Where would we be without a younger generation to keep the flame alive? We can count ourselves lucky that there are so many fine youth orchestras around: their palpable enthusiasm for what they do results more often than not in music-making of the first order. Currently on a European tour, the European Union Youth Orchestra under its principal conductor Vasily Petrenko stopped off in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, bringing with them one of the UK’s most talented young artists as soloist for the evening.

Jess Gillam and the EUYO
© Daniel Dittus

Michael Nyman’s Where the Bee Dances was originally commissioned by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and written for John Harle, one of the star players in the Michael Nyman Band. It recycles material which Nyman wrote for the film Prospero’s Books and plays with a dual reference. Harking back to a setting of Ariel’s song in The Tempest (“Where the bee sucks, there suck I”), it also points to the role of a foraging bee in performing circular orientation dances in order to communicate the location of a food source.

Nyman’s work is an ideal vehicle for Jess Gillam’s talents. She has the wide range of instrumental colour and rhythmical precision to do full justice to the jazz-infused mood swings, moving from a whispered start with mere bass notes from the piano as accompaniment, through lyrical sections where her instrument soared like a lark above the orchestral textures to the pulsating energy that comes from the repeated note patterns so characteristic of this composer. Even with 60 musicians behind her, the solo line carried effortlessly in this crystalline acoustic. This is music to wake up to in the morning and shake the sleep from your limbs. Petrenko and the EUYO matched Gillam’s sense of fun and abandon in spades.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the EUYO at the Elbphilharmonie
© Daniel Dittus

The crowning glory of the evening, however, was the following performance of the Symphony no. 2 in D major by Sibelius. On this showing, the EUYO need not fear any comparisons with its professional rivals: starting with a solid bedrock of resonant basses and honey-toned cellos, its upper strings had commendable agility and unanimity, particularly in exposed passages, as well as displaying a remarkable tonal richness. Given the unforgiving qualities of this acoustic, the perfectly placed pizzicatos throughout this work – so many in fact that it could well be dubbed the “pizzicato symphony” – were a special delight. No less impressive was the entire woodwind section, eloquent in those many passages where Sibelius conjures up atmospheric colouring: icily intoning flutes in the first movement, the solo oboe conveying a sense of desolation, dark woody tones from the clarinets and gently murmuring bassoons. In the opening piece, Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz, the horns had already rung out securely and later they gave the symphony additional heroic nobility. Trumpets were jubilant, trombones often defiantly demonic, the timpani always commanding.

Vasily Petrenko conducts the EUYO at the Elbphilharmonie
© Daniel Dittus

Overseeing all this was a conductor who never short-changed the listener in those outpourings of Romantic passion that suddenly erupt and send forth seething streams of volcanic energy, placing the work quite close to the twitchiness of Tchaikovsky’s emotional world. At the same time Petrenko shaped the moments of stillness and inwardness with a rapt intensity, no more so than in the approach to the final movement coda where with dynamics pared right back the lower strings embraced the listener with a warming hug while the woodwind sang a soft lullaby. But I treasure an especially glorious moment in the Andante when Petrenko seemed to tap into a gigantic Icelandic geyser: like scalding water poured onto blocks of ice, the steam issued forth in scorching wave after wave.

 

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