Young Scottish Musicians Reach the Peak of Excellence

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (10)  Walton, Beamish, Strauss: Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet),  National Youth Orchestra of Scotland / Michael Francis (conductor), The Cathedral, Worcester, 1.8.2014. (RJ)

William Walton: Johannesburg Festival Overture
Sally Beamish: Trumpet Concerto
Richard Strauss: Alpine Symphony


Worcester seems to have a magnetic attraction for the Scots. Peter Nardone, the Director of Music at the Cathedral is a Scotsman, and here were the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland returning to the Three Choirs Festival after their successful début in 2011. On that occasion they played by a work by Scottish composer, James Macmillan; this time they featured Sally Beamish, an English composer who has made her home in Scotland.

Since that first performance in Worcester the percussion section has expanded considerably, and they arrived kitted out with marimbas, rumba sticks, reclaimed car parts, scaffolding pipes, a wind machine and cowbells – in addition to the usual drums.  The first two instruments were prominent in the Johannesburg Festival Overture in which Walton makes use of African music to add local colour to the work. The result is a jaunty, colourful virtuoso work which whizzed along at top speed to an exuberant conclusion.

Sally Beamish always seems to have something original and fresh to say, and this certainly applies to her Trumpet Concerto written for the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and dedicated to  Håkan Hardenberger, today’s soloist. It was partly inspired by Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities which reflects the darker underside of cities as well are their architecture. There is nothing pastoral about the first movement – an aubade, based on fourths – just a hard silent urban landscape over which a lonely trumpet plays. Gradually the city comes to life, with interesting percussion effects, slowly at first. But then the rhythm accelerates, the sounds become more dissonant and a sense of bustle and confusion comes to the fore. The second movement, which revolves around thirds and sixths, is  slower and dreamier with a hint of a waltz; it increases in intensity before dying away. In the final movement, consisting mainly of tones, semitones and ninths, the percussion section came into its own, using all the hittable items available (including car parts) to reflect urban violence and decay. The sounds of industry edged the music towards a more mechanistic confusion of sound with Håken Hardenberger’s virtuosic trumpet offering its commentary on the proceedings leading to a wistful cadenza which seemed to express a yearning to escape.  Hardenberger has been described as “the greatest trumpet-player in the galaxy” and his stunning performance today amply justified this claim.

For some reason I have missed out on live performances of Richard Strauss in this his 150th anniversary year. I have not undertaken any mountaineering expeditions either, but that is beside the point.  But I have now made up for these omissions thanks to the NYOS’s magnificent performance of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony under the impressive direction of Michael Francis. I have to confess that the conductor’s name is new to me but his ability to coax such a professional sound from a youth orchestra – even one of this high standard – clearly marks him out as a conductor-trainer of great merit, and his interpretation of this remarkable work was never less than compelling.

The brass were in fine fettle as, starting from the very deepest registers, they evoked the darkness of the night before intoning a sequence depicting the mountain and its shadow. The first light of light of dawn heralded a glorious sunrise with a particularly warm sound emanating from the horns, after which the strings (now unmuted) displayed vigour and anticipation as the ascent commenced.  Hunting calls from brass players positioned offstage created a forest scene full of atmosphere, and after a scintillating evocation of a waterfall the orchestra made it to the Alpine pastures complete with cowbells. The young musicians seemed to reflect their triumph at reaching the summit of the mountain in the expansiveness and confidence of their playing, as if they were unaware of the drama soon to unfold. After an evocative oboe solo, the storm broke to thrilling effect, with all sections of the orchestra fully engaged and a thunder machine and wind machine adding to the turbulence – all carefully controlled by Michael Francis. The sunset was just as glorious as the sunrise, but more expansive and relaxed as the main themes were recalled until twilight set in and night fell to the accompaniment of the whispering brass.

It was a warm morning in Worcester Cathedral when one would have welcomed a few Alpine breezes, but the temperature did not affect the commitment of the young musicians players nor the intensity of their performance. This was a concert of which any fully professional orchestra could be proud – and I don’t excite easily! As for Michael Francis, he is a young conductor who beneath his apparent calm creates dynamic results. I shall be keeping my eye on him, and other music-lovers should do the same!

Roger Jones      

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