In the lead-up to this tenth anniversary concert, social media was awash with reminiscences from past members of the CBSO Youth Orchestra. My favourite quote was from Hannah Morgan, who went on to take first prize in this year’s Barbirolli International Oboe Competition, recalling the rehearsal-break biscuits during her stint from 2005 to 2008: “There were always hundreds of them, arranged in wonderfully complex patterns!” Of course, she and other players also enthused about particular musical highlights and the opportunities to work with big names in the music world, regarding this astonishing orchestra as the launch-pad to their careers – but the biscuit reference adds a touchingly human perspective!

© John Mark Ainsley
© John Mark Ainsley

Several up and coming conductors started their musical journey with the CBSO Youth Orchestra, including tonight’s man on the podium, Ben Gernon, who last year won the Salzburg Nestlé Young Conductor’s Award and has been Dudamel Fellow at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Mark-Anthony Turnage, in a pre-concert interview, commented that he had not previously worked with Gernon – although he’s no stranger to Symphony Hall, his Momentum having featured in the Hall’s inaugural concert in 1991. From observing rehearsals Turnage could tell that Gernon had a good understanding of Passchendaele, his WWI-themed piece which received its UK première this evening. Its first ever outing was last month in Flanders itself, and Turnage spoke of moving research visits as well as family influences, both grandfathers having been survivors. In this centenary year, it’s been the sole war-related piece he’s written, despite being approached for others. He described it as hymn-like but not a specific quote and certainly not a conscious echo of the brass of war.

It is in fact one of the trademarks of this orchestra that they’re up for the challenge of new commissions, and they tackled Passchendaele with a maturity beyond their years. There was as much assurance in the full, multi-textured, angry orchestral sound as there was in the solo and ensemble fanfares and more reflective moments. Within the space of ten minutes, plaintive melodies on trombones were answered by orchestra; clashing percussion gave way to more melodic strings; a sinking, labouring feeling was punctuated with horns and gongs, shifts in the time signature creating a sense of tension and unease; outbursts gradually subsided and led back through the wind section to a poignant trumpet solo. A sense of calm rather than peace, to which the audience responded with thoughtful rather than ecstatic applause.

A.E. Houseman’s poetry collection A Shropshire Lad was published long before the Great War, and yet its sentiment of nostalgia, of “the boys who don’t return” fitted rather neatly into the programme. Six of the poems for Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge. Into the unmistakable English lyricism of the orchestration, with lovely shaping of the string phrases, the words were delivered by John Mark Ainsley, an expressive story-teller. At times I would have preferred a little less volume from the orchestra, to fully appreciate the singing. The final chord of the whole cycle was also a touch tentative, but in between there were effective contrasts, drama, control, emotion and a remarkable heat-haze effect created by shimmering strings introducing Bredon Hill.

After the interval Gernon and the orchestra seemed much more at home with The Planets, enjoying the build-up from a menacing opening into an explosive frenzy in their depiction of Mars, the Bringer of War. Hard to believe that Holst had already started writing this movement before hostilities started in 1914.

The contrasts between the more energetic and slower movements were skilfully handled, as were the expressive dynamics and contributions from solo violin, cello, woodwind and lively percussion team. The CBSO Youth Chorus, with a 20-year history, shone as ethereal voices offstage, breathing an extra dimension into the already captivating atmosphere of Neptune, the Mystic, like wind. With the inclusion of Colin Matthews’ additional movement Pluto, the Renewer, the voices were employed again to bring the music back to Holst’s own final chord.  An effective end to a highly entertaining birthday party.