National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/James MacMillan

Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Romeo and Juliet [selections from Suites 1 and 2]
Symphony: Vigil

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
James MacMillan

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 4 January, 2008
Venue: Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW11

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)It was an astounding sight: an orchestra that filled a good half of the floor-space in this huge one-time engine shed – a vast cave of a building, with a high, domed roof. Its sound is cavernous: it booms, but does not echo; it projects, but does not fudge. The noise these teenagers could make was enormous – consider, for example, the sound possible from 8 bassoons, 8 flutes, 12 double basses or 5 harps. The tones of individual instruments made their presence felt. Loud outbursts from the full orchestra filled the roof with the explosion.

Two further factors contributed to making this concert from the National Youth Orchestra a special occasion. The vitality, freshness and enthusiasm of these teenagers are phenomenal. So too the preparation. In an amount of rehearsal-time to die for, care and attention could be lavished upon whatever was necessary, with the result that these youngsters could really savour their instruments, producing delectable or stentorian sounds to match.

James MacMillan. Photograph: Andrew FarringtonJames MacMillan spoke of the performers’ surprise and delight on discovering the distinctiveness of Britten’s orchestration in the ‘Four Sea Interludes’. The players gloried in the idiosyncrasy and gave it its head, so that we were splendidly given the opportunity to marvel at Britten’s evocation of those strange, powerful noises that the North Sea made by the Aldeburgh shore. The stillness was so cold; the sea’s turbulence was so formidable; the silvery disharmony rang so true!

Cold, too, and in a different sense of the word, were the extracts from Romeo and Juliet. MacMillan introduced Prokofiev as a sardonic observer of his time, who coupled strong emotions with a penchant for parody. There was a chill white heat to ‘Dance of the Knights’ and a savage, cold fury in ‘Death of Tybalt’. Coolness pervaded the remaining movements, even though they ranged from ardent young love to wisdom from Friar Laurence. The selection ended with the bleak finality of the lovers’ grave. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain caught very finely indeed Prokofiev’s paradox of pulsating with bare detachment amidst blazing colour.

MacMillan’s own Vigil was the longest work on offer, the last of a three-pronged Easter-inspired commission from the London Symphony Orchestra. Its creator and the NYO did the splendour of its confident, distinctive post-modernism full justice. In sum, the piece offered spotlights and opportunities to all sections in the orchestra – and, in particular, the brass intermittently blazing their trumpeting of salvation during the second movement, from their five stations in the upper auditorium. The work began in darkness, as the double basses eerily ran an almost inaudible hint of portamento lacking in defined upper or lower notes. The strings whispered softly, in waiting, until flickers of light eventually appeared on flutes, harps, percussion and keyboards. The last movement moved from fire towards water, from dance towards meditation. The dance had ecstatic vigour, keeping brass and woodwind busy, putting strings to work after their comparative rest in the movement before, and giving percussion plenty of exercise in banging all manner of drum-kits and tubular bells. The ending had an ethereal stillness – high silken strings shimmered against the occasional ting of a clear, bell-like triangle.

In the most vital sense of the word, this was a dedicated performance of an arresting work. MacMillan’s writing is accessible and well aware of standing on the shoulders of the past. Yet it had a keenness of its own and spikiness, owing more to Peter Wiegold than to John Tavener.

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