National Youth Orchestra / John Wilson / Royal Festival Hall / Rachmaninov 2

The stakes are high with an NYO concert.

Long gone are the days where you ponder the criteria for judging whether or not the NYO has met the mark. Whenever I attend one of their concerts nowadays I end up listening to them as though they were a professional band.

That’s partly a testament to the achievements of the NYO administration. The orchestra is no longer a regimented learning programme aping a professional sound. Now it’s a demonstration of the benefits of participatory music making at the highest level.  It reminds those of us considerably more long in the tooth of how music should be played – with verve, panache, and passion.

Their achievement tonight – the final gig in a three-concert UK ‘tour’ – was in part down to John Wilson’s matter-of-fact and often beguiling conducting style. There was in the matter-of-factness of the Szymanowski’s complex fourth symphony and the lush, expansive romanticism of Rachmaninov’s ubiquitous second symphony all the celluloid tropes that Wilson has built his enviable global reputation. At the same time, he remained humble and pragmatic ensuring his musicians had their moment in the sun throughout.

The NYO is a tough gig for a conductor. In a comparatively short space of time a conductor has to gauge the strengths, weaknesses and development opportunities amongst the 100+strong orchestra during a brief yet intense rehearsal period. Matters of musical expression have to be decided upon on the back of that assessment. Compromise looms large; the desire the push harder looms even larger. My assumption is that receiving an invitation to conduct the NYO prompts a lot of self-reflection.

The extra treat of the evening was a new work commissioned by the NYO by the orchestra’s principle Lauren Marshall whose love of texture was evident in her Zen-like Suspended Between Earth and Air.

Brett Dean’s Komarov’s Fall – an entertaining work brimming with drama was a tantalising reminder of the most exciting contemporary composer for orchestras I know of. His musical language is engaging, mixing inventive musical  ideas and inclusive orchestrations, with an appetite to entertain.

Syzmanowski’s fourth symphony is a restless work, focussed around a distinctly unsatisfying (and presumably unintended) battle between piano and orchestra. The second movement was the most successful (in particular the dreamlike opening) in establishing tension in need of resolution. Conductor, orchestra and piano soloist worked hard to create a near unshakeable connection with the audience during the second movement in what was, musically speaking an entertaining but unsatisfying work.

The high point of the concert was, inevitably, Rachmaninov’s second symphony. This highly personal evocation of intimate love is so popular now amongst audiences as to risk turning into wallpaper. Wilson began tentatively but quickly all on the platform and in the auditorium by the climax of the first movement.

The second movement saw an ambitious tempo established which sometimes resulted in the ends of phrases lost, particularly in the upper strings. But any vulnerability hinted in the second movement was dismissed in the third. This was the first performance of a familiar work when my attention wasn’t on the soloist – the first clarinet, but instead on the principal and third bass players whose team work was the perfect evocation of the earnestness in the solo.  Theirs was touching musicianship. Tears flowed accordingly.

The fourth movement saw the playing reach a maturity I’ve rarely heard in live performances of Rach 2.  This was a joyous celebration of everything that had passed before. A mesmerising performance of an inventive interpretation.

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