From Canonbie a mile north of the border to Brae in the Shetland Isles, and all points in between, a few days ago 128 top young instrumentalists and their tutors arrived in Perthshire for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s summer school, to rehearse for their summer concert, which this year they are taking to the Proms in London, where they will be joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Nicola Benedetti © Decca / Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Decca / Simon Fowler

NYOS was founded in 1979 and is the flagship orchestra in a family of eight orchestras which include a Children’s Orchestra and a Jazz Orchestra. The organisation has nurtured students who have gone on to successful musical careers. Just as importantly, it also provides a wonderful chance for those not taking that professional path to perform at a very high level and to enjoy the excitement and exhilaration that comes with playing in a large orchestra.

Anticipation was all as the musicians assembled on the stage at Horsecross in Perth in their black uniforms. The concert hall was full for this concert, not only for the orchestra itself, but also for Nicola Benedetti, herself a graduate of the Children’s Orchestra, playing with NYOS for the first time. Benedetti is a mentor to the El Sistema project in Stirling, so it was fitting that there was a large contingent from the Big Noise Orchestra in the audience. Indeed, Conductor Tecwyn Evans explained that the Scottish El Sistema arrangement was now being applied in New Zealand.

Wagner’s overture from Die Meistersinger opened the concert, and from the beginning it was clear that the very large orchestral forces were being kept on a tight leash as the sound balance was perfect, from the C major march to the more lyrical passages and the spiky woodwind of the apprentice’s music. Evans conducted standing on his tiptoes at times, always in complete control and taking things at a steady pace. A brass section of eight horns, five trumpets, six trombones and two tubas had the potential to swamp the piece, but they never did; this was a very well judged, and thrilling beginning.

Max Bruch wrote his Scottish Fantasy based on Scottish tunes he discovered in the library in Munich. It is a virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra, with significant solo passages for harp, and it was premièred in Liverpool in 1881, a full year before Bruch first visited Scotland. The slow sombre opening gave way to the tune ‘Auld Robb Morris’ emerging on the harp and double-stopped violin. It was fascinating to watch the absolute precision bowing in the strings, with players restricted to the top third of the bow in quiet moments. The ensuing allegro allowed Benedetti to sparkle against tutti strings and a drone for the lively ‘Dusty Miller’ tune. Perhaps the emotional heart of the piece is the third movement, where the doleful ‘I’m Down for Lack of Johnny’ is passed from solo violin, through the violas and the cellos, and then back to violin, which Benedetti took down to whisper-quiet. The rousing finale, with the familiar ‘Scots Wha Hey’, finished the piece with Beneditti on electrifying form.

New Zealander John Psathas wrote Seikilos in 1998, based on an epitaph from the first or second century BC engraved on a tombstone by Seikilos for his wife. The message is that life is short and people need to make the best of it. The lively, complex and energetic music began in the strings, with strong, detached, sighing downbowed chords and then glissandi in the cellos giving way to jazzy rhythms led by a large and capable percussion section. A central section of dissonant strings was followed by deep slow brass chords before the music built in intensity with infectious cross-rhythms finally dying away to deep ethereal hush. This piece was a major challenge for the players, which they pulled off very successfully.

To finish, Respighi’s Pines of Rome was given a triumphant performance. It is a big work with four tableaux, starting with children playing soldiers – glittering and chaotic music which is only tamed by the entry of the double basses. It was not all noise and bright Mediterranean colours by any means. In a nocturne of luscious orchestral harmonies with piano celeste and harp, there was a lovely clarinet solo, and a recording of a nightingale. Finally, the orchestra was let loose to portray the approaching Roman Legions in a thunderous and rousing big finish.

Coming from the summer school, the camaraderie and team bonding were evident, with Tecwyn Evans clearly a highly successful appointment for these concerts. At the end the players seemed to have astonished themselves by their performance. In a youth orchestra the musicians play with all their heart and soul. Here, the enthusiasm was infectious, spilling across into the audience who were clearly bowled over by what the very best of Scotland’s young players had given us.