Assembling tonight in Leeds Town Hall for a programme of English and American scores by Adams, Britten and Holst, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, directed by John Wilson, presented three fiendishly difficult works. With all three pieces incorporating a variety of prominently nerve-shattering musical agonies, this programme might be the frustration or terror of any professional orchestra.

NYO in rehearsal © Jason Alden 2013
NYO in rehearsal
© Jason Alden 2013

Opening with John Adams’ Guide to Strange Places (2001), an immediate display of unanimous commitment from the whole orchestra was apparent. Full of Adams’ trademark musical cells that expand and develop slowly into larger, more complex rhythmical passages, the work is not so much a tone-poem with a set narrative, as an essay or exercise in orchestral colour and imaginative development of musical ideas. Adams’ score is disorientating for both audience and orchestra but, under Wilson’s steadfast guiding hand, the players successfully navigated the rapidly changing terrain. Amongst the many impressive features of this work’s performance was the orchestra’s extraordinary dexterity and rhythmic assurance in passages of relentless, ever-increasing complexity. This is not a work of subtle dynamic variety either and, whilst there are of course passages of loud and soft, the orchestra must be commended for their ability to sustain a consistently increasing volume. Punchy, syncopated brass punctuation complemented the often rich string tone, whilst ever more elaborate percussion and woodwind fragments blossomed in a work that would certainly panic any professional musician.

Following this relatively unfamiliar musical atlas, it is fair to say that Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his 1945 masterpiece Peter Grimes are amongst the most performed of his concert works. Extracted from the work that put English opera back on the international stage, these interludes serve as remarkably vivid and evocative mood-setters, and here again the orchestra were given a shoal of watery problems to fathom, but this time more in terms of balance, as Britten (unlike Adams) gives prolonged tunes throughout the texture. Furthermore, Britten’s original metronome markings indicate much more brisk tempi than we have generally come to accept, but Wilson encouraged the orchestra to exceed precedent and all four pieces oozed a vitality often lost in more stately performances.

The first interlude, “Dawn”, opened with its treacherously high violin and flute duet confidently and was matched in security by the rapid harp flourishes and foreboding, cold brass chords. “Sunday Morning” sends the parishioners of Britten’s Borough to church and a long, almost restrained violin melody is accompanied by bird-song before the hustle and bustle of the town was filled out by the brass and percussion with strength before the orchestral bells summon the people to worship. “Moonlight”, literally the calm before the “Storm” allowed the orchestra to reveal their more delicate, introvert side, and the gentle ebb and flow of the sea warmly swelled in the string section whilst woodwind, glockenspiel and harp highlight shafts of moonbeam before erupting into the chaos of the coast’s all-consuming frenzy. In “Storm” the orchestra successfully tackled Britten’s taxing score with aplomb, and if the concert had ended there it would have been a credit to the musicians – but the best was yet to come.

For a youth orchestra to programme Holst’s The Planets: Suite for Large Orchestra is in itself an act of bravery; the score is huge, difficult, exhausting and, worse of all, familiar. At least two out of the seven movements, “Mars” and “Jupiter”, are popular concert lollipops – the former leads a double life as the basis and inspiration for many warlike film scores, and the middle section of the latter is, of course, the heart-wrenching tune for “I vow to thee my country” or “World in Union”, if you’re a rugby fan...

However, tonight’s performance was nothing short of excellent. Having heard this piece countless times by professional orchestras, all secure and rhythmically tight, the National Youth Orchestra gave a rendition of unmatched enthusiasm. From the seething opening bars of “Mars”s, all musicians were fixed on Wilson’s baton as the music rose to its frenzied climax. Of special note here was the militant brass accuracy, and both timpanists, who grinned from ear to ear in gleeful enjoyment.

“Venus”, quelling the cacophony of “Mars” with peaceful strains, showcased the woodwind, harps, cellos and solo violin beautifully, before the tricky rhythmic obstacles of “Mercury” fluttered at a rapid pace – practically burning a hole in Wilson’s hand. “Jupiter”’s pomp and circumstance was majestically regal as the last glimpse of frivolity before the orchestra settles into Holst’s three remaining, more ominous, sedate planets, “Saturn”, “Uranus” and “Neptune” – the latter of which was brought to a deliciously ambiguous close by the Ladies of the Leeds Festival Chorus.

The opportunities afforded these young musicians are second to none and The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain is without doubt one of the finest achievements in British culture – an organisation of which the musicians, their parents, the management and the nation can be proud.

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