Judging by this evening’s performance, the future of music-making in Birmingham is in safe hands. Following an intensive half-term week’s training, including sectional coaching by musicians from the parent orchestra, 100 eager and accomplished 14- to 21-year-olds brought the Symphony Hall stage to life.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Paul Mitchell
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Paul Mitchell

First they were joined by charismatic Frenchman Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in a dazzling interpretation of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in D major for the left hand. It was composed for the Austrian concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the First World War, and although many other composers wrote for him too, Ravel’s concerto is considered the most successful. Of necessity the emphasis is on the lower end of the piano, but Ravel balanced this by a focus on the lower registers of the orchestra also. The CBSO Youth Orchestra set it up nicely with an atmospherically charged rumbling in the lower strings with bassoon whispering the main theme, skilfully building in intensity as the various sections joined in, giving way to a virtuosic piano cadenza. Electrifying. With a perfect seat keyboard-side, it was fascinating to watch the extraordinary versatility and dexterity as five fingers seemed to accomplish the work of ten. Not least, it was an amazing feat of balance; for the most part, Bavouzet’s right hand hung loosely in his lap, then my heart skipped a beat when he raised it and I thought he was about to re-write the score! But he simply hung onto the end of the piano for a while, as his left hand scampered up and down the keys. The right arm was helpfully out of the way again for the spectacular glissando, as dramatic to watch as it was to hear.

As well as drama, there was tenderness and plenty of variation in colour and texture. The orchestra achieved this with style, fully in step with conductor Andrew Litton and displaying the sort of team spirit that a more mature band could be proud of, both in terms of the ensemble and their relationship to the soloist. The audience was transfixed by the delicacy of the penultimate phrases, but once this had evolved into a full sound and crashing climax, the hall exploded with applause. Several curtain calls later, Bavouzet, having acknowledged the orchestra’s sensitive support by applauding and blowing them kisses (with his right hand), gave us a delicious two-handed encore in the shape of a Debussy Arabesque.

Mahler wrote his Symphony no. 5 in C sharp minor shortly after his marriage to Alma Schindler in Vienna in 1902, and it’s full of raw emotion, with a trajectory from mourning to triumph. How would a young orchestra acquit themselves in tackling themes as deep and interwoven as love, death, joy? The answer is, not only with technical finesse, but with remarkable passion considering they have most of life’s ups and downs ahead of them. The confident trumpet solo fanfare of the opening funeral march was softened by the gentle lyricism of the upper strings, in turn balanced by striking accented phrases in the lower strings. During the first and second movements, which together make up the first part, there are alternating episodes reflecting public mourning and private grief. A clashing, stormy, turbulent atmosphere every now and then aims for calmer territory with individual voices trying to break through in more optimistic keys. The Scherzo, a “part” in its own right, is more dance-like and the orchestra communicated a new hopefulness. Echoing horn calls were well executed, and a slow pizzicato waltz section provided such a contrast that it sharpened the senses: what would happen next? Via further lyricism, the movement reached a raucous climax, with full marks to percussion and brass.

The third part starts with Mahler’s “greatest hit”, the Adagietto, taking a new direction into deeply personal music. It was possibly a love song for his wife. Luscious strings drew out romantic warmth, with superlative control of this heart-wrenchingly slow movement. In contrast, the Rondo rounded off the symphony by drawing together, with great energy, the various elements from the previous hour. The skill with which the CBSO Youth Orchestra handled the dynamic nuances of the last section was spellbinding. Bravo! There’d be a few tired people at school in the morning, but what a buzz!