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Murray, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Collon, Leeds Town Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Murray, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Collon, Leeds Town Hall

Murray, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Collon, Leeds Town Hall

Youthful conductor meets vast teenage orchestra

Class of 2015-16 with Nicolas CollonAll images in Leeds Town Hall by Jason Alden

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s standard of playing is consistently impressive, so much so that it’s easy to forget that the ensemble is effectively reconstituted from scratch each autumn. Last night’s fresh incarnation, deftly conducted by Nicholas Collon, sounded as if they’d been playing together for decades, though without any sense of complacency which that might bring.

When you’ve 163 teenagers squeezed onto a stage, the worry is that the details will get lost in a blurry soup of sound. But no; this account of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was immaculate.

Collon’s flowing speeds (the conductor pictured below on 2 January) left no margin for error, and the two faster movements were played with pin-sharp accuracy and swagger. Prokofiev’s own comments (“I conceived it as glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit…”) may have fooled the Soviet authorities into hearing the work as an epic symphony of victory, but I’ve rarely heard the music’s subversive edge speak with such clarity.

Nicholas Collon conducting the NYO

The grand opening theme is continually undercut by snarling brass, and the harmonies always have a piquant edge. And what a brass section, especially principal trumpet Zoë Perkins, whose soaring lines were one of this evening’s glories. Gratifying too to hear such bold percussionists. Prokofiev’s all-important writing for bass drum and tam-tam can rarely have been better served, the latter’s contribution appropriately ear-shattering during the first movement’s coda. Collon nailed the Scherzo’s combination of menace and mischief, handling the tricky accelerando after the trio with ease.

Prokofiev’s Adagio, a close relative of the waltzes which dominate the ballet Cinderella, was taut and uneasy, the harrowing climax full of shrieks and groans. The ethereal final pages were played with rare sensitivity. The best was saved until last; the finale careered along at breakneck speed, dispatched with total control. Ostinati quavers chugged, woodwind shrieked and trombone glissandi rang out. Is this the best ending to any 20th century symphony? Shostakovich’s Fifth wearily goes through the motions in a grandiose coda, whereas Prokofiev’s final minutes are a subversive blast.Tai Murray and NYO with Collon on 2 January 2016

Tchaikovsky’s underappreciated Hamlet was an apt opener, the orchestra’s weighty string tone perfectly suited to such dark, brooding music. This was like listening to the Mravinsky-era Leningrad Philharmonic, so incisive were winds and brass. Half the players then left the platform for Korngold’s Violin Concerto, meaning that a smiling Tai Murray (pictured above in Leeds Town Hall) was accompanied by an orchestra which was merely normal-sized. The sound was ideally transparent, though part of me would have loved the entire ten-player horn section to have blasted out the Star Wars-ish fanfare near the work’s end.

This isn’t profound music, but it’s a fun way to spend 25 minutes. Korngold’s clever recycling of film-score motifs can make the concerto seem dramatically inert, more about colour than incident, but Collon and Murray kept things moving. Korngold’s central Romance was indecently sultry, and the last movement zipped along.

But how distressing to see so many unoccupied seats; Leeds residents should feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The programme gets repeated this evening at London’s Barbican, so absentees should hotfoot it down the M1 and grovel for returns.

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