National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain with Nicola Benedetti & Jonathon Hayward – Laura Jurd’s Chant; Jessie Montgomery’s Banner; Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony; Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto

Laura Jurd
Chant [London premiere]

Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63

Jessie Montgomery

Symphony No.3 in E-flat, Op.35 (Eroica)

Nicola Benedetti (violin)

National Youth Orchestra
Jonathon Heyward

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 August, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The miracle of the National Youth Orchestra returned to its rightful annual place at the Proms, after the hiatus of last year (perhaps not as long-standing a tradition at the Proms as Beethoven’s Ninth, but back even as the Ninth has another fallow year).  The NYO first appeared at the Proms in 1955 and became an almost-annual fixture from the seventies (only missing 1972 and 1978). 

Tonight marked the Proms debut of conductor Jonathon Hayward, whose youth credentials were definitely on display in his choice of footwear – Converse All Stars, though in regulation black and white of concert dress.  He was not the first – you may remember that the USA Youth Orchestra under Pappano all wore stars-and-stripes All Stars for their trek up an Alpine mountain (just two years ago).

In a typically generous programme there were two London premieres from Laura Jurd and Jessie Montgomery and, as an encore, a devised hit of musical caffeine “supported by composer Alex Paxton and led by tonight’s leader Kynan Walker” with seemingly no name, but ended the evening perfectly.

Unusually for the NYO, there were many fewer players.  Gone were the phalanx of double bass players who normally are already present when the audience are allowed in.  Here a modest four, which is more of the norm for this season’s socially distanced platforms, and wind and trumpets were one player to a part.  The one luxury was the horn bumper.  Like other performances with small numbers of players the silver lining was an amazing clarity of lines in both the concerto and symphony.

Trumpet-player Laura Jurd’s Chant, here receiving its London premiere, didn’t break any rules over singing, but had Eliza Talman’s trumpet (what else?) lead a cohort of kazoos underpinned by pizzicato rhythms on the strings and occasional stamped feet.  An aleatoric section for wind encapsulated an improvisatory feel to the piece, the kazoo chant returning after.  Very effective.

The largest audience thus far at the Proms, with a good number in the Rausing Circle as well as the Stalls, were not disappointed with Nicola Benedetti, a fervent ambassador for the NYO.  Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto is a Proms favourite, not surprisingly, and Benedetti’s sweet tone from the very opening solo to what David Gutman’s programme note described as the final “characteristic sardonic cadential shrug” guaranteed a hugely enjoyable performance, with notable orchestral clarity.  For those who had been caught in the torrential downpours on the way here, the gentle rain drop effect of the opening of the second movement (soft pizzicato and silky clarinet) would have come as great relief.

Although the second half was listed as to be played without a break, there was no stopping the applause after Jessie Montgomery’s Banner.  Whilst I found it almost impossible to hear within its intertwining sections the source material (The Star-Spangled Banner), the idea of the marching band was abundantly clear, as was Montgomery’s skill at corralling her forces.  I could definitely see how the stabbing chords at the end could easily meld into Beethoven’s two opening chords of his Eroica.  But the applause for Banner was richly deserved, although (unlike Jurd), Montgomery wasn’t here to receive it.

What followed was a tremendous performance of Eroica.  This is, of course, youthful music – Beethoven was barely into his 30s when it was completed, and he had the bit between his teeth with new resolve to persevere despite his encroaching deafness.  Matched by the untrammelled enthusiasm of the young players, Heyward drew out an admirably heroic performance with period punch and an ear for orchestral colour.  The funeral march slow movement for many may have had a special resonance after eighteen months of the pandemic, but the whole programme had been devised as a statement of hope, and it worked: hope for the future careers of such fantastic young players perhaps paramount.

The orchestra, sans Heyward, quite rightly let their hair down for their encore, even if the timpanist had to disappear pretty damn quick one side to re-join his two colleagues (who had sat patiently through the Beethoven without playing a note) on the other in time for his drum solo. 

The Prom was filmed for broadcast on BBC Four on 8th August at 7 p.m., and thereafter on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.

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