An allegiance to Welsh performers and composers is a major feature of this year’s tour by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, with two native contemporary scores on the programme performed by a Welsh soloist and conductor. It could easily become cosy and parochial, but the results were amongst the NYOW’s finest achievements in recent years. Given at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall, it followed on from concerts in Pembrokeshire and Llandudno and the NYOW now embark on a short German tour.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, with which the concert ended, turned out to be a superb choice for a youth orchestra. Youth orchestra programmes often feature large late-Romantic scores that boost audiences but do not necessarily provide the most advantageous training opportunities for young players. Rachmaninov’s last completed work, though, originally written for the Philadelphia Orchestra, is a veritable concerto for orchestra. Its demands suit perfectly a confident well-drilled youth orchestra, requiring tight ensemble, rhythmic control and with elaborate parts and solo opportunities for all sections of the orchestra.

Grant Llewellyn © Michael Lutch
Grant Llewellyn
© Michael Lutch

The NYOW’s programme took a number of bold risks that could easily have misfired under a conductor less confident and experienced than Grant Llewellyn. Born in West Wales, his roots are the same as many of the NYOW’s players, with whom he has found a natural affinity. In the Rachmaninov, he occasionally adopted very broad tempi whilst retaining an inexorable sense of line and rhythmic control. A case in point was the first movement’s second subject where he allowed his superb young wind soloists the opportunity to create spacious chamber-like textures of impressive clarity. Yet the performance was never lacking in vitality and a sense of tightly controlled ensemble was always present.

Another high-risk strategy was the bicentennial inclusion of the first-act prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin. Oddly, the more straightforward prelude to the opera’s third act (with which the concert opened) was the least impressive part of the evening, but, in the first-act prelude, the strings managed the perilous opening with great aplomb, forming a basis for a highly disciplined and beautifully balanced performance.

But what of the new works in the programme? A work by a young Welsh composer, not out of college, and a compositional debut by a well-known harpist, were two more bold risks in this year’s programme. Cardiff audiences have for some time been aware of a new and impressive voice on the Welsh compositional scene. 26-year-old Joseph Davies’ Yeats-inspired Byzantium was premièred by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales last November and they also featured part of it in a workshop in February 2012. The piece is not without its faults, but its virtues are those so often absent in a young composer’s work: memorable ideas, a fine ear for pacing and harmony that is genuinely heard aided by an orchestral economy which allows the music to make its point.

The other new work could not have been farther removed: Catrin Finch’s Harp Concerto is based on the Welsh poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (1887–1917), better known through his bardic name, Hedd Wyn (White Peace). Killed in action during World War I and posthumously awarded the poetry chair at the National Eisteddfod in the same year, his poetry and example have taken on an almost mythical significance in Wales over the last hundred years. Catrin Finch is one of the finest harpists of her generation, with a restlessness that has led her far beyond the usual confines of the traditional harp repertoire, and this concert marked her debut as a composer. The tradition of soloists composing concertos for themselves, so common from the Baroque through to the end of the 19th century, has now largely disappeared, so it was encouraging to see her revive it. The result was a colourful score, incorporating recorded speech, with Finch utilising both traditional and electronic harps, a battery of technology and many striking gestures, ensuring that its 20-minute duration was never dull. And it was Catrin Finch that set a seal on this most Welsh of programmes with an encore of the traditional Welsh folk song Ar lan y Môr.