In this frazzled year, in which so many people have asked us to look at what the European Union does wrong, it was a delight to be at the Bolzano Festival Bozen last night to witness something that the EU has got so wonderfully right: the European Union Youth Orchestra. Seeing the inspiring sight of a hundred young Europeans creating great music together made it even more shocking to think that the orchestra has just come through a near fatal funding crisis.

Vasily Petrenko © Bolzano Festival
Vasily Petrenko
© Bolzano Festival

The EUYO, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, began with Mozart’s concerto K365 for two pianos, a relative rarity. Its origins aren’t clear, but Mozart probably wrote it in the late 1770s, to play with his sister Nannerl – and judging by listings and reviews on Bachtrack, it’s a definitely a favourite for sibling pianists, in this case the Labèque sisters, whose almost spooky synchronisation was perfectly suited to the tightly interlocking parts. The Labèques passed their crisply articulated lines seamlessly from one to another, so it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began, culminating in an impeccably coordinated long trill – and yet they barely looked at each other, which made watching them a little discomfiting.

Behind them, Petrenko wove a gentle web of sound in the orchestra for the first movement and there was an excellent oboe solo in the second, gently intruding on the intimacy of the pianos, whilst the violins gave dramatic sighs. The final rondo was enlivened by lots of enjoyable shifts in mood and colour, with the lower strings giving the dance some extra oomph. The Labèques followed their concerto with two encores, which I thought was a little indulgent but they pounded out Bernstein’s Jet Song with a thrilling energy, and sounded far more relaxed than they had been in the Mozart.

Up to full strength for Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major, the orchestra almost overflowed the stage. Petrenko led them through a wonderfully colourful performance, characterised by lots of imaginative changes in tempo and dynamics, they poured it all out like someone recounting an exciting story. Quotes from other movements, particularly the Frère Jacques theme shone through very clearly throughout, giving coherence to the many ideas that this symphony throws out.

Petrenko was liberal with his interpretations of Mahler’s tempo directions, which suited me just fine, as I find that this symphony can get really bogged down if the instructions about “slow” and “not too fast” are taken over-literally. The faster tempo was particularly effective in the second movement, where combined with a very heavily accented rhythm, I really felt as if I was being whirled around the room in a crazy dance. The first movement grew to its climax with steady control, giving a true sense of a wondrous awakening, as each instrumental voice was allowed to shine through, clearly delineated, particularly in the opening section: the three off-stage trumpets were thrillingly clear. Petrenko built a lovely tension between the deep sadness of the strings and the cheerful winds, led by a beautifully serene flute solo.

Up this point, EUYO’s Mahler had been characterised by big dramatic colours, and much exuberance in the loud sections, but everything changed for the third. Petrenko opted for just one double bass for the opening and accompanied by very tender timpani beats, the soloist Rui Pedro Rodrigues gave this simple children’s melody a heartbreaking sense of loss. As the klezmer-inspired winds came in, I realised that Petrenko was almost motionless: he may have been gently indicating a beat with a finger or his face but from the audience it looked as if he was completely still, and this heightened the sense of otherworldly mystery. The clarinets threw themselves into the dance, with rich sforzando effects in the strings, and as the funeral procession moves off, it left behind a brief sense of calm, the freshness of waking from a nightmare, heralded by the delicate, sad flute, some gorgeous trumpet playing, and right at the end, an exquisite bassoon pianissimo.

The screaming terror that opens the fourth movement really was very loud, angular, and genuinely frightening, but it never lost control. The violins were notable for their range of tone: thin wailing, then a darker, richer sound as the mood changes to reassurance and the viola section were really exciting and lively as they led the symphony into its coda. The tension from the first movement was now gone, and the horns rose to their feet to lead the triumphant ending.

After a few cheeky exchanges with the audience, Petrenko raised his baton for an encore… and left the stage, leaving the orchestra to guide themselves through an absolutely riotous performance of Khachaturian’s Lezghinka – he then reappeared in the percussion section brandishing a tambourine whilst the orchestra danced, played and then embraced each other in a wonderful celebration of music, friendship and European unity.