The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain brought a small dose of the Southbank Centre’s year long celebration of 20th-century music, The Rest is Noise, to the North East, with a programme of bold and colourful music written by European exiles in America, music that looked to the future, and music that celebrated the best of what had been left behind.

National Youth Orchestra © J Alden
National Youth Orchestra
© J Alden

It was also a particularly well chosen programme for a young orchestra to play; each work was big enough to cope with having a huge orchestra thrown at it, there were no calls for extreme emotional subtlety, and there were plenty of solos to showcase the talents of the young players – I think every single instrument had a major solo at some point in the evening.

Three out of the four works in the concert were written in America, for an American audience, and what could be more American than Hollywood? Korngold’s score for the swashbuckling pirate movie Captain Blood was a fun start to the evening, full of nautical clichés – brassy hornpipes, big fat strings evoking rolling ocean waves, and gentle sea breezes on wind and harp, but despite the fizz of the NYO, the piece was not really substantial enough to command attention on a concert platform.

Schoenberg’s Concerto for string quartet and orchestra was altogether weightier, a creative reworking of Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 6 no. 7. This was the only piece not written in America, but it earned its place in this evening’s programme by virtue of the fact that Schoenberg was not slavishly paying homage to the past, as he felt the neoclassicist composers had been doing, but rather taking old music and reinventing it for the future. Schoenberg never quite lets go of Handel though, stretching out the 18th-century mannerisms, turning them into something quite new, and the NYO’s conductor Simone Young and guest soloists the Navarra String Quartet brought to the piece a sense of spirited Baroque inventiveness and improvisation. The orchestra and the string quartet are frequently at odds with each other, tonally and rhythmically, but by keeping a good balance of sound between the two forces, Young achieved clarity, not chaos.

In the second half of the concert, we turned to the Russian exiles, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. Of the two, Stravinsky was more open to the opportunities and the bright future of America, but the Symphony in Three Movements looks back 30 years to his most famous work, The Rite of Spring; the eccentric thumping rhythms of strings and the chromatic inventiveness of the woodwind solos were straight from his earlier ballet. Another echo came at the beginning of the third movement, with a thrilling bassoon solo, which stood out for me among many excellent solo passages throughout the evening.

It was in this second half that the monumental power of the NYO was really unleashed, but just as in the smaller-scale Schoenberg, Young maintained a perfect clarity of detail and balance, there was never a sense that we were being hit by a wall of sound. Her very physical conducting style was well-suited to the music and the players too; at times she was not so much conducting as dancing, sashaying round the podium in impressively high heels, and great fun to watch. Her style went just a bit too far in the third movement though, and Stravinsky’s depiction of goose-stepping soldiers lacked menace.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances look shamelessly back to the lost world of pre-revolutionary Russia, quoting Orthodox chant and the composer’s own work, and oozing with soulful Slavic melodies. Again, though, there are twists: the big, characteristically Russian melody in the quiet section of the first movement is played on that most American of instruments, the saxophone, and in the final movement, Rachmaninov turns again to a theme he used several times before, the Latin Dies irae chant from the Requiem Mass. Here though, the chant is distorted and defeated, turned into something optimistic, until it is finally conquered by an almost unbelievably jazzy setting of an Orthodox Alleluia.

The orchestra began the piece in miniature, passing the little three-note theme almost inaudibly around the sections before exploding in a blast of sound, as the theme whirled away at a clipped and lively pace. The slower string passages in the first and second movement were richly romantic, and leader Roberto Ruisi’s solo was simply beautiful. The NYO mustered up their last reserves of volume for the final movement, bringing the concert to a noisy climax, but in a lovely final touch of detail, Young held up her baton until the reverberations of the final cymbal crash had died away, a delicious moment of silence before the enthusiastic and well-deserved applause.