National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain

Orchestra on Parade [London premiere]
Ritual Dances [The Midsummer Marriage]
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Tadaaki Otaka

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Under the right circumstances things happen with youth orchestras which seldom occur with professional groups – bringing the freshness and excitement of first-love to repertoire which in more experienced hands can sound merely dutiful. This Prom was just such an occasion. Without a soloist to divert attention, the programme was firmly focussed on the National Youth Orchestra itself, an enlarged group of 150 musicians aged between 14 and 19 whose make-up gives a good indication of just how culturally diverse Britain now is. How suitable therefore that the conductor should have been the one-time Wales-domiciled Tadaaki Otaka, an NYO regular.

Elgar’s First Symphony was something altogether special, and given with the opulent luxury of four harps (three of the players from Wales), three tubas and eight trombones; with additional strings in proportion. More to the point was the musicianship itself: the strings’ sensitive statement of the opening ‘motto’ theme had a breath-catching quality. Otaka is not a demonstrative conductor, but he is remarkably clear: just what a youth orchestra needs. Conducting from memory music he leads often (including a recording for BIS with the BBC Wales Orchestra), Otaka elicited the very best from the players.

With its tricky ebb and flow, the first movement was perhaps the least successful, ideally requiring greater depth of string tone, but there were unforgettable moments – the sheer weight of its final crunching climax or the poetry of the close as it subsides into the depths. The remainder of the performance really took wing, Otaka making no concessions on tempo in the scherzo, and the glorious Adagio drew string-playing of the most concentrated heartfelt intensity, confident horn solos from Andrew Littlemore, and clarinettist Charlotte Swift’s magical playing closed the movement. Otaka went straight into the finale’s tenebrous introduction and the Allegro packed a real visceral punch. Seldom has the coda rung out with such unbridled power.

In the first half was the London premiere of the NYO’s composer-in-residence Paul Patterson’s Orchestra on Parade, its syncopated theme passing from one section to another – a latter-day Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra compacted into 4 minutes. Tippett’s Ritual Dances, made into a concert work from his opera “The Midsummer Marriage”, followed, the opening showing-off the horn section to good effect whilst the succeeding string passage had an almost Daphnis-like voluptuousness. The dances themselves are punctuated by three fanfares, especially impressive when heard with eight trumpets as on this occasion. There was much fine playing, not least the pair of clarinets in ‘Winter’ and the flight of solo violins in the trailing tendrils of ‘Spring’. Otaka directed this rhythmically tricky score with exactly the assurance required.

On the evidence of this concert the future of music-making in the UK is alive and well – despite the current government’s dismal record of support.

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