Sometimes you look at a concert programme and wonder how on earth it’s going to work. The CBSO Youth Orchestra’s decision to bring together music by Elgar, Richard Strauss and Takemitsu was, to put it mildly, an ‘interesting’ one. These pieces could easily be regarded as inhabiting entirely different worlds: an inner one, an outer one and an indefinable one respectively. Yet there turned out to be an important connection between the three works that, coincidentally, also happened to be the very thing that showed off the players at their very best: volatility.

Kazuki Yamada © Marco Borggreve
Kazuki Yamada
© Marco Borggreve

In the case of Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, the orchestra required no encouragement whatsoever to tap deeply into its pervading tone of barely-checked exuberance. If anything, they had a tendency to exaggerate, though that only made its excesses sound all the more authentic, as reckless as it was ridiculous. Driven along by Kazuki Yamada practically dancing on his podium, the players’ collective tongues must have been straining in their cheeks, imbuing the carnivalesque music with such lashings of sarcasm and barbed wit that one wondered whether the piece should only be played by youth orchestras in future. It was more than just mayhem, though, and the way the CBSO YO handled the work’s continually whimsical refocusing between large- and small-scale episodes was highly impressive.

The more variegated tone and broader scope of the Elgar presented a greater challenge. In the symphony’s more subdued, inward, passages, there was a less clear sense of shape or direction, leading to the Adagio becoming ponderous and vague – though its ending was nicely intense. However, the orchestra’s response to the sprightly second movement – not, Elgar stressed, a Scherzo (but it totally is) – and especially the temperamental, impulsive structures of the opening and closing movements managed to lift the music out of its somewhat aged demeanour and reveal how daring much of it still sounds. The symphony’s recurring stately theme became a foil of sorts to its network of unsettlingly erratic eruptions, tilt shifts and volte-faces, grounding the symphony while allowing the sparks of its electricity to fly in all directions.

Most volatile of all, though the least overtly demonstrative, was Takemitsu’s 1981 Dreamtime. The CBSO YO did the usual things that all orchestras do with this composer’s music, highlighting its Debussy-esque impressionism and its Messiaen-like portentousness and harmonic obliquity. Yet, strikingly, it was its inner quality of caprice – perhaps the key defining feature of all Takemitsu’s mature work – that they made the most of, in addition to a number of associated paradoxes. The music continually teetered between feeling safe and comfortable while maintaining the impossibility of knowing what was coming next – which regularly came as a significant surprise. At the same time its ravishing loveliness sat as a counterbalance to how deeply strange and uncompromising the work is, the orchestra never for a moment allowing its elusive lyricism to tip over into inappropriate sugar-sweetness. Above all, the music’s fundamental amorphousness, continually forming new shapes and redefining itself, was projected for the baffling yet delightful wonder that it is. Here was volatility at its most gentle and serene, in music without an apparent beginning or end, offering a window into something familiar yet unfathomable, a perfect blend of audacity and beauty.

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