There is a picture of the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland at its inaugural summer course, the players standing in a rather formal group on the lawn in Glenalmond College’s quadrangle. 40 years on, the single orchestra has grown into three symphony orchestras, a chamber orchestra, jazz and contemporary ensembles, all supported by formal training groups and summer courses. The Senior Orchestra (founded in 2013) bridges the gap between the Junior and Symphony orchestras, a middle child tasked with finding its own voice. If proof were needed of the nurturing and development role that NYOS provides to Scotland’s young musicians, this remarkable performance demonstrated that the NYOS organisation is in great heart.

The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland © NYOS
The National Youth Orchestra of Scotland
© NYOS

Dionysis Grammenos, recent founder of the Greek Youth Orchestra and one of Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Young Leaders, returned to conduct, following through earlier work on Kabalevsky’s Symphony no. 2 in C minor. The rapport with the orchestra was clear to see; his gestures were calm, understated and subtle but had the keen focus of the young players.

Concerto Festivo by Andrzej Panufnik was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra for its 75th birthday, so was a fitting opener. Panufnik triangulates musical elements of harmony, melody and rhythm, each of the three movements concentrating on two elements at the expense of the third. Pomposo was an all-brass affair, the sections calling to each other in blurry fanfares while a jollier subject tried to emerge. Lirico produced some fine delicate string playing in a soft progressive development from violins to cellos and basses, dissonant chords resolving with the faintest of percussion bells. The piece seemed slightly limp and lacking in festivity until the final Giocoso movement which brought everyone together in an animated angular rhythmic workout, Grammenos keeping things steady as the music built to a passionate percussive frenzy.

The orchestra were joined by young Russian cellist Alexey Stadler for Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor. Composed during a period of Schumann’s relative happiness before being plagued with mental health, it is a sunny lyrical work of three linked movements. Stadler’s honeyed singing tone blended with the orchestra, Grammenos balancing the sound and encouraging the violins to play out to match the soloist’s bold expressive performance. Delicate pizzicatos in the central Langsam were effectively set against Stadler’s soaring poetic melody and double-stops, the orchestra broadening to the exuberant joyful final movement. A slight pick-up in tempo from Stadler as he flew up and down his instrument was well managed by Grammenos, keeping everything together and raising the excitement as the piece ended jubilantly.

Dmitry Kabalevsky is known in the West for only a few of his works, but has a long list of compositions and Soviet honours. His Symphony no. 2 in C minor, written in 1934 in uncertain times with Stalin’s Great Terror approaching, is a splendid if neglected work, full of Russian tunes. The players launched into this piece with astonishing verve and confidence, and it was thrilling to watch the strings on the edge of their seats attacking the big punchy themes as if their lives depended on it. Grammenos guided the players sensitively, allowing space for clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon to emerge, and keeping the tricky development passages in check. A slower second movement with lovely flute solo over hushed strings was beautifully lyrical, the players leaning into the music. Other conductors might have taken a softer line with this movement’s climax, but Grammenos opted to take a big and bold approach with full brass, underpinned by two tubas, gloriously burnished, before the movement ended with muted trumpet and a softly blown clarinet solo over precise unison pizzicatos. The final movement was a pastoral tune with militaristic outbursts led by a snappy snare drum and very lively percussion. Dynamic changes were well placed, jaunty violas having their moment as the piece built to the exciting finish expected of Soviet symphonies at the time.

The enjoyment and commitment of the players came across strongly, and it was genuinely astonishing that these under 18s could generate so much excitement in their performance. Nicola Benedetti is as well known in Scotland for championing young musicians as for her violin playing and has a long association with NYOS. Running a big open workshop last year, she encouraged them to look beyond the nuts and bolts of playing towards developing a fearless approach, being individuals with their own voices and maximising their enjoyment of their time in the orchestra. This “beyond the notes” thinking is new and exciting: we could certainly feel it in the audience as the orchestra pulled off a spirited encore of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture. That awkward middle child has certainly found its voice.

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