United Kingdom Grainger, Unsuk Chin and Bartók: National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain/Ilan Volkov (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 11.4.2015 (AS)
Grainger: The Warriors
Unsuk Chin: Mannequin (first London performance)
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
As the young members of the NYO filed on to the platform it was evident once again that there were many more girls than boys. Such an imbalance is worrying, as is the fact that there were hardly any representatives of the black and Asian communities. Let’s hope that at some point in the future an opportunity for young people to experience so-called classical music somehow penetrates areas in our society where it clearly doesn’t now.
The NYO is a large orchestra of some 160 players, and if all of them are to be involved in an evening’s performance the available repertoire is inevitably limited. On this occasion the programme seemed on paper to offer plenty of contrast, but in fact this proved not to be the case. It was certainly a good idea to programme Grainger’s most extended single-movement work, The Warriors, for this extravagantly scored work, with its three pianos and all manner of percussion, tuned and otherwise, certainly offers employment to players of many diverse instruments. But though this 20-minute-long composition teems with brilliant orchestral effects and enormously varied sonorities, and though it has plenty of latent energy and high spirits, it is merely a succession of disparate episodes, none of them developed. The composer, unpleasantly disparaged in the programme note, was certainly vague about who his warriors were and what kind of activity they were involved in, so the work has no programme either. Ilan Volkov secured a rhythmically vigorous account of the work, and kept a watchful and necessary eye on orchestral balance and ensemble: beyond that all he needed to do was let the young players show their formidable paces, which they did.
The Korean-born composer Unsuk Chin was present to hear the first London performance of her new work, which had been given its world premiere by the NYO at The Sage, Gateshead two days earlier, and a second outing at the Victoria hall, Stoke-on-Trent the previous evening. Chin gives her work the subtitle of “Tableaux vivants for orchestra”, and describes it as “an imaginary choreography” based on the story of The Sandman by the nineteenth-century writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. She goes on to state that Mannequin explores problems of perception and personal identity that are experienced by Nathaniel, the story’s young protagonist.
Somehow I doubt whether all these allusions were apparent or could be related to by listeners to this work. What we heard in fact was a composition that bore similar characteristics to Grainger’s Warriors, though in this case the piece was divided into four movements. Certainly Grainger’s work is tonal, occasionally polytonal, and Chin’s is atonal, but the similarities lay in the episodic, undeveloped nature of the musical material, with the Korean composer also striving for effect in her use of a vast and highly varied orchestral palette. This may be a new work, but it sounded very similar to many other such compositions by different contemporary composers.
A sharp contrast with what had gone before was however provided by an undoubted twentieth-century masterpiece, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which brought the programme – highly demanding throughout for the players – to a satisfying end. Once again, Volkov sought and obtained a sharp, alert response from all sections of the orchestra, and his was a virile, characterful reading of the score, completely un-idiosyncratic but satisfying in its directness. Here, and indeed throughout the evening, the brass section had one or two accidents and occasionally showed elements offuzzy ensemble – defects that hadn’t been apparent in their sublime playing during Respighi’s Pines of Rome at the Barbican at the beginning of the year (review). I wonder if this was not due simply to tiredness: as a culmination of two weeks of intense work this was the last of three concerts given by the NYO on successive evenings in different parts of the country. For hard-bitten professional musicians this would have been a regular touring experience, but for young students it might have been a little too much. But we still heard an encore, Grainger’s Green Bushes, which showed the composer more at home over a short span, as he spun brilliantly inventive and sometimes hauntingly beautiful variations on a simple folk tune.