National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain at Royal Festival Hall – Folk Explosion! [Charles Hazlewood, Ailish Tynan & Bellowhead]

Háry János – Suite [interspersed]
Patrick Nunn
Tavern Tales
Sinfonia India (Symphony No.2)
Bellowing Sounds
Joseph Canteloube
Songs of the Auvergne [selections]
Chronicles of Bonaparte
Kathryn Tickell
Northumbrian Fantasia

Ailish Tynan (soprano)

Members of Bellowhead

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Charles Hazlewood

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 April, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

However rooted in Hungarian folk-music Zoltán Kodály’s fantastical opera Háry János (1926) may be, it didn’t really connect to the rest of the repertoire here (and outstripped everything else in its sheer quality); and, anyway, splitting up the Suite’s six movements simply didn’t work as part of a programme that ultimately became uninteresting due to a surfeit of familiar tunes (however ‘treated’) and an overdose of loudness and brashness.

Charles Hazlewood. Photograph: Chris ChristodoulouWhether or not “All music is connected!” – as Charles Hazlewood claims – this concert (with interloping elements of cabaret and workshop) backfired, being too bitty and lacking flow – and the ears got a right bashing, whether in Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonia India (1937), which had its moments but became a relentless, repetitive fortissimo, or in James MacMillan’s crude (or made to seem so) Britannia (1994), which mixes from Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and “Knees Up Mother Brown” but does so in a very obvious way: not a patch on the multi-layered clashes of Charles Ives or the treading-underfoot of Alfred Schnittke (although his explosive tendencies can easily pall, too). Nevertheless, the performances these works could have been less blatant.

With a typically outsize National Youth Orchestra in the very immediate and uncluttered Royal Festival Hall acoustic, greater discretion was needed. The trumpets and trombones seared and needed taming, but no such prudence was forthcoming. There were other balance problems, too, not only because of dominating brass and sometimes-crude percussion (the woodwinds losing out), for the amplification of the members of Bellowhead (superb musicians) tilted too much in their direction, some of their timbres artificially-sounded and disconnected from these musicians’ positioning.

But, oh for some respite – Delius’s First Cuckoo in Spring would have been very welcome, and timely (it may not be folksong-related, but the bird’s call belongs to us all), but would it have achieved anything approaching a ‘true’ pianissimo. We shall never know. As it was, Patrick Nunn’s arrangement-pieces, ‘based on and including…’, culminating with Bardstorming and something of a ‘jam session’, but proved all-too-repetitious like the Chávez and losing out because of what had preceded it in terms of decibels; and leaving one pining for any folk-inspired piece by Holst or Vaughan Williams (the latter’s wonderful Norfolk Rhapsody No.1, for example), both of whom captured the quintessential nature of such material without shouting it at you. And Kathryn Tickell’s Northumbrian piece – moody and sun-rising and therefore similar to Nunn’s Tavern Tales – proved more multi-purpose than specific (it too went ‘down Mexico way’) and non-descript.

Ailish Tynan. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgSome reprieve had come earlier with three Songs of the Auvergne – from a collection of folksongs from the Auvergne region arranged by Joseph Canteloube between 1923 and 1930. But in a concert that seemed only concerned with pumping things up, to be denied the best-known number, the poignant ‘Baïlèro’, was a real pity. Ailish Tynan joined in with the chat (members of the NYO took it in turns to introduce the works and the Kodály movements), and whilst music is best left to speak for itself, she brought a twinkle in the eye description to familiarise her three short numbers, albeit her blarney was almost as long as the combined length of the songs. Given Canteloube also went for Technicolor orchestration, there wasn’t much change here either; and, as voluptuous as Tynan sang, her renditions lacked an essential simplicity.

In the (interrupted) Kodály the phrasing was sometimes foursquare, while aspects of detailing, dynamics and balance left things to be desired; at least the cimbalom (the distinctively tangy-sounding, Hungary-associated instrument) wasn’t amplified and thus perfectly balanced, although a microphone was hanging near it, and which Ed Cervenka (an NYO ‘old boy’) played with assurance. There were also fine solos from string principals, from the saxophonist, and from horn.

But rather than underline disappointments with the lack of subtlety in the playing, the too-samey choices of music (loud and noisy is not best, unless you’re desensitised) and the laboured presentation, let me celebrate the NYO. These players are capable of greater range than afforded them here, but they are hugely talented youngsters and demand respect for their skills, commitment and chutzpah. May the next NYO concert offer greater diversity of music and explore it for all its emotional power, refinement and intricacy, such as was achieved a few months ago with Paul Daniel conducting Walton’s great First Symphony.

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