National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
January 6 2023 (Warwick Arts Centre Jan 7 and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall Jan 8)
Review: William Ruff
The NYO brings energy and enthusiasm to an evening of joyful music-making
If you want to see Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall shrink before your very eyes, you don’t need Harry Potter’s magic wand; you just need to witness the extraordinarily talented members of the National Youth Orchestra taking their seats. All 160 of them. And it’s not simply because several rows of Stalls seats had to be removed to accommodate them all on the platform. It’s much more the intensity of sound generated by this mass of musical energy that makes the Hall seem as if it’s about to lose its roof. If this sounds hazardous, let me reassure you: it’s one of the most thrilling sonic experiences this country has to offer.
As if to underscore their dynamic splendour, the climax of their winter programme is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, an orchestral showpiece made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The depth and range of the NYO’s talent was clear from an opening which gripped the audience by the throat and wouldn’t let go: the deep, low C on double basses, double bassoon and organ followed by that magnificent call on trumpets (all 7 of them). However, few listeners ever venture beyond this to enter Strauss’s homage to the philosophical poem by Friedrich Nietzsche which inspired it with its creed of the Übermensch who passes through stages of religious and scientific development before emerging into the light.
Of course, you don’t need to know any of this: Strauss was writing music not philosophy, Nietzsche’s text providing a structure into which he could pour some of his lushest orchestral writing. The NYO, under the incisive direction of conductor Alexandre Bloch, grasped every stage of the journey with relish, particularly the orgiastic ecstasy of the climax, at the height of which the midnight bell sounds and the music subsides into a nocturne of great tenderness. It’s like the end of a huge concerto for orchestra in which each of the NYO’s players has had to perform the role of soloist.
The concert (ably and informatively compèred by NYO members Noah Hall and Megan Clarke) started with Four Sea Interludes from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, another great orchestral showpiece. The first Interlude (‘Dawn’) is a wonderfully detailed evocation of the early morning street scene in which villagers and fishermen are going about their business. The NYO created some beautiful sounds: the opening high, pianissimo violins in unison with the flutes. And then the way they evoked the cries of seabirds with the clarinet, harp and violas suggesting the wind ruffling the surface of the water. In the final Interlude (‘Storm’) the terrifying savagery of wind and waves was conveyed by high woodwind swirling in fragmented phrases, punctuated by savage low brass chords. The precision of the NYO’s playing was matched only by its high-octane energy.
They can turn their hands to much more recent music too: Orbit, highly inventive music devised in the last few days and played by 11 members of the NYO and RIFT by contemporary composer Anna Clyne, music which is perhaps more like sonic sculpture as it veers between reflection and chaos, ethereal one moment, exploding wildly the next. Sadness rubs shoulders with optimism, serenity with terrifying disorder. Much of it is strange but we encounter oases of familiarity along the way, echoes of religious chant and folksong. It must be challenging to play but here, as in everything else in their exhilaratingly ambitious programme, the young players carried it off with the skill born of hard work, commitment and a joyful sharing of musical talent.
The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Alexandre Bloch, conductor