The 110 young players making up the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland’s flagship Symphony Orchestra have travelled from all over Scotland to attend a residential course in preparation for a tour of a lifetime. In a project which must have taken years in the planning, the whole orchestra, instruments and minders jet off to China for concerts in Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin during the first week in August. This bon voyage concert in Perth was a perfect chance for the players to present their touring programme to a friendly home crowd.

Rory Macdonald © Benjamin Ealovega
Rory Macdonald
© Benjamin Ealovega

The theme for all the NYOS orchestras (there are three) for 2015 has been Scottish Connections, so the programme included music by Scottish composer Erik Chisholm, who died 50 years ago, and his colleague and friend Shostakovich. Conductor Rory Macdonald was born in Scotland and once upon a time played violin in this orchestra when it performed Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, which made up the second half of the evening.

Shostakovich’s punchy Festive Overture was written in 1954 to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. The initial brass fanfare certainly blew away any cobwebs as the large forces made an exciting sound, bottomed out by a bass trombone and two growly tubas. Macdonald took the piece at what seemed a dangerously fast lick, but balanced and controlled the players well and introduced exciting dynamics, particularly the discipline of playing both fast and quietly. One of the highlights was the quality of the string playing as the army of 70 players tackled the infectious rhythms and themes, each section in perfect unison. Not to be outdone, the woodwind with fast flowing clarinet blew a storm of pure energy. It was a rousing six minutes, all over too soon as the final chord, in a touch of showmanship, was played on an upbow in the strings, ending in a forest of all bows in the air.

Erik Chisholm’s Piano Concerto no. 1 “Pìobaireachd” was written while he was still in Scotland, soon after graduating from Edinburgh University and well before his appointment to the University of Capetown. It is based on bagpipe music and takes soloist and orchestra on a challenging tour of the repertoire, from misty laments to energetic Scottish dance. While the pipe themes abound, they are set against more angular dissonant music, sometimes urgent with pounding rhythms, in a manner not dissimilar to his contemporary, Bartók. Danny Driver played Chisholm’s other piano concerto, the Hindustani recently, so it was fascinating to compare and contrast both works. To set the scene, a drone in the bassoons with oboe solo soon gave way to more energetic rhythms. Driver exchanged urgent phrases across the orchestra before a cadenza introduced a dreamy interlude followed by flowing piano against swooping strings and soft brass and woodwind as the music drifted off into nothing. A lively dance followed with fierce cross-rhythms, Macdonald marshalling his forces with precision as Driver lifted occasionally off his seat with excitement. An ethereal Adagio followed, depicting mysterious misty glens and raindrops, with sensitive playing from pianist and orchestra and a lovely melancholy solo from leader Elanor Gunn with the strings playing like a rolling sea. A feature of the work is that most instruments get to interact directly with the soloist at some point, and Macdonald balanced things so that his players were showcased in what could be a an uproar of notes at times, particularly in the final reel-based movement where soloist and orchestra took part in a crazy ceilidh of cross-rhythms, tossed to and fro with dangerous syncopated chromatic variations in an exciting finish.

National Youth Orchestras of Scotland Symphony Orchestra © National Youth Orchestras of Scotland
National Youth Orchestras of Scotland Symphony Orchestra
© National Youth Orchestras of Scotland

Rachmaninov’s Symphony no. 2 in E minor, stuffed full of gorgeous tunes, really gave this orchestra a chance to shine. It is a long work with each movement bringing its own challenges, but Macdonald’s crystal clear and ever-elegant gestures brought out the very best in his players. The fine string playing was a feature of this concert, and no more so than in this symphony, from the passionate tunes, particularly in the Adagio to the massed ranks of violins rocking to and fro as they attacked a phrase in the first movement with a blizzard of up-bows. Yet there was a maturity here too in polished tone and dynamic variation, difficult to achieve when musical emotions are running high and there is a temptation to uncontrollably gallop off as the tempos pick up. There was very solid work from the brass too, particularly the six horns, who had a very busy concert, as did the woodwind. What made this performance special was the quality of the ensemble playing, controlled throughout. If occasionally the sheer numbers involved created such a loud noise that it was challenging to pick out detail, it was more than made up for by sheer exuberance.

A tour encore of a setting of a Chinese folk song was followed by a more familiar medley of Scottish reels before a smiling orchestra, smart in their black uniforms with quirky tartan ties and bobbles in red and blue took their bows. A clearly impressed audience wished them bon voyage on their trip to faraway lands: China is in for a treat.