Composers have a long tradition of incorporating folk tunes into their music, and this evening’s concert by the National Youth Orchestra, with support from members of the folk group Bellowhead, really proved the point that musical genres are not separate boxes, but just points on a continuum, with no fixed boundaries.

NYO Folk Explosion
NYO Folk Explosion

The concert programme was built around the Hungarian folk songs of Kodály’s Háry János Suite, in which a veteran soldier sitting in a tavern tells fantastical tales about his heroic exploits: he rescues the Emperor’s daughter, defeats Napoleon single-handedly, and wins untold riches but renounces it all to return to his village. A Hungarian tradition says that if you sneeze when telling a story, that means it’s true, and so the Háry János Suite opens with a massive musical sneeze. Conductor Charles Hazlewood built a real sense of storytelling into this prelude, first with the hushed cellos drawing you in, saying “listen carefully”, then punctuating the tale with dramatic pauses and flourishes.

The movements of Háry János were matched with new works by Patrick Nunn, which brought together selections of British folk tunes, very much in the style of Vaughan Williams, with rich strings and spirited woodwind writing. The Háry János prelude was followed by a piece based on storytelling folk-songs, and the Hungarian’s battle with Napoleon was paired with a selection of British songs from the Napoleonic Wars. Kodály’s version, The Battle and Defeat of Napoleon, was scored mostly for brass, mocking La Marseillaise, with Napoleon himself represented by an alto saxophone solo – played with great seriousness by Michael Adamson. The NYO brass section were consistently good throughout the evening: it was some of the best brass playing I have heard for a long time, and this movement really showed off their talents. I also enjoyed Ed Cervenka’s cimbalom (a traditional Hungarian instrument) in the quieter movements, and the gorgeous viola solo that opens Háry János’s lovesong.

The Napoleonic pieces were preceded by James MacMillan’s Britannia, which was a revelation to me, as I had only previously heard his very beautiful and serious choral music. Britannia sets out simultaneously to satirise the nastiness of the British Empire and to celebrate the British traditions of liberty and tolerance. It wittily weaves together quotations from Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, a distorted God Save the Queen and lots of British folk tunes – the Elgar being broken off by a cheeky chorus of swanee whistles and bike horns. At times however, the orchestra got a bit carried away and the volume was almost painfully loud.

The other works in the concert were less successful. Chávez’s Sinfonia India didn’t quite have the tightness of rhythm that it needed, despite heroic efforts by the percussion section to get the rest of the orchestra swinging. This piece amusingly featured a Pringles tube: we were told that Chávez called for a soft rattle, ideally to be made of butterfly cocoons, but as the NYO were unable to find enough cocoons, they settled on this instead. There was some lovely string playing in the selection from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne, particularly the cello solo in “Lo Fiolairé”, and the pastoral duet for oboe and violin in “Malurous qu’o uni Fenno”, but soprano soloist Ailish Tynan was disappointing; her singing was unsupported and her dramatic facial gestures might have been suitable for the operatic stage, but for these simple songs, they were distracting.

For the English folk pieces, the NYO were joined by the members of Bellowhead, but their input on the stage was very low-key: I think their contribution to the concert had been made more in the rehearsals, in encouraging these highly trained classical musicians to embrace a more relaxed, folky style. Before their performance of Kathryn Tickell’s Northumbrian Fantasia the first violins demonstrated “how we played this two weeks ago” – in strict tempo, with identical bowing – then we were able to enjoy the results of her work with them – an orchestra of folk fiddles with just enough discipline remaining to stop it becoming a mess!

The concert closed with Patrick Nunn’s Bardstorming – an extremely loud and energetic medley of dance tunes. Members of the orchestra stood up to play semi-improvised solos, and the effect was of a gloriously anarchic busking session that earned these talented young musicians a well-deserved standing ovation.

****1