National Youth Orchestra

Tchaikovsky
Hamlet – Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare, Op.67
Bernstein
West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Respighi
Fontane di Roma
Strauss
Der Rosenkavalier – Suite

National Youth Orchestra
Sir Neville Marriner


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 11 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was another heart-warming occasion from the National Youth Orchestra. The young musicians, aged between 14 and 19, certainly seemed to enjoy themselves, and the concert was certainly intensively prepared, Sir Neville Marriner adding his skills to the already-present mix of talent, exuberance and dedication.

It was a good choice of works, too – plenty of colour, drama and melody. The traditionally over-sized NYO – loads of strings (including 11 double basses), brass and six harps – was not gratuitously loud and good balance ensued throughout the evening; only more delicacy and pianissimo was craved. Marriner (who turns 83 on 15 April) was in hale and hearty form and led vigorous and considered accounts of these orchestral showpieces. Maybe Hamlet was a little to controlled at times and made to seem somewhat repetitive (a Tchaikovsky failing, anyway) but the opulent and incisive strings were a pleasure, so too the oboe solos (presumably by Emily Ross) – interesting to hear a (perhaps unfashionable) ‘English’ reedy tone, one that maybe sent Marriner back to his London Symphony Orchestra days (when he led the Second Violins) and to his late colleague Anthony Camden.

Marriner might be an octogenarian but the swing and danger of West Side Story seem as close to him as the other music played here! Maybe some of the rhythms were a little foursquare, and there was a lack of danger (little suggestion of street feuding and the like) but there was a real buzz to the performance and the complex score was given with clarity, pizzazz and real identification by the young musicians. The so-called ‘Symphonic Dances’ (made under Bernstein’s supervision by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, neither arranger mentioned in the programme book), while capturing much of the flavour and the ‘hits’ of the original musical, is much more than a ‘suite’ of popular numbers; indeed, it’s a masterly and brilliantly (densely) orchestrated summing-up of the stage-work that transplants Romeo and Juliet to 1950s’ New York. ‘Somewhere’ was given with real poignancy.

Respighi’s Fountains of Rome lacked a little atmosphere (and most noticeably the delicacy and quietude referred to earlier) but the more demonstrative passages, not least the sonorous depiction of ‘The Fountain of Trevi at noon’ (the imported organ bringing notable underpinning), came off well. The Suite from “Der Rosenkavalier” is not from Richard Strauss’s hand – it seems to have been made by conductor Artur Rodzinski – but the composer approved it and it was added to the opera itself and two earlier ‘Waltz Sequences’. Most conductors tweak the Suite, although Sir Neville seems to have played the published score – and in fine style, too, alive to imperial and orgiastic aspects of this bittersweet music, the entwined love interests, realising the heavenly ‘Trio’ with affection and applying some well-time grandiosity at the Suite’s close.

As a pre-concert recital, twelve members of the NYO, conducted by Benjamin Ellin, played short compositions by NYO members who are budding composers. Ranging from two to seven minutes – and scored for either a group consisting of flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and tuba, and one of oboe, horn and string quartet – all the pieces showed their creators to be imaginative in their response to challenges (picked, it seems, from a hat) of writing a piece that contrasted from the choice, amongst others, of short and long notes, or high and low registers, or fast and slow.

Of the wind/brass pieces, Duncan Ward’s bright and breezy tick tock: woo hoo’ enjoyed some Walton-like ‘tongue in cheek’ ideas and a liquid, rather sentimental, middle section, whereas Frances Balmer seemed to be looking to ‘third stream’ inspiration for Esther 4:15-17: watch out Gunther Schuller! Joel Rust’s Paraprosdokia, maybe influenced by Stravinsky-in Paris and Milhaud, was less successful in terms of continuity.

The other ensemble took the remaining four works (the groups alternated). First off was Mobile by Nick Martin: impressive! A sort of aubade, Mea Wade had a lot to do on her oboe, successfully, and the whole seemed to belong to the Frank Bridge/Benjamin Britten axis. A Disused Shed by Chris McAteer, after a poem by Derek Mahon, made a nod to the Second Viennese School, Berg especially, and was at its most engaging when imitating clockwork mechanisms, but Tom Millar’s Murmuring had too many effects and sounded like 1950s’ experimentation. Finally Pwll dwfn (Deep Pool) by Sian Morten wasn’t far off merging The Firebird with Verklärte Nacht – it’s not often that Stravinsky and Schoenberg touch base!

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Corin Long (presumably a former member of the NYO) who died in a diving accident on 29 March (he was principal double bass in the Royal Philharmonic).

All in all, this was a thoroughly rewarding evening.

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