth and music

Sorry not to have got to Wednesday night’s Albert Hall celebration of the National Youth Choir’s 40th anniversary, or Friday’s Edinburgh spectacular from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, but proud that two of my classical music colleagues on theartsdesk did the honours, It can be no surprise that we’ve notched up 3x5 stars to reflect our experiences. I’ve had my vision in last night’s Southbank jamboree, featuring works by 10 composers (the majority still living) as well as group-devised pieces, running from spectacularly stage-managed foyer events and sectional feasts within the Royal Festival Hall to a performance of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird Ballet as glowing and, ultimately, uplifting as any I’ve heard. NYO foyer performanceWho knows how many passing Southbank visitors might have caught part of the Clore Ballroom smorgasbord and been inspired – "ignited" would more faithful to this event’s buzzword – to go on and listen to more (or, in the case of the many children present, take up an instrument if they weren’t playing one already)? Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) really is a composer of the front rank, and the third movement of her Concerto for string orchestra really does keep the ear guessing with its kaleidoscopic vibrancy (pictured above, with Constança Simas conducting )– as did  the idylls and folk-fidding of NYO Creative Tutor Simmy Singh’s Flippen at the other end of the half hour.

Brass in Adam Gorb’s layered Omaggio a Gabrieli and wind in the young Richard Strauss’s personably witty Gavotte from his early Suite riveted attention too, but the trump card was this year’s glamour-spangled NYO quartet of harps (Defne Anar, David Ingham, Rosie Scott and Jamaal Kashim) in Deborah Henson-Conant’s Baroque Flamenco (pictured below). NYO harp quartetDrumming led us up into the hall, where the rest of the audience was already being hugely entertained by NYO Associates’ very own semi-improvised Spring Back Way, their regrouping a happy hangover from the equally sensational New Year concert. I wish this first half had been similarly compered, because there was much headscratching about the lack of correspondence between the advertised and the actual sequence (and the NYO would have done well to adopt the procedure of the Philharmonia in Salonen days in supertitling the 18 sections of Stravinsky's self-styled "long winded and noisy" ballet for Diaghilev. This is far more narrative-oriented than Petrushka or The Rite of Spring, after all, ).

The blues should have given the game away about the swelling and fading around a single note in Afro-American composer Jessie Montgomery’s Source Code, based on Black spirituals. That note held for a music of the spheres from brass, woodwind and a few strings in the Festival Hall’s fabulous extra-terrestrial boxes – another NYO Associates “devised piece”, Retrochor (pictured below)– before the woodwind came into their own for Judith Weir’s specially-composed Fresh Air. Retrochor in NYO concertThis first half may have been a parade of works going nowhere in particular, all of them mostly consonant harmonically speaking, but  all showcased the instruments of this enormous orchestra, and the sonorities of massed flutes at the start and later bassoons made an excellent guide. My young neighbour was hooked. Please note, National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, that the way to fill a hall is partly to make seats free for teens, if your subsidy can afford it. This was a lively audience, but perfectly attentive to the near-silences and mysteries.

That proved vital for Andy Akiho’s ritual Karakurenai featuring the “tongs and the bones” – led me to wonder if the Southbank’s gamelan orchestra is still there – and for the gloom of ogre Kashchey’s magic garden at the start of The Firebird. The perfect gauze was followed by string playing of such sensuous beauty under the excellent Andrew Gourlay that you wondered if it was our most “French impressionist” orchestra, the Philharmonia, who were on the platform (pictured below, the 27-strong brass ensemble in the concert's first half). NYO brass ensembleA few brass notes apart, no allowances need to be made these days for youth orchestras. Solos from Emily Long’s oboe to Daniel Hibbert's romantic horn were all superb. More theatricality paid dividends: tubular bells for the ogre’s alarm system and at one point three roving trumpets resounded from the royal box, and it was a fine touch to spotlight the four Wagner tubas with the mutes on from the seating behin the orchestra. Gourlay’s blend of sinuous, flexible movements and tight rhythmic control resulted in a performance of very balletic idealism.

That great finale never fails. This one brought me to tears, and I wonder whether Gourlay, quoted in the programme as citing last year's NYO Prom as his most memorable music experience, would now add this one as joint first. I always think of the film in which the 82-year old Stravinsky conducts his youthful masterwork (in that case on of the suites) on the same podium as Gourlay. The master would have loved this, and the spontaneous standing ovation that immediately erupted. How they’ll fit it all into Saffron Hall tonight I’m not sure, but how splendid that the second performance is being recorded so you can heard it on BBC Radio 3 for a month from 25 April. And on Thursday all will be revealed about the NYO’s last spectacular of the year, at the BBC Proms.

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