It is all too easy to decry standards in education and bemoan a decline in music teaching provision, but if Sunday night’s prom performance by the National Youth Orchestra is anything to go by, then music making in Britain is still a force to be reckoned with. At the helm of the 150 or so players aged between 14 and 19 was Edward Gardner (Principal Guest Conductor of the CBSO) who brought to a close, with this performance, the orchestra’s end of season tour that took in The Sage, Gateshead and Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Edward Gardner and the NYOGB © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Edward Gardner and the NYOGB
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Predictably the programme comprised at least two bravura works that would showcase an exceptionally large orchestra: Stravinsky’s ballet score Pétrouchka and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, completed in 1954 and which first brought the Polish composer international recognition. Included also was Sonance Severance 2000 by Harrison Birtwistle – a three minute work written to celebrate the reopening of the Cleveland Orchestra’s home base Severance Hall. Described in the programme booklet by Paul Griffiths as a compact colossus, this work attempts to convey an act of musical severance, which simultaneously ends and begins its onward journey. In this paradoxical concept Birtwistle largely succeeds.

The prom opened, however, with Stravinsky’s original version of Pétrouchka conceived for the impresario Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes in 1911. Edward Gardner and the NYO navigated their way through the rhythmic complexities of this demanding score with extraordinary ease, making light of the myriad fluctuations of tempo and changes of metre aided by clear vitalising gestures. Particularly striking was the superb ensemble that Gardener achieved with these gifted players spread as far across the stage as they could be. Their boundless energy and enthusiasm were no less apparent in the gaudy opening sequence of “The Shrovetide Fair” which also provided an opportunity for the principal flautist to shine when she brought to life the puppet Pétrouchka. Indeed the score is saturated with brief solo and ensemble passages where attention is periodically focused on just a handful of players. Needless to say, they rose to the occasion with a musicianship and maturity beyond their years. Gardner’s exhilarating speeds, where the opening section hurtled along, created just the right sense of fairground mayhem.

A similar sense of exhilaration marked Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in D flat major that followed. Here, a reduced orchestra was joined by the Swiss/Chinese pianist and BBC New Generation Artist Louis Schwizgebel who was making his proms debut. As Prokofiev’s First Concerto, it too can considered a debut and one which dared to nose the thumb at earlier Russian models in the aesthetic raspberry that is the opening paragraph. The work also requires considerable stamina and strength to master its unrelenting energy and toccata-like motion, both of which Schwizgebel conveyed with apparent ease. For the final cadenza he braved a virtually homicidal tempo and the notes simply blurred into one another. His technical facility, however, could not be faulted and this was shown in a wonderfully poised reading of Schubert’s Ständchen, in the Liszt transcription that formed his encore.

Louis Schwizgebel © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Louis Schwizgebel
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

It was Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra that left the most satisfying impression in a performance where Gardner and the NYO pulled out all their aces – most notably in the flurry of semiquavers that shape much of the second movement. The performance wasn’t without a few problems, but the weak cello tone at the start of the piece and the almost inaudible double basses beginning the third movement were minor flaws in an otherwise wonderfully concentrated account that demonstrated the virtuosity of both the work and the players who can be likened to a fully fledged professional orchestra.

****1