National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

Mark Simpson
Threads for Orchestra [Musicians Benevolent Fund commission: world premiere]
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Four Last Songs
The Rite of Spring

Gabriele Fontana (soprano)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Vasily Petrenko

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 April, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Vasily Petrenko (styled by Lorraine McCulloch, courtesy of Cricket Liverpool, photograph: Mark McNulty)The Musicians Benevolent Fund Royal Concert for this year was given in the presence of HRH The Duke of Kent. The many members (19 first violins, 12 double basses, 8 trombones, and with the other sections similarly outsize) of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain took their places commendably early and in military fashion. There followed a lengthy tuning process and, then, a long ‘wait’ while much of the audience finally arrived and then played ‘musical chairs’. Tension dissipated.

Naturally enough the UK National Anthem was aired (rather perfunctorily and in its briefest form). Then came the premiere of Mark Simpson’s Threads for Orchestra. Simpson is obviously a very talented young man; a recent winner of BBC Young Musician of the Year (as a clarinettist) and the Guardian/BBC Proms Young Composer competition.

Mark Simpson. Photograph: PA/BBCThreads for Orchestra (2008) reveals a composer who is very confident with the orchestra. Threads, even at just eight minutes, is a mite too long – the tumult that seemed to signal the work’s end turned out to be its mid-point and the close is too gestural to be satisfyingly final. Nevertheless, the clangourous, cacophonic and sonorous opening textures promised much – scenic music that reaches for the sky and occasionally recalls Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland – and perhaps by definition, John Adams – and with a sort of English feel, too. Transatlantic, then. Less becoming was the over-use of percussion, particularly that of the ‘industrial’ type, which palled, and a use of repetition rather than development that eventually made heavy weather of even a short playing time. But, in many way, hugely promising, and given an exuberant first outing under Vasily Petrenko, a notable among the younger generation of conductors, whose clarity of gesture cannot be misunderstood.

As ever with the NYO the quality of playing and dedication (aided by the experience of tutors) was never in doubt. But the elegance needed for Ravel’s waltzes was rarely present, the opening number rather slap-happy and ‘obvious’. Generally, this account lacked insouciance, was too brightly lit and without naturalness; only the epilogue found some ‘distance’ and greater appreciation of what counts as Ravelian ‘essentials’. As for The Rite of Spring, well, suffice it to say that it was played with plenty of energy and focus (but some blurring of lines still occurred), but was sunk by tempos either far too fast or dragging; such extremes failed to work and lacked either choreographic or theatrical purpose, a cheapening of music that still has the power to shock but emerged here as slick, showy and gratuitous – fortissimos lurid and, elsewhere, with little atmosphere or genuinely quiet playing.

Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” had in Gabriele Fontana a soprano lacking opulence but very poised and equally concerned with enunciation (almost pointedly so). Only in the middle two settings was there a sense of singer and conductor digging beneath the surface of these final utterances – and one can only praise Alexander Edmundson’s eloquent horn solo in ‘September’ and Konrad Elias-Trostmann’s violin contribution in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, although he and the audience deserved more than a hacking cougher interrupting the meditation. But the retarded tempo for ‘Im Abendrot’ was tortuously slow and bled any life from it as it crawled along; possibly a mistaken attempt to make it a ‘last word’.

As interpretations, there was much to quibble with; as another example of the NYO’s consummate abilities, there was much to admire, not least Tamsin Thorn’s bassoon solo to launch The Rite – she deserved a bouquet and got one courtesy of the conductor!

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