Monday 15 April 2024

Energy, discipline, control and sheer love of music-making: National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band in Gavin Higgins, Dani Howard, Prokofiev, Julius Eastman and more

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Jessica Cottis
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Jessica Cottis

Catalyst: Coleridge-Taylor, Julius Eastman, Gavin Higgins, Dani Howard, Prokofiev; National Youth Brass Band and National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Tess Jackson, Jessica Cottis; Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed 14 April 2024

From Julius Eastman's creative provocation in the Clore Ballroom to the stupendous combined brass band and orchestra in Higgins new piece, an astonishing day of music making full of energy, discipline, control and sheer love of music-making 

Under the catch-all title of Catalyst, the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain arrived at the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 14 April 2024 and filled the building with music. During the afternoon, there was a side-by-side performance with local school children of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade in the Clore Ballroom, as part of the orchestra's outreach programmes. Then before the main concert members of the main concert, members of the orchestra gathered in the Clore Ballroom for a performance of Julius Eastman's Stay on It. The main concert featured the National Youth Orchestra and National Youth Brass Band in Gavin Higgins' Concerto Grosso for Brass Band and Orchestra, conducted by Tess Jackson, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, conducted by Jessica Cottis. The second half opened with a short fanfare by Dani Howard involving all the brass performers from both ensembles.

National Youth Orchestra & National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain (Photo: Chris Chris Christodoulou)
National Youth Orchestra & National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain (Photo: Chris Chris Christodoulou)

Gavin Higgin's Concerto Grosso was premiered at the BBC Proms in 2022 by the Tredegar Band and BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conductor Ryan Bancroft [see my review] and it was both inspiring and heart-warming to encounter the work again, this time played by around 120 teenagers, all of whom seemed to take on the work's technical demands with remarkable ease. Higgins' piece is explicitly political, effectively a hymn to the brass band as an institution and to the very working-class tradition of brass banding. But that does not mean that it is easy or simplistic, Higgins' writing is challenging, showcasing the virtuosity and brilliance of the best brass playing. And that was all on display here.

Written for brass band and large orchestra, with plenty of brass, wind and percussion, the stage was very full indeed. Whilst there were raise-the-roof moments, what was noticeable about Higgins' writing was his ear for orchestral colour and his way of using points of orchestral colour to create shimmering textures. And throughout the performance, the players seemed to almost shrug off the technical demands, displaying impressive and dazzling control.

The first movement, Island was lyrical but dense, solo flugel horn and cornet appearing and disappearing, and an attractive use of Tippett-like wind counterpoint. There was a stupendous climax, but what stayed in the memory were the rich sonorities and amazing sound world. With Coal we moved into the world of Mosolov's Iron Foundry, all energy, rhythm and controlled excitement, lots of colour and vivid energy. Class was fast and vivid, with some astonishing bravura brass writing, even as the hubbub died away. These three movements almost ran into each other, creating a meta-picture of the social background to the brass band. The final two movements reflected more on the music played. Sentimental Music was rich and sonorous with brass solos emerging, slow and intense leading to a climax, whilst it might evoke a certain type of music Higgins' writing was full of interest and challenge. The final movement, Contest Music returned us to virtuosic writing for the brass, fast and detailed playing created a terrific sound picture, a first climax reduced down to nothing before the fast and furious run to the end.

Conductor Tess Jackson was impressively disciplined and drew a terrific performance from all her players, keeping the large forces under control yet letting the young players' energy and enthusiasm shine through.

After the interval Jessica Cottis conducted the combined brass in a short but vivid fanfare by Dani Howard, NYO's Resident Artist. For Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, the orchestra was a full force and I mean full, 26 woodwind players, ten horns, nine trumpets and so on right down to four harps and three tubas. Prokofiev almost certainly never imagined his work being played by such an ensemble, yet what was amazing was how light on their feet the young players were. Cottis drew really nimble playing in the opening Andante, bringing out a range of colour but she clearly relished the implicit power of the ensemble too and I really loved the way the sound of three tubas was brought to bear, giving the bass line a real vividness. Whilst there were graceful moments galore, there was energy and anger too, with a stupendous sound as the movement ended. The Scherzo was crisp and perky, the playing well marked, this was not a fun scherzo. Again full of vivid colour and movement, with an astonishing build-up towards the end. The slow movement brought out a fine sweep from the strings with playing of real intensity and some violence. The finale, Allegro giocoso began surprisingly light-footed with a terrific clarinet solo, but as the music was taken up by the ensemble energy and wit were balanced by a strong edge. When the movement finally took off, the young players brought tremendous discipline to the moment and astonishing energy.

Throughout, Jessica Cottis was in wonderful control, inspiring her players to feats of energy and discipline, and all the time aware of the potential for the range of colour such a large beast could bring. We had nimble neo-classical moments but then the whole could roar into action. And astonishing performance all round.

The fringe events were equally impressive. We caught the end of the side-by-side performance of Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade in the Clore Ballroom and it was difficult to remember that the young players, half from the National Youth Orchestra and half from local schools, had only come together that afternoon. The NYO players took to the ballroom under their own steam, with no conductor, for Julius Eastman's creative provocation Stay on It, less a piece and an instruction kit and the kids were having fun, and so were we.

It is worth pointing out that half the teenagers involved in the orchestra this year attend state school, and the orchestra's commitment to encouraging and involving those in state school is an impressive achievement, both in terms of attracting young performers (and enabling them financially) and in the young players commitment to outreach activities.

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