The New Year wouldn’t be new year if the National Youth Orchestra didn’t throw down a gauntlet and challenge every other orchestra to match its enthusiasm and programming skill. Five days into 2020, this time proved no exception as 156 18-and-under year-olds crowded the extended Barbican Hall stage and urged the audience to ‘Rise Up!’
Violinist Ella Fraser mentioned in her brief address after the first piece that they were not here just to entertain but to energise us with the spirit of youth that aims to change the world, with music representing just such passions (not necessarily youthful) from the 20th century. They had just opened the concert by all standing and not playing. Instead, they sang Hanns Eisler’s 1928 workers’ song, Auf den Straßen zu singen (Sing in the Streets), in Martin Pickard’s English translation, with the eventual marshalling of the voices by a side drum tattoo. It was heartfelt in conception and performance, especially with the massed body of light, youthful voices. The three stanzas end with a two-line refrain: “Brothers, cease your labours, come from near and far!/Claim that promised land where truth and justice are!”
From the working class struggle just before the crash of 1929 to the pacifist (and conscientious objector) Benjamin Britten’s response to the Second World War: his Sinfonia da Requiem. Although not ostensibly about ‘the people’ (as its companion pieces), the fact that Britten names his three movements after sections of the Requiem Mass indicate an inspiration of words set to music (if not songs). The NYO under Jaime Martín gave a full-blooded performance, brushing aside a touch of scrappiness in the opening bars, as if calmed by Alfred Ward’s silky saxophone solo, to build to a propulsive Dies Irae with a satisfying rasp on cellos and basses (and a reprise of the saxophone theme), before the gradual farewell that forms the Requiem Aeternam, the final turn to D major offering a tinge of hope amongst the despair that is as pertinent today as it was in the wake of the end of the Second World War.
Ella Fraser had promised, post interval, the NYO’s ‘unique’ take on Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony, and so it proved. Once again it was wrapped up in song, in that three of the movements (all but the third) were prefaced by English translated versions of some of the songs and poems Shostakovich weaved into the fabric of the symphony. So it was the flutes that opened the performance with their first movement solo, joined by massed voices in Slushai (Listen!), before dying away for strings and harp to start the symphony proper; the flutes returning (without the voices) a short way in.
Martín – no stranger to youth orchestras, given his membership as a student of the European Union Youth Orchestra from 1987, under Claudio Abbado then Zubin Mehta – had the measure of Shostakovich’s drama, and masterminded the breaks for songs before the second and final movements (as well as an entirely apt encore of Bare your heads! from the second movement) with such ease that you could easily imagine it being an idea that Shostakovich himself would have approved. Serendipitously less than a month ago I heard Vladimir Jurowski and the smaller forces of his London Philharmonic thrill in this symphony, and, while Martín may not have matched Jurowski in brittleness and urgency, he made up for it in moulding the sheer body of sound from his expanded forces (28 winds matched by 28 brass and horns!), while judiciously not seeking to overpower climaxes. The volte-faces littered throughout Shostakovich’s score – climaxes suddenly stopped for an abrupt and eerie return to the very opening music of The Palace Square – were managed impeccably, as was the final, shattering and bell-laden climax, leaving a stunned audience to attempt to match the volume with its great acclamation, with cheers greeting Martín’s gesticulations for individuals and then whole sections of the orchestra to stand and receive their applause.
The National Youth Orchestra will be back – still with singing – in its new take on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (under Marin Alsop) in April, and then for its summer course under Elim Chan.
- Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on January 13, and then available for 30 days on BBC Sounds