Tonight at Leeds Town Hall, The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain gave the first of their two winter concerts, this year directed by John Wilson, and the excellence of the whole evening was to be made evident from the first notes. Opening with J.S. Bach’s Fantasie and Fugue in C minor BWV 537 arranged for orchestra by Edward Elgar, Wilson encouraged a sound so poised, elegant and controlled, yet flexible, that the sheer weight of tone and precision of tuning was staggering. Elgar was easily amongst England’s greatest orchestrators, and throughout the Fantasie the orchestra wallowed in a noble, swirling sound so confident that if your eyes had been closed nothing would suggest that you were listening to an orchestra of people no older than 18. Of particular beauty was Hannah Condliffe’s oboe solo, set against a totally unanimous body of strings. The mighty Fugue that followed could have served as an example to any musician, professional or otherwise, of what real orchestral ensemble sounds like – these children listen to one another, and somewhere between an awesome depth of sound from the cellos, basses and horns, the frenzied dexterity of harps, upper strings and powerful percussion punctuation, the performance left me breathless – for this piece alone they earned their five stars.

John Wilson © Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Wilson
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The Pines of Rome, centre piece to Ottorino Respighi’s ‘Roman Trilogy’, is a tour de force of orchestral technique, both in terms of opulent scoring and the skill required to pull it off. The work is certainly more demanding than the preceding Bach/Elgar which, despite being a wonderful concert piece, is fundamentally an exercise in orchestration, but the NYO rose to Respighi’s challenges like a Roman Centurion, armed with discipline, concentration and enthusiasm. The first section, “The Pines of the Villa Borghese”, is a powerhouse of glittering woodwind, brass and percussion, and naturally, owing to the density of the scoring and the age of the players, a little was lost in terms of the sheer force required to make their individual parts stand out as being part of a larger texture, but nothing was sacrificed for accuracy or dynamic power, the level of which was impressive. The ominous “Pines Near a Catacomb” that follows, with its darker harmonic colours, provided an excellent opportunity to display the woodwind principals of which the flute, oboe and clarinet solos were especially skilful; of particular note was John Tothill, who navigated the difficult compass of the clarinet whilst maintaining first rate musicality. Also the extended lamenting trumpet solo that follows with the flute, was bright, clear and focussed.

Somehow this music always reminds me of Nino Rota’s score for Romeo and Juliet – sort of melodically Delius, but harmonically Holst! Furthermore, Wilson crafted a high-octane yet sonorous string sound that added much to the throbbing rhythmical figure that rises throughout the orchestra to close the movement, underpinned by a weighty brass melody. “Pines of the Janiculum” followed suit, and it is always a delight to see those members of the audience unfamiliar with the work hear, for the first time, the recorded song of the nightingale incorporated into the score – the first example of recorded sound being used in an orchestral work. Closing with “Pines of the Appian Way” with its sense of militant foreboding (somewhere between “Mars” and The Rite of Spring), Wilson and the NYO captured a real sense of nobility that is the ‘Eternal City’ in a captivating performance that erupted into a Vesuvius of applause.

Following this came Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 in A flat. Once considered the greatest symphony by an Englishman, it is an exercise in both restraint and emotional intensity: nobility, pomp and circumstance, the beauty of the Malvern Hills and the dignified coronations of Westminster Abbey all written down in one place. Taking the opening bars in a hushed stride, Wilson and the NYO set the tone of professionalism and musical sensitivity for the whole symphony, as the first movement’s rise and fall of lengthy melody and rhythmic difficulty was revealed in Wilson’s extraordinary reading of Elgar’s musical structure, expertly navigating the simple and complex with an attention to detail more than just technical ability, but love and understanding – this music is in the blood. Upper strings confidently raced through the fiendishly difficult semi-quaver figures of the Allegro molto, whilst the Adagio’s heart-subduing melody was, though a touch fast for my taste, beautifully melancholy yet sweet. The closing Lento – Allegro, recalling all that had gone before closed one of the most exciting concerts I have ever attended.

Note perfect does not a five star performance make – but if these players are the future of music making in this country, I hope they never lose the raw enthusiasm and commitment they expressed tonight. They should be more than proud of their efforts.