It is an exciting summer for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland as both it and the sister Jazz Orchestra have been invited to perform stand-alone concerts at this year's Proms in what will be a chance to showcase Scotland’s best young musicians performing across two different genres. The NYOS has been working closely with the BBC this year, and at the Proms they will premiere a new work by Helen Grime jointly with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It was therefore fitting that this ‘Road to the Proms’ concert was given in the home of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the attractive City Halls in Glasgow.

The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland © The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland
The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland
© The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland

There is a strong theme of dance running through the NYOS' programming for its three orchestras and classical ensembles, and this concert featured a performance of the whole of Stravinsky’s Firebird with a selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet as an opener. The introductory orchestral roar in “The Dance of the Knights” gave way to a sudden calmness, with conductor Ilan Volkov sensitively guiding the players with clear cues for all, shaping the dynamics and literally honing the performance to a fine polish before our eyes.

Over 60 string players produced a big rich sound, with controlled clarity in the fast runs and exciting dynamic contrasts. The well-known brassy, pulsating beat and swaggering tune cut through with side-drum menace was thrillingly done, the players packing considerable no-nonsense punch. In between there was some fine horn playing and a smooth saxophone solo before the excitement returned. “The Young Juliet” was sprightly and more measured, although it rather peters out at the end.

The soloist for the neglected Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in G major was Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, a BBC New Generations Artist. It is a monumental work and one that has a history of differing versions, but rather splendid in this original including a delightful trip for piano, violin and cello in the second movement. Kolesnikov rippled at the keys making his solos tell a story, one moment breathtakingly fast then calm like gentle piano music wafting across a lawn on a summer evening.

A dramatic pianist to watch with his high above the ears lift-offs, he was earnest at the keys, often with one hand right above the other adding in notes in the same handstretch. Volkov coaxed the players in the long first movement with a beefy string sound, stirring themes and some lovely woodwind solos. At the exciting climaxes, the sheer number of players almost overwhelmed the piano in their enthusiasm, but Kolesnikov came thundering back with a blistering solo as the orchestra reprised the soaring main tune in this huge 20-minute movement.

The pianist was joined by orchestra leader Ye Ye Xu and the principal cellist in a delightful trio in a dreamy Andante with beautifully sensitive playing from the orchestra who leaned into the phrases as much as the soloists. A dazzling Allegro was taken at a fast lick, Kolesnikov pouring out torrents of notes, as the orchestra galloped to the end of an astonishing performance.

The music for Stravinsky’s Firebird demands huge forces, with double the normal woodwind, three harps, offstage brass and extensive percussion – I counted 20 woodwind, and 18 brass, making over 100 players on stage. From the soft opening tread of the cellos and basses, Volkov brought controlled paying throughout this extended Russian fairy tale. In storytelling terms, the piece is reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazarde, but there are glimpses of early ideas that Stravinsky would later use in Petrushka.

With many disjointed passages to weave together, it is not an easy piece, but the players conjured Russian magic whipping up wind storms, with different scenes of the story depicted by swooping flutes and bouncing bows in the cellos, and some sensitive solos from horns and woodwind. The five percussionists were kept very busy, a study in concentration adding drama but never completely overwhelming. The final rejoicing with the strident brass blazing and strings on a series of downbows pinned us back into our seats.

Behind the scenes of any youth orchestra, there are special teams of tutors, pastoral carers, and supporters, and it is important to recognise their help and guidance. NYOS can be very proud of the young players themselves who tackled an ambitious programme with infectious enthusiasm and very fine playing indeed. The extended applause from the home crowd wished them well on the Road to the Proms.

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