During Saturday night’s Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, I had to keep reminding myself that the eldest member of the orchestra I was watching was just twenty years old and a good many of the rest were born in this millennium, such was the assured confidence of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. These young players showed an adult understanding of all that was set before them married to a youthful exuberance excellently guided by Edward Gardner’s baton.

Edward Gardner with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain © BBC | Mark Allan
Edward Gardner with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
© BBC | Mark Allan

The three works of the evening were loosely linked by a theme of outer space, immediately evident in Iris ter Schiphorst’s Gravitational Waves. As the title suggests, the soundworld (created in collaboration with Uroš Rojko) was inspired by last year’s detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes. Merging live and recorded elements with choreography and spoken word made the case for concert as theatre; in black and white masks the orchestra were clearly enjoying themselves evoking the deep rumble of outer space. The only jarring moments came from the pre-recorded voiceovers of explanation, which seemed fussy, the work speaking for itself well-enough without them, building up from deep rumblings into a dance, representing the two black holes coming together in destruction, before ebbing away into nothingness.

Also Sprach Zarathustra’s exploration is perhaps more philosophical than astronomical, though its now indelible link with 2001: A Space Odyssey makes its inclusion understandable. The opening brass and organ were excellent, though the strings lacked the same punch to make the sunrise truly radiant. Elsewhere, however, they were rich and warm, Gardner teasing high Romanticism out of them as well as pitch perfect hunting and pastoral scenes. I was also much more aware of the regular recurrence of the “sunrise” 5ths throughout the performance, harking back to the dawn of man and all its potential even in the midst of turmoil. There were some wonderful solo outings from all sections, and the combined forces of the orchestra (which were numerous) were staggeringly impressive at the climatic revelation of the midnight bells. 

Holst’s The Planets is now so familiar that it is hard to imagine it as a modernist work in the early 20th Century; watching an orchestra of youngsters tackle it was a timely reminder of how fresh it can be. Mars and Mercury were driven, although at times the fire dimmed ever so slightly in the opening movement. Venus proved to be the only disappointment of the evening, lacking in delicacy. Perhaps this was because I was expecting a more lush interpretation from Gardner, but it felt a little paint-by-numbers.

More impressive, however, was their handling of the outer planets, whose mature themes might have been beyond such young players. Not so; Saturn, the bringer of Old Age proved the best of all the movements. From its haunting start, the slow march towards death felt visceral and personal – I felt the weight of each passing second. Jupiter was also excellent; driving forward to what we now know as I Vow To Thee My Country, full of warmth and power. Uranus is the movement that I have in the past struggled to recall its identity – no more after the freshness brought to it here, its rousing climax quickly contrasted with a taut subito p to end. Neptune showed that the delicacy lacking in Venus was not beyond the orchestra, and was utterly transfixing. This delicacy extended to the balance with the off-stage voices of the CBSO Youth Chorus, giving them enough space to emerge. For such a seemingly small involvement, Neptune is a surprisingly tough ask for the voices, coming in high and quiet after a long period of silence. These difficulties weren’t quite surmounted and at times the tuning was a little unsettled, but the fade out was perfectly judged.

In his programme note for Pluto, the Renewer, Colin Matthews remarks that its dedicatee, Holst’s daughter Imogen, “would have been both amused and dismayed by this venture”. It was probably a sentiment that continues to be shared by many – after the beautiful fade out of Neptune, what could possibly come next? And yet if such a venture had to be undertaken, thankfully it was done in great style, breaking out before Neptune had fully died way. For the most part Matthews provided a thorough re-working of all the ideas in each movement while never veering into pastiche. The only awkward moments were the Mars motives, which jarred, although the orchestra attacked it all gamely, and the CBSO Youth Chorus voices were more confident with their involvement here. An interesting exercise, and fortunately not one detracting from Holst’s vision, or the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s brilliance. I expect bright futures for many of them.

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