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.

BBC Proms 2016 / 29: NYO plays Holst’s Planet Suite

I feel like the Proms is distant, perhaps almost forgotten about.

Hardly surprising. Last weekend’s trip to Verbier was enlightening. It enriched too. I saw breath-taking chamber and orchestral performances. That combined with the blissful sense of detachment the mountainside location promotes, made the Royal Albert Hall feel like it was a world away.

I reconnected with the Proms via the NYO’s performance of Holst’s Planet Suite last night. The concert was streamed live via BBC iPlayer, something I really hope there will be more of in future. I really value the idea that iPlayer is a channel which supports a variety of different interests by virtue of it not being driven by the tyranny of linear TV schedules. Knowing, for example, that I can tap into a live orchestral concert via the internet without paying a subscription is, in actual fact, something of a special feeling.

But that indulgence came at an unexpected price last night. Aside from my ongoing disenchantment with Holst’s most famous orchestral piece – its fast becoming wallpaper in my eyes – seeing presenters Clemency Burton-Hill and Lloyd Coleman in front of the cameras at the end of proceedings reminded me of something I’ve slowly come to realise about the classical music world, something of a personal failure in fact.

I can say this now. I couldn’t say it ten years ago. But, I really have no problem admitting it now. If there was a goal at the BBC when I started there in 2005, it was that I wanted to be a presenter. I participated in all sorts of schemes, did a handful of auditions, and sidled up to those who I thought might advocate on my behalf. I reckoned there would at some point be a call from someone saying, “Do you fancy doing a spot of presenting? We reckon you’d be good.”

It never happened. And looking back, I think I know why. I had left it too late before specialising in my chosen field. I’ve left it too late now in some respects. My music degree, although still a recent memory, was something I was awarded in 1994. Whilst my passion and knowledge for classical music may seem obvious to me, it’s not for those outside of my cloudy self-indulgent bubble.

I went through a phase of down-playing my knowledge – around about the time I started blogging – thinking that was the secret to cajoling newcomers to the concert hall. And that if the likes of the Proms wanted to appear more accessible, then maybe a self-deprecating presenter poking gentle fun at the sometime pomposity of the classical music world would be what was required. It wasn’t until a professional music playing friend who I’d studied with pointed out that I was doing myself and my studies down by doing so, that I began to have second thoughts and then abandon all of my child-like dreams. Fool.

Of course, if I was to say that my aspirations to be a classical music presenter on radio or TV never materialised because of that ill-judged strategy would be a little self-absorbed, even for me. Its possible, that I didn’t display any of the attributes necessary: articulacy, a willingness to read a script or be a team player, or a demonstrable track record of professional music making, journalism, or at the very least, knowledge.

Now I reflect on that missed goal, I realise it’s still there. Perhaps the need to fulfil it has subsided it somewhat. Maybe a healthy dose of realism has been injected into my thinking too: just because I think it’s a good idea, doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else does.

What I realise now is that the thing I used to feel rather embarrassed about admitting – ‘I’d like to do that job’ – is not something to be embarrassed but a statement of how proud I feel of the thing which derives me so much pleasure and has done long after I stopped playing. It’s not that I want to be on television. I realise now that I want to be associated with the likes of the Proms in some way. I still see a place for someone like me. I see room for an ‘audience rep’, mediating for those who are sometimes mystified by the etiquette and legacy of the genre.

Such is the effect a Youth Orchestra Prom concert can have. All of the performers in the NYO were born after I graduated from university. They are the ones who made it, the ones who had the talent, the ones who worked the hardest, and the ones who secured the place they richly deserved. One should never regret, of course. But as each year passes I look on an NYO Prom and wonder whether I could have worked a little bit harder a little earlier on. Maybe it wouldn’t feel quite so much like I was running to catch-up.

It was the end of proceedings live on BBC iPlayer which really hit home. “Great music,” says Lloyd, “and great company. Thank you very much for having me Clemmie.” “Are you kidding?” says Clemency Burton-Hill turning to Lloyd, “you were fantastic.” It’s a little cheesy, but its heartfelt. I should have played the game. Should have done my time. Should have displayed a modicum of talent earlier on.

It’s only the day after when I go searching the internet for ‘Lloyd Coleman musician’ that I discover something else. That like me, Lloyd is a clarinettist. He’s interested in broadcasting, produces his own show. The fundamental difference is that he’s a former member of the NYO, still a musician and now a composer.

I should have worked harder.

Stravinsky ‘Firebird’ / Daugherty ‘Fire and Blood’ / Jarvi / NYO

The NYO have enhanced their already well-deserved reputation in recent years. Their concerts are a rare thing. They come with a guarantee: you will be amazed and delighted.

Stravinsky’s Fireworks is a tough opener. Short, merciless and unforgiving. It is arguably the most demanding part of their Spring programme.

Michael Daugherty’s Fire and Blood makes similar demands, but this work was where the band really engaged, evident by the warm and fluid relationship the musicians had formed with 21 year-old American violinist Chad Hoopes.

Daugherty’s writing acknowledges the needs of the player and that of the listener, tantalising with seductive orchestrations. The NYO knew it and capitalised effortlessly. The opening of the second movement – ‘River Rogue’ – tickled the ear. Throughout the work there are gratifying influences from Britten’s Violin Concerto. In the final analysis however, Daugherty palette is altogether richer.

The huge scale of the orchestra leant itself well for what turned out to be an organic performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird. The band played with remarkable energy, responsiveness and honesty. Little wonder that when all 134 players stood to receive their applause, we stood too. There is something infectious about their playing. To not give an ovation would be churlish.

We should no longer marvel at the achievements of young people playing like adults. Instead, we should judge an NYO concert on the same level as a professional orchestra.

They might even be able to give us something a professional orchestra can’t. The NYO aren’t dulled by the pressures of everyday life. Listening to their performance isn’t a compromise – the act of a smitten parent marvelling at their loved one’s moment in the limelight. With the NYO we are treated to the purest form of music-making.

The NYO derives 75% of funding from trusts and foundations, individual supporters donors and friends. Tonight’s concert is evidence of that considerable support. Long may it continue.

NYO Winter Concert 3 January 2016 Personnel List

Review: Prokofiev 5 / Korngold Violin Concerto / Nicholas Collon / NYO

I first heard the NYO back in 1990 in a performance of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations. A year later the band introduced me to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in an electrifying performance at the BBC Proms.

Twenty five years later, the next generation of talented teenage musicians delivered a blistering performance of works by Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Prokofiev at at the Barbican, in a performance dedicated to the orchestra’s founder Dame Ruth Railton born in 1916.

Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture made for an ambitious start but gave the orchestra a chance to get used to the acoustic deadened by the capacity audience. Ensemble work from the brass was amazing; the timpanist’s contribution was Herculean.

The reduced forces for the Korngold Violin Concerto were balanced well with soloist Tai Murray’s sweet tone in what was a spirited and assured performance. The ensemble captured the pastoral tone of the first movement without being overly sentimental; the exquisite second movement was suitably golden. Rapturous well-deserved applause rang around the Barbican Concert Hall after the final movement. At no point was there any hint the soloist had to compromise with the band. An electrifying performance.

Similarly, conductor Collon only had to coax the players through Prokofiev’s 5th symphony in a stunning performance which saw the orchestra’s ranks swell once more. The opening of the first movement was expansive and visceral. The terrifying precision of the strings in the second movement was underpinned by a tight percussion section and some seductive legato from the woodwind. Whilst the third started tentatively, the strings achieved a dream-like quality when the whispered waltz made its final appearance. The fourth started with some ravishing emsemble work from the cellis. The conclusion was a blistering tour de force.

NYO gigs are tricky things to write about. What should we focus on? Marvel at teenagers doing a miraculous job? I prefer not. The measure of a good NYO gig is whether or not you can forget the players are the age they are. I did. This was a remarkable gig.

BBC Radio 3 recorded the concert for broadcast on Monday 4 January 2016. 

The National Orchestra of Great Britain is sponsored by Quilter Cheviot Investment Management

Prom 49: National Youth Orchestra / Antonio Pappano

Watching an NYO concert is always a difficult affair for me. I’m nearly always reminded of my failed attempts at gaining entry to the band when I was a teenager. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get in. I didn’t even get an audition. (I wasn’t terribly good at my ‘tonguing’ and sometimes my intonation did leave a lot to be desired.) Even so, watching each successive NYO does tend to fill me with bitterness and resetment. I’m nothing if not predictable.

I caught the first work in this evening’s concert – Varese’s Amériques – on the live Radio 3 relay and wasn’t entirely convinced about it. Contrary to what I’ve thought for many years, I don’t think you need to know very much about a composer or the work itself in order to enjoy it. You’ll just enjoy it if it’s good. Varese’s creation didn’t appeal to me and watching the TV broadcast later in the evening did little to change my opinion.

Had I been lucky enough to pull the wool over the eyes of the NYO administration and end up playing in the orchestra when I was seventeen, I think I probably would have been hugely annoyed to discover I was playing Rachmaninov’s fourth piano concerto. As a listener coming to the work for the first time, I failed to identify one single discernible theme to latch on to. Sure, BBC 2 commentator Charles Hazlewood might have suggested the concerto was a jamming session between piano soloist and orchestra, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a definite theme, an obvious development and a subsequent recapitulation. There’s a reason we only really hear Rachmaninov’s second symphony and his Paganini Variations. I suspect they’re the best of his orchestral works.

To focus on largely negative and personal views of two thirds of hte programme does the members of this year’s NYO a massive disservice. Tonight was their big night: a televised demonstration of their obvious talent and expertise. I’d always liked the idea of being a member of that particular crowd even if my ambitions were delusions of grandeur. Nevertheless, the end of the Copland Symphony showed how much this event touched the members of the orchestra. I’m sure I observed a number of bottom lips quivering and hands wiping tears from cheeks.

I know, it might be mawkish to flag such an observation up, but its those things which prove that what happened in the Royal Albert Hall was a moving experience for those there. I wouldn’t deny anyone that kind of experience. Good on them.

Prom 49 on the BBC iPlayer