As Proms debuts go, this would be difficult to beat. The newly formed National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA) were fresh – literally, certainly no sign of fatigue – from an intensive two-week training residency followed by a tour which included the tall order of taking Tchaikovsky to Russia. Prior to that, the hundred and twenty 16- to 19-year-olds had been strangers to each other, scattered as they were over 42 states. They were making history together, as well as extraordinary music, as the first national youth orchestra in modern US history. It was a vivid feast for the eyes, too: young men and young women alike wore black suit jackets and white shirts, but that’s where the formal concert attire ended, their homeland clearly in evidence in their bright red jeans, and sneakers of navy blue dotted with white stars.

National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

There was also novelty in the evening’s first piece, the European première of Magiya by the young musicians’ compatriot Sean Shepherd. Written especially for this Russian-themed programme, the composer wanted to incorporate elements of Russian magic – “Magiya” – found in folklore, literature, and the country’s great overtures. It launched straight into a helter-skelter of theatrical percussion from five players with an impressive battery to tackle, then passed to brass fanfares followed by the various orchestral elements apparently chasing each other towards a series of climaxes. Brief periods of calm appeared here and there, with lyricism in the strings, adding to the mystical, magical quality, but the journey led inexorably to a full-blown commotion. Shepherd took to the stage to accept huge cheers and in turn gave the orchestra his enthusiastic applause.

Joshua Bell had toured with the orchestra and was clearly buoyed up by their commitment and youthful exuberance. No stranger to the Proms himself, he last played the Tchaikovsky here in 1994. The composer, following the collapse of his sham marriage, had a self-imposed exile for a while in Switzerland and Italy, where he wrote the Violin Concerto in D major, inspired by playing piano duets with young violinist Iosif Kotek, with whom he was romantically linked. The gorgeous, soulful tones Bell conjured up were perfect for the unmistakably Russian melodies. The balance and sensitivity between soloist and orchestra were impressive, displaying true teamwork. Although conductor Valery Gergiev remained fully in command, of course, with delicate, eloquent hand movements, there was more than a passing hint in Bell’s attitude to the fact that he has of late been trying his own hand at directing (with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields).

After the passionate outpourings of the slow Canzonetta, with particularly fine supporting contributions from the woodwind, the finale was a vivacious folk dance featuring exciting tempo changes. A great cheer erupted even before the final flourish was fully unleashed. Bell beamed a broad smile and applauded the orchestra. It seemed significantly inclusive that he chose not a solo for his encore, but an ensemble piece – Tchaikovsky again, in the shape of the lovely romantic Mélodie from Souvenir d’un lieu cher.

Russian passion was also well in evidence in Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 10 in E minor, from the perspective of rage against the suffering endured through Stalin’s purges. There was menace from the outset, the minor tonality not simply sad but desperate. Tension built through the ominous tolling of the timpani, and at times the percussion sounded like gunfire. The orchestra inhabited the music in pulsing waves, spurred on by Gergiev’s intensity.

Pre-concert reading had revealed that in the whirlwind second movement, having begun fortissimo, there would be no fewer than fifty crescendos and just a couple of diminuendos, which frankly didn’t sound humanly possible. But the NYO-USA were more than up for the challenge, creating a cacophony of full-throttle emotion. Horns and timpani showcased their individual talents in the finale, as did leader Lily Tsai with a charming cameo.

If the Americans expected a reserved, polite reception from the British Proms crowd, they didn’t get it. There were cheers for the proud soloists, whom Gergiev brought to their feet one by one; there was whooping and whistling; and the musicians themselves gave as good as they got, stamping their star-spangled feet. Adrenalin-fuelled, they still had plenty of energy for a lively encore, an all-American affair which could no doubt become their signature tune: a medley from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, complete with banjo and Stetson!

*****