The Edinburgh Youth Orchestra play Berlioz,Bartók and Shostakovich

Edinburgh Youth Orchestra: Joanna MacGregor (piano), Sian Edwards (Conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 17. 4.2011 (SRT)

Berlioz: Overture, Le Carnival Romain

Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

The Edinburgh Youth Orchestra has been going for 48 years now. It draws on the best young musicians from the region and boasts some prestigious alumni, such as conductor Garry Walker. They also have an extensive touring schedule, and a glance at this programme will show that they don’t shy from challenging repertoire.

This is the first time I had heard them. My main impression is one of a gifted group of young musicians, combining the energy of a youth orchestra with some of the skills of more mature musicians and a lot of enthusiasm. A piece like Berlioz’s Roman Carnival is perfect for showing off their gifts and raw energy. It also showcased some fantastic wind playing, notably from the razor-sharp flute runs in the lead-in to the fast finale. Only the strings seemed to lack some confidence in comparison. The cellos and basses became more assertive in time for Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, though the upper strings struggled a little to find the correct tone for the “religious” tone of the slow movement. It was here that pianist Joanna MacGregor was at her finest, steady and clear with intensity that bordered on the spiritual, and there was a lovely wind chorale at the movement’s centre. There was also ringing assurance from the full brass section, though I was especially impressed by the shining confidence from the horns.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony saw everyone raise their game. There was an excellent opening from the cellos and basses, dark and insidious, with a beautiful clarinet solo, full of character, which seemed to steal in from nowhere. The flute which introduced the waltz theme was similarly individual, responding to the ebb and flow of the music, and the bassoon solo that led into the development was laden with heaviness, though later its big moment in the finale was perky and comical. The brass were convincingly weighty throughout, especially in the development strife, and when they all sounded together the strings carried weight and undeniable power. They also helped to create a mysterious ending to the first movement, complemented by a ghostly piccolo solo. The scherzo showed off the orchestra’s skills at their best, savage and brutal with clarity of attack, fantastically accurate winds and excellently unsubtle percussion. The winds also sounded great in the wonderfully cheeky first appearance of the DSCH theme in the third movement, and the first appearance of Elmira Nazirova’s theme rang out clear as a bell from the first horn, showing really impressive musicianship that didn’t let up throughout the movement. Equally impressive was when the full horn section declaimed Elmira’s theme to pacify DSCH towards the end of the movement and the whole orchestra brought about a good sense of something falling apart. The final solo from leader Katie Foster was spectral and haunting, but it was the final, muted appearance of Elmira’s theme that stuck with me. Some aspects of the main allegro theme in the finale were a little beyond the first violins, but not so the flutes who whizzed through it with clarity and skill, and the movement built to a nicely equivocal ending with some great work from the timpani.

This is skilled group of young musicians and, if the upper strings would benefit from a little more confidence, this isn’t to undermine the achievement of the orchestra as a whole which was never less than impressive. It’s the skill of the woodwinds and brass that will stick with me most, though, particularly the flutes and horns who consistently made the most of every opportunity to show themselves at their very best.

Simon Thompson