Monday 17 April 2023

A festival of youthful music making: the National Youth Orchestra on cracking form for their immersive NYO Ignite programme

Stravinsky: The Firebird - National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Andrew Gourlay - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Mark Allen)
Stravinsky: The Firebird - National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Andrew Gourlay - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Mark Allen)

NYO Ignite - Jessie Montgomery, Judith Weir, Andy Akiho, Simon Dobson, Stravinsky: The Firebird; National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Andrew Gourlay; Southbank Centre
Reviewed 15 April 2023

A richly luxuriant account Stravinky's The Firebird performed with remarkable finesse crowns a remarkably immersive evening with superb performances all round from the young players

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain's evening at the Southbank Centre on Saturday 15 April 2023 began in the foyer at 7pm and the music was still continuing there as we left at 10pm. Notionally, we were there to hear Andrew Gourlay conduct a programme that mixed four contemporary pieces, Jessie Montgomery's Source Code, Judith Weir's Fresh Air, Simon Dobson's Incandenza, and Andy Akiho's Karakurenai, with Stravinsky's complete ballet, The Firebird. But there was a lot else besides in a festival of youthful music making

Deborah Henson-Conant: Baroque Flamenco - NYO Harps - Clore Ballroom (Photo Mark Allen)
Deborah Henson-Conant: Baroque Flamenco - NYO Harps - Clore Ballroom (Photo Mark Allen)

There were two performing groups, the 150-plus players of the NYO itself and the eleven NYO Associates (part of the NYO Inspire programme), this latter group playing a series of pieces that they had devised themselves. We began in the Clore Ballroom, with a remarkably coordinated series of performances showcasing the various sections of the NYO.

The members of NYO brass began things with Ignite, a fanfare devised by the NYO musicians, and then some of the strings played the third movement of Bacewicz's Concerto for string orchestra (conducted by Constanca Simas, who conducted all the large ensemble pieces in the foyer), a performance that made you wish we were hearing the whole work. Then it was the turn of the NYO's four harps in Deborah Henson-Conant's wonderfully engaging Baroque Flamenco. Adam Gorb's Omaggio a Giovanni from the brass, was an homage to Giovanni Gabrieli, the older composer's music drifting in and out of focus in a work that was perhaps slightly too quietly sophisticated for a noisy foyer. The engaging gavotte from Richard Strauss' Suite for Woodwind, and a second group of strings in Sammy Singh's Flippen completed the foyer entertainment, and finally, Drum Line, a drum piece devised by NYO musicians, led the audience into the Royal Festival Hall. This latter process took some time, and whilst we filed in the NYO Associates played their devised piece Spring Way Back, eventually joined by members of the orchestra.

It was a series of remarkable performances, with the audience surrounding the various performing groups, and it was also a miracle of organisation, meaning that everyone was in the right place at the right time.

The formal programme began with Jessie Montgomery's Source Code, played by the strings, conducted by Andrew Gourlay. This began with strong lines over held notes, creating a rich, yet rather static sound that gradually moved to more traditional string textures with some fabulous complex moments, yet it all unwound to a simple unison.

The NYO Associates, now dotted around the various boxes, played their devised piece Petrichor which had lines appearing and disappearing from drones, all very evocative when the players were scattered around and above you.

Petrichor - NYO Associates - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Mark Allen)
Petrichor - NYO Associates - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Mark Allen)

Judith Weir wrote Fresh Air specifically because of the lack of contemporary repertoire for large wind ensembles, here we had 28 players, seven of each type (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) with the instruments going from large to small, low to high. Weir wrote the piece in four sections, each showcasing one instrument, with the others providing supporting structure. The result was a fabulous and engagingly fascinating series of instrumental textures that seemed to bring out the distinctive aspect of each instrumental group. Multi-layered flutes leading to low, low bassoons, to up-tempo clarinets travelling swiftly across their range, and finally oboes over drones.  A series of imaginative and seductive sound worlds.

The NYO Associates' Embers came from the back of the hall, providing an appealing Latin-American feel to the interlude whilst the stage was reset. Then we heard Simon Dobson's brass piece Incandenza, played by the 28 members of the NYO brass section, all in a line in the stage balcony. Dobson's piece began with stately chords but gradually upped the tempo and the ante with fast repeated notes. The point of the piece was the way the music moved along the line, dashing back and forth, giving an interesting aural perspective.

Simon Dobson: Incandenza - members of NYO Brass - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Mark Allen)
Simon Dobson: Incandenza - members of NYO Brass - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Mark Allen)

The first half ended with Andy Akiho's Karakurenai, originally written for solo prepared steel pan but now available for any combination of instruments. Here we heard the bells, as the members of the percussion section moved through the hall to magical effect, gathering round other tuned percussion to create a piece based on rhythmic patterns cycling over, but there was nothing minimal about this striking music.

For the second half the stage was hugely full as the 150-plus players were conducted by Andrew Gourlay in Stravinsky's The Firebird and we were hearing the complete 1910 ballet. From the opening moments, you were struck by the remarkable sound that the players created. With so many cellos and double basses, the quiet opening was wonderfully threatening, and the introduction had so many lovely shimmering textures. I was in utter admiration for the degree of finesse and control that the young players brought to the music.

Andy Akiho: Karakurenai - NYO Percussion - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Mark Allen)
Andy Akiho: Karakurenai - NYO Percussion - Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Mark Allen)

This was a performance that I could not quite imagine anyone dancing Fokine's choreography to, Gourlay really shaped the music and the sound using the highly responsive players. We had moments of excitement and plenty of drama, but there was lots of delicacy and clarity, sophistication, flexibility and fluidity. Sometimes, it felt that Gourlay dwelled a little too much on the beauty of the moment, but the sheer sophistication and lustrous sound, and the way he shaped it, made you fall in love.

The Infernal Dance was one of the thrilling moments, but full of tight rhythms, whilst the Lullaby returned us to the shimmering beauty of tone, leading to the moving close. 

The hall was admirably full, helped probably by the fact that teens went free, an admirable thought and one that clearly brought a large and engaged audience. The Firebird isn't the easiest of works to follow, and I did think that a little more help following drama would not have come amiss, why not surtitles?

When we left the hall at 10pm, the NYO Associates played us out from the Clore Ballroom.

The programme was repeated at Saffron Hall on Sunday 16 April 2023 and was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on 25 April 2023, and available for 30 days after on BBC Sounds. Put the date in your diary now!

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