National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

New Era Dance [London premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1 in D flat, Op.10
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Alexander Korbin (piano)

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 4 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalThe National Youth Orchestra’s annual Proms visit found 150 players or so taking part in the Kernis and Shostakovich in a repeat of a programme the orchestra had given in Malvern two days previously.

Mark Elder introduced the Aaron Jay Kernis piece and lamented that his music is not better known in the UK. Written in for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th-anniversary (in 1992), New Era Dance (‘new era’ also referring to Kurt Masur becoming Music Director at that time) is certainly attention-grabbing (it has pistols!) and one cannot imagine it being played by anything but a youth orchestra. Such is the swinging vitality of the work, owing something to Leonard Bernstein, that the fadeout at the end seemed to be a huge shrug of the shoulders expressing “what’s the point?”, which seemed a shame. Amongst the police sirens and the keyboard sampler, it was all great fun.

Alexander Korbin’s outgoing account of Prokofiev’s youthful piano concerto really fizzed, so full of activity and flights of fancy. In the orchestra there were problems with dynamics and quite a few fluffed notes, the nervousness of the occasion seeming to take its toll. Perhaps Korbin’s playing was a bit too comfortable in the cadenza, but the way he was able to raise his sound above that of the orchestra was quite powerful.

The story of Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony is linked to the Proms. After the work’s premiere in Russia (in Kuibyshev conducted by Samuil Samosud) the score was microfilmed and flown to London and given its first performance in the West in a broadcast conducted by Sir Henry Wood on 22 June 1942; he then conducted it at the Proms. The American premiere followed (in New York under Toscanini) and Leningrad first heard it in the August conducted by Karl Eliasberg. 65 years later the NYO gave what can be described as, at best, a performance that had a ‘live’ feel. This is not easy music and there are some very taxing solos. Only at the end did things come together in triumphant glory.

What was noticeable was how very quiet many passages were; too quiet in fact. This was surprising given the larger-than-usual forces. The bass sound was rather lacklustre and the piano in the first-movement’s ‘invasion theme’ was inaudible although there were some good and expressive contributions from the woodwinds. Nerves seemed to affect the (rather subdued) strings and inner movements needed more time to build. However, the climax of the finale, very carefully sculpted by Mark Elder, did deliver its exhilarating defiance.

It seems that the knocking over of wineglasses during ‘critical’ points in music is de rigueur at Proms concerts – I wish it were not so. Can anything be done to prevent people taking them into their boxes? This was a very noisy audience, with plenty of non-stifled coughing and at least one mobile telephone ringing out, not helping the players’ concentration.

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