National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
January 6 2020
Review: William Ruff
Passion, energy, virtuosity in an electrifying, epic programme
Every year in January Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall shrinks. Or at least that what it feels (and sounds) like when the National Youth Orchestra makes its annual visit. It is both uplifting and slightly alarming to see the 164 young musicians make their way onto the enlarged platform and to wonder if the hall will still have its roof in place by the end of the evening.
This year the drama of having so many super-talented teenagers on stage was an essential ingredient in the concert’s success. In an era in which we have become accustomed to young people taking to the streets to fight for the survival of our planet, it was good to be reminded of how music can support and inspire struggle and protest. Songs have always drawn people together in a spirit of common purpose, giving them words and rhythms to energise and motivate. And so it was that this year’s ‘Rise Up’ programme started not with instruments (except for a fiercely insistent side drum) but with young voices singing Hans Eisler’s Auf den Strassen zu singen and proudly proclaiming that they were marching in protest against the whole world, tearing the sky apart with their singing. Performed with such passion and energy this was an electrifying way to begin.
They followed this with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a work suffused with the composer’s anti-war convictions and one of his all-too-few orchestral showpieces. It demands virtuosity from all sections as well as razor-sharp timing, especially in the extraordinary crashes and thumps which end the manic ‘Dies Irae’, a furious dance of death. Each of the three compact, linked movements were perfectly paced and balanced, from the opening ‘Lacrymosa’ sorrowing and obsessive to the ‘Requiem aeternam’, a more sustained expression of consolation and healing.
Song returned in the NYO’s performance of Shostakovich’s massive 11th Symphony. It depicts with cinematic sweep and detail the tragic events of January 9 1905 when peaceful protesters were gunned down by soldiers guarding the Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The composer incorporates the tunes of protest songs into each of the four movements, songs which would have been well-known to Russian audiences but which are usually lost in translation. It was a stroke of genius to get the NYO to sing the songs before three of the four symphonic tableaus, thus embedding both music and meaning into the consciousness before we heard it played by the instruments. More about the missing one anon.
The rapport between conductor Jaime Martin and his young players was obvious from the word go and he clearly knew when to exercise tight control as well as when to let them off the leash. Much of the music is very loud indeed (well, there is a massacre in the second movement, after all) but much of it is also very quiet and showed the 164 players as minutely responsive as chamber musicians. The eerie atmosphere of the symphony’s opening, the almost inaudible breath of sound with which the strings conjure up the sub-zero hush of the Palace Square, was potent and full of almost unbearable tension.
But for sheer symphonic spectacle it would be hard to beat the build-up to the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre, the guns, the panic, the death of those who had come to petition the Tsar – and the heart-stopping sudden silence after which the music suggests blood-stained snow as vividly as any film. After this the massed strings of the NYO sang their hearts out in the ‘Requiem’ lament before the concluding ‘Tocsin’, a stirring call-to-arms which may have the loudest ending in the symphonic repertoire…or at least it was the first time I have ever seen an orchestral player (the striker of the mighty bells) having to don ear-protectors.
A standing ovation was inevitable and accompanied Jaime Martin acknowledging the brilliance of the whole orchestra and all those many individuals who had shone (including a well-deserved handshake for the cor anglais player). Just when the applause was beginning to die down the NYO started singing that missing third movement song. It was a poignant, perfect way to end.
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Jaime Martin, conductor