National Youth Wind Orchestra Take Audience’s Breath Away

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ginastera, Yu-Chou Chen, Bernstein, Mower, Kozhevnikov, Fletcher, Márquez: Paul Edmund-Davies (flute), National Youth Wind Orchestras / Rodney Winther (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham 2.4.2016. (RJ)

Alberto Ginastera: Danza Final from Estancia

Yu Chou Chen: Dance Festival

Leonard Bernstein (transcribed by Clare Grundman): Slava!

Mike Mower: Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra

Boris Kozhevnikov: Symphony No 3 “Stavyanskaya”

Percy Fletcher: Vanity Fair

Arturo Márquez (trans. Oliver Nickel): Danzón No 2

While I have heard at one time or other three of our excellent national youth orchestra, this was my first encounter with the National Youth Wind Orchestra – and what an experience it was! I had not bargained for an ensemble of over 60 players, including three percussionists and a cellist, nor for such a range of music from composers hitherto unknown to me.

The first of these was Ginstera whose Danza Final from his ballet Estancia is inspired by the malambo dance of the Argentinian gauchos (cowboys). With its synchopated cross-rhythms and wide spectrum of sound it was given a splendid performance full of momentum and tension.

I was expecting Taiwanese composer Yo-Chou Chen’s Dance Festival to sound more overtly Chinese. Perhaps it did in the more reflective passages but the opening chorale melody on the brass which began the work had a distinctly European stamp  before launching into a fiery, extrovert con fuoco section. Conductor Rodney Winther injected plenty of energy into this remarkable music and pushed his young musicians to their limits.

We were on more familiar ground with Bernstein’s Slava! commissioned by the conductor Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich. This was an extrovert jazzy piece in the vaudevillian tradition which reminded one of the Gee, Officer Krupke number from West Side Story, and was followed by a flute concerto by British composer Mike Mower.

Writing such a concerto presents any composer with an seemingly insuperable challenge: how can you ensure that the delicate sounds of the flute are not overwhelmed by a 60 strong orchestra? In the first movement Mower proceeded carefully interspersing passages for the flute with more robust orchestral tuttis, and the effect proved extremely pleasing. The second movement was a slow, dreamy affair with a hint of the blues. But the jazz element came into its own in the finale where the musicians let their hair down producing an exuberant big band sound.  Soloist Paul Edmund-Davies was clearly in his element and delighted the audience and orchestra with his sinuous and virtuosic playing. I note that he also director of the Champagne Guild, which perhaps accounts for his performance being redolent of the finest champagne.

Has anyone out there heard of Boris Kozhevnikov (1906-1985)? Probably not, but on the strength of his Symphony No 3 he surely deserves to be better known in this country. The first movement had a strong bouncy opening before giving way to a more flowing melody. The delicate waltz which followed benefited from some exquisite playing by the flutes and clarinets, followed by a merry saunter through Russian folk music. The fast-paced finale was full of variety and offered each section of the orchestra its place in the limelight.

I doubt if any one has heard of Percy Fletcher, either. He made his name as a musical director in the London theatre until his death in 1932, and though his Vanity Fair Overture belongs unashamedly to the realm of light music tradition, it is high quality stuff – lively and amusing with a lyrical melody at its centre. Arturo Márquez and his Danzón No 2 is perhaps more familiar: the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra seems to have made it their calling card on foreign tours. The dance originated in Cuba and is full of infectious rhythms and, in Oliver Nickel’s arrangement, a field day for the percussion players who acquitted themselves with distinction.

Along with crowd-pleasers Danny Boy and the Radetsky March this was an exhilarating climax to a concert which demonstrated the remarkable skills and enthusiasm of these young wind players who had rehearsed intensively over seven days for this event. Even more remarkable was the conductor Rodney Winther who conducted with such panache and sparkle that I couldn’t help comparing him to his fellow American, the great Leonard Bernstein.

Roger Jones


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