Review: National Youth Orchestra, Snape Proms

National Youth Orchestra/Petrenko, Snape Proms, August 2nd

This extraordinary concert was all about two of the best things in life, youth and love. Youth was represented by the outstanding players of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and their charismatic conductor Vasily Petrenko. In addition, the first half contained two works written this year from composers in their early thirties, Nico Muhly and Anna Meredith.

Muhly’s recent work Gait was written especially for the NYO and its conception lay in the composer’s interest in watching animals move. He has created a fascinating and gripping work, clearly set in the great outdoors (echoes of Copland) and showing remarkable clarity of textures as well as an a ability to create and sustain tension over some twenty-five minutes. Both conductor and players immediately created the right atmosphere and the appearance of the sounds of horse harnesses was unforgettable.

That was something a bit different but what followed was even more so. Anna Meredith’s HandsFree is one of a number of commissions for the Cultural Olympiad and, as the name suggests, it dispenses with traditional musical instruments in favour of body percussion, singing and beatboxing. The 165-strong orchestra is split into six sections who perform separately, interactively and finally together. Meredith showed enormous skill and invention in devising a variety of sounds and rhythms and the players’ memory and musicianship, not to mention their absolute commitment to the work and obvious enthusiasm for it, resulted in a thrilling performance.

Only a rather special work could follow the first half and the choice of Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony was a particularly happy one. This extravagant paean to love, with its celebrated part for the ondes martenot and well played by Cynthia Millar, is just the work to give young, gifted, enthusiastic musicians the chance to soar – and they did.. The strong opening chords had a biting edge and the ecstatic intervals glowed with fervour but there was also a profound spiritual atmosphere in the more contemplative passages with some notable wind playing. Joanna MacGregor, absolutely on the music’s wavelength, played the difficult piano part with astonishing accuracy and aplomb.

To report the details of a concert is one thing but to capture the spirit is quite another. It was a wholly remarkable evening and if you were not there the same performers will be at the Royal Albert Hall on August 4th.

Gareth Jones

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