Youth Orchestra Excels in Wagner, Strauss and New Commission

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Charlotte Bray, Wagner, Strauss: CBSO Youth Orchestra / Jac van Steen (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 23.2.2014. (RD)

Charlotte Bray: Black Rainbow (premiere)
Trisan und Isolde – Symphonic Synthesis (arr. Stokowski)
Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathrustra

For 48 years from 1956 the former Midland Youth Orchestra for 48 years furnished some of the most satisfying concerts by any youth ensemble, not just in the region, but  in the country – up there with the London and the (at the time) Leicestershire School Symphony Orchestras, then pioneers of excellence.

For 10 years now it has been rebranded the CBSO Youth Orchestra, and with that have gone a quality of coaching, planning and administration that have hoisted these young performers up numerous notches. Playing standards have rocketed. A 110-member full size ensemble, it has sprouted a kindergarten, the 50-strong CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy, where the seedlings of this excellence can be heard – soon in the most exacting programme (including Kodály’s fiendish Dances of Marosszék and Strauss’s exposed, grieving elegy, Metamorphosen) on Saturday 26 July.

If one needs any proof of the stellar, adult-standard quality the CBSO Youth Orchestra is attaining nowadays, its latest three-part offering at Symphony Hall spoke reams. Here was a calibre of massed instrumental playing, finessed interaction between sections, an intra-sectional intelligent alertness, plus often a quality of tone and timbre that beamed through solo or duet passages, that made one long to be amongst these players, to feel for oneself the musical togetherness that will have made this programme something they will remember all their lives.

Key to the fabulous articulation here, and these youngster’s electrifying response, was the man on the podium. Jac van Steen is one of the most exciting conductors one can watch at work today. He has made large-scale, neo-Romantic repertoire his own, and here, in Stokowski’s expansive orchestral synthesis from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathrustra, he could not have been more in his element.

Yet, wildly expressive in some settings with adult players, van Steen, something of a youth orchestra specialist, here reined all in so as to nurse, and encourage, and make viable for his eager, beautiful-toned young charges, scores that might have swamped them or felt almost baffling. There was no talking down; no overstating; just a firm, shaping hand and watchful eye; crystal-clear leads; and a tender, nuanced guidance that yielded delight after delight. He looks after them.

What revealed the orchestra’s quality instantly was its new commission, Black Rainbow, a world premiere from Charlotte Bray, whose association with the CBSO include close links with the groundbreaking Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Hers was a thrilling, riveting score, from its dark opening in percussion, brass, woodwind and low strings, eerily attacked by clappers and bass drum to the scintillating sustained last chords. It’s possible to talk about accessible Modernism these days – the former rebellion against serialist dictatorship having converted into young composers subsuming and revitalising Schoenbergian devices. Haunting, like a massive landscape with open skies and endless seas, and in fact inspired by a bewitching, many-layered lunar phenomenon, it dazzled and mesmerised, in an almost Lutoslawskian way, tubular bells not least, its patternings (flute, for instance) endlessly intriguing, the penultimate string assault awesome and portentous.

Thanks to van Steen, these perceptive youngsters fitted tiny sforzandi, intricate inner rhythmic effects, astonishing pianissimo cello and double bass detail, and miraculous slivers of cor anglais with bass clarinet, into all the right slots. The togetherness of the ensemble in the Strauss – perhaps less so in flailing central passages of the Wagner – was quite breathtaking; and it was impressive to have six offstage horns who matched the accuracy of five onstage so terrifically with no  audible glitches anywhere. There are shattering moments where you sense Siegfried’s Funeral Music about to surface; and where you felt Tristan’s Act III Overture nosing in, the emotional pull was tangible.

The impressive sound quality in Zarathrustra, as in the Bray, owed itself to three things: the quality of the wind, brass and (here, vast) percussion desks, meticulously prepared; the opening – to two-thirds – of Symphony Hall’s capacious echo chambers, often far less gaping during the Oramo era; and to the upper string sound, taking a lead from a superb, shimmering leader and soloist, Diego Vassallo, son of the CBSO’s cello section leader. I thought for appetising tonal quality these strings matched if not excelled the current CBSO: a sound closer to the miracles Sakari Oramo, a violinist, instilled into the main orchestra.

Fabulous timpani, nerve-wracking pizzicato basses, oboe-bassoon interaction, a viola solo to be cherished, and the gut-wrenching string sextet that grows out of the textures like a scented Mediterranean bouquet, these were among the treasures that we heard with pinpoint clarity, in a way that even with von Steen’s tidiness the slightly opaquer Wagner just missed. Eerie, questing, then almost redemptive in the teasingly built, trombone-led fugue, this orchestra even managed to bring Zarathrustra the narrative piquancy (plus bleating), of Don Quixote. The leader, paired with his deputy, sounded out of this world; but then so did all that he touched; and broadly the same could almost be said of this gallant orchestra as a whole.

Roderic Dunnett