The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s Camerata group is a pre-professional chamber ensemble where tuition and guidance is provided to bridge the gap between youth orchestra and musical career. Ten years ago, when players had to leave NYOS aged 21 (it is now 26) the Camerata leavers formed the chamber orchestra Amicus to continue playing at a high standard, carrying forward the enthusiasm and ambition of the NYOS experience. For this 10th anniversary concert of fabulous huge music from Strauss and Mahler, Amicus was boosted to symphony orchestra size with 25 players from NYOS, peppered across all sections in the spectacular Bute Hall, the historic heart of Glasgow University. 

This concert was a perfect opportunity to welcome back rising star Anush Hovhannisyan to the city where she studied opera at the Conservatoire, to perform Strauss’ Four Last Songs for the first time. Strauss turned back to writing for the human voice at the very end of his life, his collection a moving farewell to everything, especially his musical loves of the horn, violin and soprano. Written for full orchestra, the sumptuous flowing music needs to enfold but not overwhelm the soloist, a difficult balance to achieve in performance. Though the hall is undoubtedly fabulous, its acoustic is less so, not helped with players almost on the same level as the audience. Conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire nevertheless guided the Amicus players wisely, keeping the sweeping lush orchestration under control. Hovhannisyan’s strong radiant soprano emerged and shone as she held onto long phrases in Frühling, vividly conjuring the last rays of September’s sunshine at the end of summer, cushioned on a lovely sleepy horn solo. At its heart, Beim Schlafengehen, the orchestra cast a deep spell of slumber, awakening with a magnificent violin solo from leader Gordon Bragg, Hovhannisyan picking up the glorious theme which sets the soul soaring into the night. In the last farewell of Im Abendrot, Hovhannysian’s soprano was passionate, clear and bright, relaxed and at ease as the piccolos softly trilled their lark song in the ethereal final bars.

Other-worldly beginnings also feature at the start of Mahler’s First Symphony, the seven octave shimmering strings and off-stage trumpets creating a spacious canvass, setting the scene in this transformative life-affirming work. Larsen-Maguire took a measured approach, giving clear leads which produced exciting string playing from the delicately wistful to exuberant dance delivered with bite. She guided the players successfully through the tricky development passages, the big moments in the first movement exhilarating with clarinet cuckoo calls and a golden brassy climax from the nine horns. The players clearly enjoyed the infectious rhythms in the second movement with a deliciously loose Viennese café waltz and fine horn solo. A wonderfully dark and brooding Frère Jaques double bass solo with timpani quickly became menacing, Larsen-Macguire’s careful attention to dynamics and phrasing providing an authentic rough edge to the street musicians, an outspoken clarinet bringing out some dark humour. The contrasts in the final tempestuous movement were well managed, initial exuberance giving way to a quieter string theme disappearing to hushed cellos and basses. In the development, Larsen-Macguire drove Mahler’s pulsing waves of sound brilliantly, the fiendishly fast violins pinpoint accurate. The joyous finale, led by emphatic violas, was thrilling with blazing horns standing, bells-up woodwind, two lively timpanists and the clash cymbal ringing out in head-high embellishment.

The day before this concert, in a bitterly cruel blow, a huge fire gutted the iconic Mackintosh building at Glasgow’s School of Art, due to have reopened next spring following painstaking restoration after a serious fire four years ago. With the city in shock, and embers still being dampened down only a 15-minute walk away, the life-affirming music at this West End Festival event celebrating the importance and legacy of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland was a much needed tonic for the soul, full of humanity and hope.