National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain at Cadogan Hall with Julian Lloyd Webber

Matthew Curtis
Élégie, Op.24
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Julian Lloyd Webber (cello)

National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain
Gavin Sutherland

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 13 April, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

There are several advantages for the audience attending a youth orchestra concert: in the first place, the musicians are all pleased to be there, and are keen to do their best; secondly, rather more rehearsal time than is usually allotted to an orchestral concert will have been expended on preparing the programme, and last, the personnel is more often than not greater than those of professional orchestras, affording an added bonus of being able to perform large-scale works with a more suitable number of players asked for by the composers than is usually encountered.

All of these factors, and more, were in evidence in this concert by the main National Children’s Orchestra (its members aged 13 to 14 – there is a second orchestra, made up of under 13s), which comprised almost 120 musicians on the specially extended stage (only three percussionists, including timpani, were named in the programme, when at least five were in evidence). Of course, some might complain that in theory an orchestra made up youthful players cannot match in experience or musical understanding that of older professionals, but in practice one had to keep reminding oneself that these musicians were still at secondary schools, from across the country – absolutely no allowances had to be made for their age.

It was a terrific programme: the first work, Matthew Curtis’s Sinfonietta, was new to your correspondent (as was the composer, about whom the lavishly illustrated programme book told us nothing, other than he was born in 1959), the work coming across as a cleverly written, brilliantly orchestrated and somewhat substantial piece in three movements of more than 20 minutes’ duration, although a little deficient in terms of distinctive character. It was exceptionally well played, the orchestra relishing the challenges this gifted composer placed before them.

Julian Lloyd WebberJulian Lloyd Webber joined the NCO for two short pieces: in Fauré’s haunting Élégie his rich tone told well against the very fine orchestral balance under Gavin Sutherland’s conducting, and the rare Frank Bridge Scherzetto proved a delightful foil. These two works were quite beautifully played and projected with genuine character.

Thus far, so good: but these welcome events did not entirely prepare us for an astonishingly assured and profoundly impressive account of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. With four harps and the rest of the orchestra almost in proportion (just six double basses out of a total string strength of 69 – in this splendid acoustic this was not a problem) the result was a performance that gripped from first bar to last, Gavin Sutherland directing with the commanding character and sensitive musicianship of a master, his wide experience here put to genuine effect. Thankfully, a recording of the concert was made, so the truth of my comments can be readily demonstrated; in terms of sheer committed musicianship, virtuosity and total involvement from every player, this was a performance such as one rarely hears, even from major orchestras – let us hope these musicians, should they go on to have adult playing careers, never lose their enthusiasm for making music. On this showing, it was downright tangible and incredibly uplifting in our current socio-economic climate.

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