wed 29/01/2020

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Martín, Barbican review - songs of protest and resilience | reviews, news & interviews

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Martín, Barbican review - songs of protest and resilience

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Martín, Barbican review - songs of protest and resilience

Singing phrases carry huge emotion as 164 teenagers make their voices heard

Jaime Martín and the NYO players at the end of a stunning concertAll images by Jason Alden

In youth we trust. That can be the only motto worth anything for 2020, as the world goes into further meltdown. So it was startling, stunning and cathartic, two days after the big downer of 3 January - the American horror clown seemingly in competition with the Australian apocalypse - to witness 164 teenagers under a conductor they clearly adore, Jaime Martín, making their voices heard, sometimes literally, in 20th century music of fear, anxiety, protest, violence and just a smidgen of hope.

Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, short though it is in time-span, has long been overlooked as one of the great symphonies; Shostakovich's Eleventh is more of a symphonic poem in cinemascope, full of late 19th and early 20th century revolutionary songs which I used to think diminished its substance. Not, though, when you hear them sung before and between movements.

A mature student of mine and dear friend, Trude Winik, who died at the age of 87, surprised me by declaring the Eleventh her favourite Shostakovich symphony. Why? Because its slow movement takes the theme of a memorial anthem which she used to sing in "our red Vienna" as "Unsterbliche Opfer", "Immortal Sacrifice". In last night's performance, since it is quoted in full by the violas, it was left unsung, in literal terms at least - until we got to the encore, the only possible one. NYO singingIt could have been Britten's Russian Funeral, which also pays homage to this powerful melody, but instead the young musicians delivered the original as they had Eisler's "Demonstration Song" Auf den Strassen zu singen (We are singing in the streets, some of the performers pictured above), "Listen!", the revolutionary song, to preface its appearance in Shostakovich's "Palace Square" opener depicting the frozen Petersburg scene on 9 January 1905, "Bare your heads" fading away - goosebump time - before the whirlwinds of the second movement and a final song of defiance before the struggles and warnings of "Tocsin". Choral auditions can't have been part of the admission process to the NYO, but how artistically they delivered every number.

All this, with input from composer and Russian music expert Gerard McBurney, immeasurably enriched the Shostakovich narrative, so sensitively stitched in that it could become a regular feature. But the interpretation was magnificent and white-heat in itself, the massacre taken by Martín at lightning speed, the incredible strings digging into their protest music and pulling out the major-key transformation of "Bare your heads" with such emotion that I shed tears for the first time ever in this difficult conclusion. How amazing it is, though, that Shostakovich does not follow the usual Soviet darkness-struggle-victory trajectory, that he ends with alarm bells warning how history repeats itself (as it just had in the Budapest uprising). You could do this sort of thing in 1957, not - as the composer learnt so frighteningly - during Stalin's time.

Is it fanciful to suggest that the group singing had informed the phrasing? Britten's agonised wide intervals in his opening "Lacrymosa" were gilded with pathos in the violins' portamenti, so vocal that if you'd been steeped in the last operatic masterpiece, Death in Venice, you'd realise that the composer carried them forward to the cries of "Adziu" three and a half decades later. Encouraging players "to do a phrase in a way that might not be their initial instinct" is in Martín's manifesto. As a flautist who played under Abbado in the European Union Youth Orchestra before going on to hold posts at ENO and the LPO, among others, he knows how it works from both sides. Cellos of the NYOThis was a performance of depth rather than acid bite, though the splinterings of the Boschian "Dies Irae" were perfectly together. And then the tentative healing, when "through the black mud first the wheat/In shy green stalks appears", to quote lines from the Auden poem Britten partly set in his Spring Symphony: so expressive, so well contained. Indeed, the treacherous.amplifying acoustics of the Barbican did not betray these players; though a member of the NYO's admin brought earplugs for the Shostakovich, they weren't needed. The overwhelming impression was one of beauty of tone at most times, definition and perspective in the welters. A worthy successor indeed to my top concert of 2019, the NYO's Prom with Mark Wigglesworth conducting and violinist Nicola Benedetti.

Too political? These remarkable young people realise it's all political now. 17-year-old leader Kynan Walker is clear in his programme words that "toxic, extreme nationalism" was Eisler's target, that the Britten "conveys his anti-war attitude" (and indeed, the composer said so), that Shostakovich's Eleventh is a "denunciation of violent suppression". On the opposite page, CEO and Artistic Director Sarah Alexander reminds us that "in the face of a music education crisis, tonight's concert is a radical act". Keep on rising up, young musicians. The world is listening.

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