United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Prokofiev: Tai Murray (violin), National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Nicholas Collon (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 3.1.2016 (AS)
Tchaikovsky: Hamlet – Overture-Fantasia, Op. 67
Korngold: Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op. 100
There’s always something special about a National Youth Orchestra concert. The atmosphere is uplifting, almost carnival-like, with the teenage players clearly relishing the experience of their big occasion, and proud parents in the audience cheering them on. It’s always a big event in other ways, too, with up to 165 performers crowding on to the platform.
Thus expectations were high as Nicholas Collon walked on the platform to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet. It’s not a work that has ever been played very frequently in the concert hall, but that can’t be because it is inferior to the composer’s other orchestral works, since it is a fine piece, brimming with inspired melodic invention, imaginative orchestration and high drama. Perhaps the quiet ending deters programme planners. Here the huge ensemble responded brilliantly to Collon’s incisive direction, and the upward surge of strings near the beginning had a wonderful sonority, even if there was not absolute unanimity of ensemble in what must be a very difficult passage for teenage players, no matter how gifted.
Many of the players then filed off the stage, to leave an ensemble of conventional symphonic size for the Korngold concerto. Tai Murray proved to be a very competent performer with a good technique. But this rather faded, tinsel-like, Hollywoodish piece, with its contrived melodic material that never quite stays in the memory, even after several hearings, needs the strongest advocacy, such as that given on record by its first performer, Jascha Heifetz. Murray’s tone quality is not as large as that of some violin soloists, though it is pleasant enough, and she didn’t dominate the performance. Nor did the NYO players seem anything like as enthusiastic in this piece as they had been in the Tchaikovsky.
Collon conducted the beginning of the Prokofiev symphony firmly enough, and obtained a good response from his players. But as the first movement progressed something seemed to be missing. This music should sound blunt, rather rough-hewn, and tinged with sarcasm or irony, but this element of Prokofiev’s musical personality was largely absent. The playing was strong, but too lyrical in expression – not tough enough. Could this have been partly because the composer’s stark, astringent orchestral tonal blend emerged with too much fat on it, due to the presence of an ensemble that was really too large for the work? Possibly, but whatever the cause, the music sounded just a little lacking in personality.
The following movement is marked Allegro marcato, which suggests that the playing should be emphatic and strongly accented. This was not the case here. There was plenty of energy in evidence, but the music sounded too light in mood, too balletic. It should, again, have a slightly sour quality, but this was largely missing. It just sounded busy.
The slow movement produced lots of decibels, but it sounded laborious and lacked tension and personality. The natural line of the musical argument only emerged intermittently.
The finale again lacked pungency: the basic tempo was fine, but superficiality crept in. Collon’s beat, here and elsewhere in the symphony, was too driven: he didn’t allow the music to breathe. In a way there was some exciting playing, but there no sense of rock-like inevitability, as there should be in this movement.
Nicholas Collon is clearly a very talented young conductor, but he has not yet reached the heights of experience and wisdom in his profession that he could well achieve in later years. The NYO has tended to engage younger conductors in recent times, possibly because the thought is that they will engage more easily with teenage players (Collon is himself a NYO alumnus), but a distinguished colleague suggested to me in the concert interval that these youngsters would benefit more from the guidance and teaching of older, more experienced members of the conducting profession. I think he may well be right.